Category Archives: Windfall

The ExoPlanets Suite

ExoPlanet Suite front cover

When Will Gregory asked me to be involved with the Moog Ensemble I started writing some music for the group which formed the beginnings of this collection of pieces. It became apparent after a while that for practical reasons it wasn’t quite the right music for the group (I have written other music for the ensemble since), but I decided to pursue the idea of my own suite for synthesizers anyway. The notion of a collection of sci-fi scenes – planets with different characters and colours, gradually evolved.

 

The pieces show off the different kinds of music that have been made on synths. Some of it has a distinctly “radiophonic” feel – neoclassical fanfares, fugal writing etc – that reminds one of sci fi of the 1960s and 70s. Some of it is atmospheric or ambient – conjuring alien landscapes or architecture. There are occasional nods towards the electronic music of the avant garde, and to the dance music of the 1990s.

 

One of the intriguing things for me about the instrument is that despite its promise of being a new sound, it is in fact quite dated. Some of the sounds are so iconic and evocative that it becomes impossible to shake these associations off. So I decided to use these associations rather than avoid them. The synthesizer has many different traditions, many different colours: as noted above, there is the neo-classical (or more properly neo-baroque) style in many TV soundtracks of the 60s and 70s – for example, Doctor Who of the Jon Pertwee era. Many of the sounds in the original series of Star Trek (the Enterprise going into warp, photon torpedos, various planetary environments) are made on synths. Prog rock made much use of the synth and there are allusions to the style of bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Gentle Giant here too. The synthesizer was a big part of the jazz rock fusion era, and the soundscapes featuring in the music of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s HeadHunters, Chick Corea, and others, were created using synth sounds. Stevie Wonder worked with the TONTO team to create his own synth sound world. Later on, with samples and drum loops, another characterisation of the synth came into dance music.

 

The music of this album can be broadly characterised in three ways: there are “narrative” pieces like the fanfares and “Strange Games”; there are “ambiences”, either of environments or architecture; and there are dance-style “groove” pieces. The compositional approaches vary from the traditional dots-on-paper (“Hindemith Planetia”, “Nu World Synfonie”) method to more improvisatory jazz and dance-music methods (“Angular Momentum”, “Cloud Catcher”). The synth’s ability to create imaginary worlds is explored in an intuitive music concrete way, sometimes using actual sounds from the real world (“Rain Planet”, “Ice World Terraforming”).

 

Listen out for certain motifs carrying over from piece to piece. This gives a sense of continuity over the 18 pieces that form the suite.

 

There is a huge dynamic range over the course of the album. Some of the ambient music is very quiet. The synthesizer is an instrument which has the ability to create sounds that hover almost subliminally, and this is unlike any other instrument. I’m hoping that this dynamic range will draw the listener into the sound world of the ExoPlanets Suite.

 

I’m still exploring the world of the synth: there’s plenty more to come!

 

Eddie Parker 2016

 

 

Snowsteps for Moog Ensemble

Snowsteps

For Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, 10 players

 

This is the second piece I have written which is based on, and is a transformation of, a Prelude by Claude Debussy. The piece, “Des pas sur la neige”, translated as “Footsteps in the snow”, is the sixth in Book 1 of the Preludes for piano, written around 1909-10. Although there is no specific literary or artistic allusion contained in the title, the romantic image of the lonely journey through a winter landscape, punctuated by moments of hope and of despair, is a common one in European art. Schubert’s Winterreise, settings of words by Wilhelm Muller, is perhaps the most famous.

 

Following the example of painter Joan Miro’s transformation of Dutch master Hendrik Martenzoon Sorgh’s “The Lute Player”click here for link, I have kept the shape of the original piece intact, but adding mirroring phrases and transforming the harmony.

