Clay

This morning, the Independence Day holiday in the United States, was quiet, serene, and full of life. As I walked through the garden soon after dawn, there was no noise from traffic, no conversations trailing from the homes of neighbors. Angel and I moved through the flowers, listening to bird song and witnessing the flight of butterflies and bees. Such an oasis of quiet in an otherwise noisy holiday punctuated by fireworks and noisemakers. I noted the rich beautiful blossoms of daylily (hemerocallis) ‘American Revolution’ – striking in its dark color and defined form still dotted with  morning dew.

AmericanRevolution

Daylily ‘Tiger Eye Spider’ looked like a silent explosion of color, a floral fireworks fitting to the day.

tigereyespider

In a few weeks, we will submit the final mixes of my CD Watershed for duplication, with a scheduled fall release. While listening to Bill editing the music today, it felt right to share a preview of the third movement of one of the pieces on the CD, Sketches of America. In a time of tumult in our country, I am reminded of the main theme of this piece, the melody of “America the Beautiful” and how I love the beauty of this country and its highest ideals.

Sketches of America was inspired by my travels through the American landscape as well as an exploration of uniquely American musical forms, specifically minimalism and the blues. The orchestral piece has three main sections and features solo trumpet and trombone in various ways.  The final section is a chorale adapted from a solo song that I wrote entitled Clay. Struggling to create a new garden on solid clay soil, I responded by writing an ode to clay, exploring its dual nature and potential symbolism for life.

Clay, so full of life to be released
through fork and spade and shredded leaf,
the solid ground beneath our feet,
Clay.

Trumpeter Sean Jones and trombonist Ed Kocher soar in a beautiful and poignant manner in this section. The hymn like song Clay seemed a fitting end for “Sketches of America,” the solid ground beneath our feet and a reminder of the melody of America the Beautiful. I dedicated this piece to my father, whose birthday was on the 4th of July. Enjoy.

Special thanks to Bill Purse, sound engineer and producer extraordinaire, and Jim Cunningham of WQED-FM for sharing the live concert recording of Sketches of America as broadcast on WQED-FM.

All music, text, and images ©2019 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved

Kennywood’s Open!

Ah, words that have a magic ring!  Kennywood Park is our local historical (but very up to date) amusement park. School children in Western Pennsylvania love the phrase “Kennywood’s open!” – it signifies that it is spring, school is almost over, and a great day at the amusement park is in order! But there is a second less obvious meaning that every kid and former kid knows, a local colloquialism that means “your zipper’s open!”

I may be rushing the season a bit, as the park does’t open until May, but I wanted to feature a piece written by my husband and musical partner, BIll Purse. When he was commissioned to compose a symphonic band piece for the local North Hills High School, he chose Kennywood as his inspiration and the famous phrase as the title of the piece. Bill has a history of writing pieces inspired by favorite places; Kennywood’s Open featured six vignettes based on his favorite park rides. In the name of research, we made several trips to the park to record the sound of the rides as well as photograph and videotape footage for what eventually became a combination of music and actual sounds from the park and plenty of resources for multimedia presentations.

Since its premiere, Bill has rearranged it for orchestra for a performance by the Washington Symphony Orchestra on the very day that the park opened for the season. The concert hall featured an enormous screen and high resolution projector, so I was able to create moving graphics of the park rides while the orchestra performed the piece.

When creating his solo CD Sonic Art, Bill  adapted the “Merry Go Round” section as a jazz piece featuring Duquesne University’s Catch 22 and jazz trumpeter Sean Jones. This video features the CD recording of The Merry Go Round combined with the Kennywood footage and some stills of Sean taken by friend and photographer Doug Harper. The video features the Dentzel Carousel installed in the park in 1927 and the 1915 Wurlitzer Band Organ whose actual sound begins and ends the piece.

Enjoy the ride!

