Perhaps it would have been better if I’d just admitted to myself (and the world) that I’d be taking the summer off from In the Hands. But where’s the fun without the suspense?
Here’s what I currently have in the pipeline (not necessarily in this order):
- Some newly composed pieces of my own.
- A new recording of at least some part of The Broken Mirror of Memory, my bass clarinet / piano work.
- A fine new recording from Don Betts.
- The remaining remasterings of my older recordings.
…And that’s my autumn of music pretty well booked up right there.
First, however, is the last of the three songs by Todd that Kim and I recorded last spring. This one is a setting of a poem by local poet John Minczeski, Questions, which sits somewhere between Zen koan and children’s book. It is a single poem, but Todd has split it into four separate little songs, zooming in on each each question and giving it its own character. I think they’re quite marvelous. It’s a wonderful way to read a poem — as the Internet makes us more accustomed to reading text fast, the music makes it possible to slow down and give each line of the poem its own space and weight.
This is the last of Todd’s songs Kim and I have recorded together; it’s back to solo piano in the next episode. Be sure to also check out Northwoods Police Report and First Autumn Night if you haven’t already!
After a cold (which left my voice in bad shape for podcasting) and MinneBar (which was a great pleasure), it’s back to In the Hands! I’m continuing from last time the series of recordings I made recently with soprano Kim Sueoka of songs by Todd Harper.
For several years, Todd has been writing songs full of the sort of jazz changes that are his roots, but as much in the tradition of lieder as anything. He always makes them short, sweet, and very focused — haiku-like — and when he’s setting a text longer than a few lines, he’ll often break it into a chain of very short songs, each only a few words long. I don’t know of anybody who does anything quite like it.
The four songs of this short cycle are almost a sort of “found haiku” — the text is from actual police reports in an unnamed northern Minnesota town. Yes, they are real. No, Todd will not tell you which town it is.
They’re absolutely hilarious — Kim does a perfect deadpan delivery of their painfully earnest description of the mundane and mildly ridiculous things the police in a small town have to deal with. Audiences have different reactions to the humor: when we did them at an ACF Tuesday Salon, the very polite “high art crowd” audience murmured appreciatively at the humor, but seemed to be waiting for permission to laugh; when we did them shortly afterwards at Patrick’s Cabaret, the audience let out such an incredible stream of roars and guffaws, we were barely able to stay together!
There’s something in them beyond the humor, however: a sweetness, a tender love for the world of a small towns. Our sense of scale is relative in all things — space, time, what’s important — and in a little town, a disheveled stranger, a fence knocked down … these things matter. Todd lets the humor in, but it’s not mocking — it’s tender. He’s laughing about what he loves, I think.
Here, for the first time in a long time, is something I wrote — but it’s not the music!
A couple of weeks ago, I recorded some of my friend Todd Harper’s songs with Kim Sueoka, a marvelous local soprano who sings with (among others) the Rose Ensemble and a first-rate voice/guitar duo called Voce y Cuerdas. She’s great, Todd’s great, and by golly, we had a wonderful time making the recordings!
Todd mostly writes voice / piano duets — and that’s mostly what we recorded — but he also did a lovely a cappella setting of one of my poems, and that’s what I’m publishing first. The poem is short, and so is the song.
The poem is a haiku. Syllable-counters in the audience may object that the lines do not follow the 5-7-5 pattern haiku are supposed to follow, but the syllable count rule isn’t important in modern English haiku, and many poets ignore it altogether. It only really makes sense in Japanese — English syllables are a very different ilk from their Japanese cousins. Moreover, the syllable count isn’t really the heart of the form.
What is the heart, then, you ask? A haiku is a direct experience, a single moment of perception caught before the mind has fully digested perception into narrative and meaning. It is typically tied to nature, often tied to a season*, but these are both optional in modern haiku. Perhaps most important feature is that the haiku has two parts: first a direct perception, then some second perception or mental twist that deepens the first part or casts it in a new light.
