Music for Use

Music for Use

Introducing the Music for Use Store

News and UpdatesCooper Ottum
Murmurations

for Concert Band, Grade 1.5

by Cooper Ottum

A digital download (.zip archive of .pdf documents, and an audio realization) of Murmurations for Concert Band, including full score and parts.

By purchasing this digital download, you are authorized to print as many copies of the included files as you'd like, provided that the files and any printed copies are not distributed, shared, or resold without specific permission from the composer. 

Preview the title page and program notes here.

 

Music for Use now has a store, where you can check out and purchase selected works from the Music for Use catalogue. To start things off, Murmurations for concert band (grade 1.5) is available as a digital download (and will soon be made available in a printed version). 

Make sure to check back for more Music for Use products in the near future, including unique and affordable arrangements for marching bands. 

Digression: a fictional story

Music, News and UpdatesCooper Ottum

Prairie Logic. Photo credit: FuseBox New Music. 

Lately I've tried to give my music some sort of internal fiction. Something (anything, really) that helps guide my musical intuition, whether it be an absurd story or an abstract feeling: that's what becomes the “fiction” of the piece. 

This becomes a way to grapple with what otherwise might just be called “free-association.” Here's the thing: I don't often make the most “appropriate” choices in my pieces—for example, I usually pick harmonies based on a loose concept of counterpoint and an even looser idea of what feels right. But if there's a story, a fictional universe within which I'll generate made-up consistencies and imaginary physical laws, I've found that I feel much more comfortable with whatever series of musical choices I make. 

An aside here: writing music for the harp is frightening. Writing music for your friends is frightening. I am so grateful to FuseBox (thank you, Zane, Scott, and Ted) for this opportunity. But I was so very frightened of writing this piece. 

Digression, the piece, is supposed to sound like a digression. Nothing fancy. My original concept for this piece (that is intended to be programmed sandwiched between two extraordinarily beautiful movements of Debussy's Sonate pour Flûte Alto et Harpe) came from a fascination I have with the use of harmony as rhetoric. I pondered what Debussy was trying to say when he asks the flute to lean in to the major seventh of the chord that closes the first movement of his Sonate. Is he trying to convince me that, after all of those notes, these particular two notes are special? 

Thus the fictional universe of the piece was born: a universe of an imagined Debussy that tries to explain his choice, but gets distracted by some other possible solutions to the problem of concluding his movement. This is the universe of music that Debussy rejected, phrases that he decided against. The pitches and rhythms here don't necessarily lead anywhere, but they all offer tiny examples of where Debussy’s music might have gone. I don't presume that I know how Debussy's musical imagination worked, but, of course, that's part of the fun. This isn't Debussy’s fiction, but mine, spiraling off every which way as it tries to copy, remix, reimagine, and redefine what already exists in the world of Debussy’s music.


Please join me and FuseBox New Music at the premiere of The Debussy Project, of which my piece Digression is a small part. This is an ambitious project and, in my opinion, a great way to experience both contemporary and not-so-contemporary music on the same concert. 

Performances of The Debussy Project will be held at Prairie Logic in Kansas City, MO on October 1st and 4th. Both performances begin at 7:30pm, and are FREE and open to the public, thanks to the support of ArtsKC. 

Music for Use Project 2015: Northwest Middle School

Cooper Ottum

Tomorrow, Thursday May 28th at 6pm, will be the final performance of this season of the Music for Use Project. The Northwest Middle School band, directed by Heather Reynolds, will premiere a new work by composer Dylan Baker. (For more details, visit the event page)

The concert is free and open to the public, so please come out and support the students as they premiere this new piece!


The Music for Use Project provides opportunities for student composers to write new music for middle and high school ensembles, including bands, wind ensembles, and string orchestras. 

By encouraging collaboration between composers, directors, and young musicians, the Music for Use Project aims to create meaningful new relationships that benefit local musical communities. 

For more information, please visit the about page.

Music for Use Project 2015: Lincoln and Ruskin

Music for Use Project, Music, News and UpdatesCooper Ottum

In the next week or so, there will be some great premieres of new pieces written for Kansas City area youth ensembles by composers participating in the 2015 season of the Music for Use Project.

