In Autumn

Over the years, I’ve been asked to compose music for a few art-film projects, and while doing so I came to realize that I loved the process, and that mixing images with my music felt like a really good match. So, wanting to continue in that general direction, I decided to record an album that would act as a kind of portfolio for potential film score, documentary work, etc. Though at the same time, the album would need to be able to stand on its own, be something that could work if tossed into the shuffle of an iPod. And that meant leaving out a lot of pieces that I’d already done, which were percussion alone, minimalist accents, or simple, evocative atmospheres. No, these had to be proper songs. So with that in mind, I delved into many, many musical ideas, of which thirteen made the final cut. The album is essentially split into two halves; the first is fast, the second slow.


If you’re an audiophile, you might notice that the songs below are at a relatively low bit-rate. Having to pay for bandwidth, I had to decide between giving away two songs in really high quality, or the entire album in a passable quality. I decided on the latter. If you like what you hear, you can always download the song at CD bit-rate for pennies at iTunes. Or listen at CD quality through this player.

 

I adore travelling by train. There’s such a wonderful rhythm in the sounds and pace of the landscape sliding past. So I began listening to trains, manically, until I could hear a piano riff that could be played to mimic that rhythm. I then built a drum kit using only sounds that a train might make, including a sample of two cars coupling. The contrabass is for storytelling. 

last train

I put this song early in the album to give a feel for the other side of the spectrum in my work (it’s either tightly structured and percussive, or loose and natural). Like in writing, tension is a great thing to play with in music. There are two elements providing it here; a quarter-note stopgap in the piano, and a slight discord in the arrangement.

dandelion

I lived in the Caribbean for a while, working as a biologist. Unfortunately, the music there did not work for me (even if I loved their tradition of found percussion). Years later I saw two street musicians in France playing a block apart, one with the steelpan, the other with an accordion. Click. This song is a question and response conversation between those two instruments.

drum steel

This piece began after a great meal, when I sat down at the piano with a glass of wine in my right hand, leaving only my left to play. I came up with the bassline the song opens with, looped it, and could hear the percussion that should hold it together. Later, I went for a walk, where the need for sampled rusty strings rose to the surface.

midnight walk

This is one of two guitar tracks on the album (the rest is me on a digital piano, playing various instruments through a sampler). I was asked to do a song of fairly minimal guitar for a short film, and this is what I came up with. To add tension, I added a track, turned up all the dials on the amp, and tried to tame the sound, tried to keep it from running wildly away. 

dirty

Of course “Take Five”, played by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is known for its avant-garde 5/4 timing. Sadly, I’m not as avant-garde as Paul Desmond, and had to settle for a lowly 3/4, hence the title. I wanted to have a jazz piece in my portfolio to show I can use standard drum kits, as well as keep a quartet in balance (piano, bass, drums, and clarinet).

take three

This is the name of another film project I was asked to write the music for, this time with a concept that was relatively calm and bittersweet. Again, the original version is longer and the piano clean, but I felt I needed to shorten and tweak it a bit for the album. It’s interesting to play warped or slightly out-of-tune pianos, which is what I ended up going for.

paragon amiss

olive tree

There are few words to describe how much I love the lute. A street musician with a lute will find me late for whatever I was on my way to, and my pockets empty. When I discovered that my sampler (EXS24) had a fantastic lute on it, I tried to compose a piece in a (semi-toneless) maqam scale. Not easy in MIDI. This is as close as I could get.   

This piece was written about and for the crescendo, at a time when there was an upsurge taking place in me. I wanted a particular kind of tension in the music, the kind you instinctively know is never going to resolve itself, that needs to see itself through, build until it reaches a definitive climax. I find the minimalist electronic percussion essential here. 

that day in june

Alas, a sampler can’t do everything, and choir is one of them. But without a choir myself (and a team of audio engineers), it’ll have to do. I’ve played a few pipe organs, and some variation of this piece always wanted to come out. Sticking to the theme of church music, I accompanied only with instruments traditionally found there; choir, organ, harp, and bassoon.

through the belfry

Composed for a concept film of the same name, this was a piece whose theme and feel had to be discussed at great length before I ever sat down at the piano. I think the artist’s idea was an intense and beautiful one. The original version is longer, rawer, and has no arrangement or distortion effects, all things I felt I had to add for it to stand on its own.

fall into

picking wires

Originally composed for the classical guitar, at the time of recording, mine was on the other side of the world, so I picked up the electric that I had in the house, just to see. Suddenly all kinds of new textures and possibilities opened up, and I began experimenting with inserting static, radio tuning, and vinyl dust, which I think gives it an almost archival feel.

This piece is the only bad recording, registered from a laptop. But what a glorious piano it was. I was housesitting and writing in an extremely isolated hamlet in Brittany, and the people who owned the place had an unloved grand in their living room. Too poor to afford a professional, I tuned it myself with a wrench, and played it all winter long.

what you do not understand