I've recently started putting together some arrangements for my church's worship orchestra, which has been a great way to use my training as a writer as an expression of faith. I'm very grateful to be part of a music ministry that still uses a full orchestra, as it creates so much more opportunity for people to participate —for more on that subject, check out my Music and Tradition post from a few years back.
In honor of Icepocalypse 2015 here in Dallas, I thought I'd take a moment to share a bit about my latest original work for jazz big band —a sort of tone poem piece I'm calling "Frost Point."
I actually started writing this last fall, round about the time it first got kind of chilly. I've always had a soft spot for winter, particularly when it first arrives —those early chills that seem to silence the world. Perhaps it stems from my childhood in North Dakota, where we actually had real winters, which lasted long enough for us to have to learn what was beautiful about them. Those early chills carry an oddly simultaneous sense of both bitter cold and warm light —an expectation of hard times through which joy is forged and strengthened.
In my previous post I alluded to some very big projects on the horizon for me as a musician. I thought I'd take a moment to share some more details about what I'm working on, and especially to invite you to follow along as I make progress. This kind of work is a lot more interesting if there are people watching and listening, after all.
You may have noticed quite a few changes to the website recently —what you haven't seen, however, is any new content from me. For some reason, I've been having trouble with words over the past few years. I find myself becoming significantly more introverted with each passing year, and I think that's caused me to be a lot more reserved about public introspection —which is sort of sad, because I've always enjoyed sharing my work with people through this and other mediums.
In my previous post, I shared a jazz chorale I had written for my arranging class on Mancini's classic tune, "The Days of Wine and Roses." As I mentioned in that post, I'd been planning on writing something for the U-Tubes, UNT's jazz trombone ensemble, and I figured the chorale was a good place to start.
Well, over the past couple of months I've taken that chorale and run forward with it, ultimately resulting in a full-length arrangement; in fact, it was publicly debuted this past Thursday at the U-Tubes's performance in the Syndicate:
I've had Mancini's tune rolling around in my head for years, ever since running across it in a fake book in high school. Until recently, I never really bothered to look up the lyrics; I always just assumed it was your typical romantic ballad, a beautiful celebration of the joys of love and luxury. As it turns out, the lyrics are much darker than I'd expected:
The days of wine and roses
Laugh and run away
Like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door,
A door marked, "never more,"
That wasn't there before.
The lonely night discloses
Just a passing breeze
Filled with memories
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you.
The tune was originally written for a 1962 movie by the same name; I haven't seen it myself, but from what I understand it chronicles the lives of a married couple whose lives are destroyed by alcoholism. The title of both song and movie come from a much earlier poem by Ernest Dowson:
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
The story behind this song, then, is somewhat different than what I'd always envisioned —it's about lovesickness rather than love, of passions once held but long gone, of beautiful memories lost in painful regrets. That's the story I tried to evoke through my arrangement.
Beyond that, I'll leave the piece to speak for itself —I really enjoyed writing it, and I'm very happy with the end result. Please let me know what you think!
This past week in my jazz arranging class, we started talking about chorale writing. In jazz contexts, a "chorale" is a work of polyphonic music played without the rhythm section. Removing the rhythm section sort of changes the rules of the game; you can't rely on their persistent improvisation to make up for a lack of rhythmic or harmonic interest in what's going on elsewhere. As a result, chorale writing is driven by melody, not by groove.
My professor started class on Monday by listing off four basic characteristics to strive towards in jazz chorale writing: independent motion, varied melodic registers, reuse of material from the main theme in the counterlines, and a flexible tempo.
With those basic principles in mind, I went ahead and put together a basic jazz chorale arrangement of Mancini's The Days of Wine and Roses. Since I've been wanting to write something for the U-Tubes (UNT's jazz trombone ensemble), I opened up a blank score with 8 trombone staves and set to work. Here's what I came up with:
You can also download the score if you'd prefer to follow along on paper. The arrangement has its problems, but I do think it demonstrates the basic idea pretty well. In fact, I think I'm going to fix it up a bit and then use it as an introduction to a larger chart, which I'll be writing over the course of the semester. Keep watching for more about that piece!
