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!”

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Strange Fellowe: The Band

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

Though 75% of the music in the first act of “Strange Fellowe” was composed within the past twelve months, early versions of the remaining 25% date back as far as four years ago.  It was therefore a long awaited and truly inspiring experience to see the music come to life in its first rehearsals with real musicians (alive!) this week.  “Act I: At Ease” clocks in at twenty-eight minutes of almost completely through-composed music, therefore one can imagine the challenges of balancing explicitly notated material on the page with elements of freedom and improvisation.  Yes, the parts that we very specifically write out will be performed exactly as we intended, however incorporating portions in which we merely give “slashes” and chord symbols (relatively typical in jazz music) often have a higher ceiling of musical quality.

This particular issue, of course, is only at stake when dealing with creative and brilliant musicians.  I’m trying not to gush too much about the individuals involved here, but it is hard to veil my enthusiasm for these unique and superb artists.

Pianist Ross Garren and I have been close friends for over seven years, and since my first experience making music with him, his sensitivity and carefully lush harmonic sensibilities have burrowed their way into my imagination as the epitome of beautiful piano playing – he is a cool and refreshing dip in crystal clear water.  Ross is also coincidentally an incredible harmonicist, though he will not be performing on harmonica in the opera.  It is always astounding to me how when he picks up a different instrument, he takes on a completely different, wrenching, and fiery personality.  In addition to his valuable assets as a performer, Ross is also an incredible composer, one of my favorite, in fact.

Though it was initially hard to get my mind around the formidable breadth of his musical personality, it all begins to make sense when I remember that it was he who strong-armed me into turning the corner on visionary musicians such as Aaron Neville, Michael McDonald, and Steve Winwood.  Yes, you laugh…but spend a day with Ross and you might do the same.

The youngest musician in the band is bassist Owen Clapp, currently a UCLA student in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA.  Owen immediately turned heads when he entered UCLA as a freshman; it was obvious that his musical maturity was beyond his years, but it wasn’t until Hitomi and I heard him perform a solo feature recently with the UCLA Mingus Ensemble that I realized what a unique and valuable musical asset he was, for multiple reasons.  First, his improvisation and underlying feel is inherently melodic, a trait all too rare in bassists.  The instrument and the register is the foundation on which the remainder of the music stands, so for that key element to feel alive and undulating is most extraordinary.  Secondly, his sound is superb – deep, warm, and enveloping, yet not boomy or overbearing – another quality all to rare.

Aside from being a first-rate acoustic bassist, Owen is also a seriously excellent electric player, on which he has an equally seriously excellent sound.  He was recently on a national tour with hip-hop artist Dumbfoundead and the Breezy Lovejoy Band.

While each element in the core of any band is equally important, the drums, more so than the rest, have the responsibility of holding everyone else together.  In many cases this is less true and in some others significantly less of a challenge, however the music of Strange Fellowe is in almost constantly shifting meters; it is therefore most essential for the drums to be consistent, informed, and bulletproof – let alone flowing, musical, lyrical, and sonically juicy.

Drummer and percussionist Michael Lindsay is all of these things.  I only met Mike a few years ago, and because I heard him performing with a groove-based jam band, I made the unfair and unfortunate assumption that he was simply an excellent groove drummer.  I couldn’t have been more wrong – Mike is one of the most versatile and sensitive drummers I have ever heard.  The music flowing from him is, yes, grooving, but also lively and lyrical – he evokes the stretching and compressing of time, causes inadvertent breath-holding, even fluctuates heart rates.  On top of that, he reads, interprets, and projects quite difficult written music with ease, style, and grace. And if that weren’t enough, he is also breaking some ground experimenting with midi-triggers and designing equipment to facilitate tackling such challenges.  I do believe that he’ll be using some of these resources in the opera.

I am so fond of these guys. All three of them were our first-choice musicians, and we are so fortunate to have them working on this project with us.

To round out the core of the band, I’ll be playing synthesizers…nothing flashy (we hope!)…just enough to warm up the ambience of the room and add some orchestration options.  And in addition to this core, three other musicians, referred to as “The Bellowes” (both saxophonists and vocalists…all three of them!) will perform simultaneously as a part of the band, and onstage as part of the drama.  More to follow on those excellent people in a later post.

Strange Fellowe: A New Jazz Opera

posted by Nick DePinna, composer

On behalf of Hitomi Oba, Jerome Parker, and other yet-to-be named collaborators, I am excited to announce a staging of the first act (and portions of subsequent acts) of our Jazz Opera, Strange Fellowe, taking place on October 26th and 27th, 2012 at the Fais Do-Do in Los Angeles!

Strange Fellowe‘s development began in 2008, when Hitomi and I, both graduate students in the UCLA Department of Music, approached Jerome Parker, a graduate student in the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television MFA Playwright Program, with a vague idea for a musical.  Jerome took the premise that Hitomi and I had in mind and took off, to our extreme delight and amazement, in a completely new direction than what we had originally imagined.  Over the course of three to four years, the characters came into being, the story developed, and the instrumentation, mood, setting, and style evolved.

