Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review - Dark Star Orchestra at The National, Richmond, VA 12/28/14 (performing 7/14/76)

This past Sunday, December 28 was my first time seeing the Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra since guitarist Jeff Matson came on board. I had seen DSO several times with John Kadlecik in the Jerry Garcia slot until he was called up to the majors to join Furthur in 2009. Part of my hesitation in seeing DSO since then was because I wasn't sure if they would be as good with the new guy as they were with JK. I'm happy to report that there has been no drop off in quality with Jeff Matson at the helm.  It's different, but in a good way.
Dark Star Orchestra
Kadlecik’s vocals and tone are spot-on (close your eyes and it's Jerry), but I found Matson to be an edgier, more adventurous guitarist. Matson also proved to be a confident leader, taking the band down creative, and sometimes dark, paths of improv that went to places beyond just the duties of replicating a setlist and arrangements. Rather than trying to mimic Garcia, Matson's vocal delivery differed in ways that actually worked to his advantage, giving the music an in-the-moment feel.

I’m definitely not as up on my Grateful Dead history and minutia as I used to be - haven't studied it in years - although I still think I am way more aware of song rotations and the sounds of different years than the Deadheads who actually lived it in the 70’s and 80’s!  For example, by looking at the stage setup before they started one could assume it was a post-1974 Keith and Donna era show based on the two drum sets and the keyboards positioned on the left.

The opener Promised Land was sans “Donna” (Lisa Mackey) but when she materialized for the 2nd song Sugaree this confirmed that it was either 70’s show or an original setlist. Matson made a particularly good impression on this Sugaree, building it to an early peak, then letting it settle down and mellow out the last time through.

Minglewood came next. No clues there except for maybe the absence of the “T for Texas, T for Timbuktu” verse(?). The placement of Scarlet Begonias as the 4th song of the 1st set seemed odd to me and the way they were playing it indicated that this was a pre-1977 version that wasn’t going to go into Fire on the Mountain. This made it fairly clear that they were doing a 1976 show. (I usually try and guess the year of a DSO concert by the third song of the 1st set.)

The only thing that sort of threw me off was the absence of Blues for Allah songs. It being 1976 you expect things like Help / Slip / Franklin’s, The Music Never Stopped or Crazy Fingers, or maybe even It Must Have Been the Roses. The whole first set could have been a 1974 set, especially with the sparkling Playin' / Drums / Wheel / Playin’ end to the set, but the presence of two drummers meant that it couldn’t have been 1974 unless there were some ’74 shows with Mickey Hart that I was forgetting.
Jeff Matson - photo by Suzy Barocas Perler
The whole 2nd set was a highlight. The ballads were on point and there were some monstrous jams during Let It Grow into Eyes of the World, and then again leading from Wharf Rat into The Other One. They finally played something from Blues for Allah as the last song of the 2nd set - The Music Never Stopped. We left as soon as the show encore of Johnny B. Goode started, so we missed the announcement of the performance date and the bonus “filler” encore of The Weight, but a quick glance at 1976 setlists when I got home confirmed that we had just seen them do 7/14/76 at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, CA.

I would definitely go see DSO again with Jeff Matson as Jerry. He could really tear into '73 or '74, or even something earlier.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Vangelis Pytharoulis - Cretan Melodies

One of the fun ways of using a music streaming service like Spotify or Rhapsody is to search for random, far out titles. For example, last week I had a hankering to hear more exotic sounding folk music from around the globe, so I created a huge playlist populated by albums that came up via searches for words like "Balkan", "Cretan", "bouzouki", "musette", "balalaika", "Turkish", "Middle Eastern", "Oriental", "Romanian", "Arabic", "pasodoble", "ngoni", "marimba", "choro" and so on. Anything I could think of in that vein.  I put it on random play and one thing I universally liked each time it came up were tracks from this generic looking album called Cretan Melodies - Instrumentals.
It says the album is by Vangelis Pytharoulis.  I have no idea who this is and I haven't been able to find anything out about this album. I just know I like the sound of it. Crete is an island that is part of Greece, but Cretan music is different than Greek music; it has a mixture of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences and probably some African and Oriental influences as well. It's kind of like everything I was looking for in that search all rolled into one.  One of my favorite albums of 2014 was Goats by Xylouris White, which is based on Cretan folk music, but with a more avant-garde flair. The presumably traditional music on this Cretan Melodies album had a lot of similarities to Goats but of course with a more indigenous sound.

These Cretan tunes run together in long, hypnotic medleys. Having never listened to this music until recently, and never having tried to play it before today, I wasn't sure what would happen but within a few minutes of trying to play along with the first tune on the album - called Esvis aeras to keri (sp?) - I was playing along with it! The time signature and rhythm may be different, but it was definitely using the D major scale, although it wanted to resolve to B so maybe it was B-Aeolian?  (see recording above). Looking forward to delving deeper into this album of Cretan music.

My search also uncovered some interesting Bal Musette and Middle Eastern gems, so I hope to cover those in future posts.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Music - Figuring It Out for Yourself

My transcription of a tune I'm learning -
a work in progress
You don’t really learn something until you learn it yourself in your own way. For example, I remember finding other people's instructions on how to play by ear and re-blogging this information long before I had ever tried it myself. That was over three years ago. Now that I am five weeks into attempting to learn tunes by ear I'm developing an inkling of an idea of how to do this based on how I’ve managed to do it thus far.

After a full year of playing by ear I'll have an even better understanding of the process and a more refined way of doing it. Chances are what works for me - my eventual way of understanding it or describing it - may be different than the way it was explained in those instructions written by others.

Another example is the chord player who refers to a chord chart to tell her when to go to the IV chord, the V chord, and so on.  If instead she learned through trial and error by relying on her ear to tell her what’s right and what’s wrong rather than what some guy wrote on some sheet or even what some teacher said to do, then not only is she learning in a more direct, intuitive fashion, but she may also happen upon personal harmonic preferences, such as hearing a minor sounding chord that the chart omitted.

When you figure something out for yourself, you learn what's important and what you can leave out.  My chicken-scratch transcriptions make sense to me and don't need to be any clearer for my use and understanding, but would be confusing for someone else. A lot of people will say when you are learning a new song you figure out what the chords are first and then go from there.  I may be wrong in my approach and this may be an incomplete view, but I don't really even think about or care about chords. I think in terms of melody. That's what's important to me.

