2-Bit Game Club

A monthly podcast about understanding what makes games great that you can participate in! Also videos, live streams, and in person discussion groups in Toronto

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September 4th, 2013

Rehearsal went badly. I need to outline what I want for the group and ask if people want that for themselves.

Learning Speak Low.

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September 3rd, 2013

Practice plan. Focus and be intentional!

Long tones 6th. 8 beats at 60
Professional bassists exercise
Vomit exercise
Hedgehog exercise
15 minutes of sight reading

This But’s for You! Work on that middle section I keep messing up. Sing the few lines that I have.
Good Bait. Make it a little more comfortable. Get the melody down better via singing.

Go through the cupboard and figure out what I want to keep at school.

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September 26th, 2013

Practice day. So much time to practice on Thursdays.

Keep working on Long Voyage. Good progress yesterday.
Pro bow
30 min of transcribing tonight
September song Frank Sinatra lift.
Long tones in 9ths ascending Mel minor.
Test tune memory.
Edit to do lists and calendars

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September 6th, 2013

Speak low needs to get moved on. Learn the changes, play to tune.

Meeting at noon. Figure out if the work study thing is a good use of time.
Chess club idea.

Get things together for Aziza tonight. Change of clothes an so forth.
I will always get more done at school than at home.

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September 2nd, 2013

Practicing with lonely mystery bass. Working on creating a pitch memory for good bait and playing the chords as triad inversions.

Trying to think of practice logging as a positive things and not a time waster. Going for my 4 hours of focus this year as getting time to practice becomes rougher. Will set practice priorities.

Practicing logging is practicing.

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Conception Concept

I have this idea in my head that musicians fill their head with musical concepts. They define how that person approaches the music that they play, and you can break their concepts down into various levels. In this way a jazz musician might be said to have a solo concept that helps govern their approach to soloing. You might break that down further to say someone has a given kind or sort of jazz standards solo concept, you might say for them that solo concept is really well developed, but maybe that their free jazz or baroque cadenza solo concept is lacking or maybe under developed. You might break it down further and say that they have a good harmonic concept, rhythmic concept, phrasing concept and so forth, up to the point where you’re either talking about things you can’t really verify or observe meaningfully.

This idea isn’t new and I’m not claiming to have any bold new insights either. Just so we’re clear.

So where this all ties into my composition project is that I am coming up with a lot of resistance in trying to write out a saxophone solo. There’s a lot of warning bells that should be going off already, given that I’m trying to write something to make it sound like it was improvised, but here we are.

At the heart is the problem of putting into writing a style of play that was developed by improvisers who are using techniques that are highly idiomatic to their instrument. The problem is in learning how to write those techniques out without having actually learned them myself. As is the case for any instrument, its construction will determine what musical tools the player has access too, and will push them towards some common play elements, either because these elements of play are easily attainable on the instrument, or because they are very suitable for the style of music they are in, and so forth.

The saxophone is an instrument where facility is gained very easily, and so good musicians eventually become able to present some pretty amazing sonic feats. It’s an instrument with:
-A wide pitch range
-A wide dynamic range (though tends towards being loud)
-A capacity to be played very quickly
-A capacity for sustained notes for a moderate length
-A capacity for a very wide range of articulations
-A capacity for a wide range of tones or timbers
-An ability to switch between the above qualities on a dime

I call the saxophone the “note hose”.

So I play bass, it’s my primary instrument. I also play a forgivable amount of piano, which is to say that when I play the piano, you’ll likely be able to forgive me for doing so. As a result the only instrument that I have facility with lacks a few of the qualities of the saxophone, and so the approach of a saxophone player is a little alien to me.

The bass is an instrument with:
-An extremely wide pitch range
-A wide dynamic range (though tends towards being quiet)
-A capacity to be played somewhat quickly
-A capacity for sustained notes of indefinite
-A capacity for an extreme range of articulations (divided between pizz and arco playing)
-A capacity for a range of tones and timbers
-Some capacity to switch between the above qualities quickly

To me the key differences are of course the difficulty associated with quick play on the bass and the difficulty involved in developing the wide range of skills needed to articulate across the great length of thick string. Professional bassists are very expressive, but younger bassists lack access to the flexibility of articulation and control that saxophonists soon gain. There are clearly other qualities that could be investigated in each instrument, but I digress.

I’ve listened to a trillion saxophone solos, sure, and have even transcribed some on the bass, but yet I don’t feel like I have the whole conception of the instrument in place, and so I don’t know how to really nail the part. I feel like I’m writing a western script for a Hollywood Western long before anyone in Hollywood thought to learn about native american history or culture, and any sax solo I would write would be like putting Italian actors in red face. Those old screen play writers meant well, as I do with my alto sax solo, but that’s clearly not enough.

So the solo is written now, and I think it’s fine. In the end my solution was to put in my mind’s eye and ear the impression of a sax player who I knew well. I knew they’re style of play pretty well, have had the opportunity to see them play live a bunch of times, and I had and still have a bunch of their records on hand for reference. As I wrote out the solo I tried to figure out if it was something that would compel them, if the solo would be fun for them to play, if they would sound good doing it, and if they would have anything to say about it and what that might be. Through this process I arrived at the solo that is now in Penny, Pound, Inch, Mile, and the process seemed to work quite well. I feel like I ended up with a solo that would match their style, but not one that was ripping off their lines or copying their approach. The solo is clearly my own, but it takes lessons from a great player.

