A solo piano album of reflection and hope

Retreat coverAs I write this, staring at the wall weeks into a stay-at-home order, I pray it helps bring some empathy, comfort, and maybe even a little hope to all of us trying to collectively dodge the grips of this dreadful disease.  May we all stay well and remain cheerful when we finally venture from the shadows.

All of the music on my solo piano albums start out as free improvisations.  Much of my written music starts out that way as well, but music for my piano albums are recorded in MIDI and stays that way.  As a composer, I have written music in a number of different ways, some more traditional and some more unusual.  I settled on improvisation for inspiration because I found that it encourages me to be more original.  Many musicians find that when they improvise, they tend to use musical styles and formulas that they know well; I find that for me, the opposite is true.  Though I indeed use some of the musical syntax I have gathered from a lifetime as a classical musician, I find that improvisation challenges me harmonically and stylistically to follow paths I wouldn’t normally try. 

One of the advantages of being a career symphony musician is that you have a lot of time off in the summer.  So I would use my summers to record my improvisations, often early in the morning before my children awoke.  I did this continuously for three or four weeks.  I wouldn’t listen to them right away.  In fact, I didn’t listen to them until at least a year later.  I wanted the music to be fresh when I heard it, so that I could give it an unbiased listening.  I would throw out some that I didn’t like, or that I thought were not interesting enough.  Sometimes, I would do some rough editing – split them in two if they were too long, chop off an unrelated opening; different pieces would suggest different processes.  This would often take several months for a summer’s worth of recording.  Then I would let them sit again, for a while, before doing the final editing and mastering.

I started doing and releasing these piano recordings in 1998, and have been self-releasing them since 2002.  Though I did not record every summer, I did record most summers from then until 2016.  Some summers I produced up to ten or eleven albums worth of material, while others not so much.  I have been trying to release them fairly regularly, but for various reasons that doesn’t always happen.  Still, Retreat, will be my 26th piano album, but, as you can imagine, I have a lot of music accumulated and I have fallen behind.  Retreat was originally recorded in the summer of 2012.  One of the questions I get most often is, “Why are you doing music from so long ago?”  The simple answer is that I am behind, but I also take quite a long time working on them.

When I do the final editing for an album release, though the music is still a MIDI file, I go over it with a fine-toothed comb.  I not only get the music just the way I like it, I often must adjust the file to a different sampling program.  Just as classical pianists adjust their performances slightly to different pianos and performing spaces, I adjust the MIDI file to ever-improving collections of piano samples and software.  When I first started releasing my albums, I called them improvisations, but in fact, after all the editing I do on them, they are not.  And any jazz enthusiast would say as much.  This is why, even though they start as improvisations, I consider them Classical music.  Both Jazz and Classical music are great art forms and can display considerable emotional depth.  Classical music brings the depth of reflection, as all musical relationships can be pondered and altered.  The depth found in Jazz, on the other hand, is a depth of experience, as every decision is made in the present moment.  I attempt to bring both to my music, a musical hybrid.

When I first started putting together Retreat, I was thinking of the title as more of a spiritual retreat.  The first track, Enlightened Moment, fits this mold rather well.  (Watch Video)  However, as I got further into the album, the title came to mean more of a personal retreat.  With Romance, it becomes a retreat for lovers.  I’m not sure what type of work I was thinking about for Work Song, it must have been more mental because it doesn’t seem to be very physical.  With Mourning Music, the character of the album changes as this is definitely music that accompanies personal tragedy.  This event then overshadows the rest of the album.  Heebies and Jeebies deals with the uncertainty that follows such an event.  Finding Our Way is an attempt to come to grips with the situation.  Silk and Incense is an another attempt at healing.  With Morning Music the couple begins to start anew on a new and different life. 

Retreat was recorded and edited at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Just Add Water


Though I grew up in the misty entropy of Seattle, I have spent nearly all of my adult life in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. When I was growing up, water was taken for granted, abundant; in fact, there was too much of it most of the time. In the desert, I have come to love rainy days. When it rains, kids come out to play; in school they run to the windows.

Water in the desert is synonymous with life.

