On Composing Interactive Music

A blast from the past – a web site called Audiokinetic Blog found an old essay of mine and asked me if I’d like to dust it off for them to repost. I wrote a new intro and they added some cool artwork. Audiokinetic are makers of interactive audio tools. I haven’t had a chance to play with them but they sound like they’re pretty cool. Ah life is too short.

https://blog.audiokinetic.com/time-travel-to-1993-on-composing-interactive-music/

In the Court of the Crimson King

I saw King Crimson Saturday night at the Beacon Theatre in NYC. It was by far the best KC show I’ve seen and this is my fourth one. Just blown away.

One thing that made it a special night is my friends Rich and John were in town to see the show too. Rich was my old college roommate and guitar player for Infingon, and John was the bass player, and also plays violin and several other instruments. Both are still active in music. Rich was the one who originally turned us all on to Crimson back in the day. As Infingon went on we played more an more prog. Our setlist included two Crimson numbers – Great Deceiver and 21st Century Schizoid Man, as well as material from Yes, Rush, ELP, Genesis, UK, Supertramp, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Doors, U2, The Police and a handful of others. So it was a great reunion for us.

This tour Crimso was in their so-called seven-headed-monster configuration, even though it’s been expanded now to eight musicians. The most dramatic addition to the lineup was the return of Mel Collins. Mel played every sax and flute they make, but spent most of his time sqwonking on the bari in the altisimo register. Fripp played mellotron as well as guitar, and with another synth player gave their sound alot more range and color. Tony Levin back on bass and stick. Three(!) drummers arrayed across the front of the stage did lots of exciting things with big unison, counterpoint, tonal/rhythmic zones and passing the beat around. Jacco Jascszyk on vocal and guitar had really strong interpretations of Greg Lake and John Wetton songs, and even one from Adrian Belew, literally a unifying voice across a vastly diverse set.

The group was unbelievably tight, yet loose, and had a great sound. Like with Mahavishnu I’m amazed at how good a group this large, loud, and dissonant/arrhythmic can sound. You could really hear everything and there was alot going on. I think live sound reinforcement has really evolved for one thing, and an acoustically good venue helps too. And of course the level of musicianship is out of this world.

The song selection was everything you’d hope for. The show was two sets, three hours. The first set opened with a triple drum solo. Then they did a host songs from In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, and Islands, all updated interpretations, and some instrumental jams. Toward the end of the set they did Epitaph, then Starless off of Red, and finished with Indiscipline. Jascszyk sung a melody to replace Belew’s rap, very effective.

The second set opened with another triple drum solo, and some more instrumentals and deep cuts from the pre-Wetton era. They did Moonchild right into The Court of the Crimson King, basically the second side of that record. Wow. Followed by Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two, then Easy Money, really jamming out. Totally amazing. Each song was opened up, 10 or 15 minutes long. The encore was a roaring rendition of 21st Century Schizoid Man, again opened up for solos. Just unbelievable. Totally satisfying.

After the show we went out to a diner to continue to catch up.

Birds of Fire

Lots going on on the music front these days.

First of all Gus, our drummer for LEFT HOOK, has fallen ill. We all wish him a speedy and full recovery, but sadly he’s not gonna be doing much drumming for a little while. We know a few other guys who play drums, and we’ve been having them sit in to see what kind of chemistry we can gin up. We had Dan from HSQ in a couple weeks ago and it went really well. Unfortunately he just started a new job and can’t commit to a second band right now, even as a sub. Meanwhile Ken and I have been looking forward to adding new songs to the set again, but it looks like we’re a long way away from our next gig.

OTOH here’s some good news: the jazz originals group, the Haven Street Quintet, has found a recording studio. Our friend Robert K has a studio in a building behind his house up in Katonah, a former garage or carriage house. It’s pretty much perfect for our needs, which is to record the group live. It’s a professional level studio with a nice live room, big enough for the whole group but still cozy. There’s a beautiful 7′ Steinway B grand piano, a nice bench of mics and preamps, and a proTools rig compatible with mine. (The plan is for Jay and I to mix it at my house.)

