Friday, August 28, 2015

Transposing from Major to Phrygian (Rakes of Mallow in Ionian and Phrygian)

Most fiddle tunes are either in Ionian (AKA the major scale, mode 1), Dorian (AKA "modal", AKA "minor", mode 2) or Mixolydian (AKA "modal", mode 5), and sometimes Aeolian (AKA "minor", mode 6).  You don't see many in Phrygian (mode 3), Lydian (mode 4) or Locrian (mode 7), if at all. So, I wondered what it would sound like to transpose* a tune from major/Ionian - the most common and normal sounding of all keys - to Phrygian - a weird, exotic minor mode.

*Is there a more proper term than "transpose" for when you move a melody from one mode to another?

For this experiment I chose the Irish tune Rakes of Mallow because a) it's in the key of G, b) it's a relatively simple tune and c) it was the first tune I thought of!  To do this I had to get the music theory part of my brain working.  I knew that Phrygian was the mode starting on the 3rd note of the major scale, so in other words the G-major scale from B to B (B-C-D-E-F#-G-A-B) would be B-Phrygian.
Rakes of Mallow in G-major
Rakes of Mallow in G-Phrygian
I then made note of those intervals and transposed from B-Phrygian to G-Phrygian.  Those notes are G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G. (FYI: these are the same notes as the Eb-major scale starting on its 3rd note).  I suppose another way of looking at it is, to go from Ionian to Phrygian you flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th notes of the major scale.  I already had Rakes of Mallow written out in mandolin tab in G-major.  Based on that, I wrote it out in G-Phrygian, making sure to convert every A to Ab, every B to Bb, every E to Eb and every F# to F.  Those mandolin tab transcriptions are included above.

Another interesting thing to point out is how the chords changed.  Knowing that the G-Phrygian mode is really just the Eb-major scale starting on its 3rd note, I know that the G-Phrygian mode would use the exact same chords as the Eb-major scale.  (The I chord in Phrygian is the III chord in Major, the II chord in Phrygian is the IV chord in Major, and so on).  Using that logic, I think I wrote out the correct chords in the G-Phrygian version of Rakes of Mallow.

Rakes of Mallow is easy to play in G-major but very difficult and unusual feeling in G-Phrygian, partly because on a tenor banjo in the Irish tuning of GDAE you don't get to use any open strings when playing this melody in G-Phrygian.  (I bet if I had put it in B-Phrygian it would have been much easier because those are the same notes as the G-major scale).  But, I will say that by putting it in the Phrygian mode - with its half step between the 1st and 2nd notes of its scale - the tune takes on an almost Greek or Klezmer sound.

Listen and see what you think!


Friday, August 21, 2015

Characteristics of the Different Musical Keys

Some say that each musical key evokes a different feeling. For example...

C major
The most translucent. Innocent, pure and naive, like the whispers of children. As fresh and natural as an untouched virgin. Stark naked and elementary.

C minor
The sorrow of love lost hangs heavy and faint, echoing the despondent yearning of vacant souls.

Db major
A purple sonorous sinking ecstasy. Witnessing the changes of the moon, howling internally beneath outward silence. Breaths taken become invisible, then vanish into consequences.

Db minor
A bleeding bestial intercourse with the celestial mountain. Dashed hopes of enlightenment.

D major
The smell of victory, proudly yellow and magnificent. An exultation of mirth basking in the wake of its many accomplishments.

D minor
The feminine whims of an orthodox gloom. Gathering platelets and filtering plasma.

Eb major
Dreaming of the cherished sinews. Unforgiving in its nature of brutal adherence.

Eb minor
Anxious dismay of the darkest woe. Hesitating when it should advance, persisting when it should fail. The realm of the phantom.

E major
Crying out an exultation of unfulfilled pleasure. Its intent is your sky blue. Magnificent splendor. Rising above the arguments of the day.

