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.

Day 1- hobson’s choice June tour- Montreal.

We packed the van yesterday and embarked on this summers tour. First stop Montreal, we made good time driving, didn’t hit much traffic, but a bit of rain. The talented Adam Kinner (tenor saxophone) and Hans Bernhard (bass) opened the show at Montreal’s Shaika Cafe. They played a short set of very beautiful pieces, mostly improvised, and then ended with a swinging and uplifting version of “When you’re smiling”. The two of them played intuitively with ease, displaying an incredible musical rapport. Their set was a perfect way to start the tour.

We had some troubles with the sound-system at the club. It cut out during the intro of our first tune not once but twice. However, there was a mysterious sound guy in the audience who isolated the problem right away and we played the rest of the set without any more technical difficulties. Thanks again to that dude. He wouldn’t divulge his secret fix though? strange fellow….

Evidently, we decided to start with a different tune, as it seemed like the universe was giving us a sign to play something else. Michael was ecstatic that his vibraphone motor was working perfectly again. Slow tremolo = heaven. The lonely night it spent outside can now be forgotten. Harley was excited to debut his new homemade pedal board. He made it with his own two hands.

Shaika is a very nice room, good for our sound and the people there are really cool. We’d definitely play there again.

After late night poutine at La Banquise we retired at Adam’s beautiful apartment for some rest. Harley’s poutine kept revisiting him sporadically through the night. Felicity had no trouble switching to sleep mode though. Michael, Harley, Rebecca and Adam had a late night chat about border crossings, sketchy unmarked navy blue vans, and the absurdity of those in power. Fun times! Thanks to Adam and Rachel for their generous hospitality.

We took our time leaving Montreal today and had a nice brunch with  Harley’s parents who came in from Ottawa for the show. We wrote a reggae song on my ukulele about our conquest for good bagels, and then enjoyed said bagels on the way out of the city.

Thanks for reading, we’ll chime in again soon.
hobson’s choice

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

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

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