Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Does anybody know what a song looks like?

Here's the thing: I read music. And this is how I was trained: first sight, then sound.

This is unnatural, most would say, because as human children, even in this age of extreme literacy, we learn languages first by hearing them then much later by reading/writing them. But this is how music is taught in American schools. You learn the building blocks of clefs and noteheads and staves and accents then you sound it all out. And if you grow up and major in music (yes!) and study composition (never occurred to me!), a huge part of your development as a composer comes from analyzing and studying full scores. Say you love the music of John Adams, you contact Boosey & Hawkes for a "perusal" score of City Noir and maybe throw in some pieces by Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Carter for good measure. Then you study them. Hard. Like: "I love the sound he gets in this passage -- what instruments was he using? How are they spaced? In what inversions are the chords? How about the harmonic progression? How did he accomplish this feeling of grandeur here? That feeling of loss, diminution?" You study lots and lots of lots of works by lots and lots of composers. And you practice using some of their techniques to help express the music you want to express. This is how we learn.

I am in the process of writing an album. Fully orchestrated. Of my own songs. And I realize that I'm frustrated because I've never actually seen the kind of music I want to write. I don't know what an orchestrated song looks like on paper. (And those dumbed down piano/vocal fake books from Colony don't count.) It feels like I've got blinders on, or I'm just groping in the dark. No wonder! I'm a visual gal trying to bridge into an aural tradition.

So here's my wish list. Pop publishers, I am placing my order for perusal scores right now. I want to see the full original instrumental arrangements or transcriptions of the following albums:

1. Paul Simon Rhythm of the Saints
2. Paul Simon Graceland
3. Vampire Weekend self-titled
4. Rufus Wainwright Poses
5. Sufjan Stevens The Age of Adz 
6. Sarah McLachlan Fumbling Toward Ecstasy
7. Ben Folds Songs for Silverman
8. Sufjan Stevens Come On Feel the Illinoise! 
9. Death Cab for Cutie Plans
10. The Decemberists The Hazards of Love
11. Feist Let It Die
12. Damien Rice O
13. Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life 
14. Joni Mitchell Blue
15. MGMT Oracular Spectacular
16. Mumford and Sons Sigh No More
17. Muse Black Holes and Revelations
18. Nickel Creek self-titled
19. Oscar D'Leon Lloraras
20. The Shins Wincing the Night Away
21. Gorillaz Demon Days
22. Indigo Girls Swamp Ophelia
23. Tori Amos Boys for Pele
24. Alison Krauss & Union Station New Favorite
25. Ani DiFranco Up Up Up Up Up Up

I wish I could have these to study all summer. What would you want to study?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Away with me.

For 10 days I shut down my PR engine, locked myself out of social media, and played. An extended artist's staycation if you will, stocking the pond via serious acts of whimsy.

And here is why la vita รจ bella in New York City: the first night of my sabbatical began with Amanda F. Palmer throwing a spontaneous free street party in walking distance from my apartment, complete with reconstructed circus organ, people on stilts, giants, children, and women in panties being tied into rope swings (Look: I'm sure there's a name for this but I'm not going to punch it into Google, ok?).

As for the next night, if your ballerina singer illustrator graphic designer friend who just finished her MBA at Notre Dame calls out of the blue and asks if you want to go see a sold out Radiohead show, you say yes. In a moment designed to make me spazz in my seat, Thom Yorke quoted Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" between tunes at the Prudential Center's Friday show. Then: post-show thunderstorm, running barefoot in the pouring rain, all girls' sleepover in Jersey City, wine, hallelujah.

[Lesser known fact: In 2008 Steve Reich expressed interest in writing for rock band configuration (keyboard, drumset, guitars, etc.) so I suggested maybe writing something for an existing rock band, namely Radiohead. Reich hadn't heard of Radiohead (!) so I giddily made him a mix tape, including 2+2=5. He really dug it, so I contacted Radiohead with the idea, and Reich began composing excerpts for the band to look over. After evaluating the excerpts, Jonny wrote back and determined that, while some of the band members are fluent music readers, others aren't, so they respectfully recused themselves from the project and the Bang on a Can All-Stars agreed to take it on. The resulting piece? 2x5. From what I understand, a new piece from Reich is even more directly inspired by Radiohead, premiering next spring in London.]

Saturday: met Ted Hearne's nephew along with Music at First's Will and Meg at the Mantra Percussion show. Sunday: sang in two ensembles and full choir for PSUMC's "Choir Sunday," learned some music history via Pam McAllister's hymn-sing sermon. A church couple rushed me at choir rehearsal to say how excited they were to see my name on Gabriel Kahane's blog, after seeing February House and becoming instamegafans. With my husband and my best friend's boy, biked to the ferry to Governer's Island, the island, had "ice cream," and biked back. Monday: moped through a rainy day that was supposed to be berry-picking. Felt very sorry for self. Tuesday: had lunch with a wise lady-neighbor, wrote a song-and-a-half (yay! the point!),  had a good voice lesson with Wendy Parr, a solid Brooklyn Wind Symphony rehearsal, and was asked to join a new brass band which I will do if I can somehow borrow or acquire a tenor horn.

Wednesday: Saw four guys in suspendered highwaters with pastel button-downs, bow ties, and horse heads racing each other down the beach at Coney Island (sideshow or hipster?), rode the Wonder Wheel (oh my Jesus the swinging cars), and got a back sunburn (frown of irresponsibility).

Then I blew town to play piano and sing in my niece's wedding on my parents' retirement farm. Yes, there were some old stand-bys but I did sneak in Debussy's Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as the Recessional. Though I began piano lessons at 7, French horn at 11, and acquired a University degree in music, I'm fairly certain this was the first time that my relatives had heard me play or sing. No lies.

The wedding was gorgeous, another niece learned to turn pages, it's not every nuclear family that can sing a cappella quartets, and it would've been a quintet had my bass brother not been on toddler duty. Also: during the ceremony the neighbors across the holler started a super massive bon fire and blared Alice in Chains Man in the Box right in time with the final prayer. So that was a scream.
                                                                                                                                                                                       Post-wedding barefoot dance party with nieces, failed attempt to find hiking in the middle of the mountains (HOW), trumpet/horn duets with aforementioned toddler-chasing bass-voiced brother.

Meanwhile, the L magazine counted this coming Saturday's Brooklyn Wind Symphony "European Vacation" concert as one of the 20 Things You Must See And Do This Summer. June 16, 2 pm.

FREE. Like marching to the creek with your nieces and nephews. Or dancing so hard at your toddler nephew that he falls prostrate on the ground and weeps. (cc: husband)