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015 at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy
Premieres by composers Cooper Ottum (me) and Charles Luttrell, performed by Lincoln College Prep Bands, directed by Jason Bata. 

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 at Ruskin High School
Premieres by composers Trevor Smith and Ben Stevenson, performed by Ruskin High School String Orchestras, Directed by Ariel Aguilar.

The Music for Use Project is all about encouraging musical community, and performing for an audience is an important part of the musical experience for musicians of all experience levels. All of the commissioned works that will be performed represent truly excellent work coming from graduate level UMKC composition students, and the ensembles from Lincoln College Prep and Ruskin High School sound fantastic. 

All performances are free and open to the public—we hope to see you there! For more information, please see the events page. 

 

 

Pardon the dust...

News and UpdatesCooper Ottum

Recent visitors to Music for Use may have noticed some changes to the site, particularly the visual design but also the overall layout. It's a new year, so it's also a great opportunity to make some long-needed changes. 

To help familiarize visitors (new and old) to the changes, here's a summary:

  • all score downloads, including free scores, will now be done through the "Store" (UPDATE: I changed my mind about this. Free scores are available via the "Free Resources" link at the foot of the site)
  • the "Clients" page for marching band clients is easily accessible at the foot of any page
  • the new landing page is "Latest," with a summary of what's new around Music for Use HQ and links to currently relevant information throughout the site
  • the Music for Use Project material is thus far unchanged
  • other nips, tucks, and simplifications are forthcoming, so keep an eye out

Thanks for visiting Music for Use, and I hope that the site continues to be helpful. Let me know what you think about the changes!

October Miscellany

News and UpdatesCooper Ottum

There are a few cool things happening this month around Music for Use HQ in Kansas City:

The Music for Use Project is (partially) underway, with some participants getting started on their commissions. For our first partner school, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, we are planning to have Music for Use Project pieces performed in May 2015. 

The first UMKC Composers Guild Concert of Fall 2014 happens next week, Tuesday, October 14th at 7:30pm in White Recital Hall (on UMKC campus). I will have a piece for fixed media (Eluding Empathy) performed on this concert among many other cool works for electronics and acoustic instruments by UMKC composers. If you're in the Kansas City area, I encourage you to attend (it's free). 

Meanwhile, on the West Coast...

The NWAPA Fall 2014 marching band season is heating up; most bands have already performed their season premiere in the past few weeks. Now is a great time to see Century High School or Liberty High School (both Music for Use clients) before their finals performance. Here are some upcoming shows:

10/11 McKenzie Classic (Evergreen High School, Vancouver, WA)

  • Century High School performing

10/18 Pride of the Northwest (Grants Pass High School, Grants Pass, OR)

  • Liberty High School performing

10/25 Century Showcase (Hillsboro Stadium, Hillsboro, OR)

  • Century and Liberty High School performing

The band programs hosting these shows always need an audience, so if you are even a little interested in the marching arts and in the area, I encourage you to attend. There's more show information (including schedules of performances, usually posted about a week before the show date) available on the NWAPA events page

That's all for now—wishing a happy Fall to everyone. 

 

Serenade, Op. 48

Music, Marching BandCooper Ottum

A few years ago, for Century High School, I used the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 as an opening impact in a marching band show. It has a great big “classical” sound and, to my ears, worked well on the field because of its simple, dramatic descending melodic line.  

So I decided to arrange a simplified version of the opening phrase of this piece as a marching band chorale. Here it is:


(go to the Chorales and Exercises page to download the score for free)


Enjoy, and let me know what you think. 

Side note: a lot of this site's traffic comes from people looking for free chorales for their marching band program, which is terrific. I make these arrangements for free because I want more people to have access to high quality music for their marching band programs, and also, selfishly, because I want people to associate Music for Use with accessible and well-made music. If you feel like giving back, send me a video of your band playing one of my arrangements, or tell me a story about how you decided to use one of the arrangements with your ensemble. I'm curious to know if this music is actually helping bands provide a rich musical experience for their members and audiences. 

