Monk, Bach, and Evans = Creative Mindset

These are three of my favourite composers and improvisers. I just wanted to share one thing on each of them.

J.S Bach:

I find myself working daily on his music, particularly the violin sonatas. The patterns, intuitive nature, and extreme focus required to play his songs helps me find a way into the creative space I like hanging out in.

Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor Presto:

This is the perfect piece for vibraphone. Through it’s repetition it gives you a strong technical basis (arpeggios, scales, modulation) for building upon and it’s fun. I think his music also provides some abstract insight into the way the human mind works; the way in which the listener can be tricked into perceiving multiple voices when the line itself is single notes.

Bill Evans, who was also into Bach, has a similar intense logic at the core of his music. Focusing on his tunes and interpretations helps me find my creative space too. I find his ability to develop such beauty from simple themes striking. A good example for me is the way the Miles Davis tune Nardis(like he wrote this tune-clearly a bill evans composition but whatever) developed over the course of his trios (particularly the last one). His beautiful and adventurous intros are the pinnacle of his improvisatorial/compositional voice for me.

I won’t say much about Monk other then he embodies all of the things that excite me as an improviser and composer. To play his music it seems you need to learn the harmonic structures deeply and then realize that his voicings are actually chords that don’t exist anywhere else. This music is about juxtapositions, riddles and great rhythmic feel every second.

Of The Waves CD release

We are pretty psyched to be releasing our first full length Album June 30 2012 at the Music Gallery in Toronto. It is named after our song, of the waves.

This album has been a long time coming….. The four of us had a blast collaborating with Andrew Collins, Jean Martin, Dan Gaucher, Michael Herring, and the birds and cicadas at the Davidson family cottage just outside of Napanee. Each one of them brought something unique and valuable to this project.

We will be writing here again so do check back once in a while.

thanks,

Michael

One for the Vibraphone Geeks

Ever wonder what you can actually do with the vibraphone other then hit it with some mallets and give people vertigo with incessant tremolo. Here are some extended techniques you can use on the vibraphone for adding more colours to your music, a bit of vibraphonic history, and some basic mechanics of the instrument.

Maybe even before I cover the nerdy extended techniques I’ll just briefly introduce the instrument, in case people reading this are not familiar with the vibraphone.

So, the vibraphone, or more accurately titled, vibraharp (it’s original patented name), is a mallet percussion instrument that was first invented in 1921, by a company named Leedy. This version differed from the current incarnation in that the bars were made of a steel instead of aluminum and also had no dampening bar, so all of the notes just rang together. In 1927, Deagan’s (another percussion company) Chief tuner, developed a modified version of this original concept, adding the dampening bar and making the keys out of aluminum to reduce the harshness of the sound. More time was devoted to precise tuning and elimination of unwanted overtones. This began selling in 1928 and is the precursor to the modern vibraphone.

The vibraphone is similar to a xylophone or a marimba but differs dramatically as well. Some things in common are the basic way sound is produced; this being by striking a bar with a mallet and having that sound amplified by a resonating tube situated below each bar.

The bars of the vibraphone are made of aluminum as are the resonating tubes. Xylophone bars are either made of wood or kelon (a synthetic). Marimba bars are made of wood.

A vibraphone has a pedal attached to a dampening bar below the bars, which makes it more like a piano. The bars on a vibraphone will ring until they come in contact with the dampener (not eternally but for a pretty long time). In order to sustain pitches on a xylophone or marimba the player must use a rolling technique, although the lower pitches on a marimba will naturally have more sustain.

The resonating tubes on a vibraphone have a special feature that distinguishes it from the marimba and xylophone. On top of each resonating tube is an aluminum disc. These are all attached together by a thin aluminum rod which spans the instrument and is built into the actual resonating tube assembly. There is one set for the top row of bars, and one for the bottom row of bars. At the high end of the instrument these rods have a rounded disc-like edge which is designed to have a rubber conveyor belt wrapped around it. There is an additional circular disc below which the conveyor belt wraps around creating a triangular shaped cycle. This bottom disc is attached to a variable speed motor which when engaged results in its rotation. The result is a rotation of all of the discs below each bar. This rotation causes the resonating tubes to open and close at varying speeds, controlled by the player, which results in the creation of a tremolo effect. This is something distinctive to the vibraphone and is the reason for its name. The inventors made the choice to refer to this effect as vibrato which was incorrect, and hence the name vibra-harp or vibra-phone. Technically it should be called the tremo-phone, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring.