E minor
An uneasy grumbling abated only by the reciprocation of its flame. Attracted to grief, nostalgic for the beefing.

F major
Comfortable in its own skin yet easily agitated. In accord with the deep red luxury of existence.

F minor
Thrilling, chilling and ready to attack. Not satisfied with its position. Looking for the proxy.

F# major
Climbing the forged signature embedded in its foundation. Decisively subjugating the copycats. Responding savagely to fancied slights.

F# minor
Dog bitten but well dressed. Speaking to audience of foiled firebrands.

G major
Blooming in isolation but not out of touch. Thankful for the immortal bond. Projecting agreeable satisfaction.

G minor
Resentful of its missed opportunities. Biting at will. Acting out at predestined schema.

Ab major
Corpse-like with infinity reflected in its pupils. Scanning the horizon for any signs of decay.

Ab minor
Confined to a sticky steam bath until it can no longer gasp or blow. Escaping to even greater panic.

A major
A fulfilled promise returned to its point of origin. Affirming the ever-present state of serenity.

A minor
The clerical order belies a hidden delicate center. It is and isn't what it seems to be.

Bb major
In command of its ethos and optimistic of the future. No need to let go, no need to remain.

Bb minor
A living, mortal thing. Cloaked in the shadow of the eventide. Surrounded by expressionless self-destruction.

B major
The strongest intensity composed of blatant indignation. At every turn the task is omnipresent.

B minor
The key of restraint, expectant of the allotted portions. Losing nothing because it hasn't acquired.

Are You A Sharp Person or Do You Like to B Flat?

People who play music that is most often in sharp keys tend to think of those keys as being the easiest. Those who play wind instruments prefer flat keys. Piano players fall right down the middle with their attraction to the key of C (all white keys - no flats or sharps). What it boils down to is the keys that people are most comfortable playing in are those where the chords or scales are easiest (most common) on the instrument(s) of choice in that style or genre. That might be D for Irish, E for The Blues or Bb for Trumpet Rock.

I don’t want to be one of those people who sees G as being easy but Eb as being hard, for example. I want to see them as equals. When working on an arrangement or interpretation of a tune I’m mindful of running it in different keys, different octaves, different positions and different fingerings. Was that an Irish jig, a free jazz freakout or a downstairs mixup? Who knows? Who cares???

Basically, I am striving to play stuff in as many different ways as I can think of, while understanding the “similarities” of each different way. I can easily spend a whole evening doing this with just one tune or one or A-part or even one phrase. As a result, I am having more fun than ever before practicing/playing music.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mary Halvorson: Meltframe Review

Nothing really prepares you for the opening notes of Mary Halvorson's solo guitar album Meltframe , out September 4th on Firehouse 12 Records. Is a statement being made or is she just having fun?  Or both?  The aggressive, distorted notes challenge the listener to hang on for 4 long minutes.  It's a ride you may or may not want to take again.  That seems to be just fine with Mary.  Easy listening isn't exactly her thing.

Mary Halvorson has appeared on dozens albums over the last decade+, either as band leader, a band member, or special guest.  But, Meltframe is her first completely solo effort and it's been highly anticipated ever since word spread that she was recording it.  Instead of writing music for solo guitar, Mary decided to interpret other people's songs.  Meltframe is an album of covers.

Track 1 is "Cascades" by Oliver Nelson.  I'm not sure if a familiarity with the original recording helps or hinders your appreciation of this take.  I wasn't familiar with Oliver Nelson, or the majority of the songs Mary is doing on this album.  The selections span from the well known masters (Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner), to more obscure(?) musicians (Roscoe Mitchell, Annette Peacock) and contemporaries (Chris Lightcap, Tomas Fujiwara).

"Cascades" gives way to Annette Peacock's "Blood" and every instinct in my body says Thank You to that. Meltframe's initial jarring movement may shake off all but the most devoted listeners, but when you emerge from that craziness a long stretch of beauty begins to unfold.  Tracks 2 through 6 is my favorite part of the album.  I don't care if these are different songs by different composers.  When taken together it flows like one long suite.

