Every now and then you happen upon some music that really has an effect on you. That is especially nice when it is a gift from someone in your life, even more so when it is from someone new in your life and they want to share with you something they love.My future wife gave me for a birthday present early on in our relationship, a cd of Preisner, 10 easy pieces as recorded by Leszek Mozdzer. I think that is a really wonderful recording, very pretty and compelling little pieces performed to perfection. I highly recommend it.
This little piece took the simple left hand pattern from the piece titled ‘a tune a day’ as a starting point and fairly quickly the melodies for the right hand emerged without any trouble. This piece started as a springboard for improvising, but I finally decided to pare it down to a simple ABA form that will fit on one page for this series.
An excerpt from conversations with Oscar dePonchek….
Bjorn Rossby.No self-respecting composer would hold modern music’s possibly first one hit wonder, Johan Pachelbel and his D major canon as the pinnacle with which to strive after.
Oscar dePonchek. One hit is a billion times better than no hits.
BR.To be called a one hit wonder is usually pretty derogatory.
OD. Sarcasm is often be employed to mask another feeling.
BR.So anyway, I wrote this piece back in college as a lullaby for my new niece. Somehow Pachelbel’s canon in D popped into my head as an inspiration for a lullaby and out came this simple bass line and melody fairly quickly. 20+ years later I am still right pleased with it.
OD.So would you be embarrassed or psyched if people love this tune, but only ever this tune of yours?
BR.I thought we were going to keep this light!
OD. You were the one who brought up Pachelbel and his one hit as if it were nothing to be proud of.
BR.I suppose a pile of money would lighten any embarrassment.
OD.This went nowhere fast. I thought you were different, not so flipping shallow.
BR.If I were in it for the money I would be doing things completely differently.
OD.That’s probably true. So, have you nothing interesting to say about this piece?
BR. Well, there is still a small mark of my wonderful composition teacher, Geoffrey Gibbs, back from my college days that has remained all this time and is a strong reminder for me to constantly be aware of voice-leading. When I brought this into my composition class for review I had written the left hand pattern identical on the first page. Not only did he find that too repetitive and predictable but it had also, without my even noticing it, caused me to inadvertently double the leading tone at the end of measure four. I think that teaching moment became the start to a fascination with the technical aspect of composition and voice-leading. That’s of course after the guy sitting next to me slapped me across the head.
OD.Well, you clearly deserved that one. By the way, Pachelbel is probably pretty psyched to have his name and creation forever associated with the most love and joy filled day of our lives. I’ll bet a bottle of champagne you had it at yours.
I have basically three ways I like to compose. My most productive way is to sit at the piano and just start messing around until I notice something worth expanding upon. I also try to compose while sitting in a coffee shop or on the train straight onto my little iPad. This is sometimes wonderfully fruitful but also the way that produces the most crap. I occasionally also take some piece of music I like, or gets stuck in my head as a starting off point and see if that will inspire something I can call my own. That is how this piece came to be. Bizet’s Habanero from his opera Carmen got stuck in my head one day so I thought I would see what would happen if I used that as a starting point. This melody is some 8-9 years old but I still think it is very pretty so I finally made the effort to lock it down on paper.
It makes me wonder, why can’t music at least this nice pop out every time I sit down to compose.
This one is for David because I don’t know your name…
Now that I have a little daughter I often end up thinking how random life is, and miraculous. Maybe miraculously random, of course sprinkled with a little tragedy.
You know that feeling you get when you feel your life is better because someone is in your life. Or someone has been in your life. Or you got to be a part of their life before it was over.
Back in college I had a good friend with a younger brother named David. A glorious young man with a heart of gold who died in a car accident way way way too young. It is not really possible to describe with mere words what a beautiful person he was, so I won’t try.
But now that I am a father to a little girl I started thinking about what kind of person I pray she will have in her life, some day far in the future that is, and David is the person I keep thinking of. Which led me to the thought that some wonderful girl with a heart of gold missed out on a life with him. We will never know who that might’ve been, but let me go out on a limb here and say, if you are a beautiful woman with a heart of gold, born probably in the 70’s and you have a nagging feeling you missed out on something incredible then this one is for you. This boy would’ve taken great care of your heart.
My original intention was to dedicate each of these 24 pieces to girls, there will probably be a few exceptions such as this one because I don’t know your name. I hope things turned out okay for you anyways. This one is also of course for David. Rest in peace.
