Contemporary Composition Part 1

I wanted to start a new series this week in the Arranging/Composing category. If you check out the drop-down menu on the homepage you will find previous posts from various categories. This will be the first one in the Arranging/Composing category. In this series on contemporary composition we will be looking at a way to creatively compose a harmonic progression and let it become the foundation of the new composition. This is how I write my contemporary charts. I don’t do them all this way, but if I’m needing a spark for my creativity…this does it every time! I will be breaking up this process into a multi-week series, so you’ll want to check back  each week.

The first part of this process is not something I came up with, but rather one I learned from a professor at the Lamont School of Music (University of Denver) where I received my Master’s. This was taught to me by jazz pianist/composer Eric Gunnison. The other parts of the process would be what I do to finish out the composition. We’re going to build from the ground up a composition I wrote specifically to be premiered at Dazzle Jazz (930 Lincoln St Denver, CO) on September 24th 2012 called Back and Forth. If you go to my Facebook page you can get access to this chart and others that will be played on 9-24-12.

Let’s get started! The first part of this process is to build a list of any arbitrary two-note pairs. They can be of any interval distance. In the example of the song I wrote called, Back and Forth, I decided to make 4 sets of two-note pairs as seen below:

These two note pairs are now going to our Guide Tones (3rds, 7ths or any other chord tone) for coming up with our harmonic progression. Let’s take the first pair (the F & Bb). You can decide on how many different ways those two notes could become a guide tone. I typically start with the first note and move up chromatically looking at how each of those two notes fit with it’s new “root.” Here’s an example of what that might look like:

You can make your list as complex or as simple as you like. For me, in this process I don’t extend the chord quality past the 9th because those can be changed later. Notice how the F and Bb fit into each one of those chords. They are in some way or another a part of the guide tones or chord tones. Let’s continue the process with the next 3 pairs:

Now that we have a lot of different chord options, we can narrow down our choices for our new harmonic progression. Next week, we will look at how you can choose which ones to throw out and which ones we will keep to build our progression. In the meantime, if you haven’t checked out my books Breaking the Monotony or Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose then go to my Digital Store and take a look!

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Improv Tip Week # 52-Your Etudes

This week I wanted to talk about the benefits of creating your own Etudes. When we improvise, we’re creating something in the moment. We have an idea in our mind’s eye about what we’d like to do and the options we can go from a certain point. I also advise that we have targets we aim at with purpose. Those targets help us get to our destination and help create a more meaningful conversation with the audience and the musicians we’re sharing the stage. Etudes, though, are pre-planned solos to be used as a technical exercise that are disposable.

Wait, did you just say disposable?

Yeah. They’re meant to have a short shelf-life. You play it (work out the technical passages), analyze it (why did it work), and move on to another.

When you are working on a new tune it can be beneficial to write your own etudes because they help solidify and develop your understanding of the song.

Writing an etude is essentially composing your own solo. Write some ideas out and edit as needed. Play through a line or two and ask yourself some critical questions:

1. Does the line (or series of lines) sound good? If not, re-write them until they do.
2. Do the lines have rhythmic interest? If not, re-write it and make it more interesting. Jazz rhythm is syncopated, so find opportunities to add more syncopation to your line(s).
3. Is there anything that could be added or taken away to make it sound better? If so, make the changes.

The beauty of composing your own etude is you can fix mistakes and do an unlimited number of re-writes until it sounds good. This process helps your subconcious understand why some lines sound better then others and you will find they creep into your playing later. Practice your etude with no accompaniment at first and then add them later. And remember, etudes are technical exercises so don’t feel like you can’t change them (unless you like them as is).

Don’t feel like writing one today, but want to check one out anyway? Click the image below for a FREE etude from my book, Breaking the Monotony. It’s based off of the changes to Have You Met Miss Jones.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s tip! Please feel free to share it with your friends, colleagues, students or other sites that you’re a contributor. There are quick and easy social media share buttons below for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, etc.

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