Tag Archives: composition

Stream: Keir Neuringer – “Ceremonies Out of the Air”

Keir Neuringer’s latest is a double album that features 5 tracks of sax improv spanning almost 80 minutes and filling up every possible bit of space on the record. Not only is every possible physical space on the album filled, but in that time not a second is wasted. Neuringer fills the space with expanding musical material that seems to grow organically out of thin air. As you listen you can hear the ideas taking shape and developing into much larger, overarching musical ideas.

Armed with nothing more than an alto sax, Keir Neuringer may sound on the surface as though he is taking after Colin Stetson with his equally fascinating use of space and texture, not to mention circular breathing. But, the fact of the matter is that these compositions benefit from a different brand of spontaneity than Stetson is employing. The stream of consciousness that Neuringer is employing adds a whole other dimension to listening to the music. We’re clued in to the fact that the song is developing before our very ears. We are taking a journey more or less together. Add to that that all of the elements of any great composition are employed as Neuringer takes great care to nurture the overall shape of the structure as well as the dynamic and pitch range to form an improvisation that sounds like anything but. This is practiced and expert instantaneous composition at its finest.

The album is available now on special limited edition CD and vinyl, which can be picked up via Keir Neuringer’s bandcamp page, which can be found here. Take a listen to “i dreamt there was nothing wrong with my chemistry” above.

There is a bunch of other stuff to listen to on his bandcamp. Might I highly recommend his tape: “Afghanistan: And Bide Your Time.” It’s an EP with keyboards, vocals and percussion all performed by Keir. Politically charged and sounding like nothing else out there. Give it a listen. Limited tapes are still available.

Album review: Colin Stetson – "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"

Colin Stetson is a saxophonist that is clearly out of his mind.

Sax players, in my experience, are a divided lot. They usually either stay on the side of jazz or classical and never the twain shall meet. More accurately, they will stick with party lines and immediately show their loyalty to their chosen side by hating the other group with every ounce of expendable energy that they have. This means that any energy that is left over after obsessive study of all things saxophone is dedicated to speaking down to the other side. I feel as though Colin Stetson may be an exception to that rule, or maybe he just didn’t get the memo. He clearly doesn’t think that there is a need to take a side. Perhaps he is creating a new side, because his music sounds like nothing I have ever heard before. If all contemporary composition for the sax sounded like this I would actually pay attention to contemporary compositions for the sax.

His music is a non-stop barrage of sound that searches for, and finds, ways to make a unilinear instrument such as his sound polyphonic. It’s not that it just sounds that way, it is. Stetson employs not only a complex melodic line that pops out over a sea of supporting, textural, notes; he uses everything that his instrument and he himself physically has to offer. Percussive key clicks serve as not only drums of sorts, but mimic the pitch and timbre characteristics of the pizzicato plucking of a double bass. Multiphonics, or complex clusters of pitches sounded simultaneously as a result of overblowing certain key combinations, help to not only thicken the sound, but provide unique colors to certain parts of a song.

The circular breathing technique, which is essentially breathing out while breathing in concurrently, means that there doesn’t have to be a single break in his melodic line. Ever. For minutes at a time the notes just flow. It’s remarkable.

Colin Stetson - "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"

While all of these things are great, they don’t make a song in and of themselves. All of these things would mean so much less if they weren’t coming from a virtuosic performer of such a high caliber.

“A Dream of Water” takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up. Melodies are hidden inside other melodies, weaving in and out of each other. There is a constant flurry of septuplets rolling through the air while a plain-spoken voice enters, noting observations and asking some questions: “There were those who knew only the sound of their own voices, there were those who knew the rules, there were those who freed their bodies…what was it? What was it?” The voice doesn’t simply make the track more accessible to a certain extent but also serves to haunt the listener, making the pervasive rapid notes carry more weight.

With “Home” the percussive techniques are amped up while the general mood is considerably more sedate. Colin sings through his instrument, humming in a way that transforms the saxophone partially into a theremin in its thin and straight tone. He also sings on the track “Judges”, but there it is a bit more like a growl or a choked scream. His ability to circular breathe isn’t just used to crank out a million notes without stopping, but also to lay down a single foundational pitch like the flat bass pedal tone that remains throughout “Lord I just can’t keep from crying” while a soulful spiritual is sung over top. His inhaling can be heard while the bass note continues to grow louder and more intense while this time the sax seems to take on the sound of a didjeridoo.

An entire ensemble of percussive tongue slaps, key clicks, and growls are summoned in “Red Horses” while “The righteous wrath of an honorable man” is pure blazing virtuosity, fingers flying all over across (this time) silent keys. The notes pop and squeal, leaping out of the furiously fast line. The work on this piece is truly awe inspiring. Starting from nowhere and then soaring for two and a half minutes at breakneck speed before abruptly stopping. The end comes suddenly as a car slamming into a brick wall at 80 miles an hour with nary a note out of place.

The album closes with a track that layers multiphonics atop an endless pedal tone, just as in “Lord I just can’t keep from crying”. Here, however, multiphonics slowly turn to a growl as the volume grows, sounding like something between an overdriven guitar and a siren, until eventually the track slowly fades away.

One of the many great things about this album is that Stetson’s bag of tricks doesn’t grow tired by albums end. His technique is flawless and his songs are multifaceted. There is just so much to listen to and so much to listen for. On the one hand it’s great to just sit back and listen to all of the notes fly by in some of the tracks. Another listen and one can begin to hear the different melodies weaving through each other; another ten listens can easily be spent marveling at how he put this all together without recording over himself a million times.

This album has me spellbound in amazement at his superhuman abilities. “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” is quite an astoundingly daring, creative and virtuosic masterpiece of an album.