When I write, one of the most difficult things to deal with is the sense that I'm not really creating anything unique—that my music is somehow derivative, either of my own earlier work or of somebody else's. This is understandable—there are only so many notes in the scale, so many chord qualities and rhythmic subdivisions to play with. Jazz mitigates the problem somewhat by pushing the envelope—by allowing more complex rhythms, chord progressions, and melody-bass relationships—but no matter how far you push, the problem is still there. This can be discouraging, but I'm not so sure it should be.
I like Star Trek. Sometimes a little too much. You can tell, because the next part of this post is an oddly relevant dialog I copied from the TNG third season episode "The Ensigns of Command"; I think it frames the issue rather nicely. (For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Data is a Pinnochio figure: an emotionless android who wants to be human.)
- The good doctor was kind enough to provide me with a recording of your concert. Your performance shows …feeling.
- As I have recently reminded others, sir, I have no feeling.
- It's hard to believe. Your playing is quite beautiful.
- Strictly speaking, sir, it is not _my_ playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trinka Bronkin.
- [shakes head] Is there nothing of Data in what I'm hearing? You see, you chose the violinists. Heifetz and Bronkin have radically different styles, different techniques, and yet you combined them successfully.
- I suppose I _have_ learned to be …creative, sir—when necessary.
- Mr. Data, I look forward to your next concert.
I like how this discussion frames the problem. Data is a machine, so he's already lacking in one area typically considered necessary for creative work: emotion. However, he does have drive. Throughout the series, Data's chief drive (maybe even "passion") is to become more human. This leads him to pursue all kinds of artistic endeavors: painting, acting, music…anything he thinks will help him connect more meaningfully with his human creators. Surprisingly, he frequently succeeds, despite lacking the raw, subjective emotional ingredients we typically believe are necessary for such creativity.
In this instance, Data's creative experiment with the violin involves a simple proposition: pick two master violinists, combine their styles, and see what happens. As Picard points out, this, despite requiring no emotion, is in and of itself a creative act. By choosing the violinists, Data has staked a claim in the resulting art; by calculating the best combination of their techniques, he has come up with something only he could have come up with. He didn't have to invent anything per se, only to build out of what had already been invented by others. This kind of creativity, by definition, is derivative…but it is creativity.
Data's approach here is hardly unique. Heck, in the real world, musicians take the building blocks of one anothers' work all the time (often without realizing it), resulting in countless songs leveraging the same basic chord progressions. Not surprising; even jazz musicians (who love pushing envelopes) do the same thing with rhythm changes and the twelve-bar blues.
Given how common this is, I wonder why we so often think that truly "creative" folks are magically extracting brand-new ideas out of thin air. Who has ever done such a thing? Isn't all creativity derivative to some degree? If someone could come up with something totally novel, something that didn't depend at all on earlier ideas, would any of us understand it? If Data, instead of learning to play the violin after the tradition of the masters, had decided to invent a totally original approach to the instrument, I doubt the crew would have wanted to listen to it; it may have been original (maybe even beautiful to those who understood its mathematical qualities), but it would also have been so totally unfamiliar as to evoke all the emotional response of white noise.
Bottom line is this: we have to get our ideas from somewhere, and pushing that envelope will only get you so far. I think I'm going to stop worrying about it and just enjoy the ride.
The first major project in this semester's jazz arranging class was a simple, 8-bar melody orchestration for brass and rhythm section—all told, no more than 15 seconds of music. The idea was to give us an opportunity to hear how we're doing before applying what we know to a full-length big band chart. The project was due on Monday, and we recorded them all live in a two-hour demo session Wednesday afternoon (I got to play in the trombone section, which was both fun and repetitive).