 

In my first Debussy transformation “Windgames”, the original instrumentation remains. When the opportunity to write something new for the Moog Ensemble came up, it allowed me to explore some of the timbral landscape of Debussy’s piece. My first piece for the Ensemble, “Oceans of Heaven”, was based on the instrument’s ability to make a note appear from, and disappear back into silence. In “Snowsteps”, I’m exploiting, among other things, the instrument’s ability to change the timbre of a note over its duration – great for conjuring images of changing shades of sunlight reflecting and refracting on snow.  The high tones, with filters open, create a glassy quality, as of ice. The use of delay pedals, with muted swirls of notes, of drifting billows of snowflakes.

 

In a few places the progress of the piece is interrupted. One hears distant unearthly harmonies like howling wolves, or a mourning choir of angels. This is achieved on an instrument called a Swarmatron.

 

One can imagine several iterations of this piece, each getting further and further away from the Debussy – as if successive snowfalls were gradually burying and adumbrating the original contours.

 

Would Debussy have composed for the synthesizer if he were here now? A bit of a cliché question, and rather problematic considering all that has happened to musical language since his time: Stockhausen took the exploration of electronically generated sound to an extreme point half a century ago – notwithstanding that it was Debussy that opened the compositional door to timbre and colour a half century before that. Debussy conceived of his music as “the art of sound and colour”; he was interested in the sonorous possibilities that modern musical instruments offered. It would be difficult to imagine a piece like “La Cathedrale Engloutie” on a harpsichord, for example. So, yes, if the synth had been around in Debussy’s day I’m sure he would have been intrigued by its capabilities. He was never interested in the organ though – but then the timbre of an organ note cannot be changed while holding a note down…

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tell me your story by Eugene Skeef

a beautiful poem about my music by Eugene Skeef

a beautiful poem about my music by Eugene Skeef

Bheki Mseleku

Eddie with Bheki Mseleku

Eddie with Bheki Mseleku

I owe my time with Bheki to Russell Herman.

Russell Herman, guitarist in Brian Abraham’s District Six, whom I had met some years before when I had been hanging out around Dudu Pukwana gigs with Django, Gwen Ansell and other friends, rang me sometime around 1990 to ask me if I’d like to come and have a play with Bheki. I said, sure, why not, thinking Bheki was Beckie, Rebecca, a girl!

I came down to Oval House in Kennington, Russell came to meet me and introduced me to Bheki who was seated at the piano. We spent some hours just playing, Bheki laying some chords down and me picking it up by ear. It felt good. It has always been important for me to play with good pianists – my Dad was one and I play a bit myself. I’d spent a bit of time hanging out with and learning from John Taylor when I was just out of college and then I had also been lucky enough to hook up with Django Bates and Pete Saberton. I recognised something in Bheki’s music and in his playing that I felt close to, and I think he felt the same about me.

I began jotting down the chords as Bheki was playing – Bheki sometimes wrote long, complicated sequences that were hard to grasp and remember without the dots – and after a while that turned into writing down the tunes, bass lines, and rhythmic feels as well. Bheki’s conception was usually pretty comprehensive – he would compose the melody, the rhythmic feel including tricky accented phrases, and the harmony, all in one – and so it was important not to be approximate, but to get all the information down accurately. I think Bheki also liked the fact that I could repeat the chord voicings back to him on the piano too, and occasionally that would lead to us swapping on stage: him on tenor sax, me on piano. But we didn’t do this very much – I was not confident enough on piano at the time.

I’ve always tried to give other people’s music as much commitment as I can when I am invited to be a “sideman”. It comes from my time at University rehearsing difficult contemporary music, where nothing half-hearted will do. It was probably the clarinet maestro Alan Hacker who gave me this – a feeling of putting all your energy into making this music work, making it come alive. In the early days of Django’s Human Chain band I tried to use all of my experience and understanding to make his music work; Django was broadening his musical horizons beyond conservative conventions of jazz at the time, and my history with contemporary classical music as well as other kinds of music seemed to suit his concept. So when it came to playing with Bheki I’d had a fair amount of experience in playing on chord changes, but I’d also been listening to and playing different kinds of rhythmic traditions from around the world, so that helped me to understand what Bheki was doing.

