Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Slow Burn

Today I'm posting up a track from August 27th 2010 at Canterbury House, the day before the concert that Matt Endahl and Tim Cohen's duet came from.  For your listening pleasure:

Gary Prince (gtr) Matt Endahl (pno) Tim Cohen (drms)
Canterbury House 8.27.10

Gary Matt Tim Guitar Feature 8.27 by Gary Prince

Obviously I'm making up for the lack of guitar on Sunday's track by posting something extremely guitar centric tonight.  This piece is a free improvisation, and comes from the beginning of our session.  The section which comprises this track actually starts about 12 minutes into the first improvisation, and comes after a very dense section of atonality, a little bit of which I've left in for context.  It's worth noting Matt had been playing that same piano figure for at least two minutes before it ultimately emerged from the chaos.

Though this track is perhaps atypical, for us, in its adherence to conventional forms and instrumental roles, it should be remembered that playing free doesn't mean not playing conventionally.  It means not being required to play conventionally.

If you listen closely you can easily hear the amplified piano, particularly at the beginning, manifested as what I hear to be a kind of 'shimmer' surrounding the sound of the acoustic piano.  I'm playing my Ibanez Artcore AS83-VLS through Matt's Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.  A large part of my sound here comes from using my wah pedal, a Crybaby Classic.  I remained on a clean sound for much longer than I normally might, mostly because Matt didn't have a channel selector footswitch (used to shift between the clean sound and an overdriven sound on the amp), meaning I eventually had to manually reach over and hit the button to change to overdrive, at 7:55.  The effect is that the guitar remains held back for longer than I normally might have kept it, sounding as though it is struggling to break free of the band as the piece builds.

Speaking of which, I think I'm playing alright here, but the real joy and skill is in the rhythm section - the way Matt and Tim naturally and slowly develop and build and vary their accompaniment to both respond to and push my playing.  This is the slow burn - measured, unhurried, powerful, long but not tedious, intense without being overwhelming, building gently and gradually, all with a sense of space that is both liberating and exciting. The job of the soloist is to ride the crest, to hold back and to lead only gently, and to allow oneself to be pushed.  To me, the most effective pop ballads are the ones that create this sense of space in very short periods of time - giving the impression of the slow burn, even as the whole song might be only four or five minutes.  Truly this is an aspect of playing that is much more related to one's internal, non musical emotional development than to any instrument.  I don't pretend to be a master and I would hope nothing I write here is confused for conceit in any way. 

I had a lot more that I considered writing about free improvisation, but I think I'll leave things here for this rainy Wednesday night.  Spring can't be here soon enough for me.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Going to Ann Arbor/Matt Endahl and the Amplified Piano

Today I bought tickets to go to Ann Arbor April 21-24 - which means that, pretty soon, I'll get to play with two of my closest musical brothers, Matt Endahl and Tim Cohen.  Which means that, pretty soon, I'll be going head to head with the likes of this:

You'll have to forgive me for the awful camera work and narration. There are worse things to be bad at.

The short version is that I first met Matt Endahl in the fall of 2004 in Improvisational Forms, the pre-requisite class to the Creative Arts Orchestra, then taught by Ed Sarath. We were both sophomores at UM, though this was before I was actually in the School of Music.  Matt and I started playing together regularly in the summer of 2006, after we found ourselves both briefly working in the house band at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island.  We were roommates from 2007-2008.  It was just about the time when we started living together that Matt invited me to jam with him and Tim Cohen, a physics graduate student and drummer Matt had been playing with for a few months.  In April of 2008 we were joined by my good friend Kate Olson, an arrangement we came to call the KGMT Quartet, and that has more or less stuck even since Kate and I moved to opposite ends of the country.  The experience of playing with these folks multiple times a week that spring/summer of 2008 directly paved the way to my album Improvised Duets, the story of which I will save for a future post.  These three people are a constant inspiration to me.

Determining what track to post here tonight was a real struggle.  Ultimately, I've decided to put my ego aside and share something that doesn't feature guitar.  This track is a free improvisation from our performance at Canterbury House August 28th, 2010.  It is a complete performance - partway through the show we broke off into duos, Gary/Matt, Matt/Tim, Gary/Tim; this is their duo.  I'll post other tracks from this performance in the coming days.  Until then, listen for the amplified piano at the beginning of this track, for the interplay between the musicians, how Matt and Tim work as a unit, and for the overall structure of the piece.  It's a slow build, but well worth it.

Tim Cohen and Matt Endahl duet, 8.28.10

Part of the practice of improvised music, for me, is learning to experience the music your partners are making as though you yourself are creating it.  This way, I am as emotionally engaged with and invested in what Matt plays, or what Matt and Tim play, as I would be if I was playing it myself.  This is true even if I'm not onstage with them.