That’s a brief history and a bit about the mechanics. I’ll briefly mention some basic techniques and then to the focus of the discussion, extended techniques.

Some vibraphonists play with 4 mallets, some with 2, and some dude plays with 6 (I don’t know why, and it does not seem very smooth or pragmatic). I don’t want to go into too much detail except to provide examples of players who use the these approaches. If anyone is even remotely interested in this post I’ll write another specifically about these techniques.

4 Mallet: Gary Burton, David Friedman, Dave Samuels, Chris Dingman
2 Mallet: Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Stefon Harris
6 mallet: Some weird guy in a tux by a pool

Another basic technique for smooth phrasing on the vibraphone is called mallet dampening. To achieve this the player pushes down the pedal, and after striking a bar uses another mallet to dampen the sound instead of the pedal. This allows a player to strike a chord, and have certain notes move while others continue to ring, which in turn makes the vibraphone more pianistic.

The last basic technique is almost too obvious to mention but I will anyway. It is the proper use of the pedal for phrasing. A lot of vibraphonists maybe gloss over this one a bit, but it is absolutely essential for clarity of ideas.

How about some extended techniques?

Here are some extended techniques on the vibraphone beyond just hitting the bars. Below is a piece that i wrote for solo vibraphone utilizing some of these techniques.


Pitch Bending a.k.a bendy vibes

Pitches can be bent on a vibraphone very much like those on a guitar. This requires the use of a hard rubber mallet and a knowledge of the nodes on the vibraphone. Strike the bar in the middle with a yarn mallet, and then using the hard rubber mallet start from the top node (directly above the place on the bar where the string passes through) and pull down towards the center of the bar. As you move towards the center the pitch will fall by about a semitone and then rise back to the original. The mallet is adding mass to the bar which allows it to drop in pitch. I don’t think it would be possible to have a note rise above its original pitch but maybe there’s a way.

This can sound good in a variety of contexts and is not just some fancy trick. Try to double a line with a guitarist, or using it for more expression, making the vibes sound more conversational and voice-like.

Bowing a.k.a terminator vibes

A player can also bow the vibes. You need a bow and some resin so it sticks to the bar. Hold the bow in a vertical position and bow the edge of the bar starting from the thickest section. This will create a singing, eerie, industrial sound which can add beautiful colours and variety to your playing. This technique can be used in combination with mallets, so you can bow notes while playing melodies or chords.

Harmonics a.k.a what do you think you are a guitar vibes

You can get harmonics on the vibes much like the guitar. This is possible because a bar in terms of physics functions similarly to a string. If divided in certain ways certain overtones can be emphasized. To do this on a vibraphone you need 2 mallets. Place one vertically in the centre of the bar with limited pressure. The other will then strike the bar over one of the nodes (directly above the points on the bar where the string passes through). When mallet 2 hits the bar over the node, lift mallet 1 up and listen to the 1st overtone, the fundamental up 2 octaves. Although these are described as harmonics, technically they are overtones.

A player can also get up to the second overtone through bowing.

Rolling with one Hand a.k.a how do you play that fast vibes

If you play with 4 mallets rolling with one hand is pretty easily achieved. All you need to do is surround the bar near the edge with your two mallets, one on top and one below. Then, just move your hand up and down rapidly creating a dense sound. You can do this while playing chords or a melody with your other hand.

Singing into the Vibes a.k.a why bother vibes?

Because it’s just cool. Try it out. You basically use your mouth as the resonating cavity for the bar.

Rolling with two Mallets while limiting the sound of attack a.k.a smooth rolophone

By rolling with two mallets on the vibes but using the top part of the mallets you can reduce the sound of attack on the bars bringing out more of the fundamental and less of the ping ping ping and mallet sound.

Displacing Double Bounces a.k.a buddy rich vibes

This is similar to playing a double bounce roll on the drums but displaces. It will let you execute extremely fast fills on one bar. Use this sticking in sixteenth notes: RLLR RLLR RLLR RLLR etc.. or vice versa. Try with different accents (some examples are in bold). This creates incredible forward momentum.

One Handed Wash a.k.a dreamy vibes

This is achieved by taking two mallets (or one) in one hand while the pedal is depressed and sliding them back and forth across a selection of bars. A player can do this with one hand and play a moving melody with the other. Check out David Friedman’s piece, Midnight Star, to see this in action.