I like to learn the melody first and then go from there.  I understand theory well enough to know what chords would be available in the scale being used, but I don't need to know that to play the tune.  I might harmonize a melody note with another note - that's similar to the idea of a chord. It took figuring this out on my own for me to personally decide what's important and what's not.

One impact I hope learning by ear will have is, rather than being so focused on just playing the notes - a "midi" style melody - I can shift my focus to articulating the general feel, rhythm and vibrato of the piece. You don’t need a book telling you where to do a triplet or hammer-on, you just hear the need for it in the music and do so automatically.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Travel Destination: Québec City!

Almost every year my wife and I try and visit some place outside the continental USA, as budget and time permit.  In the last decade we've been to Ireland (multiple times), Scotland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Jamaica and Puerto Rico (twice). Next on the list will be Québec City in 2015. Why Québec? Here are some reasons.
image from Voyages Universitie site
Old World charm – That phrase "Old World charm" looks and sounds so stupid, but what it means is that Québec is reputed to be the most European of all North American cities. You know, narrow, cobblestone, shop-lined streets; outdoor cafes, and stuff like that.

French culture and language – You can experience a French-speaking region for much less cost than going to France or even the French-Caribbean. Plus, it’s in Canada, where the people are just plain friendlier. The French stereotypes don’t apply to the Québecois, do they?

Cost/Convenience – With one-stopover flights from our local RVA airport to Québec for under $400 round trip, it means no flying out of DC. And, you can easily find rental apartments in the Old Québec/Saint Roch area for less than $400 per week.

Music – It’s always a plus for me if the place we’re going has an oldtime jam or Irish session to check out, and it looks like there is an Irish session at Pub Nelligan’s in the city every Tuesday evening.

Waterside – Although it’s neither an island nor directly situated on an open body of water, the mighty Saint-Lawrence River does run through Québec, which keeps our water-themed trend going. The Saint-Lawrence is fairly wide as it passes through. You can take a ferry across to Lévis, where there is the Parcuors des Anses – a 10 mile paved walking/bike path along the water.
image from Corporate Stays site
Size/Layout – Québec looks like it is small enough and condensed enough to be completely walkable, but still sizable enough to have plenty of pubs/breweries, restaurants, coffee shops, museums and other cultural attractions. I have a feeling that it will be similar to Galway Ireland, Reykjavik Iceland, St. John’s Newfoundland and San Juan Puerto Rico – other cities we have visited and really enjoyed.

Other travel destinations in the running this time were New Orleans, Lunenburg Nova Scotia, the French Antilles (Guadeloupe or Martinique) and Michigan.

New Orleans was a strong contender.  It certainly checks the boxes for cost and convenience, plus culture, cuisine and music.  However, New Orleans might be more fun to visit with friends than as a couple, and Québec has a possible advantage in terms of charm as well as the French-speaking characteristic, which may be an incentive to learn some français before going.

Lunenburg, NS appears to be a lovely small town in Canada, similar to previous favorites like Dingle Ireland and Stromness in Orkney, Scotland.  However, flights to the nearest airport Halifax are a little bit more expensive than to Québec and you'd probably want to rent a car since Lunenburg is about 80 minutes away.  I also didn't see any inexpensive lodging options in Lunenburg other than the campground in the middle of the town; an option I seriously considered. But, if you're going to be in Nova Scotia you might as well try and see the Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton while you're up there, which would involve a ton of driving and more expenses.  We weren't up to the challenge.

The francophone islands in the Caribbean looked enticing until I looked into the airfare.  Unlike Puerto Rico, where you can fly for less than $300, it's almost $800 or more to fly/get to Martinique, Guadeloupe or St. Barts, so that will have to wait.  Plus, I think we're ready for another northern, more urban setting and not some place tropical.

The west coast of Michigan made a pretty strong case for itself as well, with its miles and miles of coastline, parks and cool beach towns along Lake Michigan and the density of breweries.  Grand Rapids alone has something like 25 breweries and Traverse City frequently shows up as one of the best places to live and/or visit.  It's also feasible to drive to MI from VA instead of having to fly.  Somehow, though, the idea of Michigan just doesn't seem foreign enough!

Ireland would actually be at the top of the list once again if flights there weren't so expensive now (I remember getting $440 round-trip tickets less than a decade ago).  Nonetheless, I have no doubts that Québec is the place to go next!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Diversity - Accentuating the Similarities

getty images
There’s a research paper entitled Mozart to Metallica: A Comparison of Musical Sequences and Similarities, by Stuart Cunningham, Vic Grout and Harry Bergen. The paper found that “Many musical pieces, though perceived as being greatly different in terms of their style, are often very similarly constructed on a strictly notational basis”.

Now that I’m attempting to play and notate some music by ear, I am noticing this more myself. Genre has its uses and conveniences for categorizing and selling music to the general public, and as a player of music you can delve pretty deep into the nuances of different styles and traditions if that’s your thing, but the more I play and study music, the more I see the similarities.

I personally define traditional music as the act of creating music on your own, for your own enjoyment, using some type of musical instrument. This must have been how people did it back in the days before recordings, mp3s and clicking play. If you’re sitting on your front porch playing guitar, then you’re playing music in a traditional fashion, no matter what sound is coming out. It could be Bach or it could be Mary Had A Little Lamb.  One could also argue that pursuing your own musical interests based on the influences around you is more traditional than going out of your way to preserve an archaic style.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

To me, (tenor banjo) is a music equalizer. I can use it to pluck any instrumental melody that my ears are capable of hearing and my fingers are capable of playing. The universality of this act neutralizes the concepts of musical genre, style, tradition and other perceived differences. In other words, a classical composition, a fiddle tune, a jazz standard, an Eastern European folk song – when envisioned/interpreted as notes on the 4-string banjo – sort of all become the same thing, rather than a bunch of very different things. At this micro-level, the only genre is the genre of making music on your instrument. There’s a lot of freedom in that.

The tenor banjo is one of the core instruments in Irish traditional music. It’s loud, it cuts through the din and it uses the same fingerings as the fiddle. It made sense for it to be adopted into the fold. But, when I play an Irish tune on tenor banjo, I try and view it as more of a coincidence than an association with an established style. Irish tunes are just one of many things I might want to play on this instrument. Hopefully, I’d still be playing Irish tunes on the tenor banjo even if there wasn’t already a precedent for it (although it is nice to have that roadmap).

