Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Let's Try it a Second Time

Last summer at DJSS, a mysterious gentleman handed me this mysterious note:

He asked me to write a piece for him, using that sentence as the title. I slipped the tiny slip of paper into my tiny camera bag, where it remained for a few months. I hadn’t forgotten about it, I just forgot what it said and where I had put it.

When I did find it, I considered what to do with it. I pondered its meaning. I wondered about the word “second.” Use of repeats? Length of notes? The interval of a second, as in, a series of either whole or half steps? I came close to asking the author of the note (Michael Howard) about what he was implying, but decided I should just let it remain a mystery.

So I just started humming the sentence, to understand the rhythm of it. I noticed that “try” and “sec” had the most stress, so those syllables ended up landing on strong beats. The A section practically wrote itself, as they say. The piece begged for a B section, so I wondered what key it would move to. Up a second? Down a second? Neither worked, because the next section didn’t need to move anywhere. The feeling changed, but the key remained in A minor.

When I write with someone in mind, it gives me so much more material to work with, than to just write for an instrument or group of instruments. I know Michael’s sense of humor, I know how he plays the drums, and yet, this piece seemed to be revealing another side to him, the quiet tenderness that we only witness after he has had several glasses of champagne and has just about nodded off in his chair.

I pulled together a beautiful and sensitive band for the world premiere, featuring Dieuwke van Strein on flute, Irene Stroeer on alto sax, myself on piano, Martin Young on bass and of course, Michael Howard, stirring and brushing his drums.

Now that we’ve tried it, I look forward to playing it a second time, because Once is simply Not Enough.

View video of our performance at

Countdown to Monteton - 5/4/3/2/1!

Probably the piece I was looking forward to playing at DJSS the most this year was a new one called “5/4/3/2/1,” written just after Dave Brubeck passed away. At that time, I was obsessed with his “Take Five,” and wondered if I could write something in 5/4 time that would sound as natural as his piece.

I came up with a seemingly simple and repetitive motive that worked itself around a 12-bar blues form, with one small twist in the harmony at measure 10. I instantly thought of Sandy Williams (Sandy is the exceptional guitarist on my new CD who is very open to experimentation) so I dedicated it to him, and was very proud when he said he loved it (esp. measure 10!) It’s hard to describe the feel with words, but to me, it has a hip vibe, like something from the 60’s. The word “beatnik” comes to mind. (I guess we should all wear berets when we play it. . . I wonder if Sandy ever wears a beret??) So it should be perfect for a concert in France!

I gathered a group of students and teachers to rehearse the piece. Afterwards, Ian, one of the great sax teachers, said to me, “It’s so hard – why did you write it in 5/4 time?” After my initial worry that no one will ever, ever want to play it, I remembered a discussion we had in the class that I lead at Anderson University for my composition students. Difficulty seems to raise the bar in our creativity. When we can’t solve something quickly, our minds actually get excited about the challenge. If it’s easy, I might be too bored with it and never finish, but if I’m puzzled and confused, I will probably keep going back to it.

The Monteton performance on July 22 was phenomenal, featuring Ian Bumstead and Tanguy Pellen on saxes, Jonathan Bratoeff on guitar, myself on piano, Ferg Ireland on bass and Guy Clapham on drums. Afterwards, I said to Ian, “That’s why I wrote it.” And he agreed that it was for a good reason.

Look how happy Ian Bumstead was!