Through this practice, one learns to let go of the ego and not seek to impose one's musical will on the group, or become too attached to a given sound.  If we listen from this place of no ego we tend not to play out of obligation, that is, to play just because we happen to be holding the instrument and are expected to.  It is crucial to avoid unnecessary, aimless playing in any music, but especially so in free playing, where your mediocre idea might stifle your partner's brilliant idea.  When all the musicians playing together learn to listen to and trust one another in this way, there is no limelight to seize, no ego to bruise, no I sounded great, he sounded terrible.  We all make music as one, and experience it together.  Even though I'm not playing on this track, I'm in there, listening.  This is what it means to be participating energetically, to be fully present, whether as an audience member or as a performer.  This kind of listening/engagement is something you can practice whether or not you are a musician.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

All of us are family

About a month ago I had the great honor of having my music used in a short film by Marcos Davalos, a filmmaker located here in DC.  The film is called "All of Us Are Family."

To quote Marcos' description:

"In 2010, families from 68 grassroots organizations from 23 countries convened at the fourth international convention of Families for Sexual Diversity. Starting with only a handful of participants in the first gathering of FSD in México in 2002, the number of families and countries has grown with each meeting in a celebration of empowerment."

He uses two songs of mine, "Window" and "Attic".  "Window" is the one you hear first, "Attic" comes in later, and is featured in the closing credits.  I'll admit I've never been the best at naming my songs.  Marcos deserves a lot of credit for how well he wove this music into his movie, teasing really limited musical material into enough substance to fill out his film.  He also deserves credit for being able to bring the volume up on that recording of "Window" without it sounding terrible, something I've never been able to do.

I wrote "Window" in one session September of 2006 sitting on the porch of 328 Catherine St in Ann Arbor on a beautiful day, just before school was starting.  I remember moving inside to finish it amid the boxes of roommates moving in, and that it was just after I had cut my (then quite long) hair short for the first time since childhood.  This recording is from a concert I gave at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor November 10th of that same year - I believe it was recorded on my friend's macbook, which is why the volume is so low.  I've never managed to record or perform it again as well as I did on that concert, though I've certainly tried.  Often, the simpler a song, the more elusive a compelling performance.  "Attic" was also born in one or two sittings out of the theme from an improvisation.  It was recorded the day after that same concert by Tomek Miernowski, at the UM Recording Studio.  It also dates from Summer/Fall 2006 and I'm pretty sure I never gave it a second thought after recording it until Marcos used it.  I think it complements the video perfectly.  I used my father's Washburn acoustic for both tracks.

Here are the songs in their original versions:

"Window" (beware, volume is very low)


Part of the reason I go into such detail is that I have, for the first time, put some of this music online where it can be downloaded for free - click here for the link.  I'm pleased for these very simple and humble songs to still have a life even almost five years later, and to be able to contribute in a small way through my music to the LGBT community.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An orchestra through the reverse end of the binoculars

Today I want to share a video I found a few years ago that continues to be a major inspiration to me:

Let's for a moment forget about the fact that Segovia is a classical guitarist, that he is demonstrating these things on a nylon string guitar, or even that he plays a guitar.  Any instrumentalist can seek to develop a palette of sounds in this same way, and so many of us who developed in popular music styles seem to simply content ourselves with one tonal quality, one dynamic level, one way of attacking the instrument.  We can do all this before resorting to digital effects to artificially change the sound of our instrument - something I have nothing against, but something that I hear often, and rarely hear done in a way that reflects a mastery of the sound being produced.  Nels Cline is one of the precious few guitarists who I've heard really use a lot of effects, and use them like a real instrument.  Because that's what they are - a guitar with effects is no longer just a guitar.  It's a new instrument, and like a new instrument, it needs to be studied and mastered.

The thing that really blows my mind about Segovia's approach is how he integrates these different tonal characteristics so thoroughly into a piece.  What I mean is, often I, for example, may say - ok, this section I'm going to play with this sound.  This next section with this sound.  Segovia truly hears the entirerty of the line, and says, ok, these three notes, that's the cello coming through - this stab, that's brass.  This moment here, that's piano.  It creates the illusion of orchestration, almost in the same way Bach creates the illusion of polyphony with a single line in the Violin Suites.

Speaking of which, the best example I can think of to demonstrate this is by far Segovia's recording of the Bach Chaconne.  It's long, but very worth it.  Note especially at 6:57 as we transition into the Major section of the piece, how Segovia uses his timbral choices to bring in the new section as though viewed first from a distance and zooming in, a very cinematic effect.  At least that's what I think of. Segovia transcribed this piece for guitar in 1934, and though I don't know when this recording is from, the good sound quality would suggest later.  This recording is from the album "Andres Segovia - The Segovia Collection, Vol. 1"

Andres Segovia plays J.S. Bach's Chaconne in Dmi, from Violin Partita #2:

I could say a lot more about this piece, about its emotional weight, about how it comes at the end of a suite were each preceding piece slowly adds and develops each motif ultimately heard and realized in the Chaconne, which itself is far longer than each any others, and far longer than typical for the final section of a Baroque suite.  Listen for how the essential musical material of the piece is presented in the first 4 bars, only to then be twisted, turned, elaborated on, first in minor, then major, then returning to minor, over 13 minutes.  How the mood goes from dark and musically spare, to dense and intense, to nostalgic at 6:57, to exuberant, before returning to the original feeling and musical material, a feeling now felt so much deeper because of the material preceding it.  Wikipedia tells me it was perhaps written in memory of Bach's first wife. 