I guess that covers some of the basics and not so basics of the vibes/vibraphone/vibraharp. Check this out before you come to the next hobson’s choice show Feb 12 at the Tranzac. Thanks for reading. The other members will post about their instruments sometime in the near future. I also plan to add some photos and possibly a demonstration video. Keep checking back.

Sincerely,

Michael

Musical Architecture and Recursive Systems

Wow, what a title. Sounds so official and serious. The reality is I’m a total science geek and enjoy reading about such things and using them as metaphors for my creative process. What do I actually mean? Another good question… Not so sure myself.. Let’s see where this takes us.

In an organic sense, I like to think of a composition as a piece of musical architecture. This metaphor will eventually break down but I want to see how far I can take it. A good composition or song has a strong idea at its core that is inherently simple. Without this simplicity nothing can be built upon it. I don’t mean it has to be simple by the literal definition i.e one chord or a trite melody or a predictable rhythm. Oftentimes, taking simplicity too literally can yield a less then satisfactory end result. What I mean by simple, is that it is clearly and eloquently presented, and can act as a vehicle for creative and improvisational growth. It may be that the most clear way to present a compellingly simple idea is through one chord, but another idea may be best expressed in its clearest form by something which appears more complex.

I think a danger is to have a specific idea of what simplicity is and relate it to a style. One element of this concept is the notion that a pop song is inherently simple, or the idea that a pop song is based upon a certain type of simplicity which cannot be achieved in other ‘styles.’ Someone could consciously try and write a song in a specific style with a preconceived notion of what simplicity should be, and end up with an idea laced with ambiguity and confusion, far from being simple in the positive sense. I think the notion of style can be a drain on the energy that should be put into clarity of thought and flow of ideas.

Without this clarity, a song is just a structure with no foundation, and as hard as the interpreters try and bring it to life, it will inevitably implode. Simplicity is clarity, and has nothing to do with style. It is embedded in a process of growth and evolution, and without it there is no impetus for musical transcendence.

When I’m engaged in the process of writing a song, I’m very conscious of that initial idea and first understanding it on a high level before shaping it into a foundation. I have to look at it from many different perspectives, reflect on its contours and embrace its essence. The idea can take many shapes and branch off into multiple songs. One clearly stated idea can yield a number of compositions as it provides an opening for growth and change. Through the shaping process certain vehicles are less effective for presenting the core material, and they fall to the background or link up with another idea at the core of some other piece. This process requires an openness and commitment to fully explore a concept and consider it from different perspectives.

Along the way you may find multiple ways to represent these ideas, some appearing with what seems like effortlessness, and others hidden within deeper layers of meaning. I mention this because this process is at the core of my creativity. A posture of openness and the viewpoint that as a composer you are merely finding flexible shapes to represent clear and beautiful ideas and feelings, and not to get attached to these shapes, is very important to me.

The moment I get too attached to one idea, the process is interrupted or ended. That is not to say that you should not focus on a specific interpretation of the material as this is also essential, but that we need to realize this focus is still part of a larger shape, a larger body of work, of energy, of clarity and expression. Along the way beautifully crafted structures emerge, yet unlike those built of stone these structures continue to be flexible and evolve over time without decay.

I’m committed to this process of growth or evolution, and sometimes I like to think of it as a recursive process with mutations. You start with a simply shaped, clearly articulated idea which within it has an elegant code for something, who knows what exactly. Then your mind begins to layer things upon it, almost as though they are copies of this original idea. Yet as these copies come in contact with other thoughts and streams of consciousness they change ever so slightly. Over time, and through reflection these slight changes add up, and the copies continue. [When I discuss time, it is relative. Intervals of this process can happen in what feels like days, hours or even a lifetime but ends up actually being a lone moment, or vice-versa. Things happen along the way in different intervals of time, but that is insignificant] What started as a tiny but clear fragment, has become this beautifully, yet spontaneously and organically crafted piece of consciousness, or root system that has become a song.

This process compounds, and along the way songs/compositions make their way into the world should you choose to share them. Yet, these songs are nothing more then a bi-product of this recursive process; the real joy is in the process. Each little piece of this journey, (say a song) has some of the process embedded within. When someone plays the song the imprint of this process might show its face, bringing a quality of spontaneity and life to the air that has nothing to do with style.

A great song has a process built into to it, providing the architecture for communication on some level, and just pure and simple passion and excitement.

