I have been releasing my piano albums for many years now, but I’ve never really addressed the entirety of the project, which is how I think of it.Just what exactly is this enormous Piano Album Project?The short answer is that it is a collection of fifty-seven albums of my piano improvisations recorded between 1996-2016.It has been the center of my creative life throughout the second half of my musical career.Each album is a complete work on its own, but many individual improvisations have also played important roles as blueprints for my written compositions.The long answer is more complicated.
In the beginning, I did not intend for the improvisations to be available commercially.The improvisations, which I recorded as MIDI files, were to be part of a process which used improvisation as a starting point for the creation of written compositions.Nearly every composition I have written after 1993 has used improvisation in this way, as both the origin of the musical material and a general suggestion of the musical structure of the written work.
Some of the resulting compositions can be heard or even traced clearly in the original improvisation and some cannot.It depends on the music, instrumentation, and the function of the piece being written.In some of the pieces, the improvisation has been greatly enhanced and expanded; in some, I have remained rather close to the original.I have found this method to allow me the most freedom and creativity while keeping in mind a general idea of where I am going.I also find improvisation to be the most direct path to my creative subconscious.
Early in my career, I found that when I re-imagined a piece, such as when I orchestrated a piano work, I was more imaginative than I was when creating the original.Working with improvisations seems to emphasize this trait.Some composers like to develop their compositions from small amounts of musical material, creating an integrated structure along the way.The danger of working from the bottom up like that is that the composer may create a beautiful structure that is not very musical.The kiss of death for a composer is to have a musician say their piece is “very interesting.”
An improvisation, on the other hand, is often quite musical, but not always very tightly structured, sometimes barely structured at all.I have found that I am more creative and inspired when trying to make structural sense out of something which is already musical than trying to squeeze some music out of something that makes perfect sense but is otherwise not very attractive.
Though I had been working on my improvisation to improve the intuitive quality of my composition, after about four or five years I began to notice that the improvisations themselves were becoming consistently pretty good. I began to entertain the idea that I might be able to release them as a recording.I had accumulated quite a few MIDI files and thought surely a few of them would make a good album.
I started to go through dozens of recordings, which I found pretty tedious.Over two or three months, I had narrowed it down to four tracks.Then I went through the process of finding a label that would release it, mastering it, pressing it, sending out press releases, the whole shebang.I released my first album, Dreamcatcher, in December of 1998.Many people liked it, even the critics, but many people did not have a clue what I was doing.I was generally happy with the reaction but I hardly sold any CD’s.I wasn’t sure what I thought about the whole experience and didn’t know what to do next.So I went back to my original plan of using improvisations in my composition.
I spent the next four years writing some major compositions, using improvisations: Millennial Opening (1999) for orchestra, String Quartet No. 2 (2000), Vision Quest (2002) for double bass and piano, and Meditation at Oyster River (2003), a cantata for soprano and orchestra (or piano) on poetry of Theodore Roethke.My composing and my job as a bassist with the Phoenix Symphony took up most of my time.I would improvise on the piano just for myself in my spare time.However, during a break in my symphony schedule in the spring of 2001, I sat down and did some recording again.I found that most of the takes were good and decided that five of them would make a good album.This was the album Snowmelt.I saved it for later and went back to my other projects.
In the summer of 2003, I was having trouble writing the Roethke cantata for my sister Eleanor Stallcop-Horrox.I decided that I would record some improvisations for a while to get the juices flowing.Finally, by mid-July I was able to put together a good plan for the cantata (using one of the improvisations) but when I returned to the recordings in 2004, I found there were two good albums there.They became Cricket Cages and Dandelion Seeds.
After that, recording in the summer when the symphony had a three-month break and I could seriously concentrate became my standard routine.I found that the nine months in between sessions allowed my music and playing to change enough to justify another round of recording.I would wait to do my initial editing until at least a year had passed. In fact, I wouldn’t even listen to the recordings after recording them.That way I could approach them with fresh ears.
After the cantata, I found that the compositional procedures I had used for adapting my improvisations into compositions were no longer working.My improvisation was improving to the point where my reworking was no longer improving the original.Some adjustment and adaptation seemed to be all that was needed.My compositions were becoming little more than transcriptions.I was unnerved by that, and found that I needed a few years to decide what direction to take.The result was that I now spent nearly all of my creative efforts on improvisation, recording, and editing.
Nearly every summer between the years 2005-2016 I spent from two to six weeks recording improvisation at the piano.I would edit recordings during the symphony season, as this was a much less intense procedure.I composed only a few pieces during this period.The most notable piece was Five Bells (2010), an orchestral tone poem on an Australian poem of the same name by Kenneth Slessor.This work was an edited improvisation that was transcribed, adapted, and orchestrated in response to a commission for the Arizona 2010 All-State Orchestra.