Water in the desert is synonymous with life. Rainy El Nino winters, like the one just past, turn rocky slopes into green pastures full of wildflowers.   Normally dry streams and riverbeds are brimming with water, the banks teaming with life. I remember stopping on a dirt road to explore a dry riverbed north of Carefree, AZ. We walked about a half of a mile up the wash when we came upon a section with water in it. The little stream came out from under a rock and flowed for about 20 feet before diving back underground. I could step from one side to the other, but as I was watching the flowing water, I saw a fish slip out from one rock and scamper under another one. Then I saw another fish, and another. The wash had been dry for months! Did it get stuck here when the river dried up, or was it always here and stayed through the rushes of water that roared down the wash after it rained? Unanswered questions.

Some frogs and toads in Arizona (such as the Couch’s Spadefoot Toad) have evolved to dig into the mud as it dries up, and lie dormant for eleven months. During the first significant summer monsoon rain, usually in mid-July, they dig themselves out with a cacophonous roar, mate, lay eggs and then proceed to eat enough bugs to last them another 11 months before they dig another home in the mud and go back to sleep. The frogs’ awakening is something we wait for every year. What is it like to live such a life?

So this album is loosely organized around water and its role in life. Each track covers a significant amount of diverse musical territory. My music is exploratory but thoughtful. It is not meant to be calming, or exciting, or physically stimulating, it is an emotional journey. It is meant to be listened to, and not a background for visuals, dance, or daily life.

  1. Lighthouse.  The opening track derives its name from a repeated A-Ab passage in the center of the piece that seems to be a guiding light throughout the stormy surrounding music. The track also describes the loneliness of isolation and the beautiful serenity of a peaceful sea. For me it is all a metaphor for the creative life; peaceful at times, stormy at times, but always guided by the muse.
  2. Floating Spheres.  The title here refers to the balls of glass used by fisherman to float their nets. When I am improvising, I often visualize myself as floating in a glass ball on a sea of emotion, so these balls have extra meaning. The glass balls used by Japanese fishermen used to occasionally wash up on the shore when I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest. They were a prized possession and you could find them homes (or seafood restaurants). When I went to the beach I would always look for them, but I have never found one.
  3. Fragile.  This is about water in the philosophical sense. Water is fragile to the touch and gives way to almost everything, but can wear down the hardest stone. Its fragility is its strength. It is perfectly transparent and reflects beauty and ugliness equally, without judgment.
  4. Slippery Slope.  In a conditional world of transmogrified values and transient truths, we are all on a slippery slope.   Do we find a handhold and grab on for dear life or do we cast our fate to the wind? Maybe we should learn to ski or skate.
  5. Soggy Breadcrumbs.  Sometimes we stumble onto a clear and inviting path of another and are inspired to follow. But any path, no matter how fresh and well defined, eventually peters out, becomes soggy, or is eaten by hungry birds. All paths are eventually solitary.
  6. Sequenza No. 2.  When I am in a stretch of improvisational recording, which can last for several weeks, I don’t listen to any of the recordings until much later. This is so I can listen to them with fresh ears, without memory or intent to cloud my judgment. In the case of this last track, I actually play a track with the same material and general format as another track I had recorded about a week earlier – “Sequenza” from the album Hold That Thought. I was unaware of the relationship when I recorded it and only when putting the two albums together did I notice the similarity. I liked the first version, but I think this version is better.

These tracks were recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.


A solo piano album about work

Grind coverGrind is an album of piano tracks loosely organized around the concept of work. There are many different attitudes toward work, and many different types of work, as well. Personally, my attitude towards work is rather complex, as much of it is creative and totally absorbing, and all of it is artistic. For much of my life I have been a “workaholic,” but a lot of the time my work has been self-motivated.

For my entire career, my “employment” has been playing double bass for a major symphony orchestra. For some musicians, this constitutes a pinnacle position; some non-musicians do not consider this to be work at all. Actually a symphony orchestra job can be quite demanding, though the rewards can be great as well, and it is more physically taxing than one might expect. Even so, I’ve never worked more than about 25 hours per week on the job. This, however, does not take into account all the practicing I’ve done at home. You start to add everything up – rehearsals, concerts, practicing, six days per week, working mornings and nights, driving, travel – and it starts to sound a lot more like work. Most musicians also teach lessons, which can take up most of their remaining time. I have never done much teaching because I have filled my extra time with creating and performing my own music. As I said, it’s complicated.

