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.

The Story of Sechelt

The story of the song; “Sechelt” is an interesting one. It goes as far back as to when we were at the Kidney farm recording our second release; “The Farm EP”. We were actually only there in part to record the five songs that would become “The Farm EP”. We were also arranging a whole new set of tunes for the band, one of which is a composition by Michael and Felicity called; “Of The Waves”. At the time we were, at least loosely toying with the theme of incorporating imagery about the ocean and rolling waves in our music. We had been listening to the music of Steve Reich and some of the arrangements and improvisations we were creating were influenced by his writing. Specifically, the way he layers textures so that you don’t even hear the different instruments anymore, just one organic sound. This was something we were trying to explore at that time. This theme was suggested in the dynamic swells in “Of The Waves”, and I believe continues to play a part in how the four of us approach our material.

Once “The Farm EP” was released, we did a bunch of touring in Ontario, playing that music for people and the first little bit of the tune that would become “Sechelt” had begun taking shape. It was this little passage of 3 parallel chords, Bb add 9/D, Cadd 9/E, Dadd9/F#. It reminded me of Joni Mitchell and was a nice little thing to sound check on guitar while I was getting used to the venue we’d be playing at that night. I continued to work on the tune over the course of the summer of ’09 and finally completed the music on a train to Montreal, cutting and pasting sections of a recording on my computer until the form was just right. I began to work on some words but I was having trouble getting something I was happy with.

When I got back from my trip from Montreal I received an email from Dave Clark (Woodchopper’s Association, Woodshed Orchestra). He was just saying thanks for the copy of the farm ep that we had given him and he maintained that he’d found it to be a worthwhile, and inspiring second effort from the group. Dave (being the hyper-creative individual he is), said that while listening to the ep he was daydreaming about Joni Mitchell and jotted down some lyrics, he said “feel free to use them”. So here I was with this song that needed lyrics, a song that had been inspired by Joni, and Dave had written some words inspired by Joni as well. So I decided to spend a few minutes to see if it could work. Well, it did. I had to adapt the words and take some liberties so it would work with the melody, but in a lot of ways it seemed like Dave and I had been co-writing a song and we didn’t even know it.

The other curious thing was all the imagery about the ocean and waves that are contained in Dave’s lyrics. It seems that those ideas that we were working on at the farm were not lost on a listener as attuned as Dave Clark. I read somewhere once that Joni used to tune her guitar to the sound of the ocean. The song is named after Joni’s current home in Sechelt, British Columbia, and is featured on the most recent hobson’s choice recording.

waves swell up and then they crash back down
one upon the next there gathers a sound
that i now hear as well

deep down under the oh so blue
i can hear your heartbeat
as I’m calling to you with my soul laid bare
through blue memories of the years they’ve passed and gone
now I’m calling on out to you

upon a rock i look and see you there in the middle of the surf
with your soul laid bare for me to see as well
through blue memories of the years they’ve passed and gone
and I’m calling on out to you
and I’m calling on out to you
and I’m calling on out to you

the form you figured with each vocal line
sculpted and burnished transcended time
and now i call to you

through blue memories of the years they’ve passed and gone

Harley.

hobsonschoicemusic.com

death and dreams

This blog is named after a tune of ours, “as long as there are birds”, a song which came to me almost entirely in a dream. In the twilighty space between sleeping and waking these three verses took shape:

In one hundred years
there will be nothing left of you and me
we will be the earth beneath somebody’s feet
we’ll be the air everybody breathes
maybe we’ll be free

As surely as your body gets its substance from the land
I’ll let go of your hand forever and be glad
so long as there is food for our children and the children of our children

In one hundred years
there will be nothing left of my mind to hold the memory of your beauty
the knowledge of the sound of your voice
maybe there will be soul

As surely as your music is a reflection of birdsong
there will be nothing wrong with our being gone
just so long as there are birds

In one hundred years
light will still find its way to the forest floor
here and there still mottled where we’ve walked before
maybe we’ll be home

As surely as our loving ebbs and flows like the blue sea
there will be no tragedy in our passing
so long as there is water for everyone to drink