When I had met Russell Herman some years before, he had been recreating some music that he had made with musicians (under the collective title Es-Studio) in South Africa: “People Symphony”, a McLoughlin-inspired sequence of pieces using acoustic instruments, involving slash-chord harmony and odd time signatures. The project never really took off at this time, but Russell recognised that I had an affinity with this sound; perhaps it was this that prompted him to contact me years later about Bheki. I recognised something of this vibe in Bheki’s music and it was certainly there in the spiritual content: a revolutionising, revelatory surprise that says: there is no black or white, there is love. Sitting behind is Coltrane, Daddy Coltrane, as SA drummer Kesivan Naidoo says.

So in the early 1990’s Bheki’s band was playing around in London and in the UK – there was a Jazz Services tour and some other gigs; then somehow, involving great sacrifice on Russell’s (and Russell’s family’s) part, the American rhythm section arrived: the astounding Marvin Smitty Smith on drums and beautiful Michael Bowie on bass. “Celebration” was recorded in a few nights and the recording was surrounded by gigs and a TV appearance. Smitty is the heart and soul of the party. His positive, uplifting vibes, his love and beaming humour, and above all his superlative musicianship hold these performances together. Bheki could not have hoped for a more committed and able pair of allies. My own playing was given the space to blossom during this time too – I described it to friends as a bit like getting into an extremely powerful and luxurious car. When Smitty threw the time around in one of his incredible fills, I didn’t have to panic and lose my place in the music (although I sometimes did!) – Smitty always landed in the perfectly right place, with ease and grace; and Bheki would accompany me with gentle harmonies and complementary rhythmic phrasing, never getting in the way; and always beneath was Michael, grooving away with a gentle and natural musicianship. This quartet (with Charnette Moffatt on bass when Michael was otherwise busy) played at Montreux,  Amsterdam Drum and Johannesberg Jazz Festival.

After this Bheki made recordings and festival appearances either on his own or with Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Kent Jordan and others. Later still, when he was not in South Africa he began playing with Gareth Lochrane and Julian Siegel. And then Gareth rang me with the sad news. I played at the celebration of Bheki’s life at the South African Embassy, along with many others, and it was an amazing, uplifting, joyous and sad occasion.

Then in 2012 there was a beautiful postscript to my time with Bheki: I was contacted by Afrika Mkhize, a brilliant pianist and composer and protégé of Bheki’s in South Afrika. He had won the Standard Bank Jazz Musician of the Year Award, and he wanted to do a tribute to Bheki as part of his performances at Grahamstown Festival. He invited me, and from the moment I arrived I was overwhelmed: people knew and respected me! It seems that the album Celebration, and particularly the track Angola, have become very significant for a whole generation of young players in South Africa… I had no idea, and I was astounded when musicians started to sing my solo to me note for note! Bheki’s work has inspired the emerging musicians of South Africa, encouraging them to make new connections in their music, to embrace and explore harmony and chord changes, to look outside to other musical influences both in the broader African continent and in the rest of the world. The performances at Grahamstown were emotionally charged and full of love, and I met a number of musicians who I will consider friends for life. I realised while I was onstage with these beautiful musicians just how much I miss Bheki. When I returned to UK I renewed my friendship with Eugene Skeef, a close friend and colleague of Bheki’s who I had met some years before, and this is a friendship that has blossomed in all kinds of ways and led to new friendships including with pianist Kit Downes…

Thank you Bheki!

Windgames

Windgames

https://soundcloud.com/groove-on-music-workshops/eddie-parker-windgames?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_ca soundcloud.com

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For solo piano duration approx. 2 mins 40 secs. Composed Summer 2013.

This piece is based on and is a transformation of “Le Vent Dans La Plaine”, the third piece in Book 1 of the Preludes by Claude Debussy. The dynamics and contours of the piece are retained, but some of the gestures have been amplified and the harmony transformed.

The idea for making a piece like this had been in my mind for many years. There are precedents: Berio’s “Sequenza VI” for solo viola, gradually expanding as the “onion layers” are added in successive pieces – “Chemins II” for small ensemble and then the orchestral “Chemins III”; but also, and more influential, the painter Joan Miro’s transformation of the Dutch old master Hendrik Martenszoon Sorgh’s “The Lute Player”.