At its heart, Strange Fellowe is a simple project…a piece of musical drama woven from the fabric of poet Walter de la Mare’s body of work.  The piece, while not completely explicit about its actual setting (at least at this point in its development), takes place in a world not dissimilar to the period in which de la Mare lived, including the looming darkness of some pivotal historical events he bore witness to.

Today, Monday July 30th, we signed paperwork and put down a deposit for the October production. This was our first official step towards bringing this project into reality!  Hitomi and I visited the venue not only to take care of these logistics, but also to take some photos to send to the rest of the creative team.

The Fais Do-Do is a brilliant space.  With a 200+ audience capacity, a large stage, and cavernous atmosphere, the creative options are staggering.  The decor is simple, with aging wooden rafters atop moody and bold red brick walls

Nova: Rhythmic Elements of “Red-Handed”

This week’s post will most likely be enjoyed by musicians interested in the technical inner-workings of “Periapsis,” however please don’t get scared off!  Over the next year we will post a wide variety of conversation-starters for music lovers of any knowledge level and will begin each post with our modest guess of what demographic might enjoy it most.  So here it is again for this week: “This week’s post will most likely be enjoyed by musicians interested in the technical inner-workings of ‘Periapsis.’” – Nick

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Of all of the songs on our album, “Red-Handed” certainly wins the award for “most rhythmically intricate.”  For the most part, while the rhythmic component of the song is extremely involved and syncopated, its skeletal structure is actually quite repetitive, and can most easily be witnessed in the bass as a series of rhythmic values, the most common of which is [five] (sixteenth-notes).  The first half of the repeating form is as follows:

5 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 3 – 3 – 6 – 3 – 4 – 4 – 6

And the second half, quite similar but mussed up a bit in the middle:

5 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 6 – [2 – 5] – 5 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 4 – 6

These rhythms fall into surprisingly simple metering:

Taking this rhythmic skeleton and “muting” certain values during the verses created some breathing room in the arrangement to divert attention to the vocals while preserving the syncopated style of the music. Below, the numerical values in parentheses are muted, however still present:

5 – (5 – 5) – 5 – (6) – 7 – 3 – (3 – 6 – 3) – 4 – (4) – 6

5 – (5 – 5) – 5 – (6) – 2 – 5 – 5 – (5 – 5) – 4 – (4) – 6

That’s it for the numbers, don’t worry.  Translated into written music:

There are a number of textural and orchestral layers added on during the chorus, so the continuation of the rhythmic sequence is not all that apparent.  It is quite similar to the structure preceding it, but eventually departs as most developmental music inevitably does.  You can hear it most explicitly in the modulating electric piano hits.  Most of the changes and development upon the base rhythm were simply consequential from the stretching of the structure over a (gasp!) backbeat.  This thread of musical material exists alongside the primary elements of the chorus as an interlocking yet independent element rather than an orchestrational or complementary one.  Its inclusion was crucial to a feeling of continuity between the chorus and verse both because of the striking stylistic differences and the very different key areas of each section.  Even though “Red-Handed” is quite section-al, the continuation of the layer helps to mask this potentially unsavory characteristic by creating the illusion of a continuous flow.

The section after the chorus, which we so appropriately refer to as the “post-chorus,” undergoes a slightly more rigid and note-worthy development.  Here is the first portion of our skeletal structure depicted as a rhythmic grid (TUBS., anyone?):

We took the entire rhythm, copied it, moved it two 16th’s later, and dropped it back on top of the original (figuratively, of course).

...structure copied...

...shifted...

...and pasted back on top.

At the beginning of the post chorus, this rhythmic counterpoint takes place largely between the voice and the bass.

As you’ll notice, in the second half of the post-chorus, the counterpoint exists between two layers of vocals separated by an octave, but the lyrics flow continuously over it:

“the MEANS, the MO – tive, AND the, OP – por – TU – ni-ty

E – ven MORE – so IF you RE – fuse to deny!”

Yes, it’s a bit hard to make out the lyrics in this section if you don’t have them sitting in front of you.  But it sounds wild and kind of cool, right?

So the big question remaining is, “Why did Nova go to the trouble of weaving these patterns and development into the music in the first place?”  The answer is quite simple: Because we wanted to!  But to avoid a complete cop-out, here are some other things that we were not thinking at the time, but are nonetheless true:

  1. Human intellect recognizes patterns and complex development both consciously and subconsciously, so it doesn’t really matter if you actually “hear” the rhythmic development.
  2. We want the rhythmic aspect of our music to be a living, breathing, and growing element rather than an obligatory layer so often taken for granted in popular music.
  3. The complex, albeit organized rhythmic structure of the verses highlights the novelty of the backbeat in the chorus.
  4. The relatively complex rhythms make the music inherently different than a lot of other music that sounds sonically similar.
  5. It posed a challenge to record, which kept us interested, to say the least.

Question of the week:  From a distance, “Red-Handed” appears to be dance music, and we have always pictured it as such.  What do you think?  Please comment and give us your thoughts…or talk about something completely different if you wish!

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.