Sunday, August 31, 2014

Funky 12-Bar Riff Blues created for Berklee MOOC

The final assignment in the Developing Your Musicianship MOOC being offered by the Berklee College of Music via Coursera was to compose your own melody using the C-minor Pentatonic scale following the "riff-blues" formula.
The riff-blues formula is: two bars melody, two bars pause (just chords/rhythm), two bars repeat melody, two bars pause (just chords/rhythm), two bars varied melody, and two bars pause (just chords/rhythm).  Presumably all over dominant 7th chord changes such as C7 - C7 - C7 - C7, F7 - F7 - C7 - C7, G7 - F7 - C7 - C7.

The instructor provided two backing tracks over which you could create your own melody and I chose the "funky blues" backing track.  I put the backing track on repeat and just kept jamming over it and this little melody was one of the results.  There might be an "accidental" note in there!

Not that original of a riff I know, but more interesting than some of the initial melodies I was coming up with on the spot.  This was a fun way to culminate the class as I had never before tried to just jam by creating my own improvised melody over a backing track.  I'm looking forward to the next free online Berklee College of Music class starting this fall which deals specifically with the subject of improvisation! 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Music Theory Without Reading Music

The online Music Theory class that I’ve been taking has placed a lot of emphasis on reading and comprehending sheet music.  I’ve learned a lot as a result, but I’ve also realized that in today’s world, with audio recordings so readily available, a more practical understanding of music theory is less about reading and writing music and more about developing a vocabulary so that you can apply meaning and understanding to the sounds you are hearing. 
Golgi Apparatus
Being fluent in sheet music can be helpful, for example, in a situation when you need to immediately start playing a piece without having first acclimated yourself to it or knowing how it sounds.  But with sound recordings to supplement the written score, there is a less of a need to convey all the complexities of the music in the written form when a lot of it can be explained intuitively upon hearing the piece.

Tommaso Zillio of the site has this to say on a similar topic:

Learning music theory and training your ear go hand in hand.  Trying to do only one is like trying to ride a bicycle without one wheel: useless, overly difficult, and a guarantee that you will hurt yourself.  In fact I do take the radical position that ear training and music theory are in fact the same thing.

If you think about it, all music theory concepts can be explained as "If you do X, that's how it sounds,” "if you play a cadence, it sounds this way," "if you play the notes of the chord while improvising it sounds this way," etc.  As you can see though, if you don't know what "this way" is for every single concept you learn, then you are not really learning much!

This is why there are a lot of people who say that music theory is useless: they didn't connect the formal aspects of music theory with the actual reality of music.  After all, a map of your city is useful only if you know the relationship between the funny lines on the paper and the actual streets.  Luckily, there is a very simple solution for that: every time you learn something new in theory, PLAY it.  Make sure you have at least 3-4 examples for each concept you learn (you can compose them yourself in case).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Something Irish Music Has that Oldtime Does Not

I do a lot of writing that compares Irish traditional music and oldtime Appalachian music.  To whoever reads these posts it probably seems stupid because these are two DISTINCT styles with no relation to one another or need for comparison.  It would be the same if I were constantly comparing jazz to bluegrass (which I might start to do!).

But, one thing that Irish music has that oldtime does not is a focus on the tune.  Hear me out.  In Irish music there’s a growing coalition of accepted “traditional” instruments.  These include, but are not limited to, fiddle, concertina, accordion, uilleann pipes, flute, tin whistle, tenor banjo, bouzouki.  (note that only some of these are stringed instruments). 

It’s perfectly normal for any of these common Irish melody instruments to be the dominant one in charge of a tune.  Usually it has more to do with the skill and confidence of the person behind the instrument than the instrument itself.  That's why you hear of Irish banjo players who were mentored by button accordion players, and button accordion players who got their tunes from flute players, and so on.
Yet, in oldtime music - as it has come to be construed - it’s all about the fiddle.  Even the venerable clawhammer banjo serves mostly to complement the playing of the fiddler(s).  Sure, there are some other oldtime melody instruments like mandolin and dulcimer (and virtuoso players of those instruments who triumph over this classification), but quite often other melody instruments play “second fiddle” to the fiddle.  