Dad with the Vernon's Choir

Dad with the Vernon’s Choir

My Dad, Frank Parker, Concert Pianist manqué, whose professional career consisted of performing music for variety theatre, musicals and ice skating shows, used to play Debussy on the piano to me when I was a child: “La Cathedrale Engloutie”, “Danse Sacree” and “Danse Profane” in piano transcription; “La Plus Que Lente”; “Jardins Sous La Pluie” and “Children’s Corner”. Then as a teenager my school music teacher Len Sartin would hold one spellbound not only with his prodigious pianistic abilities (he performed “Feux D’Artifice”, the notoriously difficult final Prelude of Book 2, in a school “Speech Night”, to the utter bewilderment of assembled parents), but his comprehensive knowledge of the art, poetry and literature that each Prelude was alluding to: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Chinoiserrie,  Arthur Rackham, etc. This in a comprehensive school for boys in Liverpool.

Debussy’s music for piano, especially from the two books of Preludes, went in deep for me and stayed there.

The feeling of a kind of kinetic sculpture in sound, involving a synthesis of harmony and sonority, a precise choreography of pianistic gesture, all bound together by an amniotic envelope created by the subtle use of the pedals – “like a kind of breathing”, as Debussy himself described it – these are the alchemical elements that have been infusing in my mind over the decades.

The fingering shapes – centrally, the sequence of left and then right thumb, followed by right fourth, fifth and then fourth fingers and again thumb, leaving right index and middle fingers free to play those restless “nested” melodies – I have retained, played with and expanded upon, and sometimes mirrored symmetrically in the left hand.

The four-note minor 6th and 7th chord inversions, signifying the loneliness of the homeless howling wind, have mutated: they are similar to the original, but the two hands are transposed and in contrary motion.

The thunderclaps are angrier, closer overhead, and more immediately threatening than in the original.

This piece is difficult to play. The recording I have made of it is – I hasten to admit – a bionic, computer enhanced performance recorded at a slower speed. However, nothing in it is physically impossible. Any difficulties – for example, of maintaining the feeling perpetual motion; of achieving continuity of phrasing; and moulding the dynamic contours – can be readily addressed, I believe, by studying the Debussy.

There may be more: one could foresee a series of Debussy transformations (or “Busygames”!): “Snowgames”, based on “The Snow Is Dancing” from” Children’s Corner”; “Raingames”, based on “Jardins Sous La Pluie”;   “Soundgames”, based on “Les Sons Et Les Parfumes…” from Preludes Book 1;  “Chordgames”, based on “Pour Les Chordes” from “Pour Le Piano”…

It may take me a while.

Pete Saberton

Pete Saberton

Pete Saberton

Pete Saberton

This is the speech I gave at the memorial celebration of Pete’s life before family and friends in 2012

Writing and creating your own original music is hard. You have to have a lot of commitment, self belief and hope – hope that it is possible to get it together on next to no rehearsal; that it will work, that the musicians in the band will understand the music; that it will be valued. It’s important to have allies, and Pete was one of the best. I knew that I could write complicated, detailed music and that he would not only be able to read it, but understand the references. He was one of the few whose expertise embraces classical music and jazz, so he knew what I was trying to do – I mean, he could get behind the music and not only make it work but bring something else, something surprising, to it as well. I was knocked out that Pete stayed in my band for so long and gave the music all that commitment and belief.

He also wrote complicated music that required a lot of rehearsal (I remember one rehearsal when, after an hour getting to grips with a particular piece Laurence Cottle said “Right, shall we try and get to the end of the first bar then?”); so he had insider knowledge of what it takes. Pete’s own music was often rhythmically complicated, involving changes of time signature and metric modulations. This gave his melodic language a distinctive style – sometimes percussive, sometimes angular, sometimes with a headlong forward momentum as the music moved from one section to the next. He also had a finely tuned harmonic approach which, combined with his amazing piano touch, gave his music a very bright quality like etched stained glass. And what a piano technique! A hard but incredibly refined quality like precision tools – chisels or sculptors’ hammers; jewellers’ instruments. Where am I going to get my free piano lessons now? He sent me a text once: “ Jardins Sous La Pluie bars 126 – 136 check Liszt Les Jets d’Eaux a la villa d’Este. Jeez!”