The separation between the two halves is a significant moment. In this song, Todd renders it ("halo") with the highest note, and the snaking, tonally shifting, rising melody of the first part (the autumn night, the moon) becomes sweet, diatonic, and falling (the illusion of the halo). Nicely done, Todd. And nicely done, Kim.
More songs to come!
* OK, I know it’s not autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere. You caught me.
Here is a second selection from this year’s Keys Please to follow Todd’s little musical rattlesnake adventure. This is an improvisation by Carei Thomas, the rattlesnake’s narrator, now on piano. I thought — and he said afterward — that there was a little nod to my own funny little improvs in this one, especially in the way it starts with a very low note and a very high one … but it’s definitely a Carei thing!
Some improvs have a definite form (head-solo-head, fugue, tala) or a definitely style (Dixieland, bebop, Ghanaian drumming) … but this is one of those that’s just completely spontaneous and organic, and grew out of silence in a completely organic way — like a spring daffodil poking its head up through the jumbled twigs and dead leaves. Todd and I actually murmured to one another during the applause, “Oo! Where did that come from?” Only Carei knows, I suppose, and maybe not even him.
I took care of my girlfriend Paige’s pet parakeet Pegasus recently while her landlord did some emergency plumbing work, and Pegasus joined in one day while I was practicing the piano. It was not the standard chirping, but a complex mix of all sorts of sounds Pegasus doesn’t normally make, which followed the music quite well – louder in the loud parts and softer in the soft, somehow matching the texture and fitting into the spaces in a birdsong sort of way. It was like she was a soloing on my material — a really wonderful bit of inter-species improv.
I tried to capture it in a recording the next time I practiced, but she wasn’t as interested in the piano that time. Too bad! I did, however, manage to capture a bit of a human singer on the microphones, which I will share next time.
Things don’t look good for me to create more new piano recordings in my home studio in the immediate future, so I’m going to have to stall — but I figure I might at least stall with something good!
This is a piece from the most recent Keys Please! concert. It adds a nice little bit of variation to the blog: not only is it not Cantrell, Chopin, or Brahms, but … it doesn’t even have a piano in it! (Yes, I’m really going out on a limb.) It’s also stylistically different from what I’ve published so far, hopefully in a refreshing way.
It’s from my buddy Todd. He says of it:
[This song] I have to share credit for, because I did not write the words. I was at my mom’s at Thanksgiving, and I found some old articles my dad wrote when he was alive, for the newspaper, the Forest Lake Times — and they’re about snakes. … This is about an expedition he took, and I thought, “This would set really well for cello and voice.”
Todd uses some inspired bits of semi-improvised sound painting, beautifully performed by Jacqueline, to accentuate the miniature drama in Carei’s reading of this little story. I hope you’ll find it as charming as I do!
Music lovers take note: Jacqueline plays in a wonderful cello duo called Jelloslave, and they have a new CD!
Ahoy there. It’s been a while! I’ve been busy. It’s a sad fact of life that I have bills to pay, and in spite of the tremendous generosity of some of this podcast’s listeners, a whole year’s worth of donations to In the Hands don’t even cover a month’s rent. So, I’ve been working — which is not entirely a bad thing: it’s a good job, I like the other people, and I’m working on interesting stuff … but it’s just amazing how much time a job takes! Forty hours a week is a lot.
Anyway, having settled in to the new schedule of this job, solved my car woes, completed another successful Keys Please, and done some traveling (I went to Québec and practiced my French!), I’m now turning my attention back to my poor, neglected site. To get things started again, here’s an old recording freshly remastered with the new process.
