A Look Inside the Genesis of Tamalpais- Part 1
The centerpiece of the soon-to-be-released Big Heart Machine record is a suite in five movements called Tamalpais. On a cloudy day in 2014, my sister, Becca, took me on a hike at one of her favorite spots: Mt. Tam in Marin County. We’ve always been a hiking family- and Mt. Tamalpais isn’t really that exceptional as far as hiking trails go- but for whatever reason I was so musically inspired by the topography of that mountain on this particular day. I’m sure Becca will remember me telling her about my sudden inspiration to write a piece in which every musical consideration would be based on the specific elements inherent in the trail we followed that day. Over the next three years, I worked on this idea pretty much constantly.
I was also thirsty for a project when the inspiration hit; I needed a daily endeavor to structure my lifestyle on the road. I had been touring with musical theater productions for a couple years, and while that was a rewarding professional experience, it was anything but creatively satisfying. I loved being on the road- and making a living wage for the first time in my adult life- but I had also never been so uninspired. Playing the same show eight times every week is mentally fatiguing to say the least, and traveling around North America non-stop was physically exhausting. So, I adopted this large-scale project to give myself some structure and a goal to set my mind towards. No one commissioned me. I didn’t even have hopes of hearing the piece performed at that point in my life. But I decided to work on this idea every day, and see how far I could take it.
There is a deep but relatively short history of programmatic suites written for jazz big band. Duke Ellington made a series of well-loved suites for his band. Black, Brown, and Beige; The Far East Suite; The New Orleans Suite; The Queen’s Suite; The Togo Brava Suite; Such Sweet Thunder- these are some of my favorite recordings. However, they are nothing more than collections of unrelated pieces of music. There isn’t anything wrong with finding a pleasant order for a collection of random songs and presenting them as a continuous suite of music. Composers have done this for centuries (think of The Nutcracker Suite- Duke’s reimagination of Tchaikovsky’s immortal work is another great album).
Further back, in the baroque era, the “dance suite” was a very popular musical form. J. S. Bach contributed many masterpieces to this genre. Dance suites were collections of popular dances that were presented in contrasting tempos and related keys. [Shameless plug- I recently composed a Dance Suite for Violin and Percussion that has yet to be recorded. Any burgeoning chamber musicians out there want to give it go?]
More recently, incredible suites have been composed for large jazz ensembles by Bob Brookmeyer (“Suite for Three” from Overtime by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), Kenny Wheeler (“The Sweet Time Suite” from Music for Large and Small Ensembles), Jim McNeely (Dedication Suite, Paul Klee [one of my favorite records of Jim’s], and a yet-to-be-released piece for orchestra based on the primary colors), and Darcy James Argue (the masterful Real Enemies). This is a very small sampling of my favorite stuff- I’m leaving out dozens of awesome compositions and recordings. But the aforementioned records are amongst my favorites because I hear new connections each time I engage with them. They challenge me to listen deeply, to focus and utilize my musical memory, and provide a narrative that I can be whisked away upon. Basically, I learn from them. Not just about music, but about myself. I wanted to humbly throw Tamalpais into this lineage of suites, to write something that rewards multiple listens and that challenges both listener and ensemble.
[Full disclosure: my time studying with Jim McNeely engrained some very high ideals into my youthful, maleable grey matter. Everything I’m about to espouse probably comes from him in some way, and these ideas are not in any way original or ground-breaking.]
So, here are some requirements for a really, really great/coherent/satisfying large-scale piece of music. First, the macro structure should be one of the composer’s first considerations. The proportions within the larger work are like the foundation and frame of a building; it won’t matter how gorgeous the interior design looks or how striking the façade is if the building cannot withstand any weather. Secondly, the composer should strive to use as little musical material as possible to generate the majority, if not all, of the music.
Upon reading this, I’m sure some of you readers will think, “But listeners don’t give a damn about such esoteric considerations. It makes little or no difference to them if you seamlessly connect the inner workings of your piece of music- they just want music to sound good and be entertaining!” I hear this argument fairly often, and I’ve come to the conclusion that… it’s categorically false. Most people can’t taste the exact proportions of spices in a dish, or the region the grapes in a wine come from- but many of those same humans would happily make reservations months in advance for a world-class meal by a celebrated chef from a Michelin-rated restaurant, right? The details matter.
Foundation and Framework
So, when I set out to write Tamalpais, I spent many days in a row sketching and searching for an idea with enough “meat” to be spun out into an entire three-quarters of a hour’s worth of music… to no avail. As seems to be the case so often for me, the first germ of an idea came when I was working on another piece. In 2014, I was working on a piece called David for the Westerlies. While sketching for that composition, I came across this beautiful melody, harmonized by a simple, static perfect fifth. After chewing on that idea for a while, walking around and humming it to myself, I realized that I would need to find a new idea for the Westerlies’ piece; this melody was perfect for Tamalpais.
The core idea can still be heard, completely unadulterated, in the exact center of Tamalpais, played so beautifully on the flugelhorn by Cody Rowlands about 20 seconds into the third movement, "Stinson Beach" (all score excerpts are transposed):
Without giving too much away (I hope part of the fun in engaging with this piece will be finding new connections with each listen), the pitch collections from each four-bar phrase- [F, G, Bb, C] & [D, E, B, C#]- produced most of the harmonic and melodic material in all five movements of Tamalpais. I spent my next several writing sessions just parsing through every possible permutation, reharmonizing the melody in interesting ways, and using all of the math-y composition tricks (inversion, retrograde, diminution, augmentation, octave displacement, etc.) to explore the possibilities inherent in this one idea. (Some people refer to this as “pre-composition.”) I ended up with many pages of sketches that I would draw from during the rest of the composition process.