New Marching Band Chorale

Music, Marching BandCooper Ottum

I'm pleased to share a new marching band chorale today. Before I say anything, feel free to listen to the realization (it's short) and download the PDF score to follow along, if you like:


Download the PDF score here


Now that we're all on the same page — this piece is a short chorale designed to challenge a marching ensemble to play tastefully and in tune within the context of non-traditional harmonies and contrapuntal movement. In contemporary marching band and drum corps, this type of chord movement is common, yet most warm-up chorales are based on traditional harmony, and cycle through the same familiar keys. 

I called the piece Petrichor because I found that the chord movement here evokes a kind of introspection, something that I came to associate with the cleansing rains that transition summer into fall. 

As always, this chorale is free to use (see more free marching band warm-up chorales on this page), but please respect my copyright by keeping the unmodified music credited to me and to Music for Use. Enjoy, and let me know what you think on twitter or through the contact form

harmonic experiment for piano

Cooper Ottum

Check out this new thing I made:

My intention is to create an occasionally-updated series based on my harmonic experiments, perhaps including instruments other than piano, perhaps experimenting with style, perhaps making even shorter, wispy, ephemeral pieces... Something like that. I'm trying to wrap my head around tonal harmony (as generated by traditional instruments) and test its potential applications in a cultural climate that is saturated with tonal (but not necessarily functional) harmony. 

For now, there's my rough (read: sampled piano straight into Logic, played by me [not a pianist] and barely edited) recording that you may listen to above thanks to SoundCloud or download here.

And, of course, you can download the sheet music here, if you'd like to play the piece yourself. 

 

The Listening List, Vol. 3

Cooper Ottum

The Listening List, Vol. 3 on Rdio

(if you need it, here’s a link to sign up for Rdio, which I’m still pushing as the best streaming service, because it isn’t all pushy about the Facebook junk and isn’t ad-supported)

This is a weird one, I guess.

Some highlights:

  • Kathleen Edwards, a Canadian singer-songwriter I heard about because of her collaboration with John Roderick (who else?) on this video.
  • A sweet EP from Sufjan Stevens. The title track is great.
  • More Sufjan: his “state project” album Michigan, which is good, but not as good as Illinois. In general, I’ve found myself fond of Sufjan’s overblown-yet-regimented weird.
  • The xx, which, while having an unnecessarily enigmatic name, has a pretty necessarily enigmatic sounding album here with Coexist.

There’s also some stuff that didn’t grab my attention, like Home Again, from Michael Kiwanuka (fine, but not particularly riveting) and the Life of Pi soundtrack (which doesn’t need my praise anyway; Mychael Danna won an Academy Award for it).

Enjoy. The next one will materialize in… a few weeks.

Reasonable Transcriptions: Stupid by The Long Winters

Cooper Ottum

Sometimes, bands with less-than-enormous-and-zealously-devoted audiences suffer from Horrible TAB Syndrome. Actually, most tablature that's found on the internet is pretty bad, in my experience. Or at the very least, not particularly thorough. (One notable exception might be the Jonathan Coulton Wiki, which has very good tablature for many of Coulton's tunes, much thanks to the work of Suuuupaadave.)

So the point of this post is to bring my take on a song that I wanted to transcribe for my own purposes. I don't plan on posting this to the big TAB sites like 911Tabs or UltimateGuitar, even though they are okay resources in general. I also don't plan on posting this to the seemingly-defunct Long Winters fan site, Hater High (plus, there's already a not-bad transcription of Stupid there). But, seeing as there's really no point in protecting my transcription work, because it's really just a teaching tool, please feel free to copy and distribute as you see fit. While you're at it, buy When I Pretend to Fall, because it's a terrific album, and because it will be easier to learn the songs if you own the recordings. 

My emphasis in creating this transcription was on the accuracy of the chords and structure. I have some specific notes on little details that might make it easier to sound more like the record, but I was mostly interested in making a transcription that's easy to follow. There are many good ways to cover a song, and it isn't my intention to point anyone toward playing according to a particular arrangement. Be creative, and enjoy. 

