Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Andy Clausen - June 9, 2013


This week I will present three recent compositions in duo with pianist Gus Carns. These pieces are the preliminary results of a radical shift in compositional thought I experienced a few months ago. This shift was instigated by two sources:

1) An exhaustive study of the music of Igor Stravinsky

2) A conversation with composer Darcy James Argue

Through these folks, I came to understand a concept that now seems so obvious, but had somehow escaped my thought process until now. On the most basic level, the name of the game is efficiency.

Musical efficiency can apply to many aspects of the compositional and improvisational process, but at the present moment I am interested primarily in the cultivation of thematic efficiency in my music.

Many of my existing compositions were constructed through an extremely intuitive process; I work through the piece, from beginning to end, letting my ear guide the thematic, harmonic, orchestrational, rhythmic and structural organization. While this process has yielded some interesting results, I have come to believe that something is lacking in my music; that this process does not ensure cohesion.

Most of the music that continues to move and inspire me is very simple. There is profound beauty and mystery to music that contains only a few elements, and as a listener, I get the most fulfillment hearing how a composer is able to take these simple elements and construct something magical.

Whereas much of my existing music is extremely thematically dense, often containing dozens of disparate musical elements strung together through some intuitive logic, it is my objective in these new compositions to cultivate maximum efficiency and mileage out of every idea. I hope that this newfound value will result in music that is more cohesive, more memorable and more compelling.

While a thorough explanation of this process, inspired by Stravinsky and Argue, is beyond the scope this discussion, I will summarize as briefly as I can. Perhaps the most important aspect (and the step that I had not previously thought of) is the “pre-compositional work” a composer can undertake to make the actual assembly process more natural. This pre-compositional work involves taking one musical element and subjecting it to systematic transformations, and cataloguing the results on paper without judgement. Although the transformative possibilities are endless, some common techniques are transposition, retrograde, inversion, augmentation, diminution, reordering, extraction of cells, and subtraction. Such a process can generate a myriad of possibilities (all thematically related) that one can then sift through and implement during the actual construction process. Darcy introduced me to a brilliant 1944 treatise by Olivier Messiaen called “The Technique of My Musical Language,” which discusses many of these transformative possibilities in depth, and offers examples of their use in his work.

The three pieces I will present this Sunday are all derived from a single 8-bar chorale that I found when sifting through old manuscripts. I can’t figure out when or why it was composed, but after playing through it a few times, it seemed worthy of further investigation. In extracting melodic content from the chorale, I discovered the three underlying motifs that have become Filoli, Frack, and Frame. Each of the motifs were subjected to numerous transformations, some systematic and almost serial in nature, some less strict, which were then arranged into the fully formed compositions. The process felt very different that usual, and things fell into place more naturally. I feel as though I am just beginning to scratch the surface of this new technique and I look forward to dedicating more time and thought to it this summer.

All that said, the actual performance of these new works will seek to deconstruct the pieces to their most basic essence, and use them as springboards into new improvisational territory. Our main objective will be to achieve maximum efficiency of each idea; to explore every angle, and every avenue of the few musical elements at play.

I am extremely excited to be developing this music with one of my oldest and most trusted musical collaborators - Gus Carns. Our exploration of this concept as applied to improvisation and performance has yielded promising sounds thus far, and again, we feel as though we are just scratching the surface.

For the session to follow, I encourage improvisors to think about how much mileage we can get out of each and every idea we introduce. Perhaps each group can come up with two or three musical elements to be explored in the improv and limit ourselves to the cultivation and variation of those few ideas.