Now that I had a bunch of material to work with, I started to plan the overall form. At first, I envisioned three movements, based on the three landmarks of my hike with Becca, in a traditional- and somewhat obvious- structure of Fast | Slow | Fast. First would be a piece called "Steep Ravine"; this first movement would capture our optimism and energy as we quickly strode down the trail called “Steep Ravine,” as well as the zig-zagging switchbacks which descended towards the beach. The next movement would be "Stinson Beach," evoking the calm zen of resting on the sand and watching the waves roll in. Finally, the third movement would be "Dipsea Steps." This movement would be based on the exhausting stairway leading from the beach back up to the parking lot on top of the mountain. I loved the idea of structuring the piece around a series of incredibly challenging spurts interspersed with momentary rest stops- just the way one must tackle the hundreds of “Dipsea Steps.”
Eventually, I decided to add the bookend movements called "(stratus)" and "(cirrus)." Anyone who has watched clouds rolling across the Golden Gate Bridge from Mount Tamalpais will understand why. To evoke the amorphous cloud blobs, I ripped off a great effect from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (one of my favorite of his pieces ever since my brother, dad, and I saw Pierre Boulez conduct it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra... maybe around 2009/10). While I was touring, had to buy a family of recorders for a gig (sopranino, soprano, alto, and tenor- none of the really big recorders), so I figured I’d have the saxophone section play them in these outer movements, just like Ligeti had the woodwinds play recorders and ocarinas in his violin concerto. The more amateurish the performance, the better, really. I wanted a washy, imperfect, pure sound. [Rehearsing these parts was hilarious. There was something so ridiculous about forcing four of the best saxophonists I know to grapple with the first instrument most of us learn in kindergarten- it's not as easy as you'd think!]
Dipsea Steps: Non-retrogradable Rhythms & Infinite Harmonic Sequences
Today, the first single from Big Heart Machine drops exclusively on Somethin’ Else Reviews (check it out here). It’s called “Dipsea Steps,” and it’s a hilarious choice for a first single- it’s by far the most complicated part of the album, it wears my metal influence on its sleeve… and this composition a perfect encapsulation of what BHM is all about. As the fourth movement of Tamalpais, it is also a great jumping-off point to start analyzing the music within the suite.
As I was dreaming up Tamalpais, I kept visualizing walking around hiking trails. In particular, I love the fact that as you move throughout a forrested terrain, you continually see basically the same thing over and over- namely, trees. As you begin to focus in on your surroundings, however, you find that each detail in your line of sight is completely unique. You’d like to stay and ponder a single rock, a frog, a leaf, or whatever- but you have to keep moving if you don’t want to spend an eternity in the woods.
I really wanted to find musical ways to convey this complex sensation. Harmonically, I discovered a series of chords that sounds on first listen like a very repetitive progression, but on closer inspection reveals itself to never repeat literally- at least not for a very long time. This “infinite harmonic sequence” happens throughout “Dipsea Steps,” but is most obvious around the 3:15 mark:
First, look at the chord changes of the first measure- Bmaj, Gmin, Dmin, F#maj. (I love triads!) This sequence is followed by the same series of changes, but a whole-step higher. This process happens four more times before the Bmaj chord is repeated. However, there is an additional layer of complexity: the inversion of each triad follows its own sort of “meta-pattern,” which happens at its own rate, and essentially disregards the underlying chord progression. This pattern is kind of complex… just know that the inversions change constantly, never allowing the listener a feeling of “arrival.” I became obsessed with this progression (and it’s "opposite" [Bm, Gmaj, Dmaj, F#m] which happens throughout the other movements), and finding interesting ways to mask its complexity. I thought of it like getting lost in a series of trails; the listener will constantly think she knows where she is, but is actually in a completely different place!
Also, notice the underlying rhythm in the drum staff. This is something called a "non-retrogradable rhythm," a phrase frequently used to describe the music of Olivier Messiaen. A non-retrogradable rhythm sounds the same forwards and backwards, so it is impossible to assign it a retrograde (or “reverse”) form. This is like the rhythmic analogue to an infinite harmonic sequence- as a listener you feel the propulsion, but you can’t say for sure where the rhythm starts and ends- and was perfect for my intentions in “Dipsea Steps.”
Nothing Good Ever Comes Easily
Now, the song “Dipsea Steps” gets its name from a series of 680 steps on Mt. Tam which one must walk up to get to their car from Stinson Beach. I loved this part of the hike- you’re already tired from walking down the mountain to the beach, but you must muster as much energy as you can to make it up these stairs embedded in the side of the mountain.
I wanted the piece of music not only to evoke the hard work of walking up hundreds of stairs, but also to be hard work for the musicians. In order to make this happen, I decided to incorporate lots of exhausting, repetitive musical effects into the lattice of the song. First, you’ll notice there is a lot of double-tonguing in the brass and woodwinds. As the piece progresses, the double-tonguing morphs from being strictly in-time to essentially falling apart, as the band is instructed to double-tongue “as fast as possible.” There are also many moments where the rhythm section proceeds at a completely different tempo than the winds. This made it mentally fatiguing for everyone involved. Similarly, in the drums, you will hear Josh Bailey energetically battering blast beats near the beginning, only to devolve into loose, out-of-time free-playing near the end.
By the end of a live performance of “Dipsea Steps,” everyone in the band is completely exhausted. But if you’re in the room with us, you will certainly feel the magical satisfaction that accompanies such a long bout of hard work. It is one of the most fun pieces to play in our book, because everyone’s collective efforts truly combine to make something greater than the whole. Playing it feels very close to what it’s like to climb the actual Dipsea Steps. I hope the sensation of listening to it comes close to capturing that feeling!