Strange Fellowe: Act I Follow-up, Part 1

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

The staging of Act 1 of “Strange Fellowe” has come and gone, and a follow-up blog entry seems long overdue – but this past month has given us a healthy amount of time to reflect individually, amongst ourselves, and with the people with whom we shared the as we take our next steps forward with this work.

Nick and I have repeatedly agreed that the week of workshopping was one of the BEST WEEKS EVER!!!  Having the opportunity to completely dive into this long-developed work for a full week was at once gratifying and deliciously challenging.  Not only did we watch it come alive, but we also came face to face with a variety of questions in the work, many of which we were discovering for the first time.

And being able to work for a short but uninterrupted period of time with a team of extremely imaginative, enthusiastic, and professional artists in different fields was precisely the kind of stimulating, positive, and substantial interactions that we in the creative professions crave.  The interpretations, discussions, and actions we shared with the other artists were eye-opening.

As much as I would have liked to have sat in the audience and experienced the piece unfold in front of me, I was nonetheless able come away with an equally as immersive, however different, experience of being able to work as a performer in the production.

photo by Andrew Russell

Jazz artists most often adopt stage presences centered on the performance of music alone; they always look as though they are about to, in the middle of, or have just finished playing their instruments.  In this production, however, the musicians were a part of the scene, features of the landscape of this world we created upon the stage, and thus were expected to adapt to this environment – even blend in.

My impression is that in the beginning, the musicians (myself included), were a bit unsure of how to conduct ourselves, particularly when we were not playing our instruments.  But as we ran through the act over and over, we became familiar with the world, the pace, and our roles, and we slowly melted into this imagined world.

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

This engrossing “world” contributed to other concepts that set the piece apart from a typical jazz performance.  In my jazz performances, I strive to create a world and perhaps a certain sense of flowing time through the music.  But I recall being much more conscious of this effect within “Strange Fellowe.”  Instead of the audience focusing on the sounds we made, they experienced the larger world that we were a part of – a world created collaboratively by all involved, including the director, librettist, actors, lighting designer, video designer, and set/costume designers.

Strange Fellowe - Kristolyn, the Bellowes, and Band

photo by Andrew Russell

Interestingly, when I was composing the music, I was very conscious of the vibes and effects that the music would evoke, as that was arguably one of its most important functions in a work like this.  However, the experience of releasing and projecting that music into the world as a performer allowed me to be an active part of that profound moment.

I could go on and on about the great things we discovered and created, the wonderful people we had the fortune to work with, and the next steps we’re taking on this “Strange” path, but I would like to leave room for insights from Nick and Jerome…

I wish that I could enjoy weeks like this every week of every month.  Except, of course, with some minor improvements such as remembering to eat and sleep.  Of course, the more exciting a project is, the worse those two functions usually suffer.  And at this point, I’m most definitely more excited than ever as we move forward with “Strange Fellowe!”

Strange Fellowe: Music Sneak Peek

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

Although Strange Fellowe has never been staged before and this upcoming ‘workshop’ of “Act I: At Ease” will be the first time Jerome, Nick, and I will get to see our collaborative efforts realized, some of the songs have made their ways out into the world in concert performances over the years.

Here, we’d like to share some audio clips from such concerts as a ‘sneek peek’ into the musical world of “Strange Fellowe”.

Song of Shadows

“Song of Shadows” was one of the first songs ever composed for “Strange Fellowe”.  It is unlike any of the others, in that the tempo is fluid (rubato), and the length very short.  While many of the other early songs have undergone multiple and drastic revisions, this one has remained mostly intact..

I had been wanting to share this song for a while, and found the opportunity to do so in a string of performances this summer with my own jazz group.  The rubato nature of this song calls upon the musicians to be acutely aware of each other in order to create the ebb and flow as a single unit; this is one of the things that make it so much fun to play!  For concert versions of this song, I usually add a saxophone segment up front before the sung melody comes in.

