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.