What I wouldn’t give to hear my mom working once again on her sewing machine in her hobby room. Deep in the nostalgic recesses of my brain I can hear that machine chugging away. If I could, I would curl up in the big bean bag chair with a mug of coffee and our beautiful collies and just listen to her and her sewing machine work away while she listens to her relaxing CDs. If I only could.
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Little Fugue in g minor
Bach’s music shouldn’t work.
He was, like several other Baroque composers, highly prolific. A good portion of his output was for teaching purposes, another hefty portion were written for weekly church services. Without the aid of computers and printers he wrote music so theoretically perfect at such a brisk clip it is hard to fathom that all of it is also, unlike all the rest, profoundly beautiful and timeless. I find however, very little of his music particularly catchy.
Bach seemed to thrive in the rule riddled world of baroque composition. No other period of music has had so many rules, and unlike any other period, to break those rules is unforgivable, anyone who couldn’t manage all the rules would have promptly been over-looked and forgotten. The composers since then were much more likely to even flaunt their disregard of the rules, attempting to blaze new trails, but that was simply not tolerated during the baroque period.
In eighteenth century counterpoint you have to keep track of how every note interacts with every other note, horizontally and vertically on the paper. You have to have a firm grasp of all the rules associated with contrapuntal composition, you have to be sharp enough to keep track of how each note interacts with every other note in all the various voices of the composition, and to top it all off, it has to be beautiful, or it was a waste of time. There really was only one composer out of thousands who tried throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries who really managed this to perfection. We trained classical musicians could give you a list of others who wrote some really fantastic baroque music, but it is only Bach, we in general, really care about it.
But Bach’s music shouldn’t really work. Pages of angular melodies and counter melodies made up mostly of quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes. Mostly, baroque music is great for training musicians, the more time you spend playing Bach, the better your Chopin will be, and it can be really nice background music. But just as Bach is supremely wonderful to listen to, it is also mindbogglingly stunning to study his scores. There is no other composer you can simply geek out to just by looking at the score. The technical prowess is second to none. It seems to me so completely impossible that such a huge output of music by one person in one lifetime can be so theoretically perfect while also being so profoundly beautiful, maybe interesting and compelling, but not so incomparably wonderful.
Back in 18th century counterpoint class I was often driven to the brink of madness trying to complete my counterpoint composition exercises. I have never wasted so much paper as I did in those classes. Every time you put pen to paper you have to go through a process of checking how that note interacts with every other note you have already written. You may want the next note of your melody to be an f# for example, but the rules forbid it, and if you insist, then you have to erase something you have already done. The process is constant checking and rechecking, erasing and experimenting. Like doing the hardest sudoku, and when it is finished, realizing you have just created roughly ten seconds of utterly mediocre music. It is truly maddening. Mozart had it easy by the time the baroque period ended and the classical period got into full swing. They were much more free by then to create music based simply on what sounded pleasing.
One day our counterpoint teacher teased us with what is possible if we master these rules. He turned down the lights and cranked up a recording of Bach’s little fugue in g minor for organ. A real masterpiece, and maybe, even a little bit catchy.
The real thing, just beautiful:
If you would like an example of how classical musicians sit around the proverbial fire and contemplate the sheer madness/genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. Picture grown men walking around a car show mouth open. 🙂
Words cannot express the absolute genius of that one page.
Fugue – an original fugue in e minor (perfect fifth up)
(I will do an original fugue in all 24 keys with the first interval in the melody being one of the 24 chromatic intervals either up or down within one octave(a little information for the music geeks))
I was no musical prodigy. I started lessons when I was seven, and though I never stopped I also really barely practiced. I hope none of my students throw that back at me.
This used to really bother me, just think what might have been if I took it more seriously from the start. I preferred however, to run around the woods with my dogs imagining all sorts of adventures hoping to catch a cold so I could stay home the next day and play Legos in my bedroom.
I have always hated school, from the beginning until the very end. Besides all of my wonderful and patient piano teachers, I have only one school teacher I look back at with any fondness. A nun if you can believe it, Sr. Lorraine. Otherwise I have a perfect disdain for being told what to do, doing trivial homework and taking poorly thought out tests. That is probably why I also never became a good classical pianist. Though I have always loved or at least enjoyed the years of lessons and hoped I was always on track to becoming a fine pianist I was never a particularly good or disciplined student. This didn’t really dawn on me until after I stopped taking lessons. I don’t even like my favorite composers telling me how to play their pieces, let alone teachers, traditions or universally accepted performance practices. It is why improvising has become such a wonderful and fascinating pursuit. I can do whatever I want at every moment, I can always at least say when questioned why I did something a particular way, simply because I felt like it.