The Dark Chateau

Back in 2009, while this project was still in its early stages, Nick and I were undertaking another project, putting together original music to be performed by our jazz orchestra (a.k.a. big band), Jazz Nexus.

While in the San Francisco Bay Area for the holidays, we were able to snag an all-star, dream cast of musicians for a hastily rehearsed, enthusiastically received, and memorable one-night, sold-out performance at the renowned Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland.

The instrumentation for this version of “Dark Chateau” is obviously a bit more extensive than the concise band that we’ll have at the October staging.  And the song itself is actually  supposed to be sung by the male lead, but I think that this recording conveys a certain vibe and energy that makes it come to life in the true sense of the phrase, “live performance.”

Nova: Acoustic Instruments, part 1

This week’s post can be enjoyed by anyone! – Hitomi

Creative musicians seem to have a hard time defining their music in words.  When faced with the task of describing it in a concise manner, “original”, “unique-sounding”, and “cross-genre” are common results.  And I empathize with that!  Exposed to musical genres varying over time and cultures, most musicians, being music-lovers as well, draw from a rich array of musical backgrounds.  And unless an individual is being hired to create music evocative of a specific genre, it seems like most individuals are out to create their own sound.

However, when potential listeners are exposed to musicians not through the music itself first, but through some form of information (name, site, reference, search, etc), verbal descriptions and implications are helpful (or at times crucial??) in deciding whether or not to pursue it.  With no idea of what to expect, many people will not get to the, “just listen to the music” stage.  So, from a practical standpoint, being able to verbalize can help the music’s existence in the world of humans (most of whom use words), though so many of us are reluctant to use the word “genre.”

After much deliberation, Nova’s musical description was decided upon as:  progressive electro-acoustic pop.

On first listen, the “acoustic” aspect may not come to mind immediately, but this is a very important part of Nova’s music.  So (after a long intro!), today’s post will be introducing some of our many acoustic instruments that were used on Periapsis (with pictures!).

According to Nick, real guitar is irreplaceable and crucial to the music (and I agree!!), so he pulled out the Strat and practiced several strumming passages over and over again until he had guitarists’ calluses.  The subtleties in attacks, inflections, and sustains of guitar always evoke a raw realness for me.  And yes, the short guitar fills are all by him too!  Go Nick!

Nick says:

There is so much to say about the modern concept of electric guitar.  The first real distorted guitar sounds occurred by sheer accident as a result of broken amps.  Most musicians of the time were not into it at first, but some producers saw the potential of the new sound and started putting it in everything!  And now, there is hardly a secular guitarist on the planet who doesn’t turn up the drive once and a while.  And some who never turn it down.

The pure sound coming out of the instrument is violently destroyed.  What does that mean in the music on a subconscious level? You can put the pieces together. Hendrix set his guitar on fire…because it logicially followed what was already going on.

I am a terrible guitar player.  But it’s not hard to fool around and find a few little things that sound good.

The most varied and fun of the acoustic instruments were the many percussive instruments we used.  These ranged from objects made for music-making purposes, to household and more obscure objects that we tested and experimented with.  Some of the resulting sounds were achieved by experimentation and we used the ones we loved.  Others were created after deliberately searching for a sound we already had in mind and/or needed in a specific part of a song.  I foresee much more fun in the future with such experiments!

The goat-hoof shaker and maracas above, and the percussion frogs below, are examples of “instruments” we had and fit well within our songs.  I really love these frogs.  Normally, they sit by my door and I sometimes play them as I pass by.  They never fail to uplift!

Our wide array of non-traditional percussion instruments included the pipes above.  Hand-selected for their pitches and timbral capacities, these were used to fill a sound we heard in our heads, knew we wanted, and were trying to create.  Each pipe is able to produce a wide variety of sounds, depending on where and how it’s played, and we achieved some personally satisfactory ones.

Nick says:

I’m hoping that Nova gets a Home Depot endorsement deal because it’s one of my favorite music stores.