Oldtime does have something that Irish music doesn’t have and that’s hypnotic repetition.  In Irish music you rarely play a tune more than 3 times through before moving on to something else.  Granted you usually play it three times and then pair it with two additional tunes in what is called a "set".  Sets can have a nice tension and release aspect due to key modulations between tunes, such as going from a minor-modal tune to one in a major key.

Instead of doing medleys, in oldtime you keep playing a tune several times through on repeat until you tire of it or - on rare occasions - until a second-level of transcendence occurs...or both.  So, what happens if you apply this same tactic of zen-like repetition to Irish tunes??? 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Hot Seats at Bluemont Ashland, this Sunday August 17 at 7PM

The Richmond, VA based string band The Hot Seats is fresh off their annual tour of Scotland which no doubt saw them go from slightly rusty to tightly knit in a matter of days.  With some members living out of state and, you know, real life and jobs and stuff, local full-band shows are a rare occurrence, but with a slew of recent, well-received gigs under their belts, and a newly released album, now is a good time to be seeing these guys.

The Hot Seats are playing as part of the Bluemont Ashland Sunday evening concert series, which takes place outside on the steps of Randolph-Macon's Blackwell Auditorium during the month of August (bring a chair).  The Bluemont page describes the band as "old time string band and comedy".  This is actually quite accurate as The Hot Seats have found a way to make old time music more palatable for general audiences by adding humor and drive without taking away any of its more feral qualities.
The Hot Seats busking on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland, July 2014.
The band's new album - Grandad's Favorite - contains the eclectic mix of fiddle tunes, obscure traditional country folk songs, and cynical/satirical originals that we've come to expect from this quintet.  Take a listen to it below.

The concert is this Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 7pm, Randolph-Macon College Blackwell Auditorium, 204 Henry Street, Ashland, VA 23005.  Tickets are a $5 suggested donation at the entrance.  If it's anything like last week's excellent performance by the Brazilian Bluegrass Funk band Matuto, then you can expect it to be a two set show, starting at 7pm sharp and ending before 10pm so you can still get home in time to get that beauty rest!

Playing Music As You Travel - Los Angeles Area Oldtime Jams and Irish Sessions

Note:  The sessions and jams listed in this post are current as of August, 2014.  

One thing I love about playing “fiddle tunes” (for lack of a better term) is that you can travel to almost any metropolitan area in North America and find either an Irish seisiun or an oldtime jam to take part in, or some approximation of the two.
Repertoires and styles may differ from place to place but with a decent understanding of the common tunes and respective etiquettes, and a willingness to interact with new people in a potentially unfamiliar environment, there’s usually enough cross over to allow for participation.  If nothing else the exposure to the different ways people bring these tunes to life is a great learning experience.

I’ll be visiting Los Angeles soon and I’ve discovered that there is an oldtime jam and 2 or 3 Irish sessions near where I’ll be staying while there.  I plan on attending a couple of these and perhaps even recording them for future reference.

Jams and Sessions in Los Angeles

1st Sunday Old-Time Jam @ Viva Cantina, 11am-2pm.  Viva Cantina Restaurant, 900 Riverside Drive Burbank, CA 9150.  Contact Steve {at} for details or to be added to his list.

1st Thursday Old Time Jam @ 1642 Beer and Wine Bar.  1642 Temple, 90026, 8-11pm.  Hosted by Triple Chicken Foot.  Contact Ben for more info.

4th Saturday Old-Time Jam @ the Audubon Center @ Debs Park, 4700 N. Griffin Ave, 90031.  Hosted by Joe Wack (of Central West Virginia), focusing on Appalachian tunes.

Sundays at the The Auld Dubliner in Long Beach from 4-7pm.  

Mondays, 9-11pm.  Southern California’s longest running traditional Celtic music jam session, hosted by The Celtic Arts Center of Southern California.  At The Mayflower Club - 11110 Victory Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91606.