Everything is malleable. For example, I’m pretty sure the Phish song Guyute is in 6/8 time like a jig (if it’s not it could be). When stripped of its album version, its arena-rock context, and its jamband distinction, and with no one to please but yourself, playing Guyute on your instrument should be fundamentally no different than playing something like Irish Washerwoman on it. Conversely, when stripped of its clichéd “Irishness”, playing Irish Washerwoman on the tenor banjo should be no different than playing an arrangement of Guyute on it. It works both ways. One is no more or less an aberration than the other.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of 2014

This year’s Best Of list is marked by the inclusion of several debut and one-off recordings from recently formed ensembles, as well as small-bands featuring just two or three members; although a few old favorites did once again make the cut.  Also notable this time around is a turn toward the noisier, freer, more avant-garde side of the musical spectrum, alongside groups representing traditional Appalachian and Irish music.  

Rhyton - Kykeon
Rhyton is a Brooklyn-based instrumental trio with a jammy, Mediterranean sound.  They take simple, exotic scales and motifs, and build them into full-blown psychedelic compositions.  For about the first minute of Kykeon, their newest release for Thrill Jockey Records, it sounds as if Rhyton are adjusting the dial, re-calibrating their connection to the faucet from which music springs, until they are synced up with the live stream, where they remain tuned for the next 40 minutes of mellifluous elevated prime, until being pulled back down the sonic wormhole from whence they came.  These improvisational meditations are bolstered by Dave Shuford's use of unique instruments such as the Egyptian doumbek, the Turkish electro-saz and the Greek bouzouki...and his bandmates' bass and drums.  Rhyton falls somewhere between jamband, post-rock and indie-world music.  At times it sounds like they are channeling the same spirit that would have infused the Grateful Dead at one of the late 60’s Acid Tests.

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara - Thumbscrew
This album of free improv avant-garde jazz rocks with a heavy metal attitude.  Mary Halvorson is one of the most exciting guitarists/musicians/composers to come along in any genre right now, and on Thumbscrew she's matched up with the equally skillful Michael Formanek, bass and Tomas Fujiwara, drums.  Constantly shifting, this music is too cohesive to be fully improvised, yet too feral to be entirely composed. But, that's just the magic of three great listeners working in tandem.  If you find it hard to jive with Thumbscrew's inverted groove just give it time.  Soon you'll be addicted.

The Alt - The Alt
The Alt is the debut album by a newly formed Irish-folk trio featuring John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O'Leary; a super-group of sorts, that, not surprisingly, excels at upcycling songs.  Each member takes a turn at lead vocals, giving the album a nice flow, interspersed with a couple strong sets of tunes, because they can.  Nuala Kennedy has a voice that is reminiscent of Nanci Griffith, Eamon O'Leary (one half of the Murphy Beds) is a master of the ballad, and John Doyle is an exceptional interpreter of story songs. Instrumentally, Doyle and O'Leary are stringed-instrument whizzes; the perfect accompaniment to Nuala's expressive flute playing.  The Alt takes its name from a mystical glen, or chasm, on the slopes of Knocknarea in County Sligo.

Greg Cohen - Golden State
Greg Cohen is the long-time bassist for John Zorn's Masada. On this straight-ahead jazz outing, he teams with guitarist Bill Frisell to present 9 tracks inspired by the nature and landscape of California - 6 Cohen originals and 3 standards. This is a stripped down, minimalist album - just Cohen's acoustic upright bass and Frisell's unusually clean, non-distorted electric guitar. Recorded in one studio session on December 3, 2012 in Brooklyn, NY. An instant classic.  If you like this kind of music.

The Corn Potato String Band - The Corn Potato String Band
This fun record finds Aaron Jonah Lewis, Ben Belcher and Lindsay McCaw playing a variety of instruments exhibiting twin fiddling, double banjo tunes, Southwestern stringband music, country rags and oldtime. There's a light-hearted, vaudvillian nature to their square dance hootenanny. The Corn Potato Stringband is not afraid to mix n' match styles and influences into a smorgasbord of entertainment. Recorded live with no overdubs.

Crag Road - Crag Road
Crag Road hails from County Clare, Ireland and features Ennis seisiún veterans Eoin O'Neill and Quentin Cooper, newcomer Aoibheann 'Yvonne' Queally on concertina, and Noirin Lynch on bodhrán and vocals. Noirin's sparsely accompanied songs are well chosen, but it’s the tunes that shine the most here. Aoibheann's home grown concertina leads the way, supported by musicians who have spent their lives gathered around pub tables conjuring jigs and reels.

Medeski, Martin and Wood + Nels Cline - The Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2
Nels Cline's affinity for noise and MMW's proclivity for groove are a match made in, well, a highly hip heaven.  The famed trio that merged jazz with jam has shifted their personality slightly on this release to match Cline's frenzied energy.  While MMW with guitarist John Scofield (as heard on this year's excellent Juice) may be like chocolate and more chocolate, MMW with Cline is like chocolate and cheese - a curious meeting of tastes.  Every listen to this highly improvised album reveals more than before.  Recorded live on August 27, 2013 at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY.

The Hot Seats - Grandad's Favorite
The same breakneck speed, wittiness, and slightly blue attitude we've come to expect from these RVA lads is well showcased on Grandad’s Favorite, but this time the balance of songs and tunes might be the best they've ever assembled. Play this one for your granddad. It’s sure to be his favorite.

Xylouris White - Goats
Xylouris White is the unusual collaboration between Cretan lute player Giorgis Xylouris and rock/free jazz drummer Jim White (Dirty Three). On Goats, their debut album, they use Greek folk music as the foundation for rock-minded improvisations. Goats was produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, who describes the recording process like this: “Rather than trying to capture a perfect ‘version’ of a tune, they listened to each other playing and that real-time, in-the-moment communication and shaping is what made each take distinct”. The result is much more than just Cretan melodies and rhythms combined with rock drumming and a rock aesthetic.  Simply put, it’s two virtuosos coming together to fluidly create something entirely new.