***
Last week I listened to CBC radio’s Eleanor Wachtel interview Vernor Herzog, a man who insists he does not dream. And he proceeds to exhort young people to follow their dreams – “it really does not matter if you fail or not”, he entreats, it’s just essential that you have a vision, that you give yourself permission to try to live it. Dreams for sleeping, dreams for waking, dreams for living. I felt I was in a dream state as I listened to Herzog spin his stories and his myths and the tales of his own life and films- he has such a way of speaking! In fact I was driving at the time (standard transmission…dangerous!), and jotting down notes between shifting gears…”conquistador of the useless”….”exuberance of fantasy”…..”our everyday life is just an illusion behind which lies the reality of dreams”…his expressed desire to travel into space (“I would be good in space”)…his love of the jungle as a place of “fever dreams, of illusions, of the exuberance of growth and also the exuberance of murder; every plant has only one goal – to murder the one next to it in order to get to the light – it’s an overwhelming sense of asphyxiation and strangulation and murder”… I expect these gems will make their way into song.

***
Last night I dreamed that my mother and I had made a suicide pact. We lay in each other’s arms on the floor, as someone injected my arm with poison and her’s with a tranquilizer which she said would allow her the resignation to smother herself with a pillow. As we lay waiting for death, I was going back and forth between reciting psalms and trying to empty my mind of all thoughts – I couldn’t decide which was the more sanctified way to meet death – I was expecting there would be some one or thing judging my thoughts on the other side. Besides this confusion, I felt peace, and especially warmth in my mother’s arms. Death did not come, however, and my cousin and aunts and uncles starting filtering into the room, which I gradually became aware was in the apartment my grandmother lived in when I was a child. As it became clear to my mother and I that our plan was failing, we got up and starting visiting with family members at what had become a dinner party. After a short while I woke up; it was about 6:30 a.m. and the garish white cross on the Anglican church outside my window blazed dully. I felt most strange – sort of ashamed and appalled, and yet not really that distressed – it had been such an untroubled and wholehearted suicide pact.

***
There is something so obviously archetypal about the link between night and death. Night, darkness, the sub-conscious, a mythological journey to the underworld, and symbolically to death, a recurring rhythm of night-day-night, death-life-death, a dance, a dialectic. As mundane and cliche as this symbolism might be, it is not becoming less powerful or meaningful in my mind. It seems the older I become, the more fearful the night is to me. More and more often I wake up in the middle of the night with intense feelings of anxiety and fear- I worry that I am growing old, that I am squandering precious years, that my parents are aging and will die, that I am in immediate physical danger; unresolved emotional issues become amplified to overwhelming proportions and are almost too much to bear; countless other fears well up in a dream-like state – and like dreams they vanish in the morning as though mists on a lake – I can’t recall them all now, only the most pronounced among them. Where do these fears go during the day? Where do they come from? Why does the light bring waking and the dispersal of dreams, fears, and anxiety about death and decay? Why am I not able to recall the relief that comes without fail each morning, when I am in the throes of night-terror? Why, if illusory, are the reasons for my fear so persuasive and all-consuming in the middle of the night?

***

Compared with my bad dreams of late, there is something almost happy about the tone of “as long as there are birds”. Certainly it expresses more rational fears about looming environmental disaster – it is more concerned with the everlasting, or ever-renewing life of the earth than of the soul – it does not fear for the latter so much as for the former. While not making pronouncements about the destiny of the soul, it reconciles the death of the individual with a resurrected future – that is, a planet healthy enough to sustain itself, all its living things and processes. A dream of the earth, as Thomas Berry has written. In this dream, death is not separate from life- in this dialectic we are forced to see both at once, in relationship with each other. It is almost as if the liberation of the soul consists in the decay of the body and its transformation into food for new life. Is this the communion to which Berry refers, when he writes: “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects”? There is still a warning, however, of a more final death – the possibility of a future in which birds go away, and the earth ceases to yield water and plant life. In this nightmarish vision, we are not absolved of our responsibility by our passing from life to death. Our bodies, our souls, rest peacefully only when our actions have secured a healthy future for those who come after us.

