Friday, November 28, 2014

7.) Leaves

If you've been following this project you probably saw this coming.  It's true that I thought of a fall colors video way back in the beginning of the project.  But I wasn't actually motivated to do it until the leaves in the neighborhood couldn't be ignored.

This month's film was a lesson in waiting.   I really wasn't sure of what I was going to film this month, and I was getting a little concerned about it.  I could have forced myself to film something and make something out of it.   But I waited, and around the 10th of the month the fall colors were definitely calling to me.  But I didn't rush out to film until I had at least a vague idea of what the final product would be, which was a sort of impressionistic film of colorful leaves.

After filming I began playing around with editing.  There are only a couple of techniques I used, slow cross dissolves, and opacity, which allowed me to layer shots on top of one another.  I like the moments in the film where the shots really blend together and I lose a main focus point.

The music is a short little piece with jazz chords.  These are chords that I made of point of avoiding for awhile in my life.  But they are special sounds to me, and I've been feeling that it's time to put them to use again.  There are a a bunch of parallel minor seventh chords, and the piece came out sounding quite a bit like some compositions of the great pianist Bill Evans.  To me Bill is kind of the impressionist of the famous jazz pianists, so I think a good amount of Bill influence fits the film just fine.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

6.) Rockaway

Rockaway is a bit of a departure for me.  This video features more elaborate video and sound editing.  Up to this point, the videos have been realist, depicting things more or less as they are naturally.  This departure happened pretty organically.  I just started messing around in Final Cut and it was fun.  This messing around sparked the idea for the music that I made to accompany the film.  Subconsciously I might have been growing tired of the kinds of videos I was doing, and the editing experimentation was a way of moving on, but I didn't really set out to try something different this month, it just happened.  

This video is a clear nod to one of my friends and influences, Ben Gerstein.  Ben has been doing things like this for years and I highly recommend his YouTube channel.  

The footage here is from Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY.  This is my usual surfing spot.  On this particular morning, I paddled out and the first wave I missed (I can't honestly say I caught it) took me "over the falls" as slammed me hard into the bottom, ass first.  Luckily I wasn't seriously injured, just a little bruised, but it was enough to make me overly cautious for the rest of the session.  You don't catch a lot of waves if you're overly cautious, at least on a day like that, so I threw the towel in after an hour and decided to get the camera out.

After editing and piano recording, I messed around with the piano recording, layering it in spots.  This is also something I hadn't done up to this point, and I enjoyed it.  I should say that there are some issues with the video and sound quality this time.  The manipulation of the sound created some crackling side effects.  These sounds I actually don't mind; in fact they kind of remind me of a record player.  However, the video quality is not as high as I would like it.  For a reason unknown to me, this video didn't upload very well.  I tried it a few different ways and decided to just live with it as it is.  

I hope you enjoy Rockaway.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

5.) Deer Creek

Deer Creek runs through Dream Acres, a coop organic farm outside of Wykoff, MN that my brother and his family live on.  I love visiting there because it's such a contrast to my surroundings in Brooklyn.  And of course I love spending time with his family.  I was there for about 5 days at the end of August, and one morning I wandered back to the creek with my camera.  I've always loved water.  As a kid I swam nearly every day in the summertime, and I'm pretty much obsessed with the ocean.  This video has very little action, aside from the static movement of the creek.  But I think it's a nice meditation.  The moving water is constant, yet no two moments are alike.  I think the reflections in the water are particularly interesting.  I'm looking forward to watching it in a few months, just to remember that it's not always cold and not everywhere is New York City.

The music for this piece was composed while vacuuming.  When Akiko and I go to Philadelphia for the macrobiotic study course that we're doing this year, we finish the weekend by helping the staff clean the place.  For the August session I went straight for the vacuum cleaner, which I often do.  It's nice to push a vacuum cleaner around after listening to lectures and eating delicious food all weekend.  Anyway, the vacuum cleaner there hums an A-flat, and I found myself singing and working out this melody as I cleaned.  It was a nice moment.  When I was finished vacuuming, I recorded a voice memo so I wouldn't forget the melody.  After checking out the Deer Creek footage, I thought Vacuum Song would be nice for the meditative vibe.  I was playing around with panning and reverb, trying to create the illusion that the piano was being played in the farm house which was about 100 yards away from the creek, but it just wasn't sounding good.  It sounded like a cathedral, not a hay field next to the woods.  But I did purposely put the music low in the mix so that the sounds of the water were not covered up.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

4.) Two Fawns

This video was shot just a couple hours after I arrived in Oneonta, NY for the New York Summer Music Festival.  I taught jazz piano there for two weeks.  I brought my camcorder which I didn't have with me at this moment unfortunately.  I was walking across the SUNY Oneonta campus when I happened upon these two fawns.  I stopped in my tracks and sat down just to watch them.   Eventually I pulled out my iPhone to snap some shots and take some video.  Luckily the fawns were in a curious mood, checking me out as much as I was them.  The video quality is not great, but I thought this close encounter was still worthy of the project.

