Thursday, August 07, 2008

Funky Flute Groove Experience

This morning I finished editing the guitar track to my most recent composition, Funky Flute Groove Experience.

The above link will take you to the programme note for this piece, but briefly, I wrote it for Christine Gangelhoff (flutist) and electronics, to be performed at the most recent Newfoundland Sound Symposium (July, 2008). Christine and I had asked a local DJ/turntablist (DJ Russtafari) to be involved in this too, but we learned a few weeks before the performance that he had moved to Korea, and, incredibly, was not planning to commute back to St. John's for the performance! What's up with that?

Another part of the original plan was to have me play guitar on the piece, but, as the performance date got nearer, I started getting cold feet because (a) I don't perform much, (b) I'm not a very good guitarist, and (c) I was spending all my time composing the piece and had no time to learn a guitar part!

Christine, who had been expecting to perform FFGE as part of a trio (with DJ Russ and myself) called "Urban Sound Collective," was now facing the prospect of playing solely with the electronic accompaniment, and was a tad disappointed. Kind of hard to call yourself a collective when there's only one performer, I guess…

I therefore decided, in a moment of compassion/rashness, to follow through with my original plan and create a guitar part for the piece (which was otherwise about 95% finished), and to (gulp) perform it too. I second-guessed that decision a few times, but the happy news is that it all worked out okay; the part I came up with sounds fine to me, and I wasn't nervous at all while playing it (probably because it was largely improvised, and the rest was memorized). And, as it turned out, we were able to find another DJ/turntablist in Deb Sinha, who was here for a performance during the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, who very graciously agreed to step in at the last minute and did a fine job. And so Urban Sound Collective was a trio after all, and all went well! Or, if "well" is overstating matters, then at least nobody was injured during the performance, and it has been my experience that one cannot ask for much more than that in matters pertaining to the performance of one's music.

I guess the fact that I took a risk and didn't have it blow up in my face emboldened me to try recording the guitar part myself. I had never edited digital audio before and so was somewhat apprehensive about the process, and the fact that I was using a 10-year-old Mac G4 that crashes about twice a day did not inspire confidence. It took a couple of hours to get everything set up — I was temporarily stymied because I don't have a microphone preamp (necessary to boost the signal strength from 'mic level' to 'line level'). The microphone (used to pick up the guitar amplifier) had been connected directly to the digital audio processor (MOTU 2408MkII) but I couldn't figure out how to boost the signal, so I routed it through my mixer and applied gain to the signal there. As I said, it took a while, but once things were set up properly the process of recording was very straightforward.

I ended up spending a ridiculous number of hours recording and editing the guitar track though… you can move individual notes a few milliseconds (or a lot of milliseconds) forwards or backwards until they are exactly where you want them, but it's a painstaking (and simultaneously amazing) process. I took several runs at the guitar solo (in the last two choruses of the minor blues that occurs around the middle) and the rhythm still feels a bit loose in spots, but I eventually left it as is because it didn't feel too out of character for the piece.

As I mentioned, I finished editing the guitar part this morning, so here it is if you want to have a listen (and if you do, please leave a comment!):

•N.B.: If there is already music playing on this page, you can turn it off by pressing the "pause" button in the mini-MP3 player on the top of the right column on this page → → →

DreamDance Picture

Clark Ross: "Funky Flute Groove Experience" (2008)
Clark Ross, guitar (Gibson ES-335→Laney amp);
all other sounds made by Korg Trinity V3 synthesizer


Postscript: I submitted this to, where it has received comments from members of that on-line community. Click hereif you would like to read them.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (3)

In my last entry I discussed Kandinsky's theory that the artist "must express what is peculiar to oneself," proposed as one of the three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value, and I suggested that this may be an impossible challenge to meet since I cannot think of any human attribute that is not shared. In trying to come up with a related set of principles that I felt I could agree with, I came up with:

1. Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.

Before I go on, I want to sneak in a second principle, one that was also mentioned in my previous entry:

2. It often causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way (Perspective).

And, while I'm at it, I'll add a couple more:

3. It speaks to us; people (but not all people, necessarily) feel a connection to it.

4. It often touches on the mysterious.

I think that #3 is self-evident (but I'd welcome input from anyone would like to suggest otherwise!); most of us value an art work because we feel a connection to it. I think this is where the notion that "art is in the eye of the beholder" comes from.