If you don't own the recording, it's available on Rdio


Stupid

The Long Winters

from the album When I Pretend to Fall

Intro

A - Ama7

Verse 1

A - C#mi - E - D

She has no idea she could make me do anything

She acts like it's the simplest thing for me to be there

A - F - A - E - D

You tell me no, that I'm a fool to go calling her, and calling her

You can call me stupid when she tells me it has to end

Chorus 1

A - D

Stupid, you could call it that

Stupid, but you have no idea

A - D - A - E

How stupid I would feel

If fifteen years from now I see her

A - D - A - F - D - A

And she says why didn't it happen between us, stupid?

Transition 1

A - Ama7

Verse 2

A - C#mi - E - D

New York soon will hum, the electric car has come

She laughs when I pretend to fall

A - F - A - E - D

You call me out, let her down easy please, can't you see she believes?

My friend, you called me stupid then, but you're the one that doesn't see

Chorus 2

A - D

Stupid, you could call it that

Stupid, but you have no idea

A - D - A - E

How stupid I would feel

If fifteen years from now I see her

A - D - A - F - D - A

And she says why didn't it happen between us, stupid?

Bridge (Solo)

Bmi - A - E - D - A

Bmi - A - E - D - A

E - D

Transition 2

A - Ama7

Chorus 3 (Out)

A - D

Stupid, you could call it that

Stupid, but you have no idea

A - D - A - E

How stupid I would feel

If fifteen years from now I see her

And she says why didn't it happen between us

She says why didn't it happen? You have no idea

A - D - A - E

How stupid I would feel

If fifteen years from now I see her

A - D - A - F - D - A

And she says why didn't it happen between us, stupid?

Notes

The recording is NOT tuned to A=440

So if you're going to play along, things will sound pretty weird unless you tune somewhere around A=448–450. I'm not sure why this is the case, but trust me: it's much more difficult to tell if you're reproducing the chords accurately when your guitar is in a different tonal universe.

The Intro and Transition chords are best played in the "C" form.

e.g.

    A    Ama7   
e---09---09
B---10---09
G---09---09
D---11---11
A---12---12
E---xx---xx

(It's probably a decent idea to omit the high E string in these chords, which will keep the attention on the movement between A and G# on the B string)

You can play the whole Verse higher on the neck, if you want.

It's pretty safe to play the Verse like this:

    A    C#mi E    D
e---05---04---07---05
B---05---05---09---07
G---06---06---09---07
D---07---06---09---07
A---07---04---07---05
E---05---xx---xx---xx

And so forth (This is most likely better for making a decent sounding rendition on an Acoustic Guitar).

However, you could also play it like this, and keep the fuzzy resonance of the wrapped strings high on the neck:

    A    C#mi E    D
e---xx---xx---xx---10
B---10---09---xx---10
G---09---09---09---11
D---11---11---09---12
A---12---11---11---12
E---xx---09---12---10

    A    F    A    E    D
e---xx---08---xx---xx---10
B---10---10---10---xx---10
G---09---10---09---09---11
D---11---10---11---09---12
A---12---08---12---11---12
E---xx---xx---xx---12---10

This will sound nice on an Electric. For the chorus, I'd suggest moving down to the A in the “E” form off of the 5th fret, because in that section you're shooting for a fuller, more standard Rock sound.

I'm not going to attempt to transcribe the solo.

You're on your own for that business. It probably isn't too much of a chore.

The last chord sounds like it's an A and an A7sus4 simultaneously

If you want to play the A7sus4, you can try it like this:

    A7sus4
e---05
B---05
G---07
D---05
A---07
E---05

Happy playing.

Make sure to send me a note if you see anything horrifically wrong.

The Listening List, Vol. 2

Cooper Ottum

The Listening List, Vol. 2 on Rdio

(if you need it, here's a link to sign up for Rdio)

This is the long-time-coming follow-up to my previous post on Listening Lists. I've actually made several at this point, but as a completist (sort of), I feel the need to continue in numerical order, despite the fact that I've long since moved on to other lists.