***

As surely as our loving ebbs and flows like the blue sea
there will be no tragedy in our passing
so long as there is water for everyone to drink

***

Felicity

hobsonschoicemusic.com

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.

my first time

This is my first blog ever! I keep deleting what I’m going to say because I feel like it is dumb or too serious. I’m going to stop deleting and start writing…..now!  So what I’d like to say first is that I love playing in this band and I love being with these fabulous people. We are growing together musically and dare I say… spiritually. It is incredibly exhilarating and  fulfilling to be going down a road with three others who are helping to steer and power Michael’s parents van in the same direction! Wow…I can’t thank them enough for their love, support and the use of their new van! I think we’d have a really hard time touring on my scooter, although, it’d make a really good album cover. Picture this…. Rebecca in the passenger seat with Felicity on the handlebars and Harley and Michael sitting on top of the Vibraphone which is being towed behind the scooter. I haven’t worked out where the guitar and trumpet would go yet.  We’d all be wearing unitards, goggles and paper bird beaks.

Continuing on the note of supportive parents, we have been receiving so much love and support from all sides of our families, friends, partners etc. and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s contribution by forgetting to mention anyone, but we love and thank all of you so much for everything that you have done and are doing for us.

On a less serious note… when the four of us get together it is a hilariously good time. We all have wacky senses of humor. If we aren’t playing music, eating, drinking espresso or beer, we are laughing and that is so inspiring to me. Bunny in the freezer! Just put some vinegar on it!

Love Rebecca

OCFF recap

We had the pleasure to attend the OCFF conference in Ottawa this past weekend and it proved to be a worthwhile endeavor. The Ontario Council of Folk Festivals hold a conference every October to bring it’s members together to discuss the various topics that concern the community in a series of panel discussions and meetings. It also functions as a showcasing and networking event for artists, artistic directors, labels, and management companies alike.

Being our first time there, we didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it was our intention to meet a bunch of people, collaborate with friends old and new, and present a couple private showcases in our hotel room. We hoped that we’d gain a fan or two and open the doors for some work in the Folk Festival community. We turned both beds into one huge sofa, lit candles, set up a sound-system and offered beer, wine, and hot apple cider to our guests.

What a party! The private showcases, which take place between 11:30pm and 4am on both the Friday and Saturday nights, occupy two entire floors of the hotel, with each room presenting showcase sets every half hour. There was plenty of jamming, sometimes lasting till the wee, wee hours.

I enjoyed some interesting discussions with an array of folks and the experience was an affirmation to me that we are slowly finding our place in the music community at large. We have sometimes struggled with being too jazz for the folk crowd and too folk for the jazz crowd, but I think now more than ever we are sure of our identity as a group of creative and open minded artists with some songs to share, and plenty to learn from our predecessors. If we can use our music to bring some people together from these and other seemingly disparate musical worlds than we’re on the right track….. I think.

Thanks to everybody who took the time with everything going on to come hear us play, and a very special thanks to Jaron Freeman Fox who sat in with us on Saturday with some beautiful fiddle playing.

Harley

3 gigs are better than none.

I thought I’d write a blog, since the sound on my computer is mysteriously not working and that pretty much rules out any Youtube adventures.

We played some music tonight for a “Rock Eucharist” at a church here in Toronto where they feature the music of artists who aren’t necessarily in the “Christian” genre. We got invited to play because of our reputation for playing the beautiful music of Bruce Cockburn. Tonight’s Eucharist featured his songs entirely.

I am eager to play again at Church of the Redeemer because of it’s full and complimentary sound. Even with only one house speaker we were able to create a lush and dynamic sound in the room.

Next week we are intending to get back to the drawing board and begin focusing our efforts on some new material. I personally feel like we have, not only new tunes to work on but older tunes to revisit and possibly rearrange.

The other two shows this week were also great, the first was opening for Winnipeg’s; The Duhks. It was a great honor to share the stage with such an accomplished band. It was one of the best show I’ve seen in a long time. The Duhks energy, spirit, and groove uplift their audiences to great heights. I wish they would play Toronto more often.

Our Sage West gig was a great and intimate experience as well, where as the featured act for the night, we explored a lot of older material that we haven’t played for some time. We also played some of the Cockburn material we’ve been working on. We hope to return to Sage West soon, the food and the vibe there are fantastic.

over and out,

H

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.

Photobucket

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.