Though I would occasionally improvise in public, mostly as an example at concerts of my other written works, performing was never the purpose of my improvisation.I was focused on the creative aspect of what I was doing and not trying to put together a “show.”I have, however, transcribed and performed several suites from my recordings, transcribing them essentially the way I recorded them.This opened up another can of worms.When composing, you set up certain parameters in advance and then work within them, unless you change them.But in my improvisation, I play little more than note-to-note.I speed up, I slow down, I stretch, all of which would be considered interpretive techniques – except now they are the original.How do I transcribe that without being ridiculously complex.I spent way too much time trying to find or design a simplified notation that would account for all these rhythmic anomalies.In the end, none of unorthodox notations were either attractive or did the job.
But I did use two different methods of transcription that were both effective.One was the traditional method which transcribed the music preserving the rhythmic relationships I perceived to be there.The other used traditional notation, but transcribed the rhythm against a rigid and unrelated fixed tempo grid.
When I record, the computer sets a default tempo.Since my music is very free, I ignore this tempo and don’t use a click track, but the computer still uses the tempo as a reference.When transcribing, I decided to try using this default as a tempo to notate the music AGAINST.It was like looking at a landscape through a grid of squares and then drawing a picture using graph paper!I had to make some small changes so the notation didn’t look ridiculous, but it surprised me and was actually quite successful. But it was really weird!I learned and performed a couple of the transcriptions, just to be sure, and found them to be very faithful to the ebb and flow of the original improvisation.Unfortunately, I had to completely unlearn and change how I thought about the music originally.All the rhythmic relationships were different.I decided that though it worked, it was not something I could live with permanently.(A couple of the suites are still notated this way, the suites from Floating Leaves and Night Drift)
Below is the opening to “Call of the Crossing” from the Suite from Bridge to Nowhere.The first example is traditional and shows the rhythmic relationships of the music.(This is the one I used.)
The second example uses the default tempo and shows the timing of how the selection of the improvisation was actually played.
Changing the relationships like that made me realize that I did indeed have set opinions about what those relationships were, despite the freedom of improvisation.So I finally ended up just notating them in the more conventional fashion, as I heard them and as I sensed the relationships.This was a more difficult procedure for me, but it was much more accessible for the performer.It also didn’t drive me nuts when I played them.
All during this time, the music business in general was going through a complete overhaul.My experience with my first CD seemed positive but wasteful.It cost several thousand dollars but wasn’t well marketed.By the mid-2000’s, it began to look like CD’s were on their way out, first with iPods and then cell phones.The whole music market had completely changed.In 2008, I found CD Baby, a digital distributor for independent artists, and I gradually started to distribute my albums online.Expenses were reduced to a fraction of the cost of physical CD’s and a lack of sales meant only a lack of royalties.I remember a composer friend having eight boxes of LP’s in his studio!Inventory can be a nightmare! Even CD Baby has stopped selling CD’s!Now they have stopped selling downloads too and only distribute and collect royalties.As time has elapsed, the process has become even more streamlined and cheaper.My early albums are still producing digital royalties and remain available.As of this writing, I have released 33 of 57 albums, and I can still park my car in the garage.
In 2005, as my summer routine picked up steam, I became more productive.By 2009, I was recording five or six albums each summer.In 2012, I recorded twelve.In 2015, I recorded fourteen.At the end of every cycle I was completely exhausted.I began to realize that there would come a point at which I could not do this anymore.That point arrived in the summer of 2016.I tried many different approaches, and was finally able to produce one final album, but I was done.
I retired from the orchestra in 2018 and have spent my time composing.I still compose using improvisations, and because of all the recording, I now have a backlog of nearly two full days of music from which to choose.I am also mastering and preparing the release of the remaining albums.As the experience of recording the albums begins to recede, I find they mean more to me than ever.When I passed my 72nd birthday this year, I realized that I had better speed up the release schedule of the remaining albums.I am in pretty good shape at present, but if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that one’s health can change at any moment.
As I look back on the project now and all the music it has produced, I have some mixed feelings, but no regrets.Improvisation is such a right-brained process that it is hard for me to be analytical about it.The tracks that have the most plays seem random to me.I would have never guessed that those tracks had something special.I must choose tracks to transcribe or use in my compositions, but my reasons are personal and a drop in the bucket when compared to the preferences of today’s streaming market.
I look at all the music in these recordings and I can’t help but think about how J. S. Bach wrote five CYCLES of cantatas.A cycle is a multi-movement cantata for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year.He wrote FIVE of them, of which we have recovered about half.I have played or listened to probably less than one percent of them, and I am someone who has a fifty-year professional career and loves Bach!How can an average listener even conceive of what Bach has done?
So who is going to listen to my albums?Why would they do it?All the music literature says, “Know your audience!”Oh, give me a break! Sometime last summer, I noticed that on Bandcamp someone was methodically listening to all of my albums in order.Most of my plays are always my more recent releases, but this person started at the beginning and was going through an album or more every day, listening to entire tracks.I wondered what he was thinking.I wanted to ask him questions.I remember sitting in a music library once and listening to all the works of Anton Webern in one day.There aren’t that many pieces and they are short, but that was still a few hours.That also was certainly enough Webern! I learned some things about him, but I didn’t listen to him
again.There is something to be said for modern streaming that a person can find and listen to just about anything ever recorded, even the cantatas of Bach!I wonder whether Bach would be jealous? Somehow, I doubt it.