In rehearsal we’ve been sharpening our songs. At this point it looks like we’re going to record two of Gary’s songs, one of Jay’s and three of mine. This is about half our songs. At first we were thinking of trying to do one album side, maybe four or five tunes. Then Robert suggested as long as we’re going thru the trouble of setting everything up, we might as well play the whole day and evening. Now I’m thinking of getting a seventh song studio-ready and try and do a whole album in one shot. I must say the energy of the group has been very focused. We’re continuing to hone the compositions and find new things to bring out in the improvisation.

The evening Jay and I went to check out Robert’s studio we went on to see a jazz show: Christian McBride and his trio doing a tribute to legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown at the Ridgefield playhouse. I used to work in Ridgefield but haven’t been there in years and had never seen a show at the playhouse. Turns out it’s a great venue. The music itself was fantastic, mainly standards, very swinging and accessible, but at the same time full of hip and advanced ideas and and surprising mood shifts. The piano player in particular was amazing.

Then this last weekend we saw another show. As it happened it was the night of Lizzy’s 18th birthday. My little girl all grown up. Wow. We were in a celebrating mood.

This one was John McLaughlin at the Capital Theatre in Port Chester. I saw McLaughlin with Chick Corea last winter at the Blue Note, and he was great. I must say the Capitol is one of my favorite places to see a show, great sound and great vibe, and this night was a good one cuz I went with Jay and Gary and Jeannie.

The show itself was totally mind blowing. The opening act was Jimmy Herring, another jazz fusion veteran, whose band included a guy on Hammond organ and Clavinet and another on Fender Rhodes and violin. Great stuff, nice and funky. Next McLaughlin came on with his band, a quartet. The drummer did some tabla-style vocalizing, and the set was pretty Mahavishnuesque. This is McLaughlin’s last US tour so you got the sense it was special for the group.

Then for a third set both groups came out at once and did a whole set of Mahavishnu songs, strange modes, out meters and all. It really brought me back to when I listened heavily to that kind of music. We even used to do some Mahavishnu material in my old grup Event Horizon.

I must say the live performance sounded even better than the records. I always love it when a band has two drummers. It’s so hypnotic when they’re locked in to a groove, and there’s plenty of space for creative soloing. Even more amazing is I’ve never seen a group like this work with two bass players. They sometimes played the same part, sometimes one laid out, and sometimes two completely different parts. At one point they were dual soloing. Amazing.

All the soloists were superb and there was plenty of room to stretch out. The clav player was super groovy outta this world, and violin player great, and I usually don’t like jazz violins. Lots of group dynamics. They really built up a feeling of cosmic vibes. By the end the light show and everything was full on trippy. It was a long show, four hours of music. Wow.

The One that Goes “Bweeee”

I can’t remember a September that’s been nicer weather since we left California. Been super busy with stuff. Back into a routine with work and band rehearsal, and Michelle is off to a good start in high school. Already the weeks are flying by.

I recently bought a new synthesizer. It’s a Moog Sub 37. This is a new modern analog synthesizer from the venerable Moog corporation, based on the design of one their classic models from back in the day. The main difference being that in addition to all the analog knob-twiddly goodness, it’s fitted with a digital control module that lets you save and recall presets and communicate with a computer via MIDI and USB. And supposedly it stays in tune better.

As far as the synth itself goes it has everything you’d hope for and expect. Great rich warm sound produced by two oscillators which be either stacked or parallelized into duophonic mode. And the sweepable filters, LFO, ASDR, portemento, modulation, all routable and configurable, and even a programmable arpeggiator for the lazy.

Shopping for it was a pretty cool experience. I had had my eye on this synth for a while but wanted to play it before I bought it, and none of my local music stores had it in stock. Then my friend Rich turned me on to a place called Three Wave Music out in New Jersey. They specialize in new and used keyboards. One the way out I got go over the new Tappen Zee Bridge, which looks incredibly futuristic.