There’s a Pete Saberton-shaped hole in the world now, and those of us who had him part of our music are going to find it hard. But, you know, I felt a certain energy: Win, Pete’s long lost love who came back to him just before the end, pointed out that Pete went just on the moment of spring – March 20th, an incredibly charged, potent, energetic time.

Pete’s gift to us, apart from his own beautiful music, is to value our own original music, to commit whole-heartedly to original projects whether our own or our colleagues’. He wants us to pursue our own thing with all the skill, intelligence and love we can muster, to aspire to the highest point of excellence; to not be wrested off course; to not be demoralised by crap, especially commercially successful crap.

Pete is an important figure on the UK music scene, too big for one event to celebrate. That’s why I’m delighted that his music continues to be performed, and that efforts are on hand to archive his sheet music and recordings. It’s great that superb performers like Richard Fairhurst and Liam Noble have been playing his music, and that his large ensemble music is being performed and recorded by the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, students of Guildhall and RAM, and so on. Brilliant!

Pete stood for originality and excellence in creative music making. He had little patience for slavish recreations of past music, as many students of London music colleges will know. A few days before Pete went into hospital for the last time we sat together and listened to Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto Opus 42 – hardly the action of someone who had given up. More of a rocket! Pete, you are an inspiration on so many levels.

Here’s to you Sabbo!

Pete Saberton

Rainbow Thoughts

“A Rainbow In Curved Air” by Terry Riley

Performed by “The Charles Hazlewood All Stars”

Programme also included “Four Organs” and “Harp Phase” by Steve Reich and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”

St Georges Bristol 4th November 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall London 7th December 2011

Sage Gateshead 8th December 2011

Charles Hazlewood: Hammond organ, Will Gregory: keyboards, piano, oboe, Adrian Utley: guitar, bass guitar, electric sitar, Ruth Wall: keyboards, piano, harp, Graham Fitkin: Keyboards, Joby Talbot: tuned and untuned percussion, Alex Vann: guitar, bass guitar, Denny Illett: guitar, bass guitar, Alan Thomas: guitar, bass guitar, Viv Hope-Scott: Keyboards, Ross Hughes: keyboards, bass guitar, flute, Eddie Parker: keyboards, flute, bass flute

Some performances of Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow In Curved Air” I recently took part in got me thinking about some philosophical issues. More accurately, the challenges of putting the performances together brought up what I would regard as philosophical problems. I call them philosophical on two counts: one, of authenticity – how “faithful” can or should a performance like this be? And in what way can and should we be faithful – to the notes or to the intentions? Two, of mind, and the ontology of performance: where do we “go” when we are improvising? How is it different to where we “go” in other kinds of performance?

In reality these problems and issues were all intertwined with each other, and not being much of an essay writer I have found it difficult to separate them out. So forgive me if this darts back and forth from one subject to the other. Here goes:

First, why should a performance of “Rainbow” be faithful to the original recording? After all, the piece was improvisatory in the first place. I believe that in a first iteration, before I was involved with the group, the players had departed far from the source material; it had been largely improvised, treating the original as a very loose framework/ vehicle. The key movers of the group evidently felt that while this performance had had validity in itself, justice had not been done to the original work and that a fresh approach was needed. The point of working from a transcription, as was decided, rather than merely “doing an impression”, was to give proper respect to this iconic piece. I don’t know quite how authentic our performance was by comparison – the improvised spaces certainly took on their own identity, but more on this later.

Next, in which ways can and should a performance be faithful, and to what degree?

