Inside the Performance | PART TWO: expect the unexpected

Before writing a single musical note for this grant period, I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful performance space of the New Works Exhibition prior to the event. This gave me a fun challenge to compose music that fits the acoustics of room. The room is massive, with high ceilings, and plenty of space from wall to wall. A simple squeak of a shoe or snap of finger fills every curve, corner and gap in the building.

I wrote music for my trio La Lucha that includes, both acoustic and electric instruments: electric piano, electric bass, two synthesizers (one lead & one bass), drum set & ether-pad (tonal soundscape on a handheld tablet). One piece, three musicians, lots of sound to play with.

The idea of the piece we performed is to use a wide range of dynamics; the softest soft, to a full & growling presence. With an understanding of the acoustics, we could play with the sound and colors created in the whole building. We rehearsed and record our performance in the space a few days before the event, so this gave us a unique chance to test run the sound. The music certainly sounded immense and full, even with the slightest volume adjustment. Without a discussion, we understood the gravity of the room and how best to balance within each other.

On the evening of the New Works Exhibition, it was truly inspiring to be surrounded by all the art created by my co-grantees. There was electricity in the room as family, friends and other supporters of the arts mingled, viewed, experienced, discussed and contemplated the environment they’ve just entered. Half the gallery space was setup with visual art and the other in a performance style, with chairs facing the makeshift stage area. The performances included: Poet, Gloria Munoz (solo reading); screenwriter, Jeff George (4 actors); and myself (3 musicians).

I expected inspiring work from my peers. I expected I’d forget something. I expected I might spill my drink at some point. I expected the dynamics of the room could be fickle and a slight challenge. I did not expect half the audience to be inattentive and talkative. I don’t expect silence and I would never force such a thing. I do hope for appreciation and understanding for the art being presented, specially at a one-time performance, in which each guest was invited.

There were about 60 seats setup in the performance area, in which those audience members were all present and listening. On the other side of the event space, attendees socialized and seemed unfazed by the live performances, which at times became drowned out by the humming echoes of laughter and chatter.

When the time arrived to perform my composition, my musicians were completely aware of the acoustic imbalances and played beautifully to the room, by offering a full range of sound. We gathered energy from those listening in the chairs and standing against the walls and projected a new feeling into the notes back at them. A feeling that wasn’t or couldn’t be rehearsed. It felt good, it felt fresh and it was unexpected to our own ears.

Inside the Performance| PART ONE: trust me. trust you. trust us.

Most of the creative choices I make are normally when I’m performing with other musicians or artists. There is a certain “magic” in which happens that cannot be written down and spelled out into a composition. This is where trust becomes the most important quality to me as composer and musician.

I have the extreme luxury to have a trio of musicians to compose for during this grant process. You don’t always know the musicians who will perform your compositions, but when you do, you can write for them and lean on them to enhance the song. I understand the strengths and weakness of each musician and they know mine. The pieces I’m composing fall under the instrumental jazz genre and a very important part of this genre is improvisation. This is where trust enters.

As a composer, you must trust your musician’s intuition and as a musician, you must be open to new ideas and trust in the artists around you. Both the composer and performing artists should trust the audience/listener and be open to any necessary shifts/changes in the artistic environment.

Improvising is presented at many levels and while a composition may be written on specific themes and written to invoke various emotions or energy, the interpretation can go in many directions. Outside the performance, all the performing artists will experience different environments, emotions and energies, which can and should positively affect the composition. I welcome their human experiences into my compositions.

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THE PROCESS

Composing is music slow-motion. I never approach the process the same way each time I sit down to write. Here are a few writing techniques I'm using for my compositions:

  • Composing on Different Instruments | Often the timbre of an instrument will influence an idea. Even if I'm not fluent on a specific instrument, the challenge of limitation might suggest a new direction. Sometimes adding an effect on an instrument can invoke the role of a part within a song. It can be as simple as changing the sound on my keyboard to a voice I wouldn't normally use. 
  • Time Limit | I can sit in room and play with one idea for an hour and still accomplish nothing. So I recently starting setting a timer. I say to myself, "You have 10 minutes to finish this section." It doesn't mean I'll keep everything I wrote and I certainly can edit later, but being on the clock gets those neurons moving.  I find that my first few instincts work well and I can expand on those when editing.
  • Start with the End | Working backwards is one of my favorite and most challenging techniques. If I have some thoughts on how the piece ends, I can find multiple ways back to the beginning. Using rhythmic, melodic and/or harmonic motives from the ending will often suggest other sections of the song. 
  • What Does It Say? | If I'm stuck, I will ask the music what it wants to say. If I'm composing on a theme, I'll decide on short rhythmic, melodic & harmonic motives which will represent parts of the pieces concept. Those motives can expand to larger ideas or be shortened. 
  • Hear It | Having other musicians perform the piece in a rehearsal is a big weight lifted. It doesn't matter if I've written 30 secs, 16 bars of music, or asking them to play a certain harmonic cycle over a drum beat, hearing the music played is a huge rush me for! I will definitely make realizations about any changes needed; tempo, range of instruments, dynamics, length of sections, etc. It's that first glimpse of something coming to fruition. Plus, being open to suggestions and ideas from the musicians performing the song is important to me. 
  • Coffee 

Remember that empty notebook of staff paper from the first post? That book is now filled random musical ideas, some making the cut into a piece and others ripped out crumbled on the floor. Below is a sneak peak into one of the two songs I'm working on. 

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The Empty Page

This story is embarrassing:

One of the first workshops I attended on music composition was with a celebrated musician/composer visiting the college I attended. As an 18-year-young Jazz Performance major, I had a page filled with what I thought were perfect questions. As I was eager to gather all his secrets, three minutes into the clinic my hand shot up. The naïve question I blurted out was, “How do you write a big band chart?” Without missing a beat, his response was, “You put the pen on the paper.” *palm slap to the forehead*

He certainly wasn’t meaning to be short or rude, but rather answering a much larger (and narrow) question with a trial and error response. It took me a few days to realize I need to “go for it!”

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The scariest, exhilarating, frustrating and most thrilling moment as a composer to me is the beginning. The empty page that sits in front me is the first of many steps when creating new works. Those first steps really start before sitting down with those vacant staves.

Inspiration

Unconsciously trying to create, I’m already taking in information surrounding me, including; music, the news, a conversation, a walk outside, the weather, meals, and so many other everyday activities. These activities then somewhat become categorized inside me as emotions. Happy, sad, angry, melancholy, and so forth. I can then further meditate on those emotions and create musical qualities relating to them.

Experimentation

With every new project, I like to experiment with my approach to the method. I often have a hundred 10-30 second audio clips on my phone of me (horribly) singing or clapping a short rhythm or melodic motive. The digital recording, which is never captured at the most convenient time, sometimes includes a verbal note of a time signature, instrument choice or effect ideas.

The audio clips always remind me of my location and action; cooking in the kitchen, walking the dogs or sleeping.

I never compose music the same way and it certainly doesn’t just flow out easily every time. I’ll explore some of my methods and techniques in my next blog post.

Let's Explore!

I look forward to sharing my ideas of inspiration, methods of creation and process of work throughout these blog posts. I hope you check back as I fill up the first of many empty pages.

Mark Feinman

Mark Feinman is a drummer, composer and educator who is inspired by individual human experiences and a diverse range of musical influences. He has extensive performance experience including jazz concerts, musical theater productions and big band performances at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy and Jazz a Juan in Juan Les Pins in France. Mark was awarded the Think Small to Think Big Grant, a Jazz on Edge 13 in 13 commission, and a Project GenYes! grant to present a multi-media project raising awareness for Alzheimer’s disease at The Studio@620. As the drummer for the Tampa Bay-based trio La Lucha, Mark has performed at TEDxTampa Bay (2014), TEDxUSF (2015) & TEDxDouglasville (2017). Mark received a B.M. in Jazz Performance at SUNY Purchase and an M.M. in Jazz Performance from the University of South Florida. He is a Drum Set Instructor at St. Petersburg College and the University of Tampa, and he's currently a board member of Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association, an organization focused on the preservation & education of Jazz in the Tampa Bay area.