The Two Man Gentlemen Band - Enthusiastic Attempts at Hot Swing and String Band Favorites
Andy Bean and Fuller Condon have become increasingly better instrumentalists, now able to solo with the best of them. So, instead of the usual (humorous, original songs that sound like they could be from yesteryear), The Gentlemen tackled a selection of classics from the hot jazz and string band era. They receive some help from Brian Kantor on drumkit as well as members of the California Feetwarmers, adding clarinet, accordion, guitar and plectrum banjo to these cuts, which were recorded around one microphone.

Honorable Mention
Phish - Fuego
Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather
Mary Halvorson - Reverse Blue
Sam Amidon - Lily-O
Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood - Juice

Monday, December 8, 2014

Daniel Hales' Tempo Maps and Top Ten Prose Poetry Books

Musician and writer Daniel Hales' short, jagged prose poems feel like the offspring of a jazz improviser and a cold November day.  His cryptic wordplay works best not when the reader finds something to identify with, but when it implants images and associations that wouldn't have come to mind otherwise.

Daniel's new book of poetry is called Tempo Maps, from ixnay press.  You can start at the front or the other has two alternate beginnings that both end in the middle, or something like that.  The book comes with a CD of Hales reading the poems, interspersed with short instrumental interludes.  Here's a selection from the book.
The little league field seen from the top of Tuckerman's tower is a removed wedge, a pale green sheath (like a sacred grove in a fantasy novel's centerfold map).  The hometown bench is a silver bar where six boys tasted High Lifes one night dotted with fireflies.  Later, two of these boys are men that buy their wives the exact same set of lavender-cedarwood candles.  Another one worries that his cassettes are dying a little more each winter out in the garage.  Another wonders why he can't find the post office's number in the phone book.

Back in September, Daniel Hales shared his list of the Top Ten Prose Poetry Books on; a list that included works by Russell Edson, Francis Ponge, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Louis Jenkins, as well as some equally talented but lesser known writers.  This list has proven to be invaluable in my discovery of poets in this style.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Q&A with Nick DiSebastian, Music Transcriber

Last year I worked with professional music transcriber Nick DiSebastian to have him notate all 18 tracks on The Etcetera String Band's out of print Bonne Humeur album of early Caribbean dance music. Nick is a Berklee College of Music grad and is currently on tour as the bassist for the band Town Mountain.  I have also taken a couple Skype lessons from him and one impromptu in-person lesson when his band came into town.  I thought it might be fun to do a QandA with Nick on the topic of transcribing music.   

Describe your musical background and any current music projects.

I started playing the guitar when I was 10. I loved to play rock and soon got into jazz. In high school I played guitar in the jazz band, started playing the bass in the orchestra and sang in the choir. I also played in a jam band. I went to college for Music Education. While in my late teens I attended a bluegrass festival and fell in love with the sound and culture. I soon picked up the mandolin and started playing guitar in a local band. Seeing young people playing on stage at festivals made me decide to transfer to studying performance as opposed to education. I began studying at Berklee College of Music where I learned much more about theory and ear training and was surrounded by inspiration. After graduating I continued to work as a guitarist accompanying vocal classes at Berklee and gigging around Boston. From Boston I moved to Nashville where I began playing with various local and touring bands. In 2013 I started my transcription business. I currently tour full time with the band Town Mountain as the bassist along with teaching private lessons and staying very active with transcribing. Guitar is still my main instrument and the quest of learning will never end. When I have time off from touring and transcribing I like to play bluegrass and jazz on the guitar.

How did you get started transcribing? What skills do you possess that make you especially suited to this task?

I always had a knack for hearing and figuring out music. In college I realized the value of notating music. I also learned more in depth ear training skills and how to use notation software. My mentor named John McGann had a transcription business very similar to mine. I admired what he had created with his business. When John passed away I decided to start my business. Since transcribing professionally my ability to hear and quickly analyze music along with my notation software chops have gone through the roof.

Why would someone want to have music transcribed? Isn’t there value, in the long run, to trying to work it out on your own?

Along with learning to play the notes and use the techniques of your heroes there is a world of music theory knowledge within transcriptions. The key to gaining this deep knowledge of theory is by knowing how to analyze music and notation. Learning directly from the masters aids everyone’s musicianship. As a transcriber I’m functioning as a time saver (by keeping you playing rather than deciphering) as well as an educator.

There is a lot of value in figuring out music for yourself but many musicians don’t yet possess the skills to hear and understand music theory enough to figure out what is going on in a recording. Along with transcriptions I offer lessons on analyzing music as a means to get the most out of learning to play a piece of music.

What are the most common types of transcription requests you get? Is there a style or type of music that you wish you received more requests for?

The most common music that I receive to be transcribed is bluegrass and fiddle tunes for the guitar and mandolin. I am on a big Gypsy jazz kick these days. I would love to get more work transcribing that style for guitar. The challenge with transcribing professionally is creating business. There are always more outlets for advertising. Touring full time restricts the amount of time I can spend transcribing but I would like to take my business to a Gypsy jazz advertising outlet within the next few months.
What is the strangest piece of music you’ve ever transcribed?

A fella named Lanny Fields had a big collection of music by the Etcetera String Band transcribed ;-). That was a bit out of the norm but I’m rarely surprised. I often receive messages via my website by first time customers for all different styles. Just this past month I transcribed Bryan Sutton, Jimmy Page, Dan Fogelberg, Sandy Denny and Django Reinhardt. I love the diversity. It keeps me on my toes and is constantly exposing my ears to new music.

Has transcribing other people’s songs or solos helped you with your own compositions and improvisation, and understanding of how music works?

Transcribing has helped my musicianship in many ways. The most obvious is that it has made my ability to hear and analyze music much stronger. It has also opened my eyes to compositional and improvisational techniques. There is a bit of neutralizing that happens when turning all different types of music into spots of ink on paper. The subtle differences in feel and embellishments from piece to piece interest me. For example transcribing the same tune by two different players (ex. David Grier vs Norman Blake) exposes me to different approaches to tone and interpretation. I like that!

You also give lessons via Skype. What is your approach to teaching using this medium?

Teaching on Skype has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are being able to teach from anywhere, any time WIFI is available, and staying connected with transcription customers, just to list a few. The disadvantages are not being able to play at the same time with a student and possible bad internet connection.

