A few weeks ago I was questioned by some visitors of Bricomúsica about musical instruments that could be played by the wind.
This wasn’t something I had previous experience with, but I remembered reading somewhere about aeolian harps and the topic piqued my interest, so I set out to do some research in the internet.
It turns out this is not a very popular topic, so the information is scarce, but there’s enough for a head start.
Anyway this is my first experiment on the subject:
I actually found the results quite inspiring, so this is yet another topic deserving further exploration that worms its way into my agenda. So many ideas, so little time, and no cloning technology so I could get me a couple of “mes” to help!
Coltrabazz is a chamber work for double bass and piano in three movements.
It was composed in close cooperation with the amazing duo formed by Apostol Kossev (double bass) and Mariona Sarquella (piano), and I must thank them effusively for all I learned from them about the double bass and chamber music in general, and for all the work they put towards the premiere in De Doelen and the recording for Radio Rijnmond. Working with virtuosi is every composer’s wet dream, you can throw them anything and they will make it happen, even better than you ever imagined it.
Coltrabazz is a fusion of both my classical and jazz backgrounds, so it will doubtlessly disappoint most people from both sides. But I still chuckle every time I listen to it. The piece is based on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”; I invented a custom harmony system for it, and based the second movement on a small 4-voice canon I wrote over the “Trane Changes” chord progression.
This is the studio recording for Radio Rijnmod, aired on 13/06/2014:
Before getting my hands on that beautiful recording, this post featured a computer rendition, which I leave here as an example of how difficult it is to capture the energy and infinite nuances of a live performance by real, talented musicians:
Bricomusic, or DIY Music, is a project about building simple but musically effective instruments with recycled or cheap, easily available materials.
There are so many dimensions to make one’s own musical instruments that it is really difficult to know where to begin. As a composer, arranger, music scholar and teacher, setting out to build different kinds of instruments is a fascinating experience that brings in innumerable rewards. Among them:
Expanding the available sound palette.
Better understanding of instrumentation limitations.
Better understanding of instrumentation history.
Having lots of fun in the workshop.
Impressing family and friends of all ages in reunions :-).
Expanding the available sound palette
I guess in my case the departure point were the limitations I found when I was confronted with writing music to be performed by school children.
Spanish school system nowadays is somehow based around Orff Schulwerk. Orff’s ideas make a lot of sense and represented a notable advance in music pedagogy, but I have the impression that today’s kids aren’t connected to the traditional repertoire of folk music the way older generations were.
One of the effects of mass media is that city kids have become part of the global village: their source of music folklore is not anymore nursery rhymes or harvest dances during the local festivities, but whatever pop tunes that make their local radio station hit chart. These can still carry some regional flavor, influenced by the local folklore, but you mostly hear music rooted to a greater or lesser extent in American rhythm and blues.
You can find Orff instruments in almost every Spanish school. With the exception of the recorder, they all belong to the percussion family, pitched or unpitched, since they are ones that present the least technical difficulty to the untrained musician: there is no need to worry about things like intonation, breathing or bowing. However, I found the sound palette offered by them a bit limiting: for budget reasons schools can’t afford instruments in the deep bass range needed by today’s popular music, and they buy mostly the diatonic versions, which only include switchable bars tuned in Bb and F#.
Even in these circumstances the skilled arranger will always try to find ways of making the most out of the limitations he or she has to work with:
Jimmy Ferran Blues
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Anyway, even if you are satisfied with the existing Orff orchestra, I am convinced building musical instruments is a wonderful project for a school: you learn about sound physics, about technology and crafts, about instrumentation history, about instrument decoration, about folklore and culture… And, on top of everything, you can play them! I have indeed received excellent feedback from many teachers of different areas.
Fortunately the internet contains nowadays a wealth of information about instrument building. Some I directly copied. Some I modified for better sound, better materials availability or simplified construction process. In the end I was able to come up with original designs which at some point I would like to share with the community so I can return a small part of what it has given to me.
This is my rendition of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” for Metropole formation.
The Metropole Orkest is a Dutch orchestra which combines a bigband with the rich symphonic palette of strings, woodwinds and percussion to perform a wide range of music: jazz, pop, film, etc.
The RSJO (Rotterdam’s Symphonic Jazz Orchestra) is a project within the Rotterdam’s Conservatorium that mimics the Metropole’s setup to give its students the opportunity to approach these popular genres. I had the enormous privilege of being invited to participate in 2006’s edition with one piece, among some fellow-students and teachers.
I had been wanting to arrange “Fascinating Rhythm” for a long time: it is a funny light-hearted tune about how obsessive a certain rhythmic pattern can become when it really gets in your head. I based this arrangement on this little obsession and how the 7/8 pattern implied in the tune’s melody worms its way until it finds accommodation within a straight 4/4 pop-rock style, rather than the usual swing one.
Singer is wonderful Maartje Rikhof: she and everyone else did a smashing job, given the obvious difficulty of the music and the tight time constraints we had to comply with.
I must apologize for the poor quality of the camcorder recording. The guys at the music production department did a multitrack recording with top-notch equipment, but never got around to editing it, so this was the only one I could get my hands on.