Tuesdays at Timmy Nolan’s in Toluca Lake (Burbank), 8:00–11:00 p.m.  Hosted by Patrick D’Arcy and Dan Conroy.  Timmy Nolan’s, 10111 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, 818-985-3359.  Map to Timmy Nolan’s

Wednesdays at Griffin's in South Pasadena.  1007 Mission Street South Pasadena 91030E, phone: 626-799-0926.  Not sure if it's every Wednesday or not.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Plein Air - Can Visual Art Influence Your Pursuit of Music?

Plein Air is an art term used to describe the act of painting outdoors “in plain air”.  (Plein rhymes with glen).  The gallery near where I live - Gallery Flux - is featuring a ‘Plein Air and Big Skies’ exhibit now through September 27, 2014.  

At the opening reception last week, I was impressed at the variety of different styles and techniques that fall under the plein air umbrella.  Many of the paintings depicted either the countryside or the beach/water, but the way each artist chose to interpret those scenes was unique.  
Gallery Flux Plein Air exhibit, August 2014
There were some in the Impressionist style, some had a Bob Ross kind of thing going on; some were very realistic, some were very abstract.  I suppose the common thread throughout all plein air work – besides the act of painting outside – is an attempt to capture the essence of light and convey the intangible. 

How does this relate back to music?

A painter might have a particular style that is reminiscent of artists that have come before her (much like the fiddler who plays in the style of her favorite oldtime master), but she is still painting her own paintings.  Additionally, the abstract artist whose plein air canvasses almost look like a Rothko still shares a kinship with the artist who paints his outdoors-inspired work in a very detailed way.

Not all of us have the composition skills or creative urge to write the next Mississippi Sawyer or Swallowtail Jig.  Many of us are content to work within the repertoires that have been handed down to us by previous generations.  That doesn't mean that you can't still express yourself through these tunes.  I think of these traditional, centuries-old melodies as palette to work from, but not strictly adhere to.

The most enduring fiddle tunes and folk songs are rubbery enough to respond well to endless interpretation.  If you are inspired to play this music in your kitchen or on your front porch, for your own enjoyment and in your own way, then you still share a kinship with the traditional musicians of old who played for exactly the same reasons, long before the days of session police and oldtime nazis!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guitar Legend Bill Frisell will be at the Richmond Jazz Festival on Sunday August 10, 2014!

Bill Frisell
I'm getting psyched about seeing one of my all-time favorite musicians, Bill Frisell, at the Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont this weekend!  Bill will be performing with his Beautiful Dreamers trio (Eyvind Kang - viola and Rudy Royston - drums) on the MWV stage at 4:30pm on Sunday 8/10.  Click here for the full Jazz Festival lineup and set times.

Guitarist Bill Frisell's sound has been described by Jazz Times as "instantly identifiable".  Jazz Times goes on to say that his "tone is overwhelmed with reverb and delay, and he's developed the tic of bending the neck after striking a note or chord, in an effort to move those pitches into an unattainable perfect tuning.  Complementing those serene, liquid tone colors is his physical attack, wherein economy is paramount and looping devices are constantly tweaked for purposes of orchestration and atmosphere rather than theatrics."

This one-off performance in Richmond precedes a 5-day stint next week at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in Kilkenny Ireland, where it looks like Bill will sit-in with a wide variety of artists and projects, including a performance of Terry Riley's In C and a set with Irish traditional musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill!  I would love to hear both of those.
Beautiful Dreamers trio
I've only seen Bill once before back in 2008 during his Disfarmer tour, so needless to say I've been geeking out in anticipation by reading interviews and watching videos.  Speaking of interviews, here's a really good interview with Bill Frisell done by his friend, banjoist Danny Barnes, and here's one where Bill interviews one of his own guitar heroes, Jim Hall.