Some highlights from Vol. 2 include:

  • Steve Reich's Four Organs, which is awesome
  • A John Vanderslice album I'm not nearly as fond of as White Wilderness (a favorite from Vol. 1)
  • Possibly my biggest album-crush Antifogmatic, from the amazing Punch Brothers
  • A Josquin mass
  • Cassandra's Dream Song (required listening)

As a note, I don't use Spotify, so you won't see these Listening Lists over there, unless a crazy person (that's not me) replicates them.

Don't forget to come back for Vol. 3, which will (hopefully) be posted in fewer than several months.

A little closer to the truth of it: One Christmas at a Time

ReviewsCooper Ottum
Awesome cover art by Zack Rock

Awesome cover art by Zack Rock

Becoming a college student made Christmas special again. It was time off from tests and papers and studying, to be sure, but it was also a chance to re-acknowledge my reliance on family and the familiarity of "home." A chance to stop pretending to be an adult, and to resume pretending to be a child. A chance to remember all of the things that make life at home so great (Home-cooked meals! Trees! Good coffee!) and, of course, a chance to remember all the things that made life at home not-so-great. Christmas turned from a holiday into a yearly life event. 

Part of the event was its atmosphere, the spirit-of-the-season stuff that started trickling into stores by Halloween and became a firehose of red, green, and white, cinnamon-scented nonsense by Black Friday. And this atmosphere always included the annual rise of Christmas music, from the occasional appearance of a holiday-themed iTunes playlist to full-blown Christmas radio and Muzak stations blaring nonstop. 

As a college student, Christmas songs, formerly the annoying musical obligations of the season, took on a bizarre potency for me. They triggered homesickness and joyful anticipation, and even though I still didn't particularly like them, I found myself needing them. 

Jump-cut to today: I live at home, in the perpetual suburban limbo that is my "year off." The anxiety of the end of a semester isn't here to make Christmas a relief, and I won't need to fly anywhere to spend time with family. But, for some reason, I'm still attached to those Christmas songs. 

I've been able to find a few Christmas Classics that I'm consistently fond of (notably: "O Come Emmanuel" and "White Christmas"), but the irritating reality of a short playlist of culturally entrenched fodder for each year's market-capitalizing cover artists can't be ignored. What's more is that these cover artists seem to do an unusually poor job on Christmas renditions, even when they might be reasonably expected churn out good work (I glance briefly at Michael Bublé). The most important appeal appears to be that of tradition, that even a contemporary pop artist should let the Christmas songs that have held up through history provide the holiday cheer. No need for originality outside of a charming take on the instrumentation of "Silent Night." No need for the new when what we have is Classic.

However, Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick's 2012 Christmas effort, One Christmas at a Time, is not an album full of existing or even wannabe Holiday Classics. It contains no covers, not even of the most obscure Christmas songs (unless you count the inclusion of Coulton's previously released "Christmas is Interesting"), and it doesn't make much of an attempt to reference the traditional "most wonderful time of the year" set of clichés (snow, reindeer, sleigh rides, cozy fires, evergreen trees, etc.) that pervades the standard Holiday repertoire. There is certainly a place for that music, and I'm not suggesting that the classics are in any way bad. But they are a little overused, to the extent that the decision to purchase and listen to a contemporary Christmas album is less about finding what's good and more about finding what's (in some small way) unique or essential.

On the whole, I must say that while I enjoy Coulton and Roderick's album, I don't think it is their best work from a songwriting perspective (I am a big fan of both artists). The notable exception is "The Week Between," an especially charming and especially simple take on the timespan between Christmas and New Year's Eve. So, judging on purely musical grounds, the album doesn't hold my interest for long. What I am interested in, and what makes One Christmas at a Time special, is that it embraces a kind of timeliness and imperfection. Coulton and Roderick never really bring up the idea of an ideal Christmas, instead opting for references to people making the best of unfortunate situations. They acknowledge that the contemporary American Christmas isn't a perfect one. In fact, there probably never was a perfect Christmas. Yet, the songs suggest the season is still worthwhile, and that our efforts to celebrate and to bring family together are not in vain.

I enjoy this refusal to ask for a snowy Christmas or a romantic Christmas or even a peaceful and relaxing Christmas. This is the Christmas album for those who aspire to do the best they can. And, for me, that's what makes this Christmas album the one I needed for Holiday Season 2012.

Creative Pride

Cooper Ottum

I recently had to put together a portfolio of my work so that I could apply to graduate schools. This involved re-listening to recordings and re-editing scores from the past four to five years. If you've ever unearthed an old essay and decided to read it, you may understand the feeling of simultaneous novelty and nausea this type of self-reflection can induce. 

But despite the "I can't believe I was stupid enough to ..." and the "this could have been so much better if ..." I found that listening to and reading my music was rather rewarding. I am now sufficiently removed from the pain-and-suffering part of most of these pieces, to the extent that I can actually listen to them. No need to recall how horrific a struggle that passage of counterpoint was, no need to dwell on the voicing of that chord — I can judge this music as music now. 

I've found, happily, that I enjoy my own music. 

This is important for two reasons that I can immediately see, and these are the the primary things I'm interested in sharing with the world:

First, if I enjoy my music now, I am doing some things right when I compose. I set out to write combinations of notes and rhythms and timbres that I like, and if I do like the music that is produced, I am at least catering to my own taste. Which is a good thing, I think. 

Second, and maybe most significantly, listening to and reading my music allows me to remember the best part of composition (in my mind) — the tiny victories of discovery. This is the special thing that only a creator gets when experiencing work he or she created. And it's the reminder of those tiny sparks of special self-assurance that keep creators going. 

The Listening List, Volume 1

Cooper Ottum

Current experiment: getting lasting value out of my Rdio account by creating "Listening Lists".

While the phrase invokes dread in current or past music history students across the nation, listening lists are really an integral part of learning about music. The idea that someone else chose the music (and that it's chosen because it's important and you should know it) is somewhat unique in contemporary music listening practice. Radio doesn't often do this for us anymore, and MTV certainly seems to refuse to do so. Maybe, like everything else, music discovery ought to become a social internet activity — maybe it's time for us to help each other learn about what's out there. 

I've made a "Listening List" for myself, and it's made up of albums that currently fascinate me.

It's not all "good", to be sure. But I'm sharing it here because I think it's worth your time and attention, even if you can give it only one listen. 

If you have Rdio, you can follow along here.

Perennial problems

Cooper Ottum
Composer anniversaries should be an opportunity for new exploration and critical reassesment, but instead they have become rolling hagiographies created to sell CDs and concert tickets, and grab audience ratings.

That's a serious sentence of music criticism, if I've ever seen one. 

The above statement, I must assume, comes from a place of love. We don't owe Britten (or Cage, or Mahler, or ...) a year of musical celebration, because such a year would exist only to remove the music from the performances and replace it (and any associated connections or missed-connections between the performances and audiences) with a vague sense of "appreciation" for the supposed historical relevance implied by the mere existence of a centennial event. 

And even if the centennial or anniversary celebration is a success, in the sense that it invites the unearthing of lesser-known or more difficult to muster works from a composer's catalogue, the success exists at the expense of subjecting audiences (and potential audiences) to simplistic marketing. Perhaps an anniversary is a good time to recall the historical significance of a composer's work, or to tie it to external historical events — I just don't see how an acknowledgement of age is supposed to make people connect to music.The kind of people who might be excited about a Britten anniversary are the kind of people who are excited to see any performance of Britten (such as myself).

Peter Grimes isn't good because it's old, or because it was written by a composer who was born in 1913. I'm not the best qualified to tell anyone why it's good, in fact. But I'd hope that no one attends a centennial performance in the coming year thinking "wow, 100 years — I'm going to like this!"

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2012/09/spare-us-happy-birthday-benjamin.html

Yeah, it's a TED Talk. But hey, it's Evelyn Glennie, what's not to like?

Cooper Ottum

If short on time, just watch from the drop point (about 1:30) through the end of the second time she plays the snare drum piece. There's something to her brief discussion of a "shallow" interpretation of the music versus a deeper interpretation that applies things from life experiences, things that happen away from the instrument. 