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/05-From-no-part-of-me-could-I-summon-a-voice.mp3|titles=From no part of me could I summon a voice] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/07-Home.mp3|titles=Home] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/12-The-righteous-wrath-of-an-honorable-man.mp3|titles=The righteous wrath of an honorable man]

My Writing Process

So I decided that something people are always interested in, whether they write music or not, whether they ever care to or not, is the process by which someone creates music.

For as many composers there are out there, there are just as many ways of doing things. There is no right or wrong way, this is art after all. This is a form of expression, our own way of describing the world. I may as well get down to it, I think the way I do things is kinda different and I am still developing in my process.

From very early on I realized that rhythm was the most important element in music, at least to me. I was always a fan of prog-rock, where it is expected that the most complex rhythms and strangest accents are used. That is what those songs are about. The dragons, sorcery and nymphs are secondary. Anyway, the other thing that I find quite important to any piece of music, no matter what the genre is that the form is accessible.

This being said, when I need to start writing a piece of music the first thing that I do is grab my notebook. A simple notebook of lined paper, not manuscript, not yet. In the notebook I start off from the most basic characteristics of the piece and slowly build up from there. I’ll decide how long I want the piece to be, in minutes and seconds, what the piece is going to be scored for and what initial tonal center I am going to begin with.

The decisions for all of these aspects can either be a pretty simple endeavor (“It will be 5 minutes, because 5 minutes seems like a reasonable amount of time for this kind of work) or a more complex decision that relies on some other aspect of the music (“Well this is a piece for Brass so perhaps starting in Bb will be good…”). At this stage of the game I try to move as fast as possible across all these “pre-compositional” workings. I am not saying that they are lesser aspects of completing the work, on the contrary, these are the foundations of the entire work, on which the rest of my writing will balance upon, but I like to get through it quickly to keep the momentum going, start the ball rolling, and reminding myself that the piece should never be so complex that the audience will never understand it. In moving through this phase fairly quick I am assuring myself that I don’t complicate matters.

Right after this initial phase I begin pulling back, slowly. I imagine myself analyzing something visual, a landscape or a painting. I am quite far away at the beginning, I can make out that I see something and I slowly move in to see what exactly it is, and how it is made, right down to the most fine detail. I keep writing, in words, describing how I wan the piece to “go”. I’m going to use a form, let’s go with a tried and true A B A. The piece is 5 minutes long so how long is each A section, is the B shorter, longer? How are things weighted? Will B be developmental or just different, contrasting? Slow, Fast, Slow or Fast, Slow, Fast? No tempo change at all? etc.

I zoom in further. How is the A section divided up? How long is it going to be? Time signature? Will it move from the initial tonal center to another? Will the tonal center that it moves to help me get to where the B section begins? How many phrases are in the A section? How long are they? What about the basic durational units? Registral placement? etc. etc.

There is plenty to think about at this point, early on. This is where some of my best thinking takes place. I really love this part of the process. I can burn out a whole slew of ideas in a wild frenzy. Some people call this “sketching” but for some reason I despise the use of that word. It just seems so pretentious to me. I’m laying the foundation for my piece, in words. I am more comfortable to start off in my first language, that being English. After I have planned out my piece in as much verbose prose as possible, getting as specific as I can I move to the manuscript paper.

Though this part happens in stages as well. I don’t immediately run to a piano and start splashing notes down. That would be counterproductive, I must continue on the path that I have started for myself, that being: zooming into the picture as slowly as possible. Rhythm first. All of the outer parameters of the music I have laid out beforehand, in words. I know how long the piece is, and the tempo, so I know how many beats it will take me to get to the end. I know the phrase structure and the overall form. All this is mapped out. I now begin writing rhythms and general pitch information. Nothing gets too specific. Notes are simple: High or Low. The rhythm and the inflection working together as I sing out what I hear in my head. All the basic elements of the music are now in place, I mark out where important things are going to happen (“should sound like a half cadence here”, “cadence”, “moving towards D#” etc.) I circle things and make notes, general things like harmonic pulse and motion are marked out at this point too.

Things are beginning to solidify at this point and things may change from what I had initially planned. I find that it is better to let the piece, to a certain degree, go where it wants to go. There are certain things that just need to happen, and the music will go where it needs to go, or else it will sound unnatural and forced. Flexibility is the key, though if it is desired to stick strictly to the plan that was drawn out beforehand then that can be done too, it is completely up in the air.

After the piece is mapped out, with rhythms and general inflections I move operations to my computer, or to the piano. It is time to start hearing the piece in further detail, hearing specific notes and trying out several harmonies. The reason that I do the rhythm first is so that my thoughts are allowed to move fairly quickly, this final step moves pretty slowly, but calmly because I know that I will not lose sight of what the piece is supposed to be about. If I am at a piano I play through all sorts of ideas that fit within the rhythmic and inflection parameters that I have started out with, in the tonal center that I decided on. This way everything that I can think of is taken care of beforehand, freeing up my mind and my creativity because I don’t have to think of 40 things at once, I am just following the directions on the paper that I have written myself.

I am usually able to come up with several ideas for each phrase and this is the point in the process where subtle tricks come into play, little details that could not have been planned ahead of time that now seem so obvious and excite me to no end, propelling me to finish as much of the piece as possible in one sitting. These things are all possible if sitting in front of the computer as well. This all depends on where I am at the time.

Nothing is set in stone, and things often change all the way through the process. Practical application of notes to the schematic that is laid out will cause some things to shift. I personally find that this is the way that works best for me. I don’t know of anyone else that works in this manner, but I tried for years in vain to write in the way that I thought everyone else worked and my music was scattered, without focus and difficult to hear and understand. This process I developed for me to help my writing and so far I like the way that it is working, it is helping me to write more efficiently and just to write more.