Each student is unique. I’ll always ask a new student what they are interested in learning and then move on to accessing their knowledge of music and ability on their instrument. Building a strong foundation in technique is the first skill I like to focus on. From there I like to work on a bit of theory. Once the more technical (sometimes “dry”) topics are covered I will get into a piece of music with the student. Analyzing what is going on in the music, how to play it and the emotions it conveys are what I really like to teach. That’s what learning and making music is all about: playing, feeling and expressing. Throughout all of the topics that are covered in a lesson I reiterate practice techniques to ensure that the student will be working on their material in the most efficient, effective and enjoyable way.

If you could only teach one thing to all students, what would that be?

If there was one thing I could teach students it would be for them have a strong sense of what they like and why they like it. Once the intention is set the path becomes clear.

More information about Nick DiSebastian's music transcription services can be found at  Nick's debut CD is called Window View; avalable here:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sound Advice from Clyde Curley, Co-Author of the Portland Collection Books

When I first got an instrument and discovered fiddle tunes, I felt like I needed some kind of written music - tab or notation - in order to play these melodies.  Even though I had no prior music experience, I remember somehow being able to understand and read mandolin tab from, literally, day one, but it's taken me years to come around to trying to play anything by ear.
One of my primary sources for written music is/was The Portland Collection tunebooks, volumes 1 and 2, by Susan Songer and Clyde Curley.  I preferred these books over, say the ubiquitous Fiddler's Fakebook, because of Susan and Clyde's clean arrangements and excellent variety of tunes. Thankfully, I would always listen to various different recordings to get the feel of whatever tune I was learning from those books, but the written page was primarily where I got the notes themselves.

In hindsight, I wish that I had focused more on aural skills early on rather than just rely on tab reading because I feel like I would be a lot farther along now if I had persevered through those initial stages of frustration.  I always avoided deciphering by ear because A) it seemed impossible, and B) you could instantly start to play a tune by reading the tab, and eventually memorize the notes through repetition.
Due to a sprinkle of ear training and a major paradigm shift, I'm now trying to learn some tunes completely by ear without ever looking at the music, if I can help it.  So, it's a little ironic that I turned to some comments that Clyde Curley had written in the introduction to The Portland Collection Volume 2, and in the liner notes of the A Portland Play Along Selection CDs, for inspiration.
If you want to feel the living pulse of traditional music, you need to learn to play these tunes out of your memory as the first priority.  This allows you to interact directly with the other musicians in the session or at the party.  It helps you pay more attention to the technical challenges of playing your instrument.  Essentially, learning the music removes what I believe is an artificial wall between you and what's going on around you and within you.  The roots of folk music are in the aural domain, person to person.  These roots must be honored and strengthened, I believe, if the spirit of folk music is to survive. The music in this book comes from the people who passed it directly to us, not from other books.  It was selected largely because of the pleasure it gives in the playing.  I urge you to pass it on by scraping it out on your fiddle or squeezing it through your bellows.  Make some noise!  This tune book will have served its best purposes if it encourages you to embark on wider, more personal searches that will result in connecting with the vibrating heart of the real thing. (Clyde Curley, from "About this Music" in the Introduction to The Portland Collection Volume 2).  
Our goal here is to encourage learning this music by ear.  Learning from a printed page may seem quick and easy, but it's not necessarily a fast track to mastering a tune.  It may provide instant gratification, but less long-term satisfaction.  That comes from storing these beguiling, pleasing arrangements of sounds in your memory banks via the appropriate avenue for sound, namely, the ear.  This involves an investment of time and effort, but the rewards will be deep and enduring.  (Clyde Curley, from the liner notes to A Portland Play Along Selection).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Diadem: Selected Poems, by Uruguayan Prose Poet Marosa di Giorgio

The poets that I like tend to write short – 50 to 200 word – pieces that really don't follow any rules (except for that abbreviated word count).  Russell Edson’s prose poems and Nate Denver’s word stories are good examples of this.  I might even put the entries in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands in this category.

My most recent find is Marosa di Giorgio, a Uruguayan poet who lived from 1932 to 2004.  Her first collection of poems was published in 1953; the first of 14 books that came out during her lifetime. Her poems always take place in the same fantastical universe, in seemingly the same place and time: the gardens and pathways surrounding her childhood family home in a rural area outside the city of Salto, Uruguay.

Writing from the perspective of herself as a little girl, this world is inhabited by friends, relatives, butterflies, flowers, mushrooms, ghosts, devils and angels.  In Marosa di Giorgio's poetry there's no distinction between fact and fiction, between memory and imagination.  

She wrote in Spanish, but in Diadem: Selected Poems, published by BOA Editions, a portion of her poems have been translated to English by Adam Giannelli.  Each of these poems fits easily on one page, so they have included the original Spanish language version on the left page and Giannelli's English translation on the right.  Having it be bilingual is great because once I finish reading through the poems I plan on slowly going back through them to compare the Spanish to the English.

Here's an excerpt from Diadem.
I remember my wedding, which took place far away, at the white dawn of time.
My mother and sisters were walking through the halls.  And the old bats - who witnessed my parents' vows - emerged, incredulous, from the spider webs to smoke their pipes.
All day smoke rose from the house; but no one came; it wasn't until dusk that little critters and incredible relatives started to arrive, from the furthest farms, many of whom we only knew by name, but who had heard the signal; some were covered head to foot with hair, they didn't need to wear clothes, and walked here and there on all fours. They brought baskets of colorful mushrooms: green, red, gold, silver, bright yellow, some raw; others, lightly roasted or sweetened.
The ceremony dictated that all the women put on veils - only their eyes were visible and they all looked alike - and that I walk before them naked, there beneath those strange glances.
Then, over our heads, our plates, they began to pass sizzling steaks and intoxicating wine. But, underground, the drum band, the blindmoles, kept beating faintly.
At midnight I went to the master bedroom.
Before climbing into the carriage, I put on the shawl that married women wear. The relatives muttered in their sleep. Since there wasn't a groom, I kissed myself, my own hands.
And headed south.

Spanish language version of the same poem above.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music MOOCs: Review of Four Online Cousera Music Classes

This year I had my first experience with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  I took four music classes being offered by Coursera.  These classes were all free, although participants do have the option of paying a fee of about $50 to receive a verified certificate for the course.