For its second iteration the group commissioned an accurate transcription by Peter Riley (no relation) of the original recording. This consisted in a mixture of conventional notation of the various interweaving strands of keyboard melody, including two main “anchor” parts of endlessly repeating patterns and five other parts consisting of variously repetitive or improvisatory lines (further identified as “free” or “ornamental”); and graphic score –style notation: start and end pitches, start and end times, and up/down direction by glissando markings. Often these notations were punctuated by conventional notation where notes and phrases are discernible in the original. So the transcription was in itself a feat given the homogeneous quality of the recording and the way lines weave around each other; it was as accurate as it could be without becoming prohibitively difficult to play.

Nevertheless, the fast passages were challenging! No doubt the publicity hype describing Terry Riley as a virtuoso is true, but the speed and sound of some of the lines belies some kind of technological enhancement of human capabilities. The ornamental passages in particular are a blur of notes. So a first consideration was, how do we achieve the same effect, or an effect closely resembling the original? After some experimentation with a delay pedal I provisionally settled on a two-handed classical technique rather than electronics. The result was not exactly the same as the original but deemed (by the prime movers of the group) close enough for the time being. In subsequent performances this approach was modified: more time spent battling with a delay pedal yielded results. In the end I settled on the two-handed technique in combination with the delay pedal on a very short setting.

But in these passages, I noticed, a new difficulty arises: losing the sense of time. In improvising a different set of skills and a different state of mind is engaged which is difficult to reconcile with reading notation and counting beats and bars: for improvisation to be successful improvisers need to feel free of the “nuts and bolts” of the music. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that the piece is in 7/4 time (possibly inspired by the Indian tal “Rupak”), but not in a “groove” as such – like in rock, funk or fusion – but played in a way which flattens the contours and produces the effect of a seamless continuum. It is very easy to lose one’s place and “float” over the music. I noticed that my perception of the passage of time became suspended in these moments – I couldn’t easily tell if one bar or two or even eight had gone by. I did eventually begin to handle this, but it took a degree of removing or distancing oneself while playing, which was at odds with the improvising mindset.

Another authenticity problem was the instruments and the sounds they make. In this digital age it is possible for sounds to be too “perfect” when what is needed is “grunge”. Where possible digital sampling technology was passed over in favour of older instruments. The group were lucky enough to have access to a number of Farfisa organs, a Hammond organ with Leslie speaker, and various other antique synthesizers and keyboards. With these we were able to come close to the original sound world of the piece; one major problem was to find a sound which adequately reproduced the sitar/harpsichord, originally played on an instrument called the “Rocksichord”.

Another related problem was the business of mixing and balancing the sounds – in the original a subtle balance is achieved in the studio with lines emerging and then receding into the distance, lines being revealed from behind a veil of other sounds, etc. The solution to this was achieved through the sensitivity of the group, through some discussion and direction, and by listening together to the original recording.

Every performer has to deal with how the sound changes in front of an audience, but particularly players of amplified music are subject to a great many variables of this kind. In the larger venues this problem was further complicated by the group’s reliance on monitors; it was sometimes hard to distinguish one’s own sound from the rest, and so a compromise was to have one’s own amplifier on stage and use monitors to hear everyone else.

Because there was not much time to rehearse, the group set about solving the “geography” problems through a shared system of cueing: one player gave most of them (downbeats on rehearsal marks) and then two other players gave downbeats in particular places in the music where the first player was playing and therefore unable to give cues. This led to a complicated arrangement of cueing, and one’s attention as a performer had to be directed in different places through the piece. So between the difficulty of the keyboard music itself, the seamless continuum of the time signature with attendant potential for losing one’s place, remembering which musician to look to for cues in any given part of the piece, and various other concerns, the performer’s experience of “Rainbow” is rather different to the spaced-out, transcendental, floating effect that the audience experiences! It’s the classic contrast between art and artifice: the art is to conceal the difficulties. I’m not sure the first performance achieved this – there was much mouthing of numbers, anxious glances around the stage, etc…we did our best!

