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The Ivory Muse began in the fall of 2018, before a concept for an album existed. At the time, I made a commitment to myself to do something I had never done before: write, record, and release one new song every month. Songs were inspired by music and events that were important over quite a long period of time. For example, Soft Sunrise was the very first song written for the album, and the single version of it was released in August of 2018. The Nocturne in C Minor was the final song written for the album, and it’s single was released in October of 2019. A year and two months is an extended period of time, and I think it would be fairly obvious that influences and inspiration would change heavily over that span.
If you are into digital music, and I’ll assume you are since you are here on the website reading this, you may find it enjoyable to visit Spotify or YouTube to hear the initial recordings of the material from this album. Eight of the 13 songs on The Ivory Muse are complete re-recordings from their single version. I went into the studio and played them again. On those 8 songs, not only is the recorded instrument different, but the performances are different, highlighting aspects of the music I didn’t emphasize in the earlier releases. So that you don’t have to guess, those 8 songs are: Voices in the Rain, Watson’s Waltz, Starless Night, Contemplation No. 1, Whispers in the Mountains, Soft Sunrise, The Minstrel’s Song, and Love’s Impromptu. The remaining 5 songs, while taken from the single version, have been remastered for this release.
Before I get into a piece-by-piece description, if you’d like to hear the music chronologically by time composed, instead of in album order, trying listening in this order:
Whispers in the Mountains
Voices in the Rain
Contemplation No. 1
The Minstrel’s Song
Nocturne in C Minor
When the idea for Dawn first hit me, I thought it may be too strange to feature two pieces that are both inspired by early morning on one album. Soft Sunrise had been written about 6 months earlier, but it was inspired by different aspects of morning than Dawn was going to be. I decided to finish Dawn and keep the emphasis of the music on a tonal painting of what I’d envision a glorious sunrise to feel like. A simple, two-note, figure begins the piece mimicking the first rays of light. It continues to ascend, just as the sun rises, only rarely adding a third note to the figure. The first half of Dawn is this rising musical motion, harmonies expanding and dynamics increasing as more and more light shines over the horizon. As the music climaxes during a loud, left-hand, tremolo octave, the sun makes it’s first peak out from the horizon, spilling far more light and joy than what had come earlier. The piece finishes by descending the keyboard in much the same way it had ascended earlier, but this time triumphant and energized.
Voices in the Rain
I was listening to a combination of music from rock band, Muse, and film scores by Alexandre Desplat when I wrote Voices in the Rain. For most people, that sounds like a strange combination of influences, but for me it’s part of my daily listening routine! Nearly all of the musical content for the piece is derived from the 4 pitches introduced in the first measure. The repetition of pitches that continues from beginning to end comes both from the rock influence as well as Desplat’s soundtrack for “The Imitation Game,” where repetition is used to contrast the thinking human mind against the workings of a machine. The computer-like nature of the tones almost made me title my piece “Digital Thoughts,” but as the melody spun out during composition, the repetition began to sound more like the pitter-patter of a rain shower. Even when I’m writing music for solo piano, I tend to ‘orchestrate’ it in my mind. In this piece, if I had any instruments at my disposal, a piano would still play the repetitive notes, while a violin or a soprano would have the melody line, accompanied by brass trio and bass drum during the B sections.
Written in mid 2019, Watson’s Waltz was my second journey into a traditional classical form, following Love’s Impromptu which was written a few months prior. The piece combines the dance you’d expect in a 3/4 meter with some very unexpected harmonies, a slightly demented melody, lots of prolongation (a heavy music term that basically means the piece doesn’t feel like it’s moving forward very often), flighty trills and runs, and a glorious coda. All of those things come together to form my take on Watson’s personality, my parent’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier whose picture graces the cover of the single version of this piece! While Watson is an extraordinarily smart dog, he is definitely quirky. When he has his mind made up about doing something, he is persistent for hours (the prolongation). When he has your attention to play fetch, he can sometimes dramatically lose interest, even mid-bound toward a ball (the unexpected harmonies and demented melody). He has more cooped-up energy than you can imagine and loves to run and jump (the flighty trills and runs). When he smiles and sticks his tongue out he’s irresistible (the glorious coda)!
Starless Night and Soft Sunrise were both written in the same week of May 2018 and recorded as voice memos on my iPhone. Oddly enough, the original title for Starless Night was "Lullaby"… it wasn’t long before I realized that the piece was never going to be a calm tune that could lull one to sleep, but that the music wanted to be driving and cinematic in nature. The minor key and unexpected diminished harmony fit the mood of a very dark, starless, night, where emotions run high, danger is lurking, and sleep is no where in sight.
Contemplation No. 1
This contemplation is the only piece on the album not composed from my Phoenix home. I wrote this in sunny San Diego on a December day in 2018. The piece establishes a pleasant and memorable melody at the beginning, but journeys through a number of musical places, some quite far from home, before returning to the introductory ideas. This journey represents how we can think in one way, especially during periods of reflection, but change in ways we least expect as our mind wanders. Personally, the piece fit right in as I looked back on what 2018 had brought into my life. I hope listeners can use this piece to help inspire their own reflections.
