child mind visualizing music

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Manuscript paper?


Recently I’m fond of drawing pictures to begin future writing. My musical experience, both listening and playing, from a young age has always been immensely visual, I so often see stories, scenes, landscapes, car crashes, people drinking a can of coca-cola classic. From the banal, to the gloriously sublime and shatteringly violent. Somehow, the flood of information rushing through the pipes of my auditory cortex, seems to overflow, breaking the dam, gushing musical electricity into the visual cortex. It is almost without fail that I imagine, or have some projectionist in the mind, producing extremely vidid visual interpretations from audio stimuli. Of course, there is amazing research into memory and music, however, much of the time, my visual soundscapes are of times not yet had. If wire-crossing brain stuff fascinates you, but you haven’t really checked it out, there’s been a wonderful surge of research and books in the past decade detailing the fascinating ways music effects us physiologically. The late-great Oliver Sacks’ Muiscophelia and This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin, being the big name blockbusters that are an easily accessible plunge into the cavernous depths of the relationship between mind and music

I think, and secretly hope, I am heading towards the time when I begin all my compositions with sketches.


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There’s been enough written about him, but if you haven’t heard of Satoshi Kon (1963-2010), you probably aren’t alone. The world of Manga, or Anime, the Japanese art of picture-literature and animation, aside from its often-presented cutesy side, has in parallel, always maintained an experimental aspect, having long been full of mind stretching improbabilities and existential elasticity. It fascinated 80’s and 90’s youth in the West, predominantly teenage boys with a taste for the stylistic sensation, teenage detachment, and most predominantly, in the seminal work Akira, the surreal. The violence and sci-fi never hurt either. I was one of those kids. But as the grunge-era youth rose into adulthood, it sometimes occurred, and panged with slivers of nostalgia, that I had left my fascination with Anime behind, with a whimsically disappointing feeling that it had not grown with the youth who embraced it. It’s nice to be wrong.
Satoshi Kon elevated the game. I just wasn’t onboard his train at the time. Fortunately I now have a sleeper cabin aboard his locomotive.
His manipulation of time, creative use of edits and visual aesthetic, the plunging into, and unabashed exploration of dreams and a total disrespect for convention, yet at the same time possessing a master craftsman’s skills, his films dove deep into the subconscious, and well…messed around, tinkered and essentially had a field day in the realm of the un-waking life. The interpretation is yours. For what it’s worth, I went to a late night showing of Perfect Blue on it’s premiere, at the Cinema de Parc in Montreal circa the blizzard suffering winter of the inaugural millennium year. My friend and I walked away, a little bitter and confused that we didn’t ‘get it’. Ridiculing the film for taking us deeper into the abstract alleyways of our 22 year-old minds, farther than we were likely prepared to hike at the time.

Here is a small video detailing some of his work with reference to the Hollywood-famous directors he influenced, and his ridiculously fabulous creativity with editing. Check the carbon-copy scenes in Inception and Requiem For A Dream.

I was very lucky to meet Connie Luk, a fellow PhD candidate at the University I work at. Her thesis explores piano pedagogy for small hands. She has small hands. She is a brilliant and inspiring pianist, her taste and touch spellbinds me. I closed my eyes when she performed it for me in rehearsal as we were going over notes, and it felt like it was her’s. Like myself, she is exhubertly full of energy, but oddly, meditative on the inside. Like the films of Kon. So I wrote a piece for her. And it was in memory of Satoshi.

If you would like to look at the score click here

Thanks to Mr. Kwok Yat Wai and Madam Kwok Chung Bo Fun and the Graduate School Development Fund.

Dia Blush play Naima

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One of my dear friends, and favourite musical partners, Sylvain Streiff and I played a collection of shows showcasing his amazing adaptation of the Vietnamese traditional instrument the Dan Bau to non-vietnamese music. We did a variety of duet  shows, but on this day we were luckily to have the amazing Huy on drums and the sensitive, gorgeous playing of Jen-Wei on bass.