Frisell seems to thrive in unusual, improvisational settings with all sorts of different musicians.  I'm particularly fond of the music made during this February 29th, 2004 performance at the Barbican Theater in London, where he played with Malian musician Djelimady Tounkara.  Here are some videos from that concert:

Bill Frisell seems to be a little outside the smooth jazz and funk that the Richmond Jazz Festival normally features, but then again Bill's going to be a little "outside" of any lineup he is part of.  Perhaps his presence will bring some increased awareness to an already successful and vibrant jazz festival.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Importance of Ear Training in Learning Music

Painting by my Mom
I've been playing stringed instruments for about 8 years now, off and on.  Since I didn't have any prior music experience when I started - no singing in a choir or piano lessons as a kid - I didn't really know how to go about learning it.  I've tried private in-person lessons, Skype lessons, workshops, a music camp.  I've looked at numerous instruction books, videos, blogs, and forums.  I've memorized tunes and practiced scales and arpeggios, and I've regularly attended many oldtime jams and Irish sessions.

All of that helps, especially the one-on-one lessons, daily focused practice, and getting out to play with others.  But over the last 3 weeks since I've been taking two free online music courses*, I feel like the advice I would now give to someone just learning to play music has changed.  Now I would say that the single most important aspect to learning music is Ear Training.

*The two free online classes are "Fundamentals of Music Theory" by the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music and "Developing Your Musicianship" by Berklee College of Music.

Ear Training is not the same as playing by ear.  You sometimes hear people say stuff like I don't know anything about theory, I just play by ear.  That's only one aspect of it.  To me, a broad understanding of music theory also plays a big part in ear training.  You should know what a minor 3rd interval is compared to a major 3rd.

You should know the names of all the intervals (all 12 within one octave).  Not just the interval names but also the sound that goes with it.  So if someone asked you to play a perfect 4th you could do it.  And vice versa if someone played a perfect fourth on piano you should be able to recognize it.  You should know that a perfect 4th is 5 semitones (or half-steps).  For that matter, you should know what a semitone is! Developing a musical vocabulary (theory) allows you to define what it is you're hearing (ear training).

If I could have had the knowledge, patience and perseverance starting out to devote my first few years explicitly on ear training, then I feel like I'd be a lot more advanced than I am now.  Here's a comment by a person named Chang that I saw on the I Was Doing All Right jazz Ear Training blog that helps illustrate this importance:
I think a good way to think of theory is like grammar. Grammar gives you a structure for understanding language-based communication.
How does a child learn a language? It is not by learning grammar!
A child learns by LISTENING carefully over and over to others who speak the language. Eventually the child learns to hear the words and each word begins to have a unique signature sound as well as a unique meaning. Then the child tries to mimic the words through his instrument (the vocal apparatus). It can take a while to get it right. (Ever hear a young child trying to say words with Rs?) Then the child learns to combine words in a way that more effectively allows him to communicate what he needs. (eg, "MY toy!")
All of this happens way before any grammar is learned!
If you think about it, if you imagine a CAT in your head and can't think of the word CAT, all the grammar in the world will not enable you to express the idea of a CAT! No knowledge of parts of speech, verb conjugations, or sentence construction will get you to the word CAT!
This is exactly the problem in musical education. The correct place to start is to hear lots and lots of INTERVALS and associate each one with a name. We must be able to tell each one of them apart because each one conveys a different musical idea. This is like learning elementary words like YES, NO, ME, DOG, HOUSE, MOMMY, FOOD, etc.
Then we must learn to hear the difference between unique interval combos (scales, licks, riffs, simple melodies, and simple harmonies). This is equivalent to learning idioms, phrases, and simple sentences (eg, "I AM HUNGRY!"). It is only at that point that theory becomes very useful in helping us arrange our musical 'vocabulary' in much the same way that grammar helps us organize the words we speak or write. If one doesn't have a basic vocabulary, then grammar is absolutely useless! Similarly if you can't hear the difference between the M6 and m7 intervals, or you can't pick out the notes which distinguish the minor from the major scale, then music theory will not be nearly as enriching as it could be.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why Phish Is My Favorite Band

Phish 7-30-14 Portsmouth, VA (@Phish_FTR)
After seeing the stupendous Phish shows in Portsmouth this past Tuesday and Wednesday, I was reminded once again of why they are my favorite band.  For me, the only band that could realistically also contend for that top title is The Grateful Dead.

