Month: February 2017

A Composing Checklist

A Composing Checklist

In my last post about my project to write a sketch a day, I talked about trying to compose purposely unfinished music, to stimulate players into completing it in performance using their improvisational spark and their knowledge of traditions such as jazz (or reggae, funk etc.). No sooner had I posted it than I figured out an obvious further thought:

That idea of provoking improvised reactions could be part of my composing practice. I could use my own music (or write new music, or use a piece from the repertoire) to stimulate further composing.

Absolutely nothing new in that idea as it stands – it’s called “development” or “contrafact”, or “sampling”. However, I realised that, in my practice, this process should take place using the exact dynamics I’ve been studying all along in this blog: the African and African Diaspora mode of improvised call and response within a groove. That is, the seed idea should groove and my spontaneous reactions should groove along with it. And there should be no limitation to the techniques or technology used – as long as there is this mutual grooving.

For example, I could:

  • ┬ásample an old bass solo, loop the sample and improvise a bassline underneath
  • sequence a drum pattern and improvise chords on top
  • improvise a motivic solo over a standard, then take the best chorus as a melody and re-harmonise it
  • mash up a few cliched blues forms/song skeletons into a new form, then sing blues shapes over my form while playing it on bass to come up with a melody
  • dance to a dubstep mix and then subconsciously copy one of the drumlines (this wasn’t on purpose but it happened!)

The grooving stipulation directly combats my tendency to waste time idly fiddling with variations of a passage. Because now I’m forced to keep strict time as much as possible and also forced to make decisions in time (this is the essence of the jazz concept of “spontaneous composition”, I think).

By the way, such techniques as “jamming along to a recording of yourself” might seem trivial or even indulgent, but actually they bring new and worthwhile challenges. E.g. making a grooving and appealing-sounding recording of yourself!

There’s a subtle but very important function performed by all the examples above. I want to discuss it using a point of reference…. Seeing as my strategies are about finding inciting/provocative seed ideas and then reacting to them, the point of reference will be inciting/provocative gestures in groove music. Seeing as my seed ideas are meant to be beginnings for my creative process, I’ll look at beginning gestures.

Reggae drum intros are a great example of filling in to the top of the form; which is one of two basic options for kicking off a groove – the other being to just play a couple of rounds of the groove without the lead or without the full band. (More on that technique of layering here.) Fills are exciting, I feel, because they give a sense of an impending groove without revealing what it will consist of. Often, I’ve noticed they feature great timbre to convey an instant vibe – a notable feature of those reggae fills, but also found in blues, say:

I believe these gestures are comparable to hip hop snare drops, rap introduction cliches, and myriad rock’n’roll gimmicks. What do all of these do? They inject energy for sure, but also the set up the tempo, the feel (subdivision and microtiming), a vibe, the position of beat one and often a tonal centre!

My intuition is that seed ideas should contain all this info. To go even further, for my purposes (and in accordance with all of the traditions I’ve been talking about), the form is something that should be established in the seed idea – or at least, a clear tonal centre and length of cycle. The reason is that the type of interactive improvising – the “response” of call-and-response – that I’ve been discussing, happens when players can feel the underlying ground or form that they’re navigating.

Anyway, here’s a checklist for composing that I came up with two days ago:

  • Have a relaxed and open mind
  • Start with some technical practice on your instrument
  • All recordings must groove so use a metronome or just play with the fattest of feels
  • Try find a grooving coexistence of old (ground) and new (improv), e.g. improvise on a standard, sing over a bassline you wrote, interlock played improvisation with a tapped bell pattern, etc.
  • Look out for cool physical configurations i.e. unusual hand movements, combinations or instrumental approaches (for me this tends to emerge from technical practice which simultaneously warms up my hands, bores my brain and sharpens my awareness until I impatiently come up with something new)
  • Look out for cool timbre
  • Keep the harmony absolutely simple enough to navigate i.e. so you can visualise how melodic paths fit in the harmony in real time while devoting enough attention to treating them lyrically
  • Try ASAP to find the rhythmic cycle, top of form, feel and tonal centre
  • Feel how the harmony should move, and go with it if it turns out to be something familiar (I wrote an eight-bar section the other day without fully realising that it was “Donna Lee” chords)
  • Keep a notepad and recording tools immediately ready

It’s worked so far, although with the proviso that what comes out mightn’t be as hip as I’d wish for!!

I guess I’ll sign off here. I have more things to say but it’s best I write a few more tunes first. Thanks for reading! And please comment with your strategies for writing music.

Where I’m At

Where I’m At

Today I’ll report on two projects: last month’s attempt to learn a tune a day, and this month’s attempt to write a tune a day!

My secret to achieving these is flexible scope: each day I can choose to do something easy (e.g. cop the bassline for the solo in Cissy Strut) or complex (e.g. write an AAB samba tune with hits).

Someone else might prefer to do a standardised amount of work each day, but I generally achieve things by getting immersed in an activity and can’t predict how much I’ll do in that state. That’s kind of unstructured, but to compensate I have the feeling of a daily routine contributing to a larger project.