My Brain On Jazz

When musicians play along together it isn’t just their instruments that are in time – their brain waves are too. from “Guitarists’ Brains Swing Together” Science Daily

photo of Jazz at JEN

Jazz at JEN

A few weeks ago, I attended (and performed at) a music technology/jazz educators co-conference. I dashed into the hotel deli at lunchtime intending to grab a sandwich “to go” but was stopped in my tracks by a jazz quintet led by trumpeter Ansyn Banks playing a lunchtime concert nearby. I immediately grabbed a table near the stage, ordered lunch, and settled in to listen. Something happens to the brain when listening to great live jazz. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician but I can speak the language enough to write for it and do some basic playing and improvising. As I listened, I was transported to another place. And this was not a “quiet as a mouse” polite audience concert hall – this was a public venue with food, drink, and lots of people in conversations who felt themselves drawn into the maelstrom of sound, the urgency of the message flowing from the stage. Feet and heads began to move, to nod, and a rhythmic oneness began to spread through the crowd.

As I listened, I could feel new neural pathways form and spark across the top of my head; long exaggerated words started to form in my mind. . …Fine………Ahhhhh………Mmmmmmm…..not unlike the murmurs one utters while eating a delicious meal.  And this WAS a delicious meal, an aural feast shared with hundreds of strangers who connected under the skin through a common language of improvisation – a central thread of sound that broke loose in unexpected ways and in brand new directions. And what was happening to my brain on jazz? Continue reading

Sketches of America

Last night, the Washington Symphony Orchestra performed “Sketches of America” as part of their “Picture This” concert. Under the creative and enthusiastic guidance of Music Director Yugo Ikach, the WSO is a community orchestra, which means that the majority of the musicians are volunteers and participate for the love of performing music.  “Sketches” was originally written for and performed by the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra featuring professional soloists, including reknowned jazz trumpeter Sean Jones.  I wanted to hear how the WSO would perform the piece, with very little input from me other than the written score.  Would it work?

The title “Sketches of America” was a play on Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”  which itself was a jazz interpretation of Rodriguez’s Adagio movement of the “Concierto de Aranjuez.” I was commissioned to create an orchestral piece that would include a section for jazz improvisation by the soloists, a somewhat daunting task in orchestral writing.  My own goals were more complex – I wanted to draw on American musical traditions as well as musically reflect on my love of the American landscape.  The strains of “America the Beautiful” kept running through my head as I was composing, and a few fragments of the melody crept into the piece as well.

The first section of the piece, “the painted desert” draws on minimalism, a uniquely American approach to “concert music” typified by composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Inspired by a long November drive through the deserts of Arizona, a panorama of grey skies, yellow flowering shrubs, and tumbleweed, I remember a vast quiet world marked by the rhythmic turn of the car wheels. (The full version of “The Painted Desert” was used in my “Autumn Minimalism” post, in the video soundtrack)

That repeating rhythm segues into the syncopation of “a joyful blues” – another American musical tradition in the form of jazz and blues. Not content to write the traditional twelve bar blues in 4/4, I constructed a thirteen bar blues in 5/8 meter over which the solo trumpet and trombone improvise to the fast rhythms of  the pizzicato strings. Those seemingly odd numbers are part of the Fibonacci number sequence, something that occurs throughout the natural world in the form of flowers, seashells, and trees

“Sketches” closes with a chorale style section based on “Clay”, a song that I wrote in response to my efforts to dig and amend the clay in my garden. One of the lyrics, “. . . the solid ground beneath our feet” became a metaphor for the natural beauty of our vast country and the challenge of keeping it “America the beautiful.”

The WSO performance?  Wonderful. The piece worked, the orchestra sounded great, the soloists rose to the challenge, and the effect was just as I had intended.  That moment of hushed silence in the hall at the close of the piece, the sign that the audience was listening and involved, seemed more important than the applause that followed. Those of you who are composers know that this does not always happen!  As my husband and colleague remarked later, “the piece played itself.”  It was an unexpectedly moving experience and I was touched to the heart, and at that moment, I was very glad indeed to be a composer.

(The recordings above were taken from the premier of “Sketches of America” performed by Sean Jones, trumpet, and Ed Kocher, trombone, with the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sidney Harth.)

All music and text in “Sketches of America” ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved