Thursday, December 03, 2009

New Piano Music: Celestial Road

Over the past two weeks, and reaching fruition a few days ago, sounds and ideas for a new solo piano composition have been rising up from the back of my mind. So far it's just sketches, some brief ideas, little gestures and notes and phraes that are starting to fit together into a new fabric.

The image I keep seeing in my mind is a rutted road in the high desert at midnight, with shapes of rocks and desert plants to either side, lit only by the cold clear light of more stars in the sky over the road than you have ever seen before. The stars, the celestial wanderers, are so close, at this high desert altitude, that they seem to hiss, crackle, and sing at you. You're high enough up in the mountain plateaus that the aurora borealis would be audible as well as visible. The stars are a presence, a weight, beautiful and terrible. The road, barely visible in this darkest starlit night, seems to rise up towards the sky, as if you could walk out into the stars directly.

As you walk into the sky, into the cold spaces between stars, where there is not atmosphere, nonetheless, the song the stars sing becomes clearer, stronger, louder in your ringing ears. You walk along a celestial road, a path of stars, the River of Heaven surrounding you, firm under your feet, as though you were walking along the bed of a dry arroyo in the desert, and every particle of sandstone and grit had caught light around you and become a living, flinting star. You are both on the earth in the sky, walking, all around you points of cold shimmering light.

That's what I have been seeing. This time, recording the vision will go into the music, not into a poem. Many of my poems have been records of these kinds of visions, or waking dreams, or whatever you want to label them. These days, making new music is what most interests me, what most catches my attention, my desire to express what I'm seeing and feeling. Better the music than anything else.

The cold clear stars are one of the only things in life that have remained steady, comforting, unchanged. Cold comfort, some might think, but the clarity and coldness of their gaze, especially in the high desert, has been one of the very few presences in my life that has never changed, never died, never betrayed my trust. It may seem strange to talk of betrayal; yet that is what the starlit night has never done.

The sounds that are coming forward are all in the upper register of the piano keyboard; the four octaves above Middle C. Mostly very abstract, open-ended; phrases and gestures, bell sounds, lines of melody, tones known to resonate a long time in the cold reaches of space. Things I have always heard, echoing through canyons of years, reverberant and resonant in the still midnight air.

Musical sketch excerpt: Celestial Road (sketches)    

I improvised these musical phrases and sounds at the keyboard, and now I must transcribe them. Make them into useful notation for a living piece. There will be a looseness to the notation. I don't really want the player to count beats in his or her head. This is about gestures and shapes of pitch within time, but the feeling needs to be timeless, abstract, not pulsed, not rhythmic. That will make notating this music more of a challenge, but it will be an interesting one.

A note on the process:

I've been playing—performing? improvising? transcribing?—what I've been hearing in my mind using Apple's GarageBand software, which came with my laptop. There are severe limitations to this software—for that matter, to any notation software that I know of, including Finale and Sibelius—in that the software imposes restrictions on what I can envision, and how I can write it. There are assumptions made about the nature of music and transcription in all these softwares that do not address experimental music, avant-garde music, or non-metered, non-standard notation. You end up having to force the software to remove many of its default settings, just to get close to want you want to see. In this more abstract music, for example, I use barlines to indicate phrases and gestures, not meter. A lot of this music won't have any barlines at all.

So, in the excerpt here, a brief portion of one of these early sketches, ignore the barlines and the meter: there won't be any. This was recorded using a default tempo marking of 55bpm, which also won't be used later on. The notation is going to be rubato, very slow, and very spacious; it is to be interpreted by the performer more loosely than a rigid tempo marking could ever provide.

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

GarageBand is useful for recording and transcribing these early sketches. It allows me to transcribe the pitches that I play (on my M-Audio USB keyboard controller, emulating a grand piano), which are the sounds I'm hearing in my head, as filtered through my hands. The software has a nice feature that allows you to save a track at a time as a PDF file, via the Print option; so I can look at as well as hear the notes I've just recorded. It is severely limited in that it wants to stick to a meter, it wants to put in barlines, and it attempts to fit what you play into both of those. It also cannot separate what the right hand and left hand are doing. I can later sit down with this kludged notation and sort out what I really mean to present in the final score. I can separate out the hands, and the gestures, and use grace notes where I played them, and where the notation software interpreted it all as one chord. At least it helps me get the notes down.

So don't take this notation as anything more than a vague shadow of what will come along later. But it gives an idea, hopefully, of part of the creative process.

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