The Three Wave Music showroom had everything going back to the beginning of time. Lots of old Moogs, Oberheims, Rolands, you name it. Taurus pedals, an original 808 drum machine, a Hammond B-3 with a pair of Leslies, a wall of Keytars, even a Theremin. Amazing. I bought a used Fender Rhodes way back in 1990 or so for $125. The ones they have there are a few thousand. And while I was there I was able to get something I never even imagined — a replacement for the little knob that holds the supports for the legs into the bottom of the cabinet. I’ve been using a bolt and a washer all these years!

The guys were really nice and synth was a couple hundred dollars less than I’d seen it anywhere else, so it was a worthwhile trip. I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to learn it and use it some future records. I played with it for a while at the store but haven’t even had a chance to plug it yet in at home. The main reason being that my studio was full of photography equipment. More on that next.

Life in the Keys of Songs

I recently wrote a song called Atonement Blues. It’s in the key of C, although it passes thru all 12 7th chords. It got me thinking about whether I favor different keys in my song writing. So I went and made a list of all the songs I’ve written and performed or put on a records.

It’s interesting because different keys have different sounds. To me the higher keys and the sharper ones tend to sound brighter and the lower ones, as well as the flatter ones, darker. When you’re in a given key your mind and hands tend to run in certain patterns, especially on sax. Sometimes when you’re writing a song, changing its key can alter the whole character dramatically.

It turns out I have a pretty good spread:

C: 3 Cm: 4 7
Db: Dbm: 2 2
D: 2 Dm: 2 4
Eb: Ebm: 1 1
E: Em: 2 2
F: 3 Fm: 1 4
Gb: 2 Gbm: 2
G: 2 Gm: 2
Ab: Abm:
A: 3 Am: 4 7
Bb: 1 Bbm: 1
B: 1 Bm: 1

It looks like I favor the keys of C and A (both Major and minor). C generally sounds neutral to me, while A is bright, although A minor sounds neutral too. There are some gaps in the low major keys and high minor keys.

C is the default key for writing on piano and a good jazz key. Of the seven songs I have in C and C minor, most are jazz numbers, or jazziod rock numbers, and only one, Touch the Ceiling, is a straight-ahead rocker. It was co-written with my drummer Mark who chose the key. Three of these are recently written numbers I’m doing in my jazz originals group.

I have two songs in Db minor. Both are kinda funky/jazz and both began in C minor or D minor and I shifted them a half-step. For a while I really got into writing on the piano in keys that use alot of black keys, after noticing that guys like Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen tend to do alot of that.

D is a pretty versatile key, low but bright, good for jazz or rock. I have four songs in D and D minor. All of them are strident and uptempo.

Eb minor is a fun and weird key, very dark. I have one song in that key, Ghost in the Machine. I don’t have anything in Eb major.

In my mind E is the default rock key. Interestingly, both of my songs in E-minor are non-jazz instrumentals that have a single chord and mostly are about exploring out time signatures.

F is another versatile key, higher but darker than C. Of the four songs I have in F, two are uptempo and two are ballads.

The two songs I have in Gb is actually in F#. F# is higher and brighter then E. Both are rather cosmic sounding. One, Angel or Alien, was and was written on the bass and is mostly a ballad with an uptempo middle section. The other, Seventh Sea, is a jazz ballad that spends alot of time in other keys and plays with the idea of shifting tone centers.

I have 2 songs in G but none in G minor. Both are are up and bright

I have no songs in Ab. Maybe I should try writing one.

I have seven songs in A and A minor. Most of the A minor ones were written a long time ago for Event Horizon. Of the ones in A major, Rocket to the Moon is one of the few songs I’ve written on guitar. Black Swan was written mainly on bass, and moves thru several keys, including a big part in E minor.

Bb sounds lower and darker than C to me. Great jazz key. The one song I have in Bb, Your Dancing Shoes, is a soul/funk/blues number that I’ve done both a rock and a jazz version of.

The only key that’s brighter than A is B. My only song in B, Heat Wave, is very uptempo and in 7/8. It modulates to G# minor for the verse.