During the summer I took two simultaneous 5-week classes:  Fundamentals of Music Theory by the University of Edinburgh, and Developing Your Musicianship by Berklee College of Music.
The Fundamentals of Music Theory course had a whole team of talented instructors involved (in particular Zack Moir and Nikki Moran) and was really well planned out.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating this online class.  They covered a lot of ground over the five weeks, and I definitely learned some things that continue to help with my understanding of how music works.  The course did delve into more than what most musicians will need from a practical standpoint, but students who successfully complete it will have a solid foundation in music theory.  I would be most interested in taking additional courses offered by this team of instructors from the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music.
While the music theory class was going on, I was also enrolled in Developing Your Musicianship, Berklee College of Music.  This class took me out of my analytical comfort zone and required a more organic, aural approach to music.  The instructor, George W. Russell, Jr., is very enthusiastic in his videos.  His excitement for music and teaching is infectious.  A good part of the class is devoted to ear training; bringing out skills I didn’t even know I had!  The content of the class was fairly easy and fundamental, but taking this class has definitely helped me become a better musician and has started me on a path toward thinking about music more aurally and less visually.  It was great in combination with the Music Theory course, and vice versa.  Developing Your Musicianship included a fun assignment and peer review component at the end. 

During the fall I took simultaneous courses:  Introduction to Guitar and Jazz Improvisation.  Both were through Berklee College of Music.
The Introduction to Guitar course starts very basic, with the absolute beginner in mind.  Although my knowledge of music is beyond novice, I haven’t applied much of it to guitar so I wasn’t bothered by starting at such an entry level.  It’s nice to have a refresher, sometimes.  The teacher, Thaddeus Hogarth, has a very clear and precise way of explaining concepts.  If you ever plan on teaching music, he would be a good person to emulate.  The class does progress as rapidly as can be expected over the six weeks.  By the end, you’ll be picking melodies and strumming barre chords, which could prove to be quite challenging for beginners.  This class requires students to post recordings to Soundcloud each week and also review your peers’ weekly recordings.  For this reason, the class took up more of my time than the classes I took over the summer.
Gary Burton’s Jazz Improvisation class was the most difficult of the four.  It’s the only one where I felt that I was at risk of not passing.  I learned that I was completely ignorant to the thought-process of an improvising jazz musician.  It will take me a while to fully absorb and implement the concepts taught in this class, should I choose to do so.  This course does provide a new way of looking at music that could be applied (to varying degrees of success) to all styles of music, not just jazz.  To really understand this class, you have to grasp each new step along the way, and then work on it for years and years.  The videos for this class were shorter and less detailed than the other classes, leaving it up to the student to fill in the blanks him or herself.  This course was also the most time consuming – at least 5 or 6 hours a week were spent studying, practicing, doing assignments, analyzing lead sheets, making recordings, posting recordings, taking quizzes, reviewing peers.  It was a lot to keep up with for a class that I was taking on a whim, for no credit or certification.  Unlike the Intro to Guitar class, where I felt like I was more advanced than the students I reviewed, in the jazz class it felt like everyone was way more experienced than me, which they probably were.  My musical submissions paled in comparison to most of the students I graded, although this form of jazz improvisation doesn’t always equate to good music, especially if it just sounds like aimless soloing over chord changes.

In summary, I was very pleased with my MOOC experiences.  Musically, I feel like I’ve learned more and grown more over the last 5 months as a result of these courses than at any other five month period since I took up playing music.  Most importantly, this experience was the instigator for liberating me from sheet music dependency and opening up the joys of playing music from the heart.

I would most definitely take additional free online music courses from Berklee or the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music (especially those on the subjects of ear training, composition, non-jazz improvisation and world music), as well MOOCs on French, Spanish, Creative Writing, Prose Poetry or Flash Fiction if those were being offered.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Phish Music Theory Discussion

Phish in the practice room, Las Vegas, NV, 10/31/14
On Halloween day, I took a look at the forum on, a Phish fan site, to see if there were any leaks about what Phish’s Halloween set would be later that night.  As usual, the secret was well-kept, but I did find this interesting thread about Phish’s use of music theory, started by a user named DownWithDaBreeze.

Here are some of the responses.  LOTS of good information here!:

It's fairly easy to pick up a shift from a major key to minor or vice versa. A good example is almost every Ghost in 3.0. The song itself is in A minor and the jam starts off there but then goes into a major key. My favorite example is 12/31/10, check out the video below - the change from major to minor happens just around 6:45. If you can't pick it up as it happens, listen to part of the jam in the beginning and then skip towards the end, it’s night and day.  The way this usually works is knowing about relative minor keys, which are keys that have the same key signature (or set of notes) as a corresponding major key so that Ghost jam's minor key is A and relative major key is C.

Now picking up between keys (like from A major to E major) is a bit more difficult for me to do because the feel of the sound doesn't change like from a major to minor shift, just the tones change, however it’s not too hard to pick up. I can usually pick up a key change because it just sounds different. A great example is Tweezer (in A) vs. Tweezer Reprise (in D).  There’s some difference other than the key like tempo, but basically Reprise is more energizing because it’s in a higher key. But this is hard to figure out usually I don't know what key(s) they switch to unless I'm very familiar with the song or I have my guitar in front of me.

Mike takes advantage of the relationship between A minor and C major by playing the C note while Trey and Page are still in A minor, and this creates tension in the jamming, which is resolved by Trey and Page following Mike to C major.  It sounds different because of the notes they are choosing to emphasize in the scale (creating that tension), and also because changing the emphasis of the notes will affect other aspects of the music, like volume, timbre, or rhythm (Fishman isn't playing notes, but he listens to the others so well that he will change what he plays to follow the key changes). Since '97, whenever the band changes keys mid-jam, it's almost always Mike's bass note "substitutions" making it happen. 

Some popular examples:
- Wolfman's Brother from Slip Stich & Pass - song starts in Bb (B flat) major, modulates to G minor
- the 7/29/98 Riverport Gin - main song and Trey's solo are in C major, Mike's solo is in A minor, which morphs into A dominant (A7)

Another of Mike's modulation "tricks" is to start playing a perfect 4th above or below the starting note. 
- the 6/3/11 Clarkston DWD starts in A dominant, but the "A Love Supreme" jam happens once the band modulates up to D dominant.
- Golden Age from 7/18/14 Northerly Island is in C dominant, but the band quickly modulates to G dominant and stays there for about 10 minutes of goodness.