This is a late Brahms intermezzo. (Regular readers know how much I love that!) As I wrote before, it’s a wonderfully ambiguous piece. I suppose not everybody might think of ambiguity as being a compliment or a desirable thing, but I do. One of music’s magical abilities is to be ambiguous in the way that life is ambiguous, that the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness is ambiguous. We have a very natural desire to understand music, to try to figure out what it “means” and what we’re supposed to think about it. Music, however, doesn’t like to be pigeonholed that way. In real life, we don’t experience emotions one at a time, or in black and white — we usually make sense of them in retrospect, finding names and narratives only as we look back on experience. Music works that way as well, and gives us a way of distilling and becoming comfortable with all the confusingly multiple moment-to-moment ebb and flow of our minds and hearts. It is a way of looking back on our own experience without flattening it the way ordinary words can. It’s often hard to say even whether a piece is basically happy or sad — and that is a wonderful thing if you embrace it.
Certainly embracing it is certainly necessary in this piece. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, or what it’s about, or to name how it feels, but the raw experience of it — if we don’t try to name it — is wonderful.
Next up, I’ll be sharing some excerpts from February’s Keys Please, which will be a fun change of pace for In the Hands. There will even be instruments other than piano; brace yourselves!
Sorry for the long hiatus. It’s been a busy time: my latest sabbatical is running to its end, I’m broke, and back to job hunting. So I’ve been having to put aside the music and be all practical lately.
Still, I have not left In the Hands completely neglected. Listening to some other podcasts — and some of those old school … what are they called? … oh yes, radio shows — I noticed what a difference a really nice audio logo or theme song makes. It functions as an announcement, of course: “Pay attention! Your show is on!” And it’s a cue to get in the right frame of mind to enjoy what’s coming next. But most of all, I realized I love the ritual of the theme song, the anticipation and cozy excitement that comes from the conditioning of hearing the same theme again and again. It’s amazing how deep that conditioning goes: though they are from my single-digit years, my heartbeat still involuntarily quickens when I hear these unmistakable sounds! (Yay for Delia Derbyshire.)
The trick is, I don’t want a tune that’s so catchy it interferes with the music I’m about to play; my opening music needs to have a sort of palate-cleansing effect. I decided the thing to do was to make a collage of several different pieces, to get you in that piano mood without a piano tune in your head. Here’s the what I came up with.
This new audio logo won’t make much difference to those of you reading the text version, but for those listening to the podcast, here’s how it sounds as part of an episode.
(For those of you who didn’t even know there’s an audio version of this commentary, here are instructions for subscribing in iTunes.)
I’m doing something today that I haven’t done in far too long: sharing a recording of a new composition in progress.
I’ve been working for some time on a set of piano pieces, all of them dances in one way or another — and all of them, in one way or another, full of the feeling of entropy, full of things falling apart and things slipping away.
This particular one has much sweetness in it, but its main ingredient is ambiguity. Its different layers are centered in different keys, different places. They mesh so that a note which sounds unresolved in its own layer often harmonizes with what is going on in a layer above or below — and then when that note resolves within its own layer, it must move away from resolution with respect to that other layer it seemed to agree with a moment ago. This means that the layers are always pulling against each other, entwined but tugging in different directions, and the music is always simultaneously both resolving and unresolving.
Of course, this all happens quickly, and it’s hard to hear all these little individual motions. Instead, it all blends together to give the music a restless, floating, perpetually suspended quality. The music does eventually find a place to rest, but it’s fleeting — remember: falling apart, slipping away — ah, but I’m giving away too much! I’ll let the music tell its own story:
Song For Lost Things (slightly rough version)
I still haven’t fully worked out the interpretation, so I’m calling this performance “slightly rough:” as I live with the music for a while, I’m sure I’ll find that I want to play some things differently. It may come as a surprise, but even with the things I write, I still have to go through the same careful process of interpretation, figuring out how the music works, and how to play it just so.
There are nine pieces in the whole set, of which I’ve posted this one and four others in rough form: Entropic Waltz, Dance for Remembering and Forgetting, Cradle Waltz, and Disembodied Dance. Wish me luck learning the rest!
Update: Here’s the score.