Through with Buzz

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the passing last week of one of my musical heroes Walter Becker of Steely Dan. He was a big influence on my sound and by all accounts a great guy. I saw Steely Dan live three times, going back to their first tour in the 90’s and twice more at the Beacon in later years. Each show ranks up there with the all time best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve been taking time this week to work my way thru the Steely Dan songbook, concentrating on the more advanced stuff in the back half from the records The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho.

In my own musical world things are happening again after the summer hiatus. The LEFT HOOK is back in rehearsal. We did a bunch of Steely songs just to jam, including My Old School, a bit of Babylon Sisters and Hey Nineteen, as well as Kid Charlemagne and Rikki from our regular set.

We’ve been adding in new songs at about the rate of one a week before we went on break and are back at it. We’re up to twenty-five songs or so, almost enough to play a whole show. We’ve started adding some of my rock originals. Everyone in the group enjoys playing them, which is a good sign.

We’ve also been dusting off the whole list to get them back into working muscle memory and see how they sound as a quartet. Overall really sounding good, even things we haven’t played in six months or more. Only downside is because I’m singing alot more we had to drop a lot of the sax songs. I’ve gone from playing sax on about half the songs to about a quarter. So I’m looking for more sax songs that we can do with our setup. In the weeks ahead we’ll pick four or five songs to record to use as a new demo so we can get back to playing out.

In jazzland the originals project has broken off from the jam sessions to become its own thing. It was clear for some time that our old Mike wasn’t really into it, and everyone was getting pretty frustrated with the situation. We got a new drummer Dan, who fits right in and has the sound we’re looking for, as well as the technical precision, versatility and imagination, and a great guy to hang around with. He cites Bill Bruford and Tony Williams among his influences. So now we’re back at it, crafting our arrangements and the goal of making a record is back on.

I’ve brought in two new songs. One is actually an old song called Son of the Sun, that I used to do in Event Horizon. (I had a lot of songs from Event Horizon and I brought a few into this group, but most didn’t really work so I started writing new songs instead.) It’s mainly in 5/8 with the bridge in 7/8, so it wasn’t even worth attempting before. Of course with the new group I expect it’ll sound pretty different.

The other is an all-new song I’m calling Atonement Blues. It’s based on the idea of a tone row, which is something I’ve been playing with for a year or so since Michelle came home from school one day having learned about them and all excited. The idea of a tone row is to construct a melody using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale without repeating any until you’ve used all twelve. Technically this isn’t so hard, the real trick is coming up with something anyone would want to listen to!

In my case I applied the idea to a chord progression rather than a melody. It came about almost by accident. I was playing around with another songwriting idea, trying to make a blues/soul number that used only dominant seventh chords a la Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I got a fair way along and noticed I had only repeated one chord, and I wanted the turnaround to reverse the harmonic motion, essentially wrapping around the cycle of fifths. A couple tritone subs and I was there. Here is the progression:

C7 | E7 | F7 | D7 |
G7 | B7 | F#7 | A7 |
Bb7 Eb7 | Ab7 Db7 | Cmaj7 | (Cmaj7) |

It turns out to be a great vehicle to solo on, reminescant of Giant Steps.

Summer Fun Part Duex

Since I’ve been feeling better the last few weeks I’ve been trying to enjoy what’s left of the summer. Last weekend I took Michelle to the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island. This was the first airplane museum we’ve visited since our trip to Ohio. It’s a pretty cool place, featuring mainly locally built planes from the World War I era and the space race. Not as big as the Smithsonian or Wright-Patterson, but first rate. We met Mary and the cousins there and it was a good time. Michelle still really into seeing and learning about airplanes (and still wants to grow up to design airplanes and spaceships, or videogames).

By coincidence there was a videogame convention going there that day too. At first this seemed a little nerdy even for me, but it turned out to be a really fun bonus. There was a ton of classic videogames, vendors, even cosplay babes. Michelle was to see an original Atari condole and play the classic E.T. game. They had an amazing band, called Con-Soul, with a six piece horn section (two trumpets, two trombones, alto and bari sax), a synth mallet player, drums and fender bass. They played all video game music, with the format of doing a horn arrangement of the main themes and going into a funk/jazz jam. Very cool.