Here we are doing John Coltrane’s sonic love-letter Naima


The Sunken Cathedral (a brief look at a few measures)

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A melodic analysis of measures 28-40 of La Cathédrale Engloutie

It is a pleasure to be able to feel the future and look into the past, simultaneously. We are often taught as musicians, irrespective of genre, to both pay respect and learn from the masters of times past, and then proliferate individual, new, statements from such learned material. Effectively making the old new. Rebirth. Renaissance. What a weight! The transparency and effectiveness with which one accomplishes this is a matter that takes its place among the most sought after personal goals for many an artist. But it sure can be tough. When a work effortlessly fuses our past, present and future, effectively merging time as a whole, and fusing our experience to it, we unsurprisingly, are moved. Perceptually, sociologically, intellectually. It is Debussy’s compositions, that fall into this prestigious category, that both harken back to an ancestral music, while at the same time finding a way to evoke the future.
A small excerpt (m. 28-40) from his 10th prelude for solo piano (from book 1 of 2), entitled La Cathédrale Engloutie (Trans Eng. The Sunken Cathedral) will help us see how, while harbouring an interest and desire (musically and philosophically) in works from the past, he anticipates movements of times still not born.
We limit ourselves to a short passage. The measures that will be discussed appear as the third section in the piece.

It is worth noting that there are analysis’ that propose that this is the second movement, owing to the interpretation that m. 1-15 are an introduction. I find this perspective flawed, for the logical reason that; the movement following an introduction is most likely to be defined as a carrier of the more important thematic, and representative material than the introduction. So it follows that m. 1-15, with it’s rising parallel chords, pedal tones, and perfectly sounding 4ths and 5ths, which will be present throughout the piece, functions as much more than introduction. It is this material that serves to introduce us to the grand spectacle of a cathedral rising from the depths of the sea, as is told in the Breton myth that serves as the composition’s inspiration.

While this short analysis will focus primarily on the melodic aspects of this excerpt, I will call into play a few harmonic considerations to help illustrate my ideas. Additionally, I will briefly describe the 1st section to provide a touch context.

As has been mentioned, the opening section relies heavily on its use of parallel 4ths stacked above a pedal. We are presented with pitches residing in the key of no sharps or flats. If we are to ignore the pedal that begins in m.3, the melodic material with its quartal harmonization, purposefully avoids any tri-tone activity. Perfectly obscuring the most essential and dramatic interval at play for the Romantics and their immediate predecessors, eschewing a drama constructed form narrative and precise emotional calculation through traditional tension and release, and instead, evoking awe from a sense of space and symmetry. This instinct, to create freedom from openness, looks to the future, of modal jazz, the avant-garde of the 60’s, the minimalists and many others. In the first six bars of the piece, the melodic pitches of the opening statement, which is repeated three times is the pitch class set class, (0,2,5). An ubiquitous set. Heard in many forms of music. More on this later.

The third section begins on m. 28. Established by a ‘c’ pedal tone, the listener is presented a melodic theme that continues the ambiguity, and rising quality of the opening motif of the piece. Accompanied by unstable 2nd inversion parallel triads in octaves, but Debussy’s use of these rotated triads, in the context, serves a function of stability and triumph. As the cathedral rises from the waters, this (al)most traditionally tonal section of accompaniment serves to give the listener a familiar sensation and relationship, while still distorting its appearance. Hence the use of strictly 2nd inversion chords. Not known for their stability. The melody continues it’s shine, its bright hue due to the pang of the perfect 4th, which is its distance above the chordal movement, strictly, for the duration of this section. I have deconstructed this section into three different sub-sections, and with this parsing, we begin to see the architecture more clearly.

The prime form represents the most objective distillation of a pitch class set. If one prescribes to the pitch set theory, the pitch set class, or prime form, puts forth the essential sound of a collection of pitches. The beauty of this is that as a tool of analysis and composition it leads one to discover, and hear similarity and relationships, in groups of notes that seem, at least s!uperficially, distantly distinct.
In fig. 1 you will see the highest registered note of each chord, it is choral-like movement, all harmonies moving with the melody. I have bracketed the sections with their section and phrase number. After which I have provided the prime form of the melodic content.
A1.1 shows a typically modal motif, outlining a 5th, made from a step of a second followed by a leap of a 4th. A1.2 is preceded by two passing tones linking it with A1.1, and like its predecessor it is again a 3-note motif with the distance of a 5th, but it is a variation. We now travel downward a 4th, then upwards a 5th. These collections illustrate the prime form concept clearly. Just as two intervals can share the same character, whether inverted or not, so can collections containing higher numbers of pitches. Debussy, unknowingly looking forwards to the aesthetic of sound for sounds sake. A1.3 is a slight modification, but keeps squarely in context, as the differing number in the set, the 5, as opposed to the 7, relates to a 4th, where as the 7 signifies a 5th. Both highly crystal, and evocative of brightness, and the inverse of the other. A charming nod to tonality is the structural outlining of a triad if one is to pay attention to the resting note of each phrase in A1.