The Dead had a 30 year career: 1965-1995.  Phish reached its 30th year in 2013.  Both are/were "live", improvisational bands with a large repertoire of songs jumbled up in active rotation.  Each also continued to write interesting, new material as the years went by.  Both sort of flew under the radar of mainstream popularity but were adored by legions of fans who want more from music than the processed way it is generally presented to the general public.  On these fronts The Dead and Phish are equally deserving.

First, The Dead's advantages.  Coming out of the 60's like they did, they are of course more culturally important, representing a long-standing progressive mindset and lifestyle.  They are forever associated with that counter-cultural zeitgeist, although Deadheads who lived it know that The Dead were just as much an 80's band as they were a 60's band or a 70's band.  The Now.

The Dead certainly embody a sense of Americana, and I don't even mean that in the sort of folk/roots/alt. country genre way that term is used nowadays (although the Dead's influence on that scene is often undervalued).  What I mean is the Red, White and Blue principles of the American Dream, apple pie and go west young man are palpable in their music.

In Jerry Garcia, The Dead had one of the most charismatic, lovable, and dare I say spiritual, figures in the history of music.  Jerry was a personality that no one in Phish comes close to.  The Dead also had a real poet - a true American poet - in their employ as primary lyricist...Robert Hunter.  His lyrics run so deep that entire annotations have been devoted to their analysis.

Phish's strengths, however, outnumber and eclipse those of The Dead.  Phish's song structures and compositions are at a level that The Dead probably weren't getting at.  Phish seems to have really, really studied music, and their songs have complexities and characteristics that puts them in a league of their own.  We're talking Beatles type stuff here and beyond (Classical music, jazz, et cetera).  Many different Phish songs seem like they were written to be mini-genres designed to fulfill a specific niche in the human psyche.
Phish 7-30-14 Portsmouth, VA (@Phish_FTR)
There's a level of technical precision coupled with group-mind, collective improvisation in Phish that wasn't present in The Grateful Dead.  Jerry Garcia and maybe Bill Kreutzman were the only members of The Dead operating on the level that all four members of Phish seem to always be at.  Phish has the chops, creativity, synchronicity and desire to work in unison as a four-headed beast.  No matter how out there Phish's jams get there's always a sense of direction and cohesion to them.  Plus, they rehearse like crazy and treat each show - each moment of each show - as if it were the most important one they have ever played.

Another big factor is from the time Page joined the band in 1985 (?), Phish has always been the same four guys.  No lineup changes.  Beside a few very early recordings, any time you listen to Phish you know you are hearing Trey, Mike, Page and Fishman.  That adds a level of continuity that is not present in the many different iterations of The Grateful Dead, who in my opinion never quite seemed like a fully-realized band until the Brent Mydland decade, which was otherwise marred by Garcia's drug addictions and poor health.

In addition to it being the same four guys their entire career, Phish is also four distinct instruments - guitar, bass, keyboards and drums.  In effect, this is a classic if somewhat minimalist lineup with each of the instruments represented at a virtuoso level, making it very easy to focus on each individual's contribution to the overall sound.  And when you're at the Phish show you get to watch one of our era's best visual artists - lighting director Chris Kuroda - at work.  I really like Kuroda's new, scaled down, less in your face and more quietly cerebral 2014 style.