Nocturne in C Minor
The final piece written for this album, and the third delve into a classical form, this Nocturne is heavily influenced by the writing of Chopin. I learned my first Chopin nocturne when I was 15 and have subsequently played many more of his and other composers’ as well. It’s a form and style of music I feel has been a part of my musical language for a very long time. I love the melodic statements you can make in a Nocturne, the undulating bass line that’s usually present, and most of all, the dramatic B section highly contrasting the rest of the ‘night music.’ I’ve always thought it funny that a nocturne could become as aggressive as some of Chopin’s do, but perhaps it’s something to do with how our minds wander at night and how we can perseverate, almost beyond our control, when we are anxiously trying to sleep. In my Nocturne, I’ve used a few classic Romantic period tricks: Augmented 6th chords, chromaticism, tonicization of other keys, modulation to the relative key, and some nice secondary dominant harmonies. Combine those writing techniques with a bit of a modern melodic line and there you have it, a 21st century take on the classic form of the nocturne.
Whispers in the Mountains
Written only shortly after Soft Sunrise, this piece is one of the first composed pieces on this album. It’s somewhat of a theme and variations, interrupted by a bridge in the relative major key that adds some brilliance and light to the other dark harmonies and wispy melodies. I hear the main melody like a gentle whistling of the wind through a canyon. If you’ve heard whistling wind before, you know that it’s never constant, but ebbs and flows in pitch with the intensity of the wind. Gusts are higher pitched than more gentle wind. And unless you’re in a storm, the pitch of the wind is always rising and falling. Try thinking about that next time you listen to Whispers in the Mountains.
There are three influences in The Cafe that I’m aware of: 1) Classical, and more exactly Mozartian, styles of writing 2) a handful of sections in Beethoven’s piano concerti, and 3) the score from the feature film “The King’s Speech.” Like others on this album, I hear the piece orchestrated in my mind. Piano takes the main melody here, augmented by a modest string section that bows and also plucks at times. There is a contrasting section that happens twice during the piece where the melody falls in the middle of the piano while the accompaniment is both above and below. That section would feature brass and horns. I quite like how the melody and harmony work together to emote 2 opposite feelings. If you could imagine yourself sitting outside at a French bistro, calm sun coming over the buildings, not many cars in sight... The persistence of most of the accompaniment figures gives a sense of light bustle... not crowded, not loud, but busy in a pleasant sort of way. The melody comes and goes, sometimes quickly, sometimes calmly, sometimes not at all. That gives a sense of thought, as if this character at the cafe (maybe you the listener, maybe someone else we are imagining) is maybe working on something or observing those around. If I were sipping on a coffee at a cafe, the feelings this piece emotes would be what I’d hope for in the experience!
This is where the entire album started. The night of May 29, 2018, I went to see smooth jazz pianist, Brian Culbertson, play at the Mesa Arts Center. After a fun night out, I came home fully inspired and let my hands go on the keys, finding places they weren’t used to being but that were sounding great to my ears. Brian had a few solo piano tunes on his “Colors of Love” album that I listened to on the drive home, and Soft Sunrise was my take on his playing and writing style that I had been immersed in throughout the evening. I started to write around 11pm and was wrapped up by midnight, recording the single version of the piece a few weeks later.
The Minstrel’s Song
I've always been interested by medieval and renaissance music, and my love of choral music comes from this period as well. I was at the piano on a cold-ish, rainy evening in Phoenix, and found myself imagining walking into an old wooden inn, 500 years ago, boots covered in mud from the street outside, yearning for the warmth of a fire and a beer... and what did I hear as I stepped through the doorway? A lutist and singer, in the corner of the room, singing legends of days past. I plopped myself down next to the fire, and this song is a little of what I heard that lutist play!
Like the title implies, this piece is an 8-minute improvisation that was recorded very late one summer evening. I established a theme and let the mood, set by candlelight, take me on a path out and back again. It was a fairly straightforward concept, but this remains one of my favorite tracks on the album even still.
The third of the formal Classical pieces on this album, Love’s Impromptu is a musical journey through a variety of emotion. I don’t mean to imply that this piece was improvised, it most definitely was not! But by impromptu, I mean more in the sense that Chopin used the term: a stream-of-consciousness laying down of notes prompted by the spirit of the moment. I love using the key of Db Major for lush texture and harmony, and I love prolonging a vague sense of ‘comfort’ in the music until an arrival, in this case a little over 1 minute in, really pulls the listener into that feeling of safety and ease. The early statements of theme in Love’s Impromptu are like a single voice singing, the B section (where we first get more harmonic movement) at first changes voices singing, and then both voices join together in a duet. As we move to the middle of the piece, the main melodic statements fall to the distance and we are pulling into arpeggio-like figures that remind me of bells ringing jubilantly. Those bells seamlessly transition back into the duet section before the piece closes with a reminder of where we first started.
Coming Home presents how I'd imagine feeling either in the old west or in the 1940s, getting off your horse or off a bus, after pulling up alongside home in Georgia at sunset. Weary from the day or from the war, the music is simultaneously nostalgic and pleased to be home, yet also represents the problems faced during the day and at times the horrors of war.
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