To really explain it we have to get into the modes.  Trey is basically a master of the modes and switching between them which I believe he is doing in this Ghost, and most Phish songs really.  I’m still a novice when it comes to these, but I understand them to some extent.  So for that Ghost they are in the key of C major which has 7 modes each with a root note based in the C major scale, each mode has the same notes as the C major scale, only the root note is different, as are the intervals between notes that are used to build the scale. THIS is what really gives them their unique sound. So in the Ghost, Trey (and I assume the rest of the band) starts off the jam using the A Aeolian mode, which is the same as the natural minor scale.  A is the 6th note in the C major scale and Aeolian is the 6th mode, this is also why A is the natural minor to C major, the 6th note in any major scale is the natural minor/aeolian mode. Then as @kipmat pointed out which I hadn't noticed Mike starts focusing on the C note - signaling a shift to the C Ionian mode which is the same as the major scale. 

This stuff is definitely confusing and I still struggle with incorporating it into my playing. But shifting from one mode to another is a great and impressive skill to have. It can allow for changes that are smooth and not so obvious, Like in this Ghost, while there is a definite switch between sounds as they go from A Aeolian to C Ionian the transition is very smooth and somewhat subtle if you aren't looking for the change. 

To put it more simply C Major (or C Ionian as it is called modally), D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian all contain the same notes. No matter what you do with these modes they will also always contain the same notes. Now the difference between them is the "tonal center" which is the first note of the mode (ex. D dorian the tonal center is D) and this note is what gives them their unique sound. Some of these modes give a more minor sound (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian), some will have a major sound (Ionian, Lydian) and some a dominant sound (Mixolydian). Phish sometimes utilizes multiple modes which they vamp on (Reba) and sometime will only play over one for a prolonged period of time (Ghost). The way that Phish modulates is by shifting their tonal center as has been stated before, but also they will change modes using the same tonal center but a different modal structure (ex. in Ghost they often modulate from C major to C mixolydian, which is accomplished by flattening the 7th scale degree of C major in the case B becomes Bb). Playing modally is one of the easier methods of improvisation, but to be good at it you have to listen to the other members of the group and rely on insinuating chord changes rather than actually changing chords (Page does this most often by changing the inversion of the chord he is playing, thus emphasizing a different note in the chord).

One thing I wanted to bring up - traditional western musical theory is not the only way to master complex musical forms (as found in the Phish). Don't take it for granted that this is the only approach to music even though it works for a ton of people, it's also important to do some experimenting around how your mind best retains and processes information. Perhaps you work better with visual patterns on the fretboard, or 'hear' scales/chords/modes instead of assigning them a theoretical equivalent.

The one piece of the puzzle that never lets up is that it's a ton of work to build up the mad skillz you need to write/improvise/groove on a high level. Find your system and stick with it for years, push yourself to do a ton of ear training and improvising with other musicians. Phish plays the way they do because of their work ethic and commitment to creative music, not because they have mastered theory (OK maybe there is a teeny bit of natural talent in the mix as well...).

I'm at a cheapass hotel in Vegas right now, so I can't get the above video to stream, but I do know that a lot of Ghost jams end up in D mixolydian. The jam starts in A dorian, which has the exact same notes as D mixolydian (both are derived from the G major scale--G A B C D E F# G). As mentioned above, it's pretty much Mike's bass line that determines the actual mode--when he starts hanging more around the D than the A, the "color" of the jam changes. Trey & Page will pick up on it and respond by playing phrases around the D instead of the original A minor--although they're still basically using the same 7 notes.

The jam could most definitely wind up in C major too, which is indeed the relative major of Am (there's a world-class Tweezer from Auburn Hills ‘97 that comes to mind that does exactly this). The only difference, in this case, would be that the mode has an F in it instead of an F#. Obviously these guys have been doing this long enough and have good enough ears to pick up on a subtle change like that. And they don't have to pick up on it instantly--some ambiguity is totally fine while they all feel around for something to lock in on.

I don't normally come straight out and plug my website here, but the "modes workshop" and the lessons on the CAGED system on my website are pretty much exactly what you're looking for. Also there are a ton of Phish tabs & lessons. FYI you'll have to register to get to the lessons but registration is free & instant and I promise I won't spam you.

This sort of combines the stuff that @kipmat and @popsgordon123 said above.

In most Phish's jams, you can break it down to 2 basic ways that they tend to modulate between modes: relative modulation & parallel modulations. There are countless books written on this stuff, but I'll try to trim it down to just one post on .net.

Relative modulations are when the root note changes, but the pool of notes in the scale stays the same (I.E. A Dorian -> D Mixolydian).
Most people learn the modes the way it sounds like @ghostbuster is getting into it. Learn the major scale (let's use C major as an example). When you start that same scale on D instead of C, you end up playing a D Dorian scale... different root chord (D minor vs C major), same pool of notes for the scale. That's the basic idea of relative modulation. Using 3.0 Ghosts as an example, it's pretty common (especially this past summer) for the band to use a relative modulation to go from the type 1 funk vamp into type 2 bliss territory. They start the jam out in A Dorian (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) to kick off the type 1 portion. They move into the bliss section by jumping up to D Mixolydian (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C). They haven't changed the pool of notes, but by moving up to D, the root chord moves from A minor to D major, giving it that happy and uplifting feeling. As a side-note... relative modulation is also the basis for the chord scale theory of jazz improv, which a lot of improv methods fall back on. If you play guitar/bass, knowing the relative modes is essential to opening up the fretboard and getting out of those box scale shapes on the root.

Just to break down the relative modulations farther, here's how it would work across the 7 modes using the same pool of notes from the generic 2014 Ghost example above. The first note in each mode is the root, but the individual notes are all the same.

G Ionian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
A Dorian: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
B Phrygian: B, C, D, E, F#, G, A
C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
D Mixolydian: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
E Aeloian: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D
F Locrian: F#, G, A, B, C, D, E

Depending on the goal of the jam, Phish could modulate to any of those modes simply by changing the root chord (just build the triad from the notes to find the appropriate root chord... Mixolydian would be D, F#, A... D major). Each mode is going to have a different feel even though the notes are the same. It's the tonal center (root chord) that is making them sound different.