Much like how The Dead was fronted by Jerry Garcia, Phish has a charismatic leader in guitarist Trey Anastasio, an incredibly inventive, driven, prolific and motivational musician.  Big Red might not be as iconic as The Fat Man, but having a guy like Trey in the band definitely has inspired the other members to push their skills to that same level, to the point that there are no noticeable weak links among the four members of Phish.  In fact, you'd have a hard time finding a band where a drummer has as much of an influence on the outcome of a concert as Jon Fishman does.
Trey Anastasio, 7-29-14 (@Phish_FTR)
It would be read Icculus to criticize Phish's writing from a compositional or rhythmic standpoint.  While The Grateful Dead's array of common time shuffle beats can get repetitive after a while, Phish purposely shakes it up in this regard.  However, a critique that is often made alludes to the fact that Phish can be lacking in the lyrics department.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Even if I don't always find meaning in their words, I almost always find ultimate acceptance in a way that is more hard fought and rewarding than things which otherwise may have been more accessible at first glance.

Besides, finding (obvious) meaning in Phish's somewhat agnostic and cryptic world view is not always the point, me thinks.  Being a secular person about 10 years their junior, I find myself able to relate to the central theme of Phish's never ending spoof.  At the same time, there are always certain moments in a song - whether written out or composed on the spot - that feel like they are designed to go straight to the heart (or loins, or jugular) and grab you in an emotional way that you didn't think possible.

Another band that comes close to matching some of these accolades about Phish is Medeski, Martin and Wood, a somewhat well known instrumental trio that has walked the line between jazz and jam over their 20+ year career.  MMW has a similar aspect of continuity - with the same 3 members their entire career.  And they also improvise at a magnitude that rivals Phish's genius.  But nah, digging them as I do, that path is not as multi-layered as the Phish experience is, nor is it as shared by my peers.

Phish has always felt like an inside acquired taste.  You either get it or you don't.  Built into that is an element of humor that was never present in The Grateful Dead; at least not in their songs (the GD's stage banter yes).  I think the many layers of devotion a band like Phish asks of you can be off putting or intimidating to the layperson who isn't looking to go that far with their musical taste buds.  But, if you are looking for that kind of thing, Phish can offer it in droves.

Lastly, I am once again finding the Phish scene appealing.  My perspective on this has wavered over the years, but I've come to realize that it represents a form of punkish and intelligent grass roots indie that we should relish and cherish instead of boxing it into a stereotype.  Phish fans are real people folks, in search of something that a once-in-the-history-of-music type of band is currently able to offer.  Yes Phish is one of the strongest "brands" in all of music with a well managed business model...but fuck it that is both despite of and because of everything they've done over their 31 year career.

And as someone who is learning to play music, I feel incredibly fortunate to be exposed to Phish and have their music to listen to and study, because it is a world unto itself.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Slow and Easy Vol. 2 Released: 25 (more) Essential Irish Session Tunes

John Weed (fiddle) and Stuart Mason (DADGAD guitar) have released their second volume of slowly played standards from the Irish session repertoire.  Just like on volume one, they cover a gamut of tune types (and modes and tonal centers) - reels, jigs, slip jigs, hornpipes, polkas and an air.

One thing I like about Weed and Mason's "play alongs" - in addition to the fact that the tune selections are spot on - is that it still sounds like music.  Instead of seeming condescending or purposely boring, the interpretations on both Slow and Easy volumes could exist as its own sort of alternate style.  If you can get into these tunes as they are being presented then it doesn't really matter that these same melodies are usually played much faster at sessions.  The whole point is to really get the feel of the tune and the music -- that feeling can always be sped up the more comfortable you are with it (or kept sorta slow if that's more your thing).

As a person who can sometimes get too bogged down in the study of Irish music, I can put this music on while driving or washing dishes and instead of it feeling like practice, it can feel like simply listening to good music out of pure enjoyment, which is a refreshing way to approach it.  Plus, since it's just two instruments - lead fiddle and backup guitar - you can clearly hear both the melodic and harmonic aspects and potential of this music.

Also like the first volume, there will be pdf charts (sheet music and chords) for all of the tunes available soon.  The music itself is streaming on Bandcamp or you can download it.  What I did last time was download the music so that I could then take it with me and/or use the Amazing Slow Downer to speed up the tunes as needed.  Yep you can use the Slow Downer in reverse too!