12-1-11: My Country Tentatively

12-1-11: My Country Tentatively

I occasionally take up this tune, even if I don’t really like it. You don’t have to like a tune to improvise on it, after all. It’s enough that the tune focuses your attention in a particular way that may yield interesting results.

 

2-15-09: Sunday Ostinato

2-15-09: Sunday Ostinato

Ostinato is the Italian word for obstinate, obdurate, persistent, pig-headed and the like. But in a musical context it refers to a sometimes relentlessly repeated rhythmic or melodic pattern—which I suppose does indicate a certain obstinacy on the part of the musician or composer playing/writing such a thing. In any case, ostinati show up in all sorts of genres from classical to hip-hop,  and are often used as a structural underpinning of the composition in question.

To my mind, the most effective use of an ostinato is to have another musical voice doing something rather non-repetitive over the top of it.  A modern example would be a rapper spewing out rhythmically complex poetry over a steady, repetitive drum machine groove. To do otherwise—to have something equally repetitive over something already repetitive—is to mess with various natural artistic laws, like the golden section. This is the reason I don’t like most electronic dance music, or minimalism—it sounds unnatural, mechanical, like a machine. I realize, in the case of both of those genres, that that is precisely the point. But I don’t get the point.

The ostinato technique, as may be evident by its frequent appearance on this album, is actually an ideal format for improvisation, particularly solo piano, because it allows you to essentially have one part more or less on automatic while the other can noodle around to it’s heart’s content. As long as the repetitive part agrees to be kind of like a dumb-ass metronome, you have the basis for an interesting piece of music. In this case, my left hand agrees for the most part: it plays a repeated five note figure, but occasionally, not wanting to be a mere shill for my right hand, speaks up by sneaking in a few six note figures. Good for my left hand.

11-06-09: Regret

11-06-09: Regret

With a title like that you’re thinking another Character piece á la Schumann, and you’d be right. I never played much of his music, but Schumann, who practically invented the musical version of the morose, seems to be showing his influence in several of the more morose pieces here. (Though after much troubled rhetoric, this ends with a happy major key cadence.)

At random moments on random days, I stop whatever I’m doing (practicing the piano, business work, making calls, writing emails, etc.),  load up Pro Tools, and record one or several takes of improvised piano music. What inspires me to stop whatever I’m doing and improvise a random piece of music is a question that I probably shouldn’t delve into too deeply—a key to the success of the whole venture, after all, is the element of surprise. And I mean surprise for myself. I don’t want to know when it’s going to happen, or why it’s going to happen.

Nevertheless, I do understand something of the impulse that leads me to stop doing something I’m supposed to be doing and instead do this. Indeed, it is my very rebelliousness against what I’m supposed to be doing, against the outwardly or self-imposed structure of my days that gives Piano Diaries its raison d’etre. Piano Diaries is my protest against all that order—wake up, perform morning ablutions, feed kids (make sure they perform their morning ablutions) take kids to school, some days go downtown to teach, other days come back my studio and take care of emails and morning calls; practice the piano (an incredibly ordered little sub-system itself); lunch, more business, write reports, grade student assignments, more emails, pick up kids from school, take daughter to softball practice, maybe help with dinner, maybe put daughter to bed, maybe do the dishes, read news on iPad, read a book, go to bed.

All of that order is, of course, necessary to survival, and a necessary part of putting oneself in the position to be creative in the first place. For one thing,  if I didn’t have a regular practice regimen, I certainly couldn’t perform the music on this album.

But it is also true that I would never be able to perform this music if didn’t occasionally flip the finger at all of the order. The initial creative impulse itself is not about order and discipline—it’s about throwing all of that away. Destruction is an essential part of the creative process (just ask Pete Townsend; just ask the Big Bang.) Of course, we need to bring all of that order and discipline to the the fore again to make something tangible out of the initial creative impulse, to keep it from devolving into an unintelligible mess. But art without that careless instinct is soulless.

On the other hand, these unintended improvisations are a part of a larger, somewhat ordered process that I continue refine over time. They are, in that sense, very much planned unplannedness by virtue of the fact that I allow them to happen at all. The process works, to the extent that it works, this way:

Whenever I get the urge, I load up my recording software, hit record/play and just go. As I said, I may do one or many takes, sometimes on one theme that is working its way through my synapses, other times on a bunch of unrelated themes. When I’m done (and let me tell you, deciding when I’m done is a topic worthy of one or many chapters), I do a quick evaluation: is this worth sharing with the world or not? And, in keeping with the spirit of the whole venture, that decision must be quick, and really only involves three criteria:  1) Is it interesting? 2) Is it not quite like anything else I’ve produced (written or improvised)?  3) Is it reasonably well executed? If yes to all three (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a resounding yes to all three), I do the following:

Bounce the track down to a wav or MP3 file, e.g. something that can be consumed by civilians. When you bounce, of course, a file naming dialog pops up on your Mac and you have to give the track an appropriate  name. My Piano Diaries names follow a simple convention you’v seen here: date, followed by a pithy sub-title in parentheses, e.g. “November 17, 2012 (Not Doing what I’m supposed to…” I’ve already described my method for naming the tracks in August 13, 2009 entry.

And yes, if the track is otherwise worthy but there are a few ugly mistakes, I sometimes go back and clean up the naughty parts.