Making Music With Machines – Part 1

Last summer I had the pleasure of speaking with Wade Roush about my Canons album and my path to creating it. Wade is the creator of Soonish, a podcast about “science, culture, curiosity, and the future.”

My story became a part of the latest episode of Soonish – released, July 27, 2018 – which explores the topic of Making Music With Machines. Other voices in the episode include the leader of Google’s project Magenta, which applies machine learning to the creation of new music and visual art; a DJ and EDM label manager; and a team of commercial composers.

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A Mid-Summer Music Update

I wanted to share update on my recent musical life. This summer, I’ve been participating in an intensive that’s about composing for the North Indian drum, the tabla. I’ve been working on an 8-minute piece for tabla and percussion ensemble, and in August it’s going to be workshopped and performed by some amazing musicians. Writing this piece been an all-consuming activity and I’ve had less time than I anticipated this summer to focus on my electric guitar project. It’s been all-consuming not only because writing for the tabla is new to me but because I decided to use this project as a chance to shake up my composing process a bit. For the first time I’ve been sketching ideas directly in a MIDI piano-roll editor (I’ve been learning FL Studio) rather than standard notation. I’ve also been coming up to speed on the state of the art in virtual instruments, and it seems that I’ve been pulled (quite happily so far) into to the whole ecosystem around Kontakt.  This has allowed me to sketch my ideas much more rapidly than I could before and has also let me generate audio renderings of my work that are more convincing than I could before.

Here’s a medley of ideas that couldn’t fit into my 8-minute workshop piece, so I decided to combine them into a separate piece:

And here’s another offshoot of the project. It doesn’t have tabla. It started as a sketch I wrote when I was figuring out how to write for other instruments in the percussion ensemble: marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, cymbal.

Guitar, Music

Arrangements for Electric Guitar

I wanted to take a moment to share my current musical project. I’m working on a set of original arrangements and/or recompositions of jazz and folk standards for fingerstyle electric guitar. My goal is to create a set of twelve arrangements; as of now I’ve got three.  I’ll be sharing samples of my work in-progress on Bandcamp. I’ve got lots more to say about the project but for now I’ll keep the announcement short and invite you to listen here:


Fretboard Insights From Another Look at CAGED

In this post I’d like to share a way of thinking about the guitar fretboard that occurred to me when I was revisiting the well-known CAGED system. I had known about CAGED for years, but only recently did it give me an “Aha!” moment.

What I’ll be presenting here is not CAGED itself, but rather a set of observations that were prompted by CAGED. As with anything relating to guitar, someone’s probably thought of it before, but I couldn’t find a similar exposition, so I’m offering my own.

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Interval Compression

In music, “imitation” is what happens when one musical part or “voice” repeats the material stated by another voice. Episodes of imitation occur in many forms and styles of music, but the canon is the one form where imitation is sustained from start to finish.

One of the reasons why I see boundless possibility in the canon form is that the idea of imitation itself can be interpreted in so many ways. Imitation can be direct or it can involve some systematic way of changing or transforming the original material: when the follower repeats what the leader “said,” the follower can state the content verbatim, or say it in a different way.

Some of the most common kinds of transformation that occur in counterpoint are to turn the original material upside down, to change its speed (make it faster or slower), to play it backwards, or to do some combination of these things together. And so we have canons in contrary motion, canons in augmentation or diminution, canons in retrograde, and so on.

Why bother crafting pieces of music with these special technical properties, these “deviant” forms of imitation? Because they can provide a fascinating experience for the listener, where two manifestations of the same idea may be heard together and compared. If we take a melody and turn it upside down does it still bear an audible relationship to the original? Does it carry the same affect? Each time we listen to such a “canon in inversion”, for example, we might notice new connections between the original melody and its mirror image, or we might perceive differences in sound or meaning that hadn’t been apparent before.

As I continue writing canons myself, I’ve been seeking to experiment with other kinds of transformation – other ways of interpreting the idea of “imitation” – that have been less commonly addressed than those mentioned above: inversion, retrograde, augmentation, and diminution. The technique I explored in my two latest canons could be called “interval compression.” The idea is that follower should cut all of the leader’s melodic intervals in half: if the leader makes a jump of an octave (12 semitones) from C to C, for example, the follower would copy this gesture by leaping a tritone (6 semitones) from C to F#. So the follower presents a vertically compressed or “squished” version of everything the leader does.

Is it possible to make meaningful music with this unusual constraint? And why bother doing this? As with many technical constraints that can seem arbitrary at first, it forces you to write music that you probably wouldn’t think of otherwise. But beyond that, it’s an interesting way of addressing the question of what makes two melodies sound similar or different: is it the specific pitches they hit, the specific intervals they use, or is it just their rhythms and basic contours? How similar do the two parts – the leader and its “squished” follower – sound to you as you listen?

Here is Cannon 73 “Tellurium”:

Here is a visualization of the first part of of the canon:


And here’s how it looks if we align the two parts, eliminating the lag between leader and follower so they can be more easily compared:


To make this canon work out cleanly, I confined the original theme to a whole-tone scale so that all melodic intervals would be divisible by 2. The transformed theme, the result of this division, consists largely of chromatic motion as you can see in the images.

Canon 73 was borne from the same outline as its predecessor Canon 72 “Rhyolite,” a piece with a much slower and more brooding demeanor:


Canons on Clavichord

This is a quick note to announce phase II of the canon project I’ve been working on with keyboardist Matthew McConnell.  Following the release of our album Canons, which was performed on harpsichord, we are beginning a work on recording a second set of canons for clavichord. I look forward to keeping listeners up-to-date on this exciting second phase of the project. One of the first pieces we’ve recorded is the canon “Celestine” which I wrote about in my post on Parallel Octaves. I’ve added Matt’s clavichord performance of Celestine to the end of our first album as a teaser, and you can listen to it below. Please help us continue with this recording project. The best way to support us is to download our first release of Canons and/or share the link with someone who might be interested.