Even though improvising in a fugal style is so incredibly difficult it is also so compelling for me because so few others are trying. Which fits so nicely with my tendency to not like doing things everyone else is doing.
It would be nice to be able to play all of my favorite classical pieces, but I also think it would be quite frustrating and boring to maintain a list of all the common pieces everyone else is playing. Probably no one really knows exactly how many thousands of incredibly capable classical pianists there are in the world now. How many of these wonderful pianists would love to be performing for at least local audiences craving for some musical beauty. These audiences however seem to be dwindling.
This is where running around the woods and playing Legos I now feel was a wonderful way to spend my childhood, as it instead fostered a vivid imagination and creativity. I no longer mourn the lost potential productivity of those years but instead celebrate the nurturing of a vivid imagination and creativity. Though this has brought no fame or fortune, I am immensely enjoying the feeling and process of creating something. Even if trying to master a lost art is at least a questionable way to spend ones precious free time. It however still feels completely worth the effort.
So carry on I must. 🙂
This melody was the first I wrote for this project of learning how to improvise in a fugal style, and shortly thereafter deciding to do a complete set of 24 in all the major and minor keys. I have thrown away many melodies, others I have struggled with as they slowly come alive, and some, like this one, have simply and effortlessly come to fruition. Though this one is simple, and maybe even mildly Baroque in nature, I still like it and feel it is rather pretty.
Shortly after moving to Sweden, my sister-in-law gave me a ride back to my apartment. After a bit of chatting she said she had a cd I had to hear. It was Jan Johansson’s “Jazz på Svenska” cd. She said he is Sweden’s best jazz pianist, and I think even Sweden’s best selling jazz album. Having never heard of him and doubtful Sweden could produce some great jazz I was skeptical. Wow was I instantly hooked. Apparently he had collected old folk melodies from around the country and jazzed them up with his bassist.
A nice thing with jazz in comparison with classical is it is easier, or maybe even mandatory to develop a unique and instantly recognizable style and sound. That certainly is also true with this fascinating pianist. Sadly he died young, we will never get to know what heights he might have achieved. Jan Johannson can swing with such phenomenal delicacy, his improvising is quite spare and he utilizes an occasional wrong sounding note so deliciously. I am always instantly drawn into the sound world he creates, please give a few of his recordings a try, I would be quite surprised to hear you don’t also love his sound and style.
This was a particularly difficult melody for me to work with, I think I somehow got lucky when I pushed record that day. I tried to honor the gentle pulse he creates throughout the piece while also keeping track of what both hands are independently doing trying to improvise contrapuntally. I usually get quite lost when I try working with this melody. His rendition of the nostalgic folk melody is simply outstanding. I am hard-pressed to think of another musician that swings and breathes with such calm finesse.
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Schubert’s late A major piano sonata
In all seriousness, is there another composer who wrote as many and consistently lovely melodies as Franz Schubert? It is unfathomable. Really. To take a single note, and then some specific moment in time later offer another, and another and have those strings of tones turn out to be gloriously beautiful melodies that capture the hearts of millions, generation after generation is extraordinarily rare. To have created so many beautiful melodies in his short 32 years is a complete mystery.
When we think of classical music, we are mostly talking about maybe ten really great composers, and a couple dozen more second tier composers. What we ignore is the literally thousands of long since forgotten composers, maybe quite capable in the art of composition, but just couldn’t string notes together into melodies that captivated and endured. Not to mention the long list of already forgotten twentieth century composers who thought that that specific ability was both undesirable and unnecessary. Aha, now I understand! The sheer impossibility of it all meant, composers needed to come up with a way of bypassing the need to first of all have to create captivating or at least catchy melodies. No mystery how that turned out. This possibly may explain why pop music exploded to the extent that it did. The general public got tired of waiting for the presumed stewards of fine music to produce something worth listening to, and have ever since, resisted returning.
Anyway, The main theme from the last movement of his late A major piano sonata is one such melody. I melted into my chair the first time I heard that movement and on a pensive day would place this melody into my list of top five favorite melodies of all time.
This melody was much easier to get comfortable with for improvising and it became a favorite to work with when my mood turned inward.
The recording I most often turn to, which is also the first I heard is a recording by Claudio Arrau. If you have the time, listen from start to finish in one sitting, the whole sonata is fantastic, the second movement is in and of itself a masterpiece, and the final movement, from which this melody comes will make the most sense if you hear the whole thing in entirety. It creates the right setting to delve into the serenity and gentle ebullience of that final movement. Be warned, that requires a good 35 minutes of calm attention.