I had recently pulled out Carla Bley's J├ęsus Maria for a gig, and while playing through it a couple days ago, I realized it would be good accompaniment to the fawns.  The trick was matching the length of the recording to the length of footage I had.  I had a little more footage, but my stupid finger had gotten in the shot and I didn't want to use it.  But I got close enough, and set the scene with some opening credits to help with the problem.

I hope you enjoy Two Fawns


Thursday, July 24, 2014

3.) Bird Bath

So far in this project, my subjects have come to me.  I haven't needed to go looking for them.  For Christmas, my father, Bob Stacken, made us a bird bath.  It's molded concrete, and it added quite a bit of weight to our load on our drive back from Minnesota to Brooklyn.  It's a wonderful addition to our garden, and we love watching the birds bathe.  It seemed correct to dedicate this film to my dad.

The idea of trying to capture these birds in the act of bathing was natural.  The question was how to do it.  I thought I might need to leave the camera rolling for a whole day, and then have to edit through all the footage just to see if the birds had come.  But after thinking about this, while still working on the previous couple videos, I began to notice patterns in the birds' behavior.  Conveniently, bath time was often while I was cooking lunch, and it was easy to observe out our kitchen windows.  So I kept the camera standing by, and when I noticed a bird in the early stages of bathing, I would as quietly as possible bring the camera out, set it up, and press record.  The birds were always scared off, but usually returned rather quickly.  The camera didn't seem to bother them, but did arouse their curiosity sometimes.  I was thrilled when they came back to finish their baths.  The birds we see here are Robins and male and female Sparrows.  Some of the Sparrows look young, judging by their fuzzy heads.  There is a Yellow Warbler in the background of one scene, but unfortunately he didn't get in.  We also have frequent visits from Northern Mockingbirds, Mourning Doves, and a male and female Cardinal, but they would never return after I spooked them.

My wife, Akiko, and I enjoy watching the Netflix series House of Cards.  In one episode, Kevin Spacey sings the song Pretty Polly.  I liked the song and in my searching for recordings of it, I came across and musician named Dock Boggs.  Boggs, a vocalist and banjoist, had a brief early recording career, but his wife didn't allow him to do much with it.  Much later he was discovered and brought to the Newport Folk Festival and became an overnight star.  His banjo playing is great, and his singing is an interesting combination of Appalachian Folk and Southern Blues.  I thought his recording of the banjo solo "Coal Creek March" would be interesting on the piano, so I began to play a long with it.  I didn't transcribe it note for note, but rather approximated it again and again - I had time - until I was getting pretty close to learning it note for note.  Then I began to just play it myself.  Interestingly, the note patterns really make the piano sound like a banjo.  We think so often about the timbre as defining the instrument, but the note choices, patterns, and technique of a particular instrument are also give it it's unique sound.

Banjo music seemed like it would fit bird bathing quite naturally.  After recording, I messed around with some clips and opted for a different editing style.  Tulips and Snails had many slow transitions and fade ins and fade outs.  The same may have worked here, but I decided to experiment with some sharper cuts and black frames.  It definitely gives the film a more energized and playful feel.  This time I coordinated these edits with the music recording, which is different than I had done for the first two.  I guess this one is more like a music video, although I left the audio from the camera in the film as well.  The sound of wings and water was too good to mute.  I hope you enjoy Bird Bath.

Monday, June 23, 2014

2.) Snails

I bet some of you were wondering where I've been - long time between posts, and so much to tell.  This project sure is interesting.  I'm already on quite a different path than I had anticipated.  I've really enjoyed shooting the video.  Scoring the videos, on the other hand, has been challenging.  I'm finding it challenging to create a score that enhances the experience.  I love the ambient sounds in these videos, and finding something that actually seems worthy of replacing or adding to those sounds has not been easy.