I've been listening to Meltframe a lot over the last week, trying to figure out how it is I feel about it, and I always find myself deep in thought at a certain point somewhere along the way.  Invariably, this is during Track 5, a cover of "Solitude" by Duke Ellington.  It would have been impossible to predict what Mary Halvorson's debut solo effort was going to sound like other than hoping it would achieve moments of brilliance, so it's especially poignant that her treatment of Ellington's "Solitude" - the album's centerpiece - is the place where this brilliance is most apparent.

By track 7 she is back to some distortion and pyrotechnics, although it's more fleeting this time.  When it does show up again you are much more ready for it, even appreciative of it. Track 8 "Platform" comes the closest of any to having groove or swing, before that too is abandoned for more good old fashioned noise.

Meltframe closes out with "Leola" by Roscoe Mitchell.  Any statements that needed to be made have by now been made.  Ultimately, this is simply music that Mary Halvorson wanted to make.  Now it's up to listeners to decide if this is music they wanted to hear.  Knowing Mary's past history, my listening to this album has been more purposeful and patient than if I had come by it accidentally.  By sticking with it I feel slightly altered - in a good way.
Mary Halvorson.  Photo by Kelly Jensen Photography


Sunday, August 16, 2015

City Paper Article on Pedal Steel Improviser Susan Alcorn

From the macro to the micro.  As much as I love a band like Phish, who can fill up 20,000 seat sheds all across the country playing incredibly complex music for masses under the guise and convention of a rock concert, I also love the idea of the relatively unknown (or completely unknown) musical explorer who creates challenging and/or artistic music on a daily basis whether there is an audience there to hear it or not.

One such musician who is revered among lovers of improv and the avant-garde, but who is perhaps not well known outside of that community, is the Baltimore-based pedal steel guitarist and improviser Susan Alcorn.  I've only been aware of her music for a few months, but I've quickly gathered up most of all of her recordings that I can find.  Some of these include burned CDs that Susan made and signed herself.  Talk about DIY!

Alcorn's new album Soledad interprets the music of the Argentine tango composer and accordionist Astor Piazzolla.  Spoiler alert: chances are strong that this album will find its way onto my best of the year list.  It's the perfect music for a lazy Sunday morning.  I might be listening to it here shortly.  But first, I wanted to share a link to a well done feature from Baltimore's City Paper on Susan's music and the new album.  Please continue reading:


Friday, August 14, 2015

Remembrances of 50 Phish Shows - Numbers 41 through 50!

Here are my memories of the 41st through 50th Phish shows I've been to.  For numbers 31 through 40 click here.

2010-06-15 (nTelos Pavilion, Portsmouth, VA)
The nTelos Pavilion in Portsmouth is a fan-friendly venue in an urban setting.  The general admission seating and laissez-fare attitude of the surrounding lot and neighborhood seems to work out.  This was the first of many stupendous shows here.  I especially remember the early 1st set Slave and the Tom Waits song Cold Water.  Most people didn't recognize it but I love the Mule Variations album so this song was a treat to hear, even though it didn't really fit in.

2010-07-01 (Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek , Raleigh, NC)
The friends that we met up with at this show brought with them a saying that some weird guy had said the night before...not at a Phish show.  It went "Mike Jordan, he retired".  Which morphed into "Mike Gordon, he retired", which eventually morphed into "Mike Gordon, he retarded".  It was fun to say that as we were walking into the show.  A Llama opener is kind of like getting thrown a curveball.  Roses Are Free and Time Loves A Hero were good to hear.  Divided Sky always pulls me in.  Our group of friends cozied up in the same row during the 2nd set so as not to take up any more space than we were supposed to.  It was all very cordial.