If the composer has done his or her job well, I should hope that the end product is not the indications on a page. The notation is just there as a guide, as a map that helps the musician (and, hopefully, the audience) find the music that the composer wanted to capture for more than a fleeting moment. 

http://youtu.be/IU3V6zNER4g?t=1m30s

Swing (and things)

Cooper Ottum

Just so we’re clear:

I’m not an expert, by any stretch of the word, on this business. More like an enthusiast. I’m honestly fascinated by Swing (capital S!) and how it’s played, and how it’s written, and how the written Swing is interpreted by performers.

Swing can be a curiously visceral thing; it’s best “felt” rather than measured, best implicit and certainly not explicit. I’d say that, in my experience, swing tends to be either effective or painfully, yawn-inducingly mediocre.

And, by the way:

I can’t speak intelligently about the “French” dotted-rhythm swing business that people have to consider for early music performance practice, so I won’t. But I think I can address the Jazz-style practice of uneven beat subdivisions, at least in terms of my own observations. (note: someone ought to invent a word that is like “observation” but for hearing, so that we can get rid of these sight-centric noun things, and as a result sound less like morons when we want to discuss things we’ve heard)

Here we go:

A few Fridays ago, (January 27th, 2012, for those keeping track), composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel came to USC as a guest of our Composition Forum. I’d never heard his music before (nor had I heard of him), and was pleasantly surprised by it. There must be something to this New York “crossover” business. The music we heard while dutifully examining loose-leaf scores was this funky, gritty, unabashedly swinging large chamber ensemble piece called Three Rivers. And it was notated in 12/8.

The audacity! Using a triple meter to describe Swing is like cutting a bagel with a butter knife (you know, because it gets the job done but the bagel gets all squished out of shape and there are crumbs everywhere). But here it worked. I mean, his recording sounded great, and everybody clearly knew what was going on.

I’ve seen this before. And it’s akin to the “serious composer” practice of embedding swing with precisely notated triplets or quintuplets or accent patterns or whatever. And I’ve seen beginning-intermediate big band charts notated this way, especially for a piece in more of a “shuffle” feel (in which case it might even be appropriate). Here’s the thing: all of this presumes that Swing is quantifiable, and that we, as dutiful composers, can measure out the Swing feel we desire and map it out with our lovely proportional notation system.

We can do this. It is done. But to my ears, the music is not really Swing if you’ve fussed about it that much.

Here’s Dave Liebman, in one of his “educational articles”:

What is swinging or not is to some extent a matter of taste and acclimation. That which swings to the novice versus the educated listener may be entirely different, but even among so-called experts, the feeling of swing is so personal and subjective as to seem to be beyond discussion (though there is indeed much intense discussion about what does or does not swing). However, I think we could generalize that a feeling of swing has a drive or momentum in balance with a feeling of relaxation and effortlessness. There is a “lilt” or bounce to the music that is beyond words. It is probably easier to point out what doesn’t swing than what does!!

Granted, a composer with an interest in Swing or with “jazz” as a stylistic object may not care so much about a perfect rendition of Swing feel (or some kind of Latin feel, or whatever). There are composers who reference jazz, and then there are composers who are honestly trying to distill some element of jazz so it will blend nicely within the weird combinatorial world of new music.

Yet what I see is a somewhat irritating inconsistency — do we ask for a triple feel and hope for the best (as Bermel essentially does in Three Rivers)? Do we say “Swing 8ths” in some sections and write peculiar triplets with ties all over the place in others (as Frank Ticheli does in his popular Blue Shades, for wind ensemble)? Do we learn to fear Swing and try to capture something else nice about jazz in our own music, wishing for cleaner, more reliable communication methods (as I do)?

It’s probably safe to say that these choices are best left up to personal aesthetic motivations.

But this is all a diversion - when I asked Bermel about his use of 12/8 for a swing notation, he pointed out that 12/8 was most useful in the context of Three Rivers because of its many metric modulations. Very cool metric modulations, let the record show. This isn’t so much about performance practice or degree of precision in notation as it is about making choices in the unique communication from composer, to music page, to performer.

Now I’m interested.