To me, this is the apotheosis of classical music and the relationship between composer and performer - Bach wrote it, Segovia interpreted it - transcribing it and arranging it for his instrument, orchestrating it dynamically and timbrally.  He didn't simply play it and try to recreate it faithfully, itself a lot of work, he made it his - he owns it, it is not something outside of him, even as he first recorded it over 200 years after it was composed.  The emotion of the piece, how Bach wrote it, how Segovia played it, how I hear it some 70+ years after that speaks to how the essential elements of human experience and feeling are unchanged.  Any music can convey that to anyone.  Music only dies when listeners, critics, or musicians pay more attention to the stylistic features of the music than the underlying creative, emotional content.

This music, the Chaconne, is real, adult emotional expression, in contrast to our society's (and a lot, but not all of pop music's) obsession with youth - granted I'm young, and obviously value youthful expression given that everything I've recorded would qualify as such, but one spends most of life not being between the ages of 17 and 30, and examples of mature musical expression do not have such a high level of visibility or value in our current culture.  I understand the Chaconne better now than I did when I first heard it 4 years ago because of the life experiences I've had, and I expect this appreciation and understanding to only deepen with age.  That statement is not meant as a judgment call on one kind of music v. another, simply an observation. Bach was somewhere between 32 and 38 when he wrote this around 1720, Segovia was 41 when his transcription was published.

But I digress far from my original point, which was going to be that, while Segovia probably saw the electric guitar as an abomination (ok, he definitely did) - just think of how many more timbral options I as an electric guitarist have at my command.  To begin with, any way of attacking a classical guitar you can do it on an electric too - it might not be quite the same, a layer of subtly might not be there, but it can be done, and that lack of subtlety is made up for in the fact that I have two pickups, two tone knobs, two volume knobs, all the knobs on my amp, my pick, the fingers on my right hand (and the gradations of nail v. flesh, and RH position, the same that Segovia uses) and any effects that might be on the floor in front of me - I personally use a wah pedal and the channel selector switch on my amp, to go between clean, dirty, and very dirty settings.  Why should I not alter these settings as I play?  Why not practice these things, to develop control over them?  Nevermind the fact that I have a way wider dynamic range (volume) and can still achieve some level of subtlety playing within a band at a high volume.  Within a group, I can fill my sonic space in any number of ways to complement the texture of the group - I'm thinking of course of playing with Matt Endahl (piano), Kate Olson (soprano sax), and Tim Cohen (drums), who I'll write more about later.  I'm not saying I'm a master of this kind of thing, anything but.  Most guitarists outside the classical world seem blissfully unaware of these concepts.  I know none of the jazz guitar lessons I took as an undergrad so much as once mentioned developing a dynamic range or tonal palette - all that came for me by suggestion and necessity when playing with the Creative Arts Orchestra - an experience I'm sure I'll describe more in the future.  I hope that opening up this line of thought might inspire more guitarists to experiment similarly.

I'd like to dedicate this post to Andrew Sargus Klein who showed me how to get an Mp3 embedded into blogger, and with whom I first shared that Segovia video when I found it more than two years ago.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Coming to grips with the 21st century

Welcome.  If you're reading this, I imagine you already know me.  If you don't - my name is Gary Prince, and I play the guitar, and that, more or less, is what this blog is going to be about.  There's more to it than that of course - I teach guitar at The Levine School of Music, in Washington, DC.  I play all over the area with various groups.  I am a resident artist at BloomBars.  I create original music, alone and in small groups.  I listen to a lot of music and think about it all the time.  I also busy myself with the general aspects of living, and that undoubtedly will feature here as well.  I went to the University of Michigan, where I studied Jazz & Contemplative Studies and Psychology. 

This is me coming to grips with the 21st century, where everyone can share their every thought online instantly, where as a musician, or a person up to anything interesting, you practically have an obligation to.  This blog accompanies my brand new website -  The site was created by fellow guitarist and Levine colleague Matt Dievendorf and all credit for its beautiful design goes to him.  The pictures on my site were all taken by one of my best and oldest friends Isabelle Carbonell, currently continuing her adventures in documentary film-making in the Mid-East.  The picture currently at the top of this site was taken by my friend and musical soul-sister Kate Olson, whose music you will undoubtedly hear a lot of here.  I also have a youtube channel now, where I'm gathering all the video of me I know about - if you have some, please contact me.  Note that the "Listen" tab on my site allows you to link to downloads of all the professional recordings I've made.

I'll be updating this blog at least once a week, and regularly posting music, video and photo.  Besides posting things that I enjoy and have something to say about, I'll be using this site as a kind of clearing house for my (extensive) archives of home recordings - if you've played with me, ever, you're liable to hear yourself here.  I'll be writing about teaching and using this as a space to update the world on performances or other events I am doing.  I'll probably even write a little about non-music things - though I promise no half-baked political rants, ever.  No similar promises will be made regarding soup recipes, thoughts about whatever I'm currently reading, or posts about how much I love sitting on my roof.

If you have a question about guitar or music that you want to ask, whether you know me or not, ask me, and I'll answer it.

That's all for now!  Thanks for reading and listening,