2010-07-02 (Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre - Charlotte, Charlotte, NC)
The saying "Mike Gordon, he retired" was still going strong this next day.  Buried Alive was an awesome opener.  Vultures kicked ass.  What was going down was the best band in the world was playing live music and I was there to hear it!  During the 2nd set we got down pretty close on the Mike side.  Man, I love that song The Lizards.  YEM went over well as a 2nd set ender.

2011-06-18 (Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek , Raleigh, NC)
Starting with two instrumentals is unusual.  This show's catchphrase became "Go back to Mexico!".  I think we told that to Curtis Loew.  It doesn't really make any sense.  I'm a sucker for 2nd set Prince Capsians and My Friend My Friends.

2011-06-19 (nTelos Pavilion, Portsmouth, VA)
Hey cool.  We're back at Portsmouth.  Maybe I was becoming one of those jaded vets, but the cynic in me thought the Phish songcatchers overreacted to the Harpua opener.  I was like, "uhmmm...I saw that one in '94".  Also, why they gots to play Alaska?  That 2nd set had the fire though.

2012-08-26 (Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre - Charlotte, Charlotte, NC)
I haven't mentioned this yet but it's kinda my thing to go pee during Moma Dance whenever that song comes up, whether I really have to go or not, but I usually do have to so it all works out.  Especially if it's in the first set.  What you see going on while walking to the toilets while that song is playing is just as entertaining as the music itself.  So, I remember doing that this show, but it's all kind of groggy.  No details whatsoever of the drive there, hanging out, post-show or anything.  I do remember the Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page, and I remember the Big Black Furry Creature From Mars, and Trey poking fun at Fishman's songs Tube and My Sweet One like he did at the Asheville show a few years earlier.  I think this is the only show from 2012 that I went to.  We skipped the Portsmouth shows.

2013-10-19 (Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA)
The Bathtub Gin opener kicked serious ass.  Moma Dance was next - time to pee.  It was nice to hear something new like Steam being played.  The Wingsuit/Fuego songs wouldn't debut until Halloween and we didn't know of their existence yet, so new songs were few and far between at this point and welcomed when they did appear.  Steam is not a bad song.  It kind of reminds of the Stephen King Gunslinger books.  I must apologize to my friends Mike and Vickey for puking all over the hotel room later on in the middle of the night.  (Note to self: don't drink liquor during the show).  They have kids and they're used to my foolishness so they know how to handle that situation.

2013-10-20 (Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA)
A greasy, waterside breakfast helped remedy my hangover.  Fresh friends who hadn't been the night before joined our tired old selves for night two of this stand.  Halloween was looming and rumors of what album they would play were swirling around.  Was that a Traffic style jam during Tweezer?  I think I heard some Allman Brothers in there.  That Tweezer got out there.  It rivals the more famous one from Tahoe this same tour.  What was the deal with that Takin' Care of Business?  Ginseng Sullivan and Paul And Silas in the same show?  I was liking it.  This was the Hampton we were used to.

2014-07-29 (nTelos Pavilion, Portsmouth, VA)
Summer 2014.  Laura and I spent a lovely morning in Norfolk enjoying the downtown area, harbor and museums before taking the ferry over to Portsmouth and meeting up with our friends in the infamous unofficial Portsmouth parking lot that we always manage to hang out in pre-show.  Everyone there was cool.  Getting to know some intelligent, funny and obsessed younger fans was a bonus.  Mike Gordon rode through on a golf cart and I shouted a request for Yarmouth Road which he obliged the next night.  I loved, loved, loved this show.  While it was happening I enjoyed it in the moment as much as any show ever.  That's all you can ask for, right...being in the moment?  Every aspect of this show reinforced my love for this band.  We have family in VA Beach so we cabbed it back.  Our cab driver was an old black lady named Rosetta who said she liked "writing poems and playing with water in her backyard".  I quote.  I think she was an angel sent from on high.  Oh wait a second...I'm an atheist.  Nevermind.  Rosetta gave me her card and said to call her the next day when we needed her services again.  Then she took my 40 bucks.