If you are going crazy wondering where you have heard this melody before, it was used as the opening theme song for the old sitcom ‘Wings’.
There is an incredible cd with Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin. The entire cd is wonderful but I especially love their rendition of the the timeless standard ‘autumn leaves.’ Since then I have loved the simple yet enduring melodies.
Whenever I work on my fugal improvising I alternate between my own melodies I write especially for this purpose and other favorite melodies searching for those that seem to without much resistance work well as fugal melodies. This is one such melody, and when I am feeling calm and melancholic this seems to be a natural choice to train on.
As a child and young teen I loved pop music, especially the hard rock bands of the 70’s and early 80’s. Then rather abruptly, I switched completely to classical music in my late teens. I have never really loved jazz, I have some favorite pieces and a few jazz musicians I love, but as a genre it never became an obsession. The jazz style is fascinating and I admire greatly those that are truly great at it, as I have struggled myself to find the jazz groove and sound. To swing like the greats is still a mystery, something probably most devote their lives to attaining. It probably can’t quite be simply taught in school. I actually think there are only a select few classical pianists that also swing and breathe to perfection.
The reason I think improvising in a fugal style turned out to be so perfect is for, I guess the opposite side of the coin of what I think jazz got so wrong.
When we say we love a particular genre of music, or composer, or band, it’s probably barely true at all. To take an extreme example, can I say I love Vivaldi if I love the ‘Four Seasons’? When I was younger I loved the rock band Jethro Tull. Ian Anderson and his cohorts I will still proclaim are geniuses. Only a few of his many albums although, can I say I love in entirety. Each time they put out an album, I was hesitant to purchase it, completely unsure if I would think the whole album is a masterpiece like I consider a select few. Can I with any accuracy say I love Jethro Tull, or is it more true to say I love a list of their songs? And what that comes down to is, the melodies they create and what they do with them.
I have listened to and studied the scores of all the Beethoven piano sonatas, and even though it is easy to say I love Beethoven, there are plenty of his 32 piano sonatas that I will never listen to again and that is perfectly fine. They simply do not resonate with me like a small list do, the melodies just don’t grab my attention, even if I know they are all masterworks. I would be surprised to meet even an ardent Beatles fan that feels a strong connection to every one of their songs. There is nothing wrong with this, the point I am trying to make is, it is the melodies and the handling of those melodies that captures the imagination of each of us. Certain bands and composers may have a particularly long list of pieces that inspire us, but it must be quite rare that it is 100 percent. That’s my thought anyway, maybe I am wrong, or maybe it’s just semantics.
So what does that have to do with what I think jazz got so wrong. It is quite possible to listen to a jazz ensemble play ‘autumn leaves’ and barely once get to hear the actual unadulterated melody. The swinging of the group can be perfect and the soloing truly expert, but one can be hard pressed often to have any clue what the actual tune they’re playing is. At that point, the phrase “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” isn’t just a catchy phrase to tease the second tier musicians with, but a profound statement on what might be lacking in jazz.
If I can return to the Beethoven piano sonatas, the famous and much loved ‘tempest’ sonata I know is an expertly written sonata, is one I don’t particularly care for as the melodies don’t really capture my imagination. Would even Beethoven have a problem with this if I in the next breath say Beethoven sits firmly in my humble list of top five greatest musicians ever? Each of us creates our own list of music that captivates us, and I think for most of us it is mostly based on the melodies of certain songs and pieces and the handling of those melodies.
If one evening I feel in the mood to listen to a particular Chopin nocturne, I may click through a few possible videos on YouTube, each time I know I will at least be able to hear the melodies I am craving, even if I end up clicking to another pianists rendition a little too hastily.
In jazz the basic jumping off point is to take a song, honor the harmonic structure while “ignoring” the melodic substance, improvising to your best ability. In improvising in a fugal style I get to honor the melodies I love so much while ignoring the harmonic structure of the piece, getting to experiment with different possibilities in that arena instead.
Before you might think I have it out for jazz, if I could swing and improvise like a jazz master and had an equally capable bassist and drummer to jam with I probably wouldn’t look back. And even though it seems to me like the jazz world is struggling, I think the classical music world is struggling far worse, imploding from within, those in charge of handling the future of classical music are doing a poor job of creating any interest, and many I believe, are actually doing the exact opposite of what might be productive at this point. Which, having caught the tail end of the golden years of classical music is hard to grasp and even harder to accept. Many people can become quite avid listeners and consumers of classical music with the right introduction.