My favourite bass parts I learnt were the basslines to Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” and Bob Marley’s “One Love”. Some days I did a melody instead of a bassline.

Here are the songs I worked on:

  • In Walked Bud
  • Need Your Love So Bad
  • The Thrill Is Gone
  • Cissy Strut
  • Caravan
  • Summertime
  • My Funny Valentine
  • Nardis
  • I Feel Good
  • Wave
  • One Love
  • What Is This Thing Called Love
  • Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay
  • Chameleon
  • Mist
  • I Just Want To Make Love To You
  • ‘Round Midnight
  • Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
  • In A Sentimental Mood
  • Have You Met Miss Jones
  • Like Sonny
  • Careless Whisper
  • Tonz ‘O’ Gunz (I learnt off the rap)
  • Cotton Tail
  • This I Dig Of You

I’m now 2 weeks into the next project, writing a sketch of a tune each day. As I’d hoped, I’m getting some data on what works and what doesn’t for me.

My ideal composing mindstate seems to be: getting emotionally fired up by the good qualities of what I’m making while staying clear-eyed about the bad. Excitement about the ideas gives patience to dig around inside them without getting sick of them or distracted. Awareness of problems pushes me to shape them into something better. Basically, the humility to follow your naive/wondering side plus the humility to note your failings. If that makes any sense… anyway, it’s a balancing act!

Digging inside ideas can turn into aimlessly toying with them. To avoid that I can either wait till I’m in a very creative mood, or try find some appealing structure within the music itself around which I can coalesce more material. Or, rely on genre conventions.

Suiting the tools to the task helps me a lot: sequencer, notation software, manuscript, piano, guitar, bass…?

I’m trying to stay in control of the material, i.e. not write stuff I can’t hold in my head or manipulate. This can be a frustrating limitation but I hope it’ll push me to improve my musical imagination.

My old arranging teacher in Amsterdam, Johan Plomp, always said to write 3 versions of every bit of material in your piece. Then again, the idea of this project was to write quickly so I don’t always take that time. This leaves me liable to what another composition teacher, Ronan Guilfoyle, used to say: “Needs more development”. The question of just how finished my pieces should be is one I’ll return to in a few paragraphs.

I’m only now getting back into jazz writing after over a year. In that time I became much more appreciative of good conventional harmony and melody, so I’m writing (somewhat) less gnarly stuff than before.

I also explored a bunch of concepts on this blog, all to do with physicality and interaction.

These mood-enhancing properties, like groove and timbral control, are not things you can notate. I have to find ways to provoke players into manifesting them. Some say good art needs vulnerability… I should be vulnerable to seeming ridiculous, unschooled, eccentric, or naive, in the service of achieving the ephemeral moods I’m after. (Previously, the desire to seem hip made me write overly complex music that didn’t groove.)

It’s hard. Although at the start of the month I listed out dozens of spicy ideas to use (e.g. “different instruments taking similar path at different rates” or “downbeat illusions a la “He’s The Greatest Dancer”“), I haven’t yet had the nerve. My first two weeks’ work resulted in mostly conventional jazz tunes.

Here’s where I want to return to the question of “how finished is finished”. While recognising that all of this month’s pieces will eventually need further development/arrangement, I suspect I need to start writing less finished music.

I once heard Vijay Iyer talk about a phrase from Paul Gilroy: “radically unfinished forms”. It took a few years for me to understand it. Gilroy and Iyer are talking about music where the pre-composed aspect is inadequate for performance… unless it is completed by improvisation in the moment.

This applies to most jazz, whether the pre-composed element is a cheesy show tune or a riff-based blues. (Even during the head of a jazz tune, improvisation is required in the rhythm section.) The written part is blatantly not enough. It incites improvisation by its (deeply intentional, hence “radical”) incompleteness. A solo break is the ultimate example of this aesthetic.

I believe these are the “ways to provoke players” that I should use.

However, what I only recently understood is that not only do radically unfinished forms call forth originality from the players, they call forth THE TRADITION. E.g. If you don’t have a clue how to play a blues, then the radically unfinished 2-note melody and breaks of “C-Jam Blues” will not stimulate anything special from you. If you do have an idea, that’s only because you have built a relationship with the tradition of jazz and blues.

So I want to write small pieces that, perhaps subconsciously, put players in dialogue with the tradition and each other. Provocative, allusive, appealing, pungent ingredients within a larger ritual. If I can manage it.

This requires that I’m honest about which parts of the tradition I like most, and how well I understand them. Because as I already said, I need to love what I’m writing and I also need control of it. The humility to write obvious or unfashionable stuff (as long as it sounds good to me) and humility to accept when something is not yet in my grasp.

(And I also want the music to express something personal from me.)

I’ll break off there. Alas I don’t yet have any music to post because, like I said, all these pieces will need further work. And then I have to record them. How my music should acknowledge the need for recording and distribution is something I’ve been thinking about recently… I’ll write about it soon under the theme of listening cultures. I also have a post brewing about this classic hard bop tune which I might as well link here because it exemplifies tradition plus joyful group interaction completing a radically unfinished form.

Thanks for reading!