Then one night last week Mary’s came up and went with Jeannie and the girls to Rye Playland. I joined them after work mainly for a walk around the park.

I’ve been working really hard the last month or so to meet a deadline at work. Going back to work in the evenings and weekends, and all the while trying to focus on my health. It’s not easy keeping a huge amount of code in your mind and tends to take over your imagination a little bit. Kinda stressful but I try to be zen about it. Two days ago I finished and made probably the largest single commit since I’ve been writing software, at least 60 files in four different languages, into both the trunk and the release branch. So that’s a huge load off my mind and I can relax a little.

Last night I went to sit in with my friend Charlie’s band. It’s a happy hour gig at a little cafe right on the waterfront in downtown Yonkers where there’s a little park and everything. Great spot to watch the sun go down over river and sip your drink and listen to some jazz. We did some standards like Impressions, Footprints, There Will Never Be Another You, and All of Me. Felt great just to let go and be in the moment.

The Unfinished Work of Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox

The paper of record, the New York Times, wrote another, pretty in-depth article, about my project The Global Jukebox:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/arts/music/alan-lomax-global-jukebox-digital-archive.html

We just pushed a big upgrade to correspond with this article, and as it points out, the jukebox is a work in progress. It started off as a short-term contract gig for me, but I’ve been involved for over a year now. We have another major upgrade slated for the fall, and beyond that, if we can get funding, the scope is open-ended.

Some Summer Fun

I had to cancel my trip to Europe at the last minute because of an injury and I’ve mostly been sitting around the house getting better. Apparently the Origami Creators Conference was a good time. The next interesting international origami conference for me is the BOS and 7OSME in Oxford in 2018, so Imma try to go to that, and maybe take Michelle with me.

Still I’ve been having a bit of fun and trying to make the most of summer so far. Of course I’ve been really busy with work too. Right at the end of June we went to see Sheryl Crow at the Beacon Theatre. Excellent show, great venue with it’s classic maximal art deco. Great sounding band, including several guitar players, and a pedal steel guitar, Rhodes and organ. Surprisingly Sheryl played bass on a lot of songs.

Last weekend we saw McCoy Tyner at Caramoor Art Center. That was really good too, but a very different kind of show. I can’t believe I’ve live in Westchester for years and never seen a show a Carmoor. It’s like a mini SPAC, full of gardens and an amphitheater under an awning. There were three piano players, the last of which as McCoy, all playing an eight foot Steinway, accompanied by a fantastic rhythm section. I’m amazed at how three different players can get such different sounds from the same piano, down to the sound of a single note.

Sing!

The first day of summer is here! We had a big graduation party for the girls last weekend. Martin came down from Albany, and lots of Jeannie’s cousins from Long Island. Good time. Things are a lot more more mellow around the house now that the kids don’t have to get up for school. Plus I’ve cut back on working out while I bounce back from an injury. Still, lots of stuff coming up including Origami this weekend and a trip to Europe next month.

The quartet format for the rock band seems to be solidifying, and I must say my singing is sounding better and better. Most of the new songs are far enough along that we basically know them, so I can focus on phrasing and performing. And we can get started adding a few more. It’s a pretty big switch to go from singing two or three songs a set to singing most of the time. You’ve got to make your voice last. Which means singing loader and stronger but more relaxed. Which makes you sound better too.

Also I’ve been finding it easier to stay on pitch. The big breakthrough came last fall when I got my new piano. I typically practice with the lid open and I’ve found that when I’m on really right pitch my voice resonates with the open strings, and sounds louder and fuller. This lead to increased microtonal awareness and a cycle of getting the know how the sound of being on pitch feels in my throat, a sort of self-reinforcing feedback thing. Now I find it easier and more natural to get there.

I guess it also helps we’ve been picking songs that are in my vocal range. Next step so to convince the band to do some of my originals. Of course now that it’s the summer all the rehearsal schedules become more erratic as lots of people have vacations and other commitments. Ah well.