I've been sitting on the footage for over a month.  It was actually shot only a couple weeks after Tulips.  One morning after a rainstorm I spotted a snail sliding around on the back patio.  The thing was fascinating.  I had found my next subject.  First I shot some footage of him on the ground, but found it difficult, so I gently moved him to the table, and found him a friend in the tall grass.  It was fun watching them interact, and even more interesting seeing them on film.

I started out this shoot with our Nikon D5100, but was having trouble with the focus.  So I switched to our Panasonic camcorder, which has auto-focus.  It's not perfect.  I would have preferred controlling the focus point better, but you'll have to allow me some learning time here.  Like I said, I'm an amateur.   I could really use some photography and Final Cut Pro lessons.  The basics are easy, but I'm sure I could get much more out of my equipment with the proper settings, etc.

The basic edit was not difficult, but deciding the music was.  How the hell do you accompany snails?  First I tried an improvisation which I recorded as I watched the video.  But I just wasn't happy with it.    It was too dark.  I was looking for something that matched the feelings I had as I filmed these snails - feelings of childish wonder, curiosity, and beauty.  To me, no music embodies those feelings more than that of Thelonious Monk.  First I had thought of composing something like a Monk tune - not really the best idea - then I thought of finding a Monk tune to play for this video.  That idea was already a departure from my original vision, but I decided to entertain it for awhile.  So I was thinking about Monk, and a fragment of a melody popped into my head.  At first I thought it was a Monk tune, but after a couple days I remembered that it was from a Hank Jones record called Tiptoe Tapdance.   I revisited the record, which had been strongly recommended to me by Geoff Keezer in a lesson I took with him when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire, and found this melody to be Hank's recording of a hymn called It's Me Oh Lord.

I thought learning it was worth a try.  I wasn't sure if it would fit the video, but it seemed simple enough on first revisit to put in the effort.  It turns out that it wasn't so simple.  Hank's harmonization of this simple four-note melody was anything but repetitive.  I started transcribing it note for note, first to just try to figure out what he was doing harmonically.  But I soon found myself very curious, and I was in the mood for a transcription project.  My teaching load was diminishing as the semester was ending, so it seemed like a good time to give it a shot.  Also, I have been missing the regular piano time that the Messiaen Project had required.  This transcription got by butt on the bench again.  I decided I wouldn't write the notes down; I was up for a challenge, and I thought I would better absorb it.  I did 4-8 measures a day until I had what I wanted.  The most challenging part of the process was learning to play it, which basically had me sitting there digging into the far corners of my brain trying to remember which voicing was here and which was there.  There was some cussing.  Hank was very creative with his harmonization, and he used a variety of voicings for similar harmonizations.  But little by little it started flowing.   It was good brain exercise, and I enjoyed the music.  I didn't transcribe the stride section note-for-note, but I did figure out what he was doing harmonically, and decided to improvise in this section.

Today I decided I was ready to attempt recording it, even though there was still a lot of stuttering in my practice.  I thought the Zoom recorder would provoke the focus I needed, which it did.  After a few takes, I had one I was happy with.  I imported it into the computer only to find that it magically fit like a glove over the video edit I had.  I assumed I would have to do some cutting in order for it to fit right, but amazingly I didn't have to do a thing to it.  There's even a video transition that happens perfectly with the start of the solo section.  I immediately felt like the sound worked with the video.   I think the transcription would have been worth it even if it hadn't worked.  I really enjoyed doing it, and I'm inspired to do more in the near future.

Scoring the video with a transcription is an even further departure from my original idea of composing or improvising a score.  It's so interesting how things change.  Ten years ago, maybe even two years ago, I would never have considered publicly sharing a recording of me playing a transcription.  I remember while I was at Manhattan School of Music, I was assigned an Art Tatum transcription for Jazz Styles and Analysis class.  I was asked to perform it at a concert at the school, but out of principle I said no.  I thought is was dishonest to perform someone else's improvisation.  I was so full of principles back then.  There's nothing like ten years in the real world to straighten that out.   Now I thought "Why the hell not?"  This project, and all of my previous internet projects, are about sharing my learning process with you.  This particular process has a different focus than an improvisation or composition, but I'm okay letting you in on it.  And there is a great deal of creativity in pairing this transcription with this video.  Hank Jones hymn and snails!  How can you go wrong?  Enough writing.  I hope you enjoy the video.        

Thursday, May 22, 2014

1.) Tulips

The start of this project coincided with cherry blossom season in Brooklyn.  It's really one of the best times of year here.  After a long, less-colorful winter, the cherry blossoms are a powerful display of rebirth and energy.  So I had the idea that the cherry blossoms would be the first subject of this project, but these tulips, just a block away on Albemarle Road kept calling my name.  They were impossible to ignore.  These were the same tulips after which I titled the last piece of the Messiaen Project.