Parallel modulations happen when the root note of the scale stays the same, but the pool of notes in the scale changes (I.E. C Mixolydian -> C Dorian). Parallel modulations can be a little harder for a band to pull off without it sounding completely jarring. This is because of the fact that you're changing the pool of notes that you're working with. One of the more common ways Phish does this is when Trey leads the band from a major-sounding Mixolydian jam into a bluesy Dorian jam. There are plenty of DwD's that dive from D Mixolydian into D Dorian as soon as Trey lays down a big blues riff. There are countless other times where the band slips back and forth between parallel modes without being so up front about it, so the above was just one example. 

I think the idea of modulating between parallel modes is where people tend to feel like they're getting in over their heads with this stuff. It can be daunting to try to think about what notes you'd need to change to modulate between 2 parallel modes. Look at how we tend to learn them. We go in order of appearance in the Ionian scale, and we end up jumping all over the place as far as adding sharps and flats goes. I'll use C major as the starting point for simplicity.

C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb
C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb
C Aeloian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb

Seriously... it's hard to think of a logical way to think of modulating on the fly when it just looks like a jumble of flats and sharps being added. As soon as someone told me to reorganize the modes into the circle of 5ths instead of learning them in the traditional order, the lightbulb turned on in my head. So if we reorganize the list above starting with the Lydian mode, the list will be set up in order most uplifting sounding mode at the top to the darkest mode at the bottom. The biggest advantage to looking at it this way is that you only have to change one note at a time as you go down the list.

C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B
C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B (flat 4th)
C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb (flat 4th, 7th)
C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd)
C Aeloian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th)
C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd)
C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb (flat 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 5th)

NOW it starts to make some logical sense, because you can start to look at modulations by changing only one note at a time. Moving between adjacent modes keeps the thought process to a minimum because you're only changing one note. More importantly, it keeps the modulation from sounding too jarring, because you're not changing a bunch of notes at once. It's also easier for the band as a whole to slip from one mode to another if they only have to change one note. As a bonus, if Phish is jamming in Dorian, the band can make a pretty educated guess that any parallel modulation is going to be to Aeolian or Mixolydian. That cuts the likely options down considerably, which is pretty helpful in improv. This is also one reason why Phish jams are so heavily based on Dorian and Mixolydian. It's a very easy and smooth way to make a parallel modulation between major and minor based modes. 

There are plenty of other ways Phish keeps jams interesting, some of which go way over my head, but relative/parallel modulation is a BIG one. When you hear key changes in a jam, it's most likely a relative modulation or a parallel modulation to one of the adjacent modes in the list that was reorganized by the circle of 5ths.

Some good stuff in here for sure. I'll second Lephty's site. Lots of good stuff on there.

Some people started getting into modes a bit. There's a lot of mud in how they can be presented though. For starters, I might back off on that and go first to chord tones. Learn chords EVERYWHERE on the neck. Almost every Phish tune has a progression that they improvise over. If you can grab chord tones from each one then you're good to go. The non-chord tones don't matter at that point as far as scales/modes. Any note is fair as long as there is resolution to a chord tone. 

Start simple. Just chord tones. Maybe stay in one position on the neck. Once you are comfortable there, challenge yourself to shift up a few frets and find some more chord tones. You don't have to play a ton here. Just make sure you are choosing the right notes! Once you're comfortable with all of this, start to grab a note that is one fret above or below a chord tone and go back to the chord tone. Hear that resolution! Next, look for common tones between changes and notes that will be a whole step apart. Use the note between the whole step as a chromatic passing tone. It can go on quite a bit from here. You can approach any chord tone from a half step above or below it. I can't think of any exceptions off hand.

These are some things that I've done to try to get into the theory of it. You'll start to hear the functions of each chord and where each note wants to resolve. You'll want to know where the chords are diatonic (belonging to the same scale) and when two chords are derived from different scales, but if you've got the chords down, the scales can be less important (sometimes).

As I said, most of their tunes are progressions. Take ACDC Bag. The chords are A C D C F A G. Don't worry about a scale. Just play the notes from each chord. Sample In a Jar - A C G D A E Em D. Right away you can figure that the A and C chords are not diatonic because A (major) has a C# in it. C major does not. (Obviously, because it's C!). However, C G and D all come from the same scale. So, if you want, you can use a G major scale over all of these, but you really want to emphasize chord tones still. G D and A can also come from the same scale (D major or a relative mode depending on root emphasis). This gives you two options for scales over the G and D. Next, D A and E come from the A major scale. More options there. E and Em obviously don't come from the same scale but Em and D can. The first E (major) is linked to the chords above it. The Em has more in common with the chord that follows, D. That's from D major or E Dorian. Maybe a little confusing at first but when you've done this stuff for years and years it gets a lot easier.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Transcriptions of Bird Song - F. Schuyler Mathews' Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music

Last month I became aware of a book called Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews, first published in 1904.

Mathews was a naturalist who combined his love of birds, composition, art and writing to produce this collection which captured – in music notation – the songs of over 80 bird species he encountered in the woods and countryside of New Hampshire, now more than 110 years ago. In addition to the musical transcriptions, Mathews provided illustrations and often poetic descriptions of the birds themselves.

At the time that Mathews was putting this collection together, there were no portable field recorders. He would have had to transcribe in real time using only his ears – a skill requiring a trained aural recognition and attentive, precise, listening.

Although they are natural songsters, birds have little regard for the rules of music, choosing to compose pieces that don’t resolve to the tonic or fall onto the exact pitches of the 12 musical notes!  Schuyler praises the chickadee for its “perfectly musical bit”, and when necessary, does his best to notate the bird-music that needs a little fudging one way or another.
The Brown Thrasher, as transcribed by Mathews
Nonetheless, Mathews, found that the bird not only possesses an ear for music but the mind to produce it. “His capacity for simple melody, his technical mastery of tone intervals and note values, his phrasing and his brilliancy as a performer, are certainly not exceeded by any vocalist of nature. The truth is, the bird is an accomplished singer who cares less for conventional rules than he does for the essence or the soul of the music; but above all he succeeds in inspiring his listener. What more, may I ask, could be expected of a musician?”