Monday, March 07, 2011

Improvised Music from Live Loops

Despite some technical difficulties with my rack of music processing gear, last night I played some music that felt really good, really fulfilling.

I was playing incidental, background, and intermission music for a fundraising concert. It's an annual Cabaret put on as a fundraiser by Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus at a club on Madison's west side. Dinner theatre, if you will, where the audience gets a meal and desert before and during the show. There is also a silent auction of items donated, the money made also going to the Chorus. This is an annual event, with a different and creative theme every year, in which members of the Chorus write the script, and prepare and perform musical solos, small group ensemble pieces, and skits. It's often quite hilarious. There's a lot of individual creativity that people tap into during the making of this show.

Because I was on the road all last month, I didn't have the capacity to pull together a music solo to perform onstage, so I volunteered to play incidental and ambient music before the show, and during the intermissions. I brought my Chapman Stick, my five-string electric bass guitar, and my rack of digital processors, including a Lexicon JamMan looping device:

I need to take part of the rack apart and make some changes to the cabling, and replace a couple of batteries. I haven't played out much this past year, between illness and lack of opportunity. This coming year I will be focusing mostly on writing music, which was one reason I bought a piano last fall. So the rack has been slightly neglected of late. I'll take it apart soon, and make those necessary repairs and changes, and then I want to start playing this way again. I may have to just bite the bullet and leave the rack set up in the living room next to the piano for awhile, so I can play and record as desired.

Last night, during the second intermission, using the looper to layer musical tracks together, I stumbled into a piece I felt really good about. I laid down a chord progression in the bass: eight bars of chord cycles. (The JamMan has 28 seconds of active memory, allowing you that amount of time in which to compose and record a loop.) Then I added some midrange melodic/chordal, which pulled the chord cycle in a new direction. Then I improvised a melodic solo over the top of this for awhile. Later, I added another set of midrange and treble chords that pulled the original bass line in yet another direction, harmonically. Then I added another melodic loop in the treble, which was the capping point of the harmonic cycle. I let that go for awhile, improvising around the various elements, then gradually let it fade away to nothing, while playing new chords and melodies over the top again. A gradual shift to another direction. The whole process-oriented, loop-based, improvised composition lasted between 7 and 10 minutes, the length of one of the show's intermissions. I was very pleased with the musical materials that had come up, and I really enjoyed playing this way, which I haven't done in far too long.

This is a fairly typical way of improvising/composing with loops, for me, as a performer and composer. It has its precedents. In classical music, there is a history in Medieval music of cyclic music based on repeating segments or fragments. In contemporary classical music, there is of course gradual-process music such as Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, for guitar—the guitarist records 10 tracks and plays the 11th track live with the recording. And there are precedents in pop music, as well.

Last month when I was on my latest roadtrip out West I found a couple of Mike Oldfield's recordings on CD at a regional CD store, notably Tubular Bells III. Oldfield is still most famous for his first recording, Tubular Bells, which broke new ground both in terms of its eclectic rock- and folk-based musical style, and its innovative use of the recording studio as part of the compositional process. The music is sectional in that recording, with each section built on layers of ostinati (repeating melodies) gradually being added together to make a contrapuntal texture. At the time of the original release of Tubular Bells, there was a lot talk in the critical circles about instrumental rock music; about music that presents itself without the usual developmental processes of classical and pop music, each section just stopping as the next section begins; about the absence of narrative pop music forms such as the ballad form, leading to comparisons with symphonic forms, for lack of other precedents; and a lot of commentary about the technical and craft aspects of the music, which were (and are) impressive. Basically, Oldfield used the recording studio to play almost every instrumental part himself. Each part was played live to tape, gradually adding layers to construct the piece. This process of layered composition is directly analogous to contemporary loop-based composition and performance.

In my opinion, Oldfield's masterpiece from his early period of making recordings this way is Ommadawn, which is his third recording, and in which he takes everything learned so far and pushes it to a new, very much orchestral level. A lot of musicians get stuck on the technical brilliance of what Oldfield did (and does), which was admittedly very ground-breaking and influential. Many musicians, like many poets, get stuck on the technical brilliance of the craft, however, and neglect the musicality the craft exists to support. There are still rock musicians who imitate what Oldfield has done, but without the same level of musical inspiration.

Oldfield's ostinato-based compositional style, consisting of layers of repeating cycles of melody and chords, is very much a precursor to contemporary digital loop-based music. Just as much as Steve Reich's music is a precursor. I dare say Tubular Bells remains one of the most famous pieces of music of the past half-century, instantly recognizable to the ear, and made even more famous by its use as the soundtrack to the original film The Exorcist. (I could quibble about the music's use or misuse in the film, but that's a discussion for another day. Suffice to say, the music has way more going on, as music, than the movie ever allowed for or revealed.)

I wasn't able to make a satisfactory recording of what I improvised last night. It was music live in the moment. However, while it's still fresh in my mind, I plan to record a sketch version of it this week, once I've done a few other chores, and set up the rack again here at home. It's a sketch that I might be able to work into an actual composed piece of music, later on.

Composition for me is often based on improvisation, after all. I regularly improvise till I find something I like, then make that into a finished, composed piece. It's one way of working that has led to some good results.

For example, here is another loop-based improvisation recorded direct to stereo, performed live on Chapman Stick, which has evolved into being a finished piece. The process of improvising/composing and layering loops, chords, and melodies here is essentially similar (albeit the music itself with very different elements, tempo, and style) to that of the new piece from last night that I described above:

Twenty Minutes Short of a Year    

AD, Chapman Stick, loops

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Art,

Ommadawn: has always been on the top of my favorite list. I found a deluxe reissue recently (deluxe meaning with added bonus material, on the occasion of the 30th or 35th anniversary of the recording) and was surprised about how much of the music I still had memorized.

Tubular Bells: for completist reason I have the original, and I get the novelty of what it was at the time. However, my hands down favorite is the Orchestral Tubular Bells version played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged + conducted by David Bedford.

Once a radio broadcast of a classical piece caught my attention, reminding me very much of the Ochestral Tubular Bells. It turned out to be composed by R. Vaughan-Williams, played by the same orchestra + conductor, so the similarity figured. I am sure that Mike Oldfield never had a conscious intention, but I have since wondered how many influences he may have had from British clasical/composed (for lack of better word) music of the 20th century.

Never really listened to Hergest Ridge, never been terribly interested in other Tubular Bell reworkings, and would put Incantations at 3rd position of my Mike Oldfiled list.

Anyway, best regards!

Thomas Simon

5:11 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi Thomas, thanks for the great comments.

I need to get ahold of that deluxe reissue of Ommadawn, certainly. It sounds wonderful. I also love Incantations, that's a great piece, glad you mentioned it.

I've heard other folks agree with you about the Orchestral Tubular Bells. I know that David Bedford has worked several times with Oldfield, and I think has produced some mutual projects, as well. I've heard a lot of good things about the Orchestral version, so I'd agree about encouraging folks to check it out.

I do have a fondness for Hergist Ridge, though. That's because Hergist Ridge is more openly folk-influenced and folk-oriented. It reveals a lot more of Oldfield's Celtic folk music sources; which are also present in much of his music, albeit part of the overall blend.

I recall an essay or interview in which Oldfield did acknowledge a classical influence. With Oldfield, it's very much a stew of many sources, mixed together to come out with something new and original.

It's certainly possible to discover classical influence in some of the music. I think it mostly reveals itself in terms of structure and orchestration. I can certainly hear an orchestration debt to composers such as Vaughn Williams, Percy Grainger, and Frederick Delius, who is considered an English Impressionist a la Debussy.

1:22 PM  

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