B presents itself as two phrases whose melodic content is strictly pentatonic. It is in this intermediate section that one finds the most exoticism. For the pentatonic scales used, are not of the common type. To find an interval of a minor 2nd in a pentatonic scale is surely a sign of Debussy’s looking Eastward for aural inspiration, as the pentatonics in common usage did not usually contain this interval vector. And nicely, again, if we are to utilize pitch class theory, an identical prime form for B1.1 and B1.2. The same colour. Different notes.
Debussy has changed modes in B, the difference of one accidental, a ‘b flat’. This does not indicate a modulation from C Ionian to F Ionian. Rather it is preferable to look at it again as a slight change in colour, similar to the difference in the beginning three phrases of the A section, but on a more macro level. If one is to label the change with from a colour-concious perspective, Ionian to Mixolydian, both based on a C ground, it would be the most preferable due to the underlying harmonic content. In the writings of Ron Miller’s excellent modern jazz theory, he sets forth a continuum along which modes reside. If we are to discuss only the church modes, based of the same root: the brightest would be Lydian, and then each subsequent flattened note would darken the mode. If we follow the progression of modes around the circle of fifths, but adjust the root to stay the same, we follow with Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phyrgian, Locrian. Debussy was hearing large swaths of colour, and composing in accordance.
Another option for one’s understanding would be to segregate the melodic and harmonic planes, and see the parallel accompaniment as a representation of the past, of the organ of the submerged church, or the ghosts of its medieval monks engulfed in submerged plane-chant. And the melody above, a view of an exotic land as the steeple reaches for the surface.
The ‘g’ at the beginning of m. 36, serves as a structural pivot point. For it commits to two functions at once, as it serves both the pentatonic scale it concludes from B.2, and the miniaturized reoccurrence of A1.
What has been bracketed as A2.1 is a condensed version of A1.1 and A1.2. Essentially representing two identical prime forms symmetrically divided by a short-duration of three-notes. Although it is not as clean cut as its fore-bearer, it delivers us from B.
The lone ‘f’ and ‘a’ unceremoniously stranded between A2.1 and A2.2, I have excluded from A2.1 for the sake of showing the resemblance to A1, but if we are to add them to A2.1, again we find prime form similarities with A2.2.

However, most satisfactory is another perspective that is indicated, if the listener is to hear, as I did, the escape-tone nature of the penultimate pitch in the section. Upon listening, the ‘e’ felt fleeting and ornamental. If this one note is removed from our analysis, we are to find that each section, on the most macro level, belongs to the pitch class set class (prime form) (0,2,4,5,7,9). Which when rendered in traditional harmonic language, is a Major 6/9 chord. Or a major triad with added 2nd and 6th scale degrees. Or also known as one of Debussy’s favourite chords (and one which Messiaen would later adore as well). The forward thinking hearing of sections in colour, and the ability to draw influences from the past and exotic, illustrate Debussy’s experimental nature. His command of fusing this as an original and new whole, testifies to his timelessness.!


click here for the notation examples
Sunken cathedral examples

Harry Clarke

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A first post. Does every wannabe blog poster face the same circular bout of self-editing and reflection that I am experiencing during my first foray into the world of web-logs? Nevermind. This morning, while browsing through other mediums for some musical atmosphere (I often take my cues from non-musical stimuli), I began reading some Poe. I remember in a green house on the west side of Vancouver, my mother gave me a book, I was very young, in fact this may very well have been my first non-kiddie book. Select short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. I don’t remember the edition or publisher but I think I read much of it, albeit most certainly not hip to the larger picture and themes buried in Poe’s writing. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how much I read, but the idea and flavour of the dark author has always been somehow with me, peeking from behind a tree, not too near, but never far enough away to become irrelevant. I can’t remember many of his stories with detail, so I’ve decided to revisit some. This morning, this rekindled interest led me to discover the work of Harry Clarke (1889-1931). An Irish artist who worked as an illustrator, and with stained glass. Wikipedia tells me Clarke became famous for illustrating an edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I’ve always had an appreciation for the spirit that lingers in much art from this era. The veering into the distorted areas of existence, the dimly lit corners of the mind where one relies on touch and smell. In the music of Debussy, the paintings of Klimt, in advertisements for Absynthe.


click here:  harry clarke


© Alex Formosa