Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Composition - Process: Seeking the Tao

My new cd - returning - is a collection of original compostions (with one exception) designed to create an atmosphere somewhat meditative in nature. The last tune I wrote, just before the recording session, is called 'Cavern Heaven' and gets its name from a 15th century silk scroll by Dai Jin entitled "Seeking the Tao in Cavern Heaven".  A copy of the painting is prominently displayed outside the Taoist Center where I study Chi Kung, Tai Chi and other internal arts. You can hear the complete song here at CBC Music.

One of my inspirations for this tune was the great Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. His trio music always has an amazing vibe and I wanted to create something along those lines. Step One involved finding an anchor to establish the vibe I was looking for. After a while at the piano I had found my ‘set up’ for the tune which was the piano bass line that enters after the intro (2nd system). It was the perfect beginning for the feel I was trying to establish. The harmonic structure it outlines starts off relatively vague and ultimately ends with a resolution to the major third.

Step two was coming up with a lyrical line to fit with the bass line. It wrote itself. I don’t know how to explain or teach these things. I love the major 7 on the sus chord

The next step was the most difficult and laborious and took a few weeks to figure out. I felt it necessary to keep the bass line movement continuous throughout the entire tune but finding just the right harmonic structure was difficult. The tune itself was taking on a lullaby quality and I wanted to preserve this idea. As with many compositions I find myself stripping away and stripping away, much like a sculptor sculpts, until the tune finally reveals itself. This was definitely the case with Cavern Heaven. It helped that somewhere in the middle of this process I came up the unison line (a scaler Phrygian motif - 2nd to last system on page 2)  which I knew would come at the end of the form. This is a most important part of the composition process…..knowing where you are going. I find many student composers sometimes seem to write in a ‘stream of consciousness’ way, bar to bar, without a sense of the bigger picture. The result being a bit of a mish mash…i.e. a bridge that should be an A section or part of another tune, an A section that would be better as an intro or outro...etc.

Step four was realizing I had written a really nice tune. Bass vamp intro, nice tune, logical form. There is however a point where that nagging feeling of “this needs to be better” creeps in. Again time to step back, and either see what’s missing or see what’s unnecessary. It was clear upon reflection that I had stripped the tune down but wanted something more, rather, than just the standard head in, head out format. I felt it needed to go somewhere else after the solos. A reprieve of some sort. I decided to write an interlude (page 3). While interludes are prevalent in large ensemble writing, I rarely hear them in smaller ensemble compositions. The challenge, with the interlude, is getting back to the original composition. Fortunately for me in this case the interlude just wrote itself and functioned as a substitute for the first 6 bars of the original composition. So now I had a nice tune with an interlude.

 There was still something missing. It had to do with the original vamp. I felt as if it should emerge from somewhere. Some ethereal, airy, netherland sound. My intellect told me it should be something atonal in nature, so I set out to compose. This took some time. I started working with different 12 tone rows and playing with that idea. After some time it eventually turned into a whole tone sound in 15/8 and I abandoned the row and went with what my ears were dictating. Always go with the ears!

The icing on the cake for me was having the idea of the bass playing quarter notes over the intro making it on the beat and then off the beat (1st system). Eventually the bass is left on its own and my original step one vamp is allowed to emerge. I’ve heard it said that one thing for sure about the creative process is that you have an inert knowing when it is completed. It can happen in a flash or can take months. Usually it’s a combination of the two.

Again you can hear the full song at CBC Music.  If anyone would like to have their own copy of the sheet music, go to my Jeff Johnston Trio facebook page, hit the 'like' button and send me a message.
My cd is available on my website.