In this way I think the task of developing a saxophone player concept was made easier. Typically I understand people better than I understand music, and by allowing that asset to have nurture an area where I had a deficiency I was able to avoid the issues of not having much practical experience on the instrument, and instead contribute something suitable for it that a native saxophonist may not have figured to play.

Some Success, Surprisingly

Over the course of my foray into music I have taught my self to not suspect success in any form,

In these affairs my motto is “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” because high hopes don’t write music, neither does ambition or regret, writing music and writing music alone writes music. But when success comes my way, I don’t question it and enjoy it when it lasts. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should explain that I seem to have picked up more over the course of my first semester at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music than I thought I did. There was no light bulb moment, I’m not suddenly turning out opus after opus of mighty works, but things are coming easier somehow. I can manage to get the ideas in my head out onto the page, and the experience of confusing failure has been replaced with that of understandable failure. Of course editing and revision is still part of the writing process, but where before I would stare at a block of notes and itch as they sound awful, I now look at a block of notes as they sound awful and see and hear where I went wrong.

Marginal success! Hooray!

So there’s music. I’m writing it, so I know that for sure. In fact, for the first time in the history of ever, I am finding myself ahead of schedule, with hundreds of measures of good solid drafts written out in just a number of days. Lets read and write together about what some of that content is, I’ll talk about 3 pieces in progress:

1. Penny, Pound, Inch, Mile – A pretty straight ahead bebop style tune with a overly elaborate form, which I am calling:

[Intro][A][A][B][A][alto sax concerto][trombone solo]
[C][trumpet solo][A1][Tenor solo][D][bass solo] [Sax soli][AABA][Ending].

For this one only up to the alto sax concerto is written, and the rest is planned out. When I say “concerto” I mean soloist against a section. So a written out solo played against written out accompaniment. It’s like a sax soli, but the relationship between the top alto voice and the rest of the section of reeds is as such that I feel there is a clear enough distinction that I need to call it something other than a soli. Concerto was a word that I knew that meant something pretty close to what I was planning. Ta-dah!

Issues with this piece is getting a lot of milage out of the melodic material, tying it in and making it sound like the song is this song specifically. I’ll need to do some serious big band listening to brain storm solutions. If you’ve got any let me know! I’m going to listen to Main Stem (Duke Ellington) now that I’m on the brainwave (sorry Malher). I’ll write a piece about my love for Main Stem some other time.

2. An arrangement of the traditional song Maid on the Shore. I wanted to write an arrangement of a tune that had lots of verses, so I picked this one. I don’t think I’ll give the tune a vocal treatment at all, as right now I lack those writing skills, and I don’t want to make it obvious that it’s a east coast hat tip. Needing to work with accents of singers and delivery of text in a jazz setting isn’t a fight I want to fight right now. It’s Liam Vs. Liam, either way I loose.

3. Wet Work (Dirty Work). Oh the most dirty of blues’. This one is the kind with a baritone saxophone lead line. The head is written out for this one, as well as the main riff that the piece is based off of. This is the piece that is currently getting the full composition plan treatment. This one is going to get really ugly with belching bass trombones and big beat 4. It’s got what I feel like is some of my best contrapuntal writing in it as well.

Well that’s the update. Until next time.

Composing for a 12 Piece Jazz band

And so another major project begins.

Over the course of the winter break I will be attempting to write the beginnings of three hours of music for a 12 piece jazz band. It has long been my ambition to be a band leader and play in large ensembles, and so this is my first crack at doing it personally.

This is by no means jazz “the way I wanted it” or my attempt to contribute something to the cannon or body of work that is jazz, but rather the first step in many towards mastering a language and an idiom. I’m prepared, once this project is through, for all of the music to suck provided that I at least learn something in the process.

The band is a fairly typical small jazz ensemble:
1 Alto Sax
2 Tenor Saxs
1 Baritone Sax
2 Bb Trumpets
1 Trombone
1 Bass Trombone
1 Euphonium
and a rhythm section consisting of
1 Piano
1 Upright Bass
1 Set of drums

This, I feel, is a pretty manageable group of instruments to deal with. There’s enough in each family that they can act as distinct units the way we’re used to hearing in jazz bands, but not so many that I have to use up a lot of trying crying over Trumpet 5 parts. There’s lots of flexibility in register and if I really need to stretch out ranges and timbers I can (and will) always have the saxes double on Bb clarinets and flutes. Also I know that at the least I don’t need to find a bass player. The odd instrument is the Euphonium. To me it’s like a trombone, but blends more readily with woodwinds and trombones than the second and third choices did (french horns, baritone horns and so on), and I also have experience writing for the damn thing.

The rep. is all going to be pretty inside, and I’m going to try to contain the composerly undertakings for the details and execution. I feel like, as a writer I am constantly shoot my self in the feet by taking on way too much, writing pieces that are well beyond the scope of what I can reasonably accomplish in the time frame allotted and over all just overly optimistic. This is lead to a lot of valuable lessons, but this time I want to end up with a finished product that I can start drawing audiences with. As a result I’m going to be drawing mostly on standard style song forms. This way the ambition isn’t in the musical approach as such, just the quantity. Write a lot of good swinging tunes!

I’ll let you know how it’s going. Let me know if you have any requests.