These beauties so embodied the upward Spring energy.  They were trying to be so tall, swaying in the wind, begging to be noticed.  They appeared to be stretching up, trying to look over each other's heads.  Their rich color was so satisfying to look at.  I loved how this particular variety of tulip spread it's petals wide during the day, soaking up every possible ounce of sun.  At night they closed up a bit, as though they were conserving the energy they captured during the day.  For about three weeks I'd walk past them every time I took the dog out for a walk, and they never failed to inspire.

After capturing the footage, I played around with it for a few days until I had an edit I was satisfied with.  Then I spent a week or so improvising at the piano along with the video.  Certain ideas and themes started emerging.  I enjoyed taking my time in this process - a nice contrast to the last two years of composing, during which I had to finish something every week.  Eventually a 12-bar blues form with an angular line of varied-length patterns took shape.  For the recording I improvised the line on the third of four choruses. 

This film was definitely a learning experience.  I struggled a bit with the idea of replacing the natural sound of the video with my music.  I considered keeping the natural sound and blending it with the music, but it wasn't consistent enough from shot to shot.  There were plenty of lovely birds throughout, cars passing, but also lawnmowers that were blasting in some shots, while absent from others.  It just couldn't have worked with the amount of shots I was using.  That actually brings up one of the things I learned this time around - that I should have taken longer shots that would have allowed more flexibility in editing.  If I had done this perhaps I would have been able to create that mix of ambient sound and music.  But learning is what this project is all about, so onward I go.

The process of creating Tulips brought up some questions.  Notably, what should come first, the video or the music?  As far as I know, most film scores are added at the very end of production, except for music videos I suppose.  But since I am foremost a pianist/composer, and a novice film maker, I might do well to start with the music.  I foresee experimenting with the order of this going forward.        

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Welcome to 12 Films With Music.  This is the fifth consecutive internet project Brooklyn-based of pianist and composer Jesse Stacken.  This project follows a progression of sorts.  First was the Daily Improvisation Project, for which I record and posted a solo piano improvisation daily for a year.  That led to the Weekly Improvisation Project, for which I recorded and posted an extended (one hour or longer) solo piano improvisation every week for a year.  After the conclusion of that, it seemed natural to do a weekly composition, which I did for a year, posting a recording and score every week. That gave way to the Messiaen Project, which I just completed.  For the Messiaen Project I composed, recorded, and posted weekly a solo piano composition which utilized in some way the techniques of the French composer Olivier Messiaen.  All of these projects are preserved in full at  I invite you to check them out when you have a moment.

So, about three or four months ago, in the midst of the Messiaen Project, the idea for 12 Films With Music was conceived.  I didn't commit to it being the next project, and I was actually thinking of going another route until about a month ago.  The gist of the project is this:

I will shoot, edit, and score a short film every month for a year.

Now, I must be up front with you.  I am not a film maker.  I have no training.  I have no professional equipment.  If I had professional equipment, I would have no idea how to use it.  I do have an interest in film beyond Hollywood, but I am far from what you could call a film buff.  I have my favorite directors, but I'm sure there are many important people that I should really know about if I was to get serious with it.  What I will be shooting is essentially home movies - not in content, but it quality.  I have a consumer grade camcorder.  I have a Nikon DSLR camera that I might try to learn to shoot with.  And I have an iPhone.  I will use iMovie to edit the films, unless I find I can't stand it, in which case I may upgrade to something better.  I say all of this to basically ask you to "throw me a bone" as far as the film quality and maybe even content goes.  My expertise is in music, and my focus will be the scoring of the films.  These films can be thought of as no budget music videos.

The music might be composed, it might be improvised.  It will probably be solo piano, but if the opportunity presents itself, I could see adding some other instruments to the mix.  This music will be recorded live.  I have no interest in using midi (does midi still exist?), or computer samples, or anything like that.  I really love acoustic instruments and that's where my interest lies at this time.

These projects always start out as something, and turn into something else, so I don't want to say too much about what's going to happen.  Right now I have an interest in shooting nature, and highlighting seasonal change.  I think that a monthly post could show a nice progression of the seasons.  However,  I do not want to commit to that idea.  I'll allow this project to go in any direction it wishes.

I will upload the videos to YouTube, and then embed them here on this blog.  I invite you to follow by email for updates.  Thanks for reading!