2014-07-30 (nTelos Pavilion, Portsmouth, VA)
Back at it up and early this day.  Another pleasant morning in Norfolk and then we met up with our friends at the Bier Garden in Portsmouth just after lunch time and laughed about how crazy the night before was.  Back to that same parking lot for some more socializing and strange coincidences.  Then, sure enough, it was showtime and this one rocked as well.  I remember being in a really good mood, perpetually.  Nothing too serious or pensive...just goodness.  After the show we wanted to keep hanging out with our friends so we piled in a car and went back with them to their hotel, only to discover that their hotel was only 4 blocks away from where we had been earlier in Norfolk each day before taking the ferry to Portsmouth.  That would have been good to know in advance.  When it was time to leave I called up the cab driver Rosetta from the night before, but instead of her again she dispatched some crazy white dude to give us a ride.  He was all over the road; I think just to see what our reaction would be.  It wasn't a pleasant escort back to the beach like the night before.  Oh well...he got us there, and didn't charge as much!

That's it.  That's all 50 shows.  (Today becomes number 51 by the way).  Sorry I couldn't be more descriptive of the actual music but I'm lucky that I can even remember the dates and locations.  I really should get back to playing banjo now.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Remembrances of 50 Phish Shows - Numbers 31 through 40

I'm recounting the 50 Phish shows that I have attended.  Here's numbers 31 through 40.  This stretch includes Coventry, the Hampton Comeback shows and Festival 8.  For numbers 21 through 30 click here.

2004-08-14 (Newport State Airport, Coventry, VT)
Everyone who made the trek to Coventry has a story to tell about it.  In our case, Laura and I plus our friends Mike and Daniel set out early from Southwest Virginia in good spirits with plenty of time to get there.  Mike's SUV was loaded up with camping gear and other supplies.  Somewhere in Connecticut we started to have pretty severe car trouble so we overnighted there while his car went into this random small town shop.  The fixing was going to take more than a day so a friend of the owner of the shop rented us a very old mini van to use for the rest of the way while the car was getting fixed.  Of course this minivan completely broke down and fell apart on the side of the highway in Vermont.  We were still 100+ miles south of the festival, but more than a couple hours north of where we had picked up the van.  The person from CT drove up to meet us towing some 1980's Oldsmobile two-door sedan.  We had to down-size quite a bit to fit 4 people plus camping gear into that car but it got us there.  Or at least the outskirts of the festival.  After an overnight stuck in traffic several miles out, we decided to set up camp on some Vermont redneck's property a few miles from the festival and hoof it in.  A local woman - with a baby in the car! - kindly picked us stragglers up the first day and chauffeured us to the gate since she had special access as a resident.  

As for the show(s) itself, I can't say much for them.  The overwhelming gravity of the situation affected perceptions of it.  I was hopeful when they opened with Walls of the Cave.  I even had delusions that this could still be a great finale to Phish's career.  But, it fell way short of expectations.  I still have never listened to these shows ever again.  The whole event put too much of a strain on our friendships that I've never wanted to go there.  I know that I was difficult to be around this weekend.  I do remember liking the song Friday on Saturday, as crazy as that seems.  See you in four-and-a-half years.

The butterflies in the stomach feeling on the eve of a Phish show that you've been waiting for is omnipresent.  Never has this been more palpable than at these Hampton comeback shows.  We somehow scored tickets legitimately without having to go through scalpers. I think I just randomly called up Ticketmaster and happened to catch it at a time when tickets were available and ordered over the phone. The same group of four from the Coventry debacle were back together for these shows.  A lot had changed from 2004 to 2009, obviously.  We had shots of Patron tequila in Hooters the day of first concert which foreshadowed the Mexican Cousin which would come around in night two.  But going back to that first night, anyone who was there remembers the sense of catharsis that overwhelmed Hampton Coliseum the instance that the first notes of Fluffhead were recognizable.  Those first few seconds spoke volumes toward the collective sigh of relief that it conveyed.  The actual show or shows can't be described in any way that makes sense other than saying the proverbial "you had to be there".  Phish wasn't just back.  They were back and determined to make good on a legacy that they had left tarnished 4.5 years ago on a muddy Vermont field near the Canadian border.