With repeated rehearsals and with the experience of performances a performer could get used to these difficulties, become familiar with the topology of the piece and either develop the necessary skill or devise strategies to sidestep the problems: but this does not adequately explain what I’m calling the ontological problem that I believe is nested within any approach to performing this piece. I don’t intend to mystify improvisation and put it beyond analysis; I say merely that this technique of music-making is different from other forms, and needs to be quantified on its own terms. Because I am, from my training and from my professional experiences equally an improviser and a “reader” I feel confident enough to make the assertion that there are different things going on in the two approaches; during rehearsals and performances of “Rainbow” I found myself switching between the two, with some feeling of disorientation or dislocation as I did so.

A further layer of sophistication again lies within the improvisatory aspect: improvisation is always “located” in some shared vocabulary – in this case the vocabulary is partly jazz derived, partly rock derived. As an improviser, I consider it part of my job to find the right vocabulary for the piece: it would not be right, I feel, to play in a bebop style, for example. Also in order to maintain the integrity of the piece one should not dominate in a soloistic way, but be part of the landscape of the music.

Terry Riley’s improvising voice is quite an individual mix of the rock and jazz; it sits well alongside other jazz-influenced rock improvising like that of Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, etc; and, contrarily, with rock-influenced jazz playing like in Miles Davis’ electric period, and perhaps jazz with an Indian music influence like Don Ellis etc. But as an improviser I don’t want to merely ventriloquize Terry Riley; nor do I want to insensitively stamp my own improvising identity on the piece. It is a question of balance, and judgements on these matters have to be made not only before but during the performance in order to maintain the equilibrium of the music. This is where the authenticity view and the ontology view coincide. I might characterise this as another problem of authenticity – only this time the problem is to be authentic to one’s own improvising voice without destroying the identity of the piece itself; viewed from the ontological perspective one may characterise the problem as  – whose voice am I “using”, and how does this happen? Can it be done without being self-conscious and contrived?

Also, I was not the only improviser in the group and it was interesting how over the three performances and rehearsals a group approach to the improvising emerged. Five of us had our “spots” during the piece, and though we never particularly tried to consciously blend our sounds or approaches, some common ground became established between us by some tacit process of exploration and consensus. I believe a continuity was achieved but I’m not sure how. One would have to be able to hear each player’s own internal monologue to truly understand this. Definitely for me there were times when I had to consciously avoid certain kinds of generic jazz pentatonic language; there were also times when I consciously imitated or answered phrases from my colleagues’ improvisations. I’m not sure but I think they also copied me, so between us we arrived at a common voice for the piece. Later a solo on electric sitar was added which gave another quite unexpected and beautiful dimension. I found myself quite transported in these moments.

But this brings me to another authenticity issue: if the proper vibe of “Rainbow” is transcendental, ecstatic trance, how can this be achieved? Can it be achieved at all in these cynical post-modern times? Was Terry Riley himself in this ecstatic state when performing the piece? Perhaps we can get somewhere close to the original vibe; perhaps similar issues face any performer of music from another period. It’s just that this music is closer to us in time but further away in zeitgeist. There again, it should be possible to approach this piece as one might any piece – as a text, a text to which one might bring any number of potential interpretations; with the ideology or contextual assumptions of another age and community; or perhaps with an inspired new interpretation. So I could start all over again and characterize this according to yet another set of philosophical discourses – those of interpretation and reception.

But I won’t.

Listening to Jeux

This is an attempt to describe an intense listening experience – perhaps a recording on headphones turned quite loud, or (if you are lucky) sitting very close to, or amongst, a live orchestra. This is our first problem, and the problem of all orchestral music: how to close the distance between ourselves and the source of the sound. Unless listened to at high volume or on headphones, recorded music suffers from a flattening out of the aural image – a de-spatialisation which neuters both the physicality of gesture in the music and the antiphonal geography. At a concert one is often far away from the orchestra, again flattening the peaks out. One hears the orchestra as a homogenous entity rather than a changing palette of sound sources which have the property of physical location.

 

Swings and roundabouts: one can turn a CD’s volume up, play passages over and over, and at atime of one’s own choosing.

 

So let’s play some selected sections of Jeux over and over at high volume, and the change the magnification of our ears to CLOSE UP.

