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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writer's Block and "A Song of Ice and Fire"

Apparently George R. R. Martin experienced some difficulties while attempting to finish the next book in his series "A Song of Ice and Fire".  (The series is the basis of a new HBO program that just premiered, A Game of Thrones - which looks like it is going to be pretty good!)

It took Martin over six years to complete his latest book, despite promising his fans to have it done within a year.  Here are some excerpts from a recent New Yorker article about the series and his challenges in completing it.

“Maybe I’m rewriting too much,” he suggested, after a fretful silence. “Maybe I have perfectionist’s disease, or whatever.” 
Martin explained that he’s been tinkering with some parts of “A Dance with Dragons” for ten years. He has a “real love-hate relationship” with a chapter that focusses on Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf: “I ripped it out and put it back in, I ripped it out and put it back in. Then I put it in as a dream sequence, and then I ripped it out again. This is the stuff I’ve been doing.” 
Such indecision, Martin suspects, may be fuelled by the mounting expectations for “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The reviews for the series have been “orders of magnitude better” than he’s received for anything else. After the fourth volume came out, Time anointed him “the American Tolkien.” Many readers have told Martin that his tale is the greatest fantasy story of all time. With the HBO show and his online critics breathing down his neck, the pressure has become even more intense. 
“I don’t want to come across as a whiner or a complainer,” Martin said, as tinted light from the afternoon sun filtered through the stained-glass windows. “No! I’m living the dream here. I have all of these readers who are waiting on the book. I want to give them something terrific.” There was a pause. “What if I fuck it up at the end? What if I do a ‘Lost’? Then they’ll come after me with pitchforks and torches.”

Obviously my situation is very different than Martin's: I don't have millions of fans, or the challenge of being consistent with a fantasy world that has thousands of characters.  My compositions aren't on the scale of fantasy novels many hundreds of pages long. But I still felt like I could relate to his anxieties, although on a smaller scale.  Every time I undertake a project, I want it to exceed expectations and be better than anything I've done before, and that leads to similar re-writing where I spend hours writing a note, changing it, changing it back... Thankfully so far I've always managed to eventually overcome that and just enjoying composing and let go of needing to be in complete control of the result.

This article in The New Yorker seems to further support my theory that writer's block is what happens when anxiety about creating becomes greater then the joy of creating.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Little Prince Suite World Premier - April 16th, 5:15pm!

Hey, this Little Prince thing is really happening! Soon! This Saturday in fact!

The Little Prince Suite is a project that I've been working on for over two years, and it is finally ready for it's premier - this Saturday, April 16th, at Walter Hall.  The suite is a continuous hour-long, seven-movement composition, featuring my jazz quintet Circles along with a string quartet.  It tells the story of the little prince from the much-loved book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It will feature short excerpts from the book (read by the musicians) as well as images from the book, projected behind the band.  If you really want to know all the details, check this site, which I constructed for the musicians

Did I mention it is my graduation recital, which wraps up my studies in the masters in jazz program at U of T?

Anyway, it is going to be amazing, and I hope you can come!

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A Shout Out To All The Music Theory Nerds

(I'm not sure how many "clicks" I'll get with that title, but what the heck...)

Page from "Be Here Now"
I've always liked certain chord progressions in modern jazz, and I felt like there was some common thing that I liked about them, but I didn't understand what it was.  I wanted to figure that out, not only due to general curiosity, but also so I could improvise over them better, and use those harmonies in my own compositions.  The result was an essay I did as part of my masters degree at U of T, analyzing two compositions by Canadian-born trumpet player/composer Kenny Wheeler, and two composition by my friend and Circles-bandmate, pianist/composer Hayoun Lee.  The essay was titled "The Flimsiest of Screens: Moving Beyond Traditional Harmony In The Music of Wheeler and Lee".  The title is a reference to a quote by the American philosopher and psychologist William James which I had read in the book "Be Here Now".

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.

This is an analogy for me about key to understanding this particular type of harmony I was interested in: it was just taking harmony we were already familiar with, and adding just one or two more elements to create a whole new effect.  I made the point that "The comparison is not entirely metaphorical, since music with different harmonic languages will inspire different states of mind, and vice versa."

Anyway, I was pretty happy with the approach to analyzing this new harmony that I ended up with.  Modern harmony feels less mystifying to me now.  I think it is an approach that is practical for the jazz composer and/or improviser.  In jazz, it is very important that we can "hear" a chord progression, but what do we mean by this? I would contend that one of the main things we mean is that we are aware of the voice-leading. So my analysis centers around that - both with scales and chords.  I like the idea I came up with of thinking of scales as having a kind of family tree, where the modes of melodic minor are related to the modes of the major scale, and the symmetrical octatonic scales are related to the modes of melodic minor through "splitting" one note of the melodic minor scale, and the wholetone scales are related to the modes of melodic minor through "merging" one note in the melodic minor scale. Anyway, now we are really getting nerdy.  Read the whole essay if you are sufficiently interested.  There may be a few small factual errors remaining in it. If you find one, let me know, you win a special prize!

If you want to listen to the compositions analyzed in the essay, here are some YouTube links to the Kenny Wheeler tunes:

Gentle Piece
Everybody's Song But My Own

As for the Hayoun Lee compositions:

"Pegasus" is the first song that loads when you visit Circle's website.
To listen to "Autumn Dance", check out our bandcamp page.

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