I touched on the quality of mystery in part 2 of this series. What I'm getting at is the idea that it is one thing for art to grab our attention, and it is another to hold it. There needs to be something there that makes us want to continue our engagement with the art, and perhaps that thing, or at least one element of that thing, is mystery. The Mona Lisa is a good example of this. What the heck is she half-smiling about? It's a mystery, but maybe if we stare at it long enough…

5. It often touches on the sublime.

Maybe #4 and #5 are two aspects of the same thing, but I made a separate entry for 'the sublime' because of the number of times I have heard people refer to God in reference to art; for some, great art is evidence of the divine, or at least of the way divinity is expressed through human creations. An art work that is highly valued is often said to be greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps this is because it touches on the sublime, a quality that is difficult to quantify.

6. It usually demonstrates technical excellence.

I throw "technique" into the mix because it's one of my pet causes as a music teacher. The better your technical skills, the better equipped you are to create the kind of art you imagine. Are there 'great' works of art with poor or even average technique? Perhaps; both 'greatness' and 'technique' are qualities that are debatable (although the former more than the latter, I think), but it seems to me that most art referred to as 'great' also demonstrates excellent technique.

Kandinsky's second "mystical necessity" is that the artist "must express what is peculiar to one's own time," and that is something I think is undeniable. What makes it particularly interesting in our time is that post-modernist art often draws on the art of periods other than our own, but in a way that usually is distinguishable from the art of earlier periods. I do this in some (or much?) of my own compositions; "Dream Dance," for example has sections that evoke (for me, at least) the music of Bach, Haydn, Phillip Glass, Scott Joplin, and Gershwin. In my programme note for the piece I call it an example of "Poly-stylism" because of this, but a composition that mixes styles in this way could not have been written in any period other than our own.

Here's the way I'd put it:

7. It is recognizably of its own time.

Kankinsky's third "mystical necessity" speaks to a transcendent quality in art, which he calls "the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space."

He rather goes over the top here, does he not? In any event, I think I understand what he means, and I mostly agree with it, although I think it is important to add tha but it's hard to think of art that is felt to be meaningful to "every individual, every people, every age," etc. The Taj Mahal might come close to this kind of pan-cultural ideal, but for the most part, it seems to me that art's appeal tends to have a strong element of culture-specificity. The art of Beethoven, Kandinsky, and yes, even yours truly are not held in equally high regard in all parts of the world (or even within western culture), and, conversely, it has only been in the last few decades that many people in our culture have begun to appreciate and value music from non-western cultures.

Here is my wording:

8. Its appeal transcends some cultures and periods.

And that's all for today, and, probably for my Kandinsky-inspired discussion as well!
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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Kandinsky's 3 "Mystical Necessities" for Art (2)

(For part 1 on Kandinsky's theories, see previous entry)

Let's examine Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value.
The first is a concept that I suspect most would agree with: An artist must express something personal through their art. Kandinsky goes even further, however, by writing that what the artist expresses must not only be personal, but "peculiar to oneself."  
But what is unique to any of us?  I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that there is absolutely no attribute that I possess that is not also possessed by other people.  We (or at least most people I know) like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest that it is the combination of traits we possess that makes us and others feel that we are, and it is this combination of traits that makes up our personality.
I'm fine with the idea that there is a connection between one's personality and one's artistic creations, but I'm proposing that it is impossible to "express what is peculiar to oneself," because nothing is.
Just for fun, I'm going to flip Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity' to:
1.  Every artist, as creator, must express what is universal.
I'm not sure I agree with it 100%, but it seems to me that it is true of much artwork of lasting value.  I recall reading at some point that most songs are love songs.  If true, the reason for this would seem to be obvious; love is something that we've all experienced, and something that affects us profoundly. It is as close to a universal experience as there is.
But so are basic bodily functions, and you don't hear too many songs about being hungry, or needing to pee.  You may conclude from this that there is a vast, untapped market for songs relating to bladder control (the "I had to pee but the teacher wouldn't let me" blues, for instance?), but my own take is that a quality in addition to universality must be present for my above statement to have some validity.  
What to name this quality?  Perhaps 'poetry,' or 'mystery,' or simply 'something that causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way.'  And perhaps this quality, whatever you wish to call it, is tied in with the personal, which would bring it back to the territory covered by Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity.'
Speaking of which, I don't know about you, but whenever someone says you "must" do something,  my natural inclination is to refuse and/or do the opposite.  I am not a fan of imperatives, I guess, which is probably part of the reason I became a composer.  So when I read Kandinsky's three 'mystical necessities,' I notice they are all 'must' statements and right off the bat there is a part of me that bristles at being told what I must do.
My amended wording of #1 would be something like this:
1.  Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.
And perhaps mysterious too, but this is getting long, so I think I'll leave it at that for today.
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