By Asheville in June 2009 it was back to business-as-usual as far as seeing Phish goes.  Asheville is a great little city and we had a large group of friends that descended upon it, similar in a lot of ways to the Greensboro 3-1-03 show.  A super-fun time was had hanging out beforehand and the show was great too.  The Asheville crunchy coolness was represented well as the outpouring of love from the audience was among the most authentic and universal I have ever experienced outside of the Hampton shows 3 months earlier.  Joy, teary-eyed-ness and jaw-dropping awe were among the many emotions passed through on this night.

The next night in Knoxville was a continuation of the party.  What great place Knoxville is!  The city that never sleeps...or at least on this night it didn't.  We stayed in a really cool downtown hotel and we were able to walk to the lot from there, even though it was a long distance.  The Shakedown was especially raging outside this arena.  Out of control.  The Waves into A Song I Hear the Ocean Sing was a highlight for me.  After the show we were amped up and kept going to bar after bar.  We even got into a cab that was playing Phish and made the driver blast it, circling around the block of our destination an additional time or two for the sheer enjoyment of it.  We finished the night at a hotel bar full of Phish fans that stayed open waaaaay later than it was supposed to.

Flew out to Palm Springs for Festival 8, with a stopover in Dallas.  The plane was delayed a few hours in Dallas, and it was obvious that multiple fans were going to be on the same flight from there, due to the unusually jovial atmosphere in the airport bar at that gate, despite the wait.  As we boarded the plane a sketchy dude on some weird drugz hit his head as he was sitting down next to a mom and her toddler.  From beneath his sunglasses he said "Maybe we'll get an Althea" which caused me to lose it!  The mom made the flight attendant move this dude to a different seat and I don't blame her.  He hit his head getting into that seat too.

These polo grounds where the Coachella festival is held were a lovely place to see Phish.  It felt lightly attended as far as Phish shows go, but that laid-back California vibe was in full effect.  Maybe not as laid back as High Sierra, but close.  In late October in the desert it would be in the 90's during the day and as low as 39 degrees at one point in the early hours of the morning.  I wasn't prepared for that kind of cold. 

The entire first was excellent, but I especially liked the blimp-like artwork floating during Harry Hood.  Very avant-garde artsy.  Whatever kind of cart that "puppet" was attached to wheeled right by me.  I got completely lost trying to walk back to the campsite afterward.  The grounds were bigger and more confusing than I had thought.  

I'm not a Stones fan.  I was actually hoping for the longshot MGMT album this year.  So, when news spread on Halloween day that it was Exile on Main Street I was nonplussed.  I think I took a nap on the soft, manicured lawn while that set was being performed.  The acoustic set on 11/1 was quite special.  I loved it.  It would have been better if everyone had just sat down and chilled during it instead of having to dance.  Save your energy, folks.  Dancing during that set seemed unnecessary.  After thoroughly enjoying and savoring the final two sets later that night we packed up our tent and slept on a blanket out under the stars before flying back home to good old Virginia.

We had another large group of people at this show and I'm pretty sure we were all in mutual agreement to party harder than ever before.  It was preppy Charlottesville, so why not?  This might have been the tipping point as far as that goes.  The climate was snowy and icy but the show went on.  Our hotel was right across the street from the venue.  Not all of my memories of this show are positive ones, but that is independent of the music, which was right on the money.  It was satisfying to hear not one, but two songs with Virginia references in them - Old Home Place and Sweet Virginia.  That completes 2009, which, 15 years in, was my busiest year of seeing Phish.