Friday, May 31, 2013

Call Signs!

This blog describes a very fun way to hand signal key & mode changes on the fly during a live performance or jam session, etc...

I used to lead a jazz fusion group during the 1990's and early 2000's... myself and the core members of the group stayed together throughout the decade and we had developed an uncanny ability to free-compose very elaborate pieces that rivaled the pieces that I had actually formally composed and written out in traditional form.

During this period I had devised a simple hand sign system in order to signal my fellow musicians as to any change that I wanted to go to in real time... of course we could also switch off between members so that anyone could be the signal caller at any given time.
These signals would generally be given anywhere from a bar or more before the desired change in order to insure equal balance of the sections in terms of phrase lengths and standard bar groupings. (i.e., 4 bar intros, 8 bar melodies, 16 bar vamps, endings, etc...)

The basic premise is that keys are represented by fingers either pointing up or down... for example two fingers pointing upwards like a peace sign would represent two sharps for the key of D major... one finger pointing down for one flat as the key of F major and so on... The key of C major is simply a closed fist or zero sign!

Modes are represented in the same manner only the fingers are pointed horizontally... for example four fingers pointing sideways would represent the Lydian mode and so on...

Since we obviously only have five digits to use and we do have the need to signal keys with upwards of six and seven sharps or flats as well as modes up to seven. These are signaled by forming a closed fist with the thumb placed between the index and middle fingers for the number six... the thumb placed between the middle and ring fingers for the number seven.

The designated sign caller of the moment would always signal the key change first and then the mode to be used within that chosen key. (i.e., four fingers upward for the key of E major followed quickly by two fingers to the right representing dorian... therefore we would all be playing and improvising over and with a F#m7 chord.)


The more this device is utilized and practiced amongst a group of experienced musicians... magic can and will occur!
Please try it for yourself and record your sessions for transcribing the pieces later in order to add these new compositions to your groups repertoire. The legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius used to say "Let's play it now and figure it out later" and trust me he was absolutely right in this type of scenario.

Note: I also created additional activator signs to represent other scales such as Melodic and Harmonic Minor, Diminished, Whole-tone, etc... which I more than likely will post at a later date.

Thank you and there are a variety of tracks demonstrating this at Soundcloud with my fusion group
"The Shadow Prophets"

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Times x10

This Blog is dedicated to the use of the interval of a 10th... in this case my transcription of  the main Piano figure from my all-time favorite "Main Title" theme from maestro Ennio Morricone's "The Untouchables"... which utilizes minor 10ths throughout the whole figure.

This interval in major and/or minor denominations is used heavily for low rhythmic type figures and between low sustained strings (i.e., Cellos and Basses) as well as being extremely prevalent in modern slap-funk bass playing.

The wide spacing of this interval is great for implying a chords tonality when using only essentially two notes to do so.

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Narrative Composing

Composers, orchestrators, musicians, and the like are always searching for sources of inspiration and new approaches in order to help their creative process.

I have personally used and encouraged my students to write short or elaborate narrative stories based on specific pieces of music as a method to help inspire an alternative approach for composing.

Once I had a wonderful past student who I had asked to write a short narrative story based on one of my favorite pieces of music... Beethoven's "Piano Concerto #4".
I naively assumed that he would bring back a nice basic story in order to fulfill the basic lesson requirement… instead and to my utter delight he had written a wonderfully elaborate three-act narrative that inspired fantastic visual imagery just like any professional screen-writer would strive for.
His story in short was that of a long sea journey along the lines of the classic… Homer's "Odyssey".

The images evoked by such a story or narrative can invoke visions and thoughts of character, color, objects, movement, emotions, etc... which can then be substituted with musical instruments, combinations, tempos, techniques, tonality, etc… to compose your own piece of music with.

Please try this approach for yourself and at the very least you will have a new way to look at one of our favorite pieces of music. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Fortress of Solitude

This Blog highlights a wonderful technique used by maestro John Williams from one of my all-time favorite cues "The Fortress of Solitude" from the original "Superman" film.

It also certainly draws influence from Gustav Holst's "The Planets" along with the Russian masters.
I always tell my students it has all been done before and the trick is to take all these bits and pieces
and make them into your own compositional vernacular.

The cue excerpt below which is borrowed from a John Williams sketch demonstrates a fabulous way to create an other-worldly type effect!

It consists of high vertically structured 2nd inversion minor triads in the winds modulating to and from each other in half-step motion as the Celeste plays the same notes from the triads in a descending horizontal manner.

Listen to this marvelous cue and create one along these lines and you will have a great tool to add to your composer's tool-box.


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