 

In a piece as complex as Jeux there are so many layers of detail, so many frames of magnification involved, so many connexions to be made, that a totalising analysis is probably impossible. It’s certainly inadvisable: this is one of the most complex works of a most advanced musical mind, and a work which has resisted traditional academic analysis in a notorious (and triumphant!) way.

 

So what follows is not a traditional academic totalising analysis. It is an attempt to sensitise to some aspects of the piece.

 

First, in reference to the physical location of the sounds mentioned above, I’ll identify the aspect of the social co0ordination of the piece – the way that the piece moves through the gamut of ensemble forces from tutti sections to small groupings to duos and solos (at about 1 minute 34 seconds; our second problem: timings may differ from recording to recording). All of these human co-ordinations also involve the mediated palettes of instrument type and combinations thereof; registration, timbre change, dynamics, articulation, harmony. All of these ‘parameters’ vie for our listening attention at different times, but as an agent of social co-ordination rhythm is the over-riding force – I’ll stick my neck out and say this.

 

Think of the orchestra in Jeux as a kind of very sophisticated chain gang and the musical material of Jeux as its worksong. That’s quite a flippant and overstated way of drawing your attention to a certain aspect of the piece.

 

Secondly, extending from this co-ordination of gesture, we may identify many different kinds of motion in the various layers of the piece: swirling (at 5 mins 22 secs and 6 mins), rushing (at 8.07 and 10.29), slowing (2.09, 16.46), stopping (5.54), trembling (17.18), twitching (17.34), shivering (13.20), ascending (7.43, 10.39, 15.05), descending (10.45), rocketing (10.10, 14.00, 16.20), plummeting (12.41, 17.11), swinging (12.40, 14.20), oscillating (6.40), turning (11.23), gliding (15.40)… to mention just a few! AND sometimes several at once – witness the broad gestures of string writing with the swirling chromatic flutes (2.45)… the curious, intriguing tambourine twitches over long bowed notes.

 

…turning inside out, 11.20…

 

There is also at certain points the sensation of ‘gear change’. The trumpet phrase at 3.03 is just such a construction: the waltzing 3/4 rhythm becomes quadruple – 4 beats in the time of 3 as the harmonic progression surges towards the tonic. On arrival, behind the trumpets, are hemiola pizzicato notes; this section of music is closed by basses articulating the dotted crotchets. Quite a deployment of different layers of rhythm and metre! Inputting these rhythmic combinations into a sequencer (or even just clapping them) reveals another aspect of the kind of motion involved in Jeux: that of the speed of the bow, the speed of breath; and the combination of these with the speed of the fingers.

 

This is the third aspect I want to bring out. There are many passages in Jeux in which a ghostly second presence is hovering around the notes – the sound of air. Those rushing passages where the strings are playing double-bowed quavers sometimes conjure this presence (1.58) as do the chromatic flute swirls. The opening and the end of the piece also bring this air into existence.

 

(It could be, I’m prepared to admit, that these are not the singular province of Jeux, and that many orchestral works contain this sound. What I’m not going to concede is that this is a simple accident of instrumental writing: Debussy was the consummate artist of orchestral sound and enough of a musical magician for these more hidden aspects of sound to be an intentional, deliberate part of his work. It’s no accident!).

 

One of the most exquisite moments (and there are many!) in Jeux is the passage at 9.16 marked ‘tres serre’ in the score. There is an arrival, an arrest of harmonic motion on a minor (tonic). The melodic minor scale is held in trembling suspension. Here is that most precious moment in the natural world where a sudden and tangential change in the vectors of the wind cause the leaves to tremble – sussurus is the name for this sound which is the paradox of motion in arrested suspension: the fingers move in a blur – a sustained spasm called a trill, except that this trill is across an interval rather than adjacent notes. Vocally this would be a yodel – how ungainly! (I don’t want to get into trouble with Maggie Nichols for saying this!). For a yodel involves a full-on exhalation, and in this moment in Jeux the speed of the breath and bow is slow while the fingers move rapidly.

 

Impossibly delicate!