Another fun set of percussive experiments were conducted with a collection of wine bottles set aside for music-making purposes. Not to worry; we did not consume the wine in one sitting.  They were collected over a long period of time J.  The picture above illustrates a segment of all of the empty bottles ordered by pitch.

We then constructed a cave to record the bottles in.  The “Rabbit Ridge” bottles were a favorite; we filled them with water to attain desired pitches and then sampled (recorded) each of them being hit in six different ways (varying the strengths and speeds at which they were struck with two different “mallets”).

Nick Says:

We made a few EXS24 sample patches from these.  Some mapped a ton of differently pitched wine bottles out across a few octaves, and some pitch mapped a single sample across the entire range.  Each was more appropriate for different situations.  Any ideas which two songs they are on?

Bottle and “mallets” at home in the “cave.”

I regret recording this with a large diaphragm condenser.  Small would have been the way to go, but it wasn’t immediately available at the moment we were formulating these ideas.  The result from this were sounds that needed to be EQ’d all the way to Kalamazoo, and ended up sounding stuffier because of it.

Sidenote:  My favorite ridiculously huge reverb on Logic’s Space Designer is “Big Cave,” and many of my friends make fun of me for it.  So we made a little cave.

Back to the traditional instruments!  We were fortunate enough to be able to record on a freshly-tuned baby grand piano for one of our songs.  The experimenting that went on with the piano had to do entirely with the micing.  We thought we knew how we wanted it done beforehand, but there was still much finagling and readjusting that had to be done.  I’m happy to say that my mother recognized my piano playing upon first listening to the finished track!  That itself says a lot about recording acoustically!

Nick Says:

My friends make fun of me for this too, but I love a really close mic’d ultra compressed and dry soundboard-heavy piano sound.  I think it’s from my silly loyalty to some of my favorite modern jazz pianists, and from always sticking my head in the piano when I was a kid.  I didn’t have the gear needed to get that sound, but I tried nonetheless.

By titling this article “Part 1”, I hope to relay that there will be more posts on our acoustic instruments (partially because I have more photos I want to share).  If you caught that, it will have been an successful example of verbal implications!  Instruments to be discussed in the following “Instrument” posts include but are not limited to the following: plastic action figures, stacks of books, tubs of mud, badminton rackets, tennis balls, and saxophone.

Question of the week:  Electric and acoustic instruments…on their honeymoon or filing for divorce?

Nova: Nova Proudly Presents “Periapsis!”

We are excited to announce that Nova’s debut album, “Periapsis,” is now available for purchase and download on iTunes!

The first small scraps of material for this album revealed themselves in the Spring of 2008 and slowly cooked for three years in “Macintosh HD>Users>Nick DePinna>Music>Logic>Nova,” until we committed to finishing the project in May of 2011. Well over a thousand combined work hours later, and here it is!  While iTunes classifies “Periapsis” as an EP, we’ve always considered it a short album.  Besides, six songs and twenty-five minutes of music seems to be a defensible size.

“Periapsis” is, for the most part, very heavily orchestrated, and the rhythmic structures in most of the songs are quite complex.  The intention of both of these aspects was to stretch the mind and focus the attention of the listener while still evoking a familiar sound and intensity that he or she could grab onto.  We wanted people to feel like they wanted to dance to the music despite the foreign nature of some of the other aspects.  Encouraging and not-so-surprising fact in support of music that has some mystery:  Challenging your brain is good for you!

Overall, we ended up using the same amount of acoustic instruments as we did software instruments.  The only song on the album that is entirely acoustic is “Solaris,” which we had not planned on including in the album until the very last minute!  Blending the acoustic and synthetic elements of the music in the remainder of the album was certainly a challenge, as well as a fascinating topic of conversation that we’ll save for a later date.

Credits and lyrics for “Periapsis” can be found under the “Periapsis,” tab of our website.