Music and the concept of a steady pulse are one of the great inventions in human history. It allows people to work TOGETHER. Working together involves synchronization and without music and dance, that would have never happened. My album, however, is about our personal relationship to work, rather than the work itself, and is more emotional than physical.

  1. Work Song. My music tends to not be very rhythmically steady, however, repetition and sequence are often major components. Then again, so is variation, and this usually doesn’t let me repeat an idea intact more than twice. I explained to a friend once that I tended to continually vary my ostinatos (repeated patterns), and he told me a varied ostinato was an oxymoron. The upshot is that I don’t often get into a “groove,” as the first thing I vary is often the rhythm. This track, however, does try hard to get “groovy” at times, and is about as close as I ever get to a work song. Just the same, “John Henry” it’s not.
  2. Outburst.  Of course, one of the common associations with work is stress. Even a workaholic does not like to have more to do than he or she can finish in the time available. The stress can mount and explode occasionally. That is what happens in this track. Of course, blowing up doesn’t help, and after the pressure is released, the work continues.
  3. Chorale.  A chorale is like a hymn, and is meant to be sung by the congregation. To me, hymn singing is a little like everybody doing the same work. Together. It doesn’t help that I’m such a bad singer. It is not something I am usually very thrilled about doing, but I often do it anyway. After all it’s short.
  4. Daydream.  Sometimes your mind wonders. This is especially true when I am doing creative work, as letting my mind wonder is part of the gig. I fall asleep at my desk more often than I care to admit. (My chair is pretty comfortable.) I’ve also occasionally fallen asleep at my piano. (Despite the fact it is really uncomfortable.) I even once nearly fell asleep while I was recording. (Check out “Drifting Off” from my album Night Drift.) I don’t recommend drifting off when somebody is paying you, however.
  5. Dew Point. Because this is the point (temperature) at which water condenses out of the air, I like to use it as a metaphor for creative inspiration. Sometimes ideas seem to appear out of nowhere. At other times, they don’t. I guess, sometimes, it is just not humid enough.
  6. Hard Knocks. The School of Hard Knocks can be an effective teacher, and usually involves as much work or more than any other form of education. That said, what inspired the title of this track was the series of repeated notes that take over the music about half way through. It sounds like somebody knocking, hard.
  7. Hunting For Faeries. I’ve always been intrigued by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism, psychic research, and magical phenomena. How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes get sucked in by this stuff? But he spent a great deal of effort trying to prove their existence, and he is not the only person to work hard at something preposterous.
  8. Nocturne.  I have often worked deep into the night, though as I have aged I have gradually shifted to morning. But the nighttime can be magically quiet and full of imaginative promise. The swirling of ideas and myriad of possible relationships can keep me awake even when I need to be asleep. The magic does not always make it into the harsh light of day, but sometimes it does.
  9. Intermezzo.  We all have to take breaks. We all need to rest, if only for a bit. That doesn’t mean we can shut our mind off completely. Sometimes a distraction will allow our subconscious to work out the details of something important. Then we end up working through our break anyway.
  10. Chanson.  A chanson is a rather lyric-driven French art song dealing often with more serious subjects like conditions of the working class, and is usually rather free as it follows the rhythms of the French language. Of course, my chanson has no lyrics and isn’t about anything, but it is rather free anyway.
  11. Toccata.  This is a “touch piece” as opposed to a sonata or “sound piece.” It is usually distinguished by a technical display of some sort. In other words, it has lots of fast notes. I was tempted to call this track Prelude and Toccata because, though it starts with a splash, it slows down before really taking off. I didn’t start the piece thinking “toccata,” I discovered it along the way. The toccata section continues until I get tired. After all, it was a lot of work.

This album is my twenty-first solo piano album and was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.  It was released on September 7, 2018 by SMS Recordings.