At least that’s what I think,

Michael

p.s. check out the writer Douglas Hofstadter and the book I am a Strange Loop. Also check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I love these books.

As long as there are birds and NOT fighter jets flying overhead!

The last few days in TO have been disorienting to say the least. The EX is happening, and these fighter planes have been flying over the city polluting our ears with unbelievably intense sounds that don’t belong in the world.

It makes me think for a moment about people who hear these sounds but then get a bomb dropped on them.

It makes me think about the visceral power of sound, and its impact upon us.

It makes me think about my love for birds and how I long for a time when their beauty would freely grace the sky; when the artificial birds that wage war and are fueled by war no longer have free passage above, clouding our perceptions and deafening our ears.

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We can learn from the beauty of a bird in flight…….. whether it’s a red tailed hawk soaring high above, gliding over currents of air, a chickadee making more calculated swoops towards a feeder singing its familiar song, a symphony of northern gannets turning into projectiles and diving head first into the ocean from heights of 50 feet. These are the pieces of nature which belong in the air, not pieces of steel powered by millions of tons of former life.

I long for the sounds of birds singing, filling the air with engaging, improvised music, and doing it with such ease. I’m in awe. The sound of the planes reminds me of how far removed we’ve become from this natural wonder. Somehow humans have managed to take the beauty of birds and flight and turn it into a weapon of destruction. What a strange choice to make. I would much rather let the song of a bird permeate my consciousness and imagine its ease of flight as I sit down to write a song, or play or improvise.

Knowing that birds still roam the sky gives me great comfort; seeing a red tailed hawk flying over the 401 scares me, because it makes me realize this bird has lost its home. It is searching, juxtaposed with a self destructive culture that no longer has the eyes or ears to recognize its existence. Maybe its home was swallowed up by an obese sub division, feeding on the greed of a few. Bulldozers tore down the trees where it used to perch; the rivers its ancestors knew have long since been diverted, dammed up, or built over. Maybe somewhere in the depths of memory it still knows that a river flows beneath the road and it hears the call of this river, the sound of flowing water muffled by concrete, pavement, consumerism and greed.

I think we all do, and birds can help us to remember. If we watch and listen they can tell us a lot. Those damn planes are making it really hard though and they are just an over exaggerated example of the constant chatter that takes so much away.

I can only hope to be a lucky enough to channel some of this beauty and to find a trace of memory when I write a song.

Take a minute to watch a bird and clear your head.

Michael.

401’s a River Tour II : First Stop Montreal

I’m sitting here typing in a kitchen, beer in hand after the first show of our tour in Montreal. We played at a great little place called Le Cagibi, and it was perfect for our sound.

We had a bit of a stressful morning trying to iron out last minute travel details, and then once on the road ran into a bit of trouble, so it was a pleasure to play a show for a receptive audience. We got pulled over by a cop who claimed we were travelling at the absurd speed of 146km/hr. Seriously? This was actually an impossibility as I had the cruise control set to 120km/hr and didn’t even have my foot on the gas. Despite this, he insisted that we were traveling at that nutty speed. Although he remained firm, he decided to let us off without a ticket which means he realized he had made a mistake but wouldn’t admit it. Why would he let us off for going 4km/hr short of the speed that people instantaneously lose their license for? Simple. He wouldn’t. This was a minor hiccup, but we made it to Montreal in one piece.

We were lucky enough to share the stage at Le Cagibi with the talented Patrick Gregoire. He played an intense opening set with a wide range of material. The reason I say this venue is perfect for our sound is the intimacy of the room. It is warmly lit, and with an audience of 10-20 feels full.

We are up early tomorrow for an 8 hour drive to the one and only Sudbury. For now felicity is in one of her two most common states (sleeping and harmonizing with every sound around her), you can guess which one. Harley is taking an all expense paid trip through the virtual kingdom of YouTube. Rebecca just finished meditating and is drinking what she calls s%%% tea. Michael is taking the last sip of his beer. I think we’re all heading to bed now.

Welcome to our blog

This will be a place for discussion, reflection and updates on things that are going on in the world of hobson’s choice. We will be posting from the road, the studio, the practice room, and wherever else we find ourselves. You will hear from each person in the band about the ways in which we approach performance, composition, practice, business, and how we experience being a part of hobson’s choice. We will all talk about things that inspire us when writing music and lyrics, opening up our creative process.