Seems to me Bermel isn’t asking for Swing, and he isn’t asking for a completely-accurate-no-mistakes-fully-metronomic read — more like a balance of both. Maybe 12/8 in Three Rivers just means “Heavy Swing,” but it also means “hey, don’t get too involved with that Swing feel because it won’t be like this forever, or for everyone.” Bermel also spoke eloquently (when I asked him about this 12/8 business) on the topic of dealing with specialized idiomatic techniques that just can’t be communicated in a consistent or all-inclusive way. Not everyone knows how to Swing. Not all jazz musicians (who hopefully can Swing) know how to perform accurate metric modulations. But Bermel seemed interested in asking for a little bit of everything. Maybe this level of comfort in asking for musical breadth comes with compositional maturity. I suppose it could be a sign that some musicians and some ensembles place new value in breadth of idiomatic understanding, enabling new exploration of musical “boundaries” by living composers.

As usual, we could all benefit from a little less dogmatism. So, hat tip to Derek Bermel.

Music, Be Mine

Cooper Ottum

Oddly gratifying: the purchase of four compact disks, three of which from a thrift store at the price of two dollars and fifty cents (plus WA state tax), one of which from a small music shop just steps away from aforementioned thrift shop. Though that last one was thirteen dollars and fifteen cents, including WA state tax.

First, Phantom Planet: The Guest. The pleasant surprise of recognition, in this case not just recognition of a decent “find” amongst the haystack of a resale shop (still in the shrink wrap!), but recognition of familiarity. A little chuckle at that album cover. My oh my did he need a haircut back then. I shouldn’t be one to talk about the need of a haircut, but still. Maybe, if I were a subscriber to Rdio or Spotify or whatnot (fine services, I’m told), I could have punched p-h-a-n-t-o-m p-l-a-n-e-t into a search field, parsed the results, listened to this music I’ve never heard that perhaps tells part of the life story of someone I know and respect. But it was oddly gratifying to pull this untouched, forgotten, plastic almost-square from its shelf in Langley, WA.

Then, the album of Copland Americana, Bernstein conducting. Not that I haven’t heard my fair share of Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, etc., but for two-fifty I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, all unappreciated and such. And the disk of Wynton Marsalis playing standards, which, despite my mixed feelings about Mr. Marsalis’ “agenda,” also seemed like a decent purchase. My collection of Caravan renditions can never be too big, after all.

At the nearby music shop I perused and bent at the knee and sidled and browsed, my previous acquisitions clutched in my left armpit in what I hoped was a casual-looking way to hold compact disks that had been recently purchased at a nearby store, despite the realization that my attempts to look as though I had certainly not hidden three compact disks in my armpit with intent to shoplift increasingly made me look like some kind of nervous shoplifter with absolutely no skill in shoplifting. Plus, none of those disks called out for a home, most seemingly content to live forever on their genre-distinguished shelf, overpriced ($17.99? Did my parents pay this much for albums?) and unopened.

I found some albums I already owned, unexpected ones like the BMOP recording of Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse (which, yeah, you rock, Langley music store compact disk curator, because that album is off the charts) and then settled on a Bang on a Can recording of some of Louis Andriessen’s chamber music. Cool. Plus I needed to get on board with this Worker’s Union thing. So I self-consciously became the touristy guy who bought “contemporary classical music” (ugh) at a music shop in Langley, WA, and yes, I paid maybe a little too much for it and yes there was sales tax; awesome.

I guess I still can’t shake this (potentially unfortunate) affinity for music ownership, the ownership I am repeatedly reminded is not nearly as good as access, which is the method of consumption I ought to crave, given my tendency to be current in my methodologies of media consumption, as might be indicated by my ownership of several expensive rectangles, all requiring some type of attention, all providing an outlet for the enjoyment of the music I own as well as music I might have access to. Ownership. As though the possession of data expressed as an audio file, playable on a number of my glass rectangles is the best way I have to digest someone else’s attempt at expression. As though possession of this facsimile of carefully captured changes in air pressure gives me control, judgement by way of inclusion, power over its potential influence.

To this question, whether or not I should care about ownership, I have no decent answer, no carefully reasoned argument to put forth. My gut tells me to stick with this ownership business as long as it still exists. But I’m quite often wrong about these kinds of things.