Lunch Break at the PWU School of Music Recital Hall

This is probably the first time I spent my lunch break on music rather than on food.

What’s happening here is actually a test of recording equipment. This is a video recording of myself and Jeepney Joyride trombonist Diamond Manuel performing a free improvisation jam. Everything here is completely improvised. The first piece is a 20th-century classical sounding ditty influenced by the likes of Bartok, Varese, Messiaen, Zappa, and maybe a bit of Debussy. The second piece is a pretty straightforward swing jazz in C minor.

Now, as to why I was testing recording equipment, I was checking recording levels on my Zoom H4n because I’m supposed to record Diamond’s trombone recital this coming Saturday morning. He will be performing his recital program on December 6, 2014 at the Philippine Women’s University School of Music Recital Hall. It’s free admission, and safe to say that I don’t think anybody’s going to hear this sort of jam session at the event.

The test did come out great on my Zoom H4n. I have to say, however, that the video posted here is from my crappy smartphone and so the audio quality is not so great. Since I usually have to take videos for my research, I suppose investing money on a real camcorder isn’t such a bad idea.

So, if any of you are in Manila on Saturday and happen to have some free time, please drop by and watch Diamond Manuel’s trombone recital. Cheers!

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Solo Piano Music by Mark A. Galang Featured on “The Eskalets” by Christine L. Villa

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About two months ago, I received a commission to write solo piano music for “The Eskalets”, a short story in DVD format by Christine L. Villa, a children’s book author and poet. For this particular project, I chose to perform and improvise a mashup of four of my solo piano compositions. For now, I can perhaps call that particular mashup as — guess what –“The Eskalets”.

If you’d like to discover the story of four baby robins and and their journey starting from their nest up until they learn how to launch themselves up into the air, click on this link (or the photo above) and purchase the DVD direct from Christine. I am sure that the captivating story of the Eskalets would teach your children the value of family, the way to deal with adversity, and the road to becoming independent.

To Shred or Not To Shred?

It’s been established that most of Devin Townsend’s work does not feature guitar solos. Case in point is that in the Strapping Young Lad album “Alien”, only one song gets a guitar solo. As you can see in the video above, Devin Townsend can shred (or, in his own terms, wanky wank wank), although the point of this video is sort of a mockery or a parody of the guitar hero phenomenon. In fact, in one of D’Addario’s videos featuring Mr. Townsend, he goes on to say that, “Anybody and his dog can play wanky guitar,” which I would think means that anyone can go on and play a gazillion notes without any semblance of meaning other than to impress people. So the question now is the title of this entry: To Shred or Not to Shred?

If Mr. Townsend would perform what can be called meaningful shred, it would be something like this:

 

It’s a medley of Devin Townsend songs with a title that let’s people know what his opinion is about shred guitar in general.

I remember reading that Mr. Townsend always puts the song in mind and that more often than not, wanky guitar doesn’t work well in a song (in his songs at least) and it does not add anything to it. It sort of echoes Claude Debussy who once said “The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous may happen.” So, if we are only trying to communicate “danger” through shred, is that all there is to it?

Perhaps a sort of balance must be always kept in mind. You can shred as long as it will add something to a song or musically make a point, making shredding inevitable to the music. It would certainly be the case in other kinds of musical work. In other cases, we have to accept that shred will not work well. For example, in Dream Theater (a band known for shredding prowess) songs like “Lifting Shadows of a Dream” or “Disappear”, shredding on a guitar would be a worthless exercises because it will not add anything to the song. Clearly this shows that John Petrucci knows when to say “pass” to shredding even if it is one of his strongest points.

So, if we can forego shredding in music, then why even attempt how to do it in the first place. One reason is that there are occasions where it will work and it will add wonderful things to a song. I can’t imagine a song like “Highway Star” or Mr. Big’s “Addidicted to that Rush” without all that shreddy guitar work. Second, learning how to shred improves motor skills and reaction time in music. Steve Stine usually says in his instructional videos that the point of learning how to shred or play difficult stuff is not the goal itself. But rather practicing such things builds skills and confidence that will enable you to do things easier and more effectively. If you can play difficult material then lower level material would be easier to play. It builds skill that will enable any musician to accurately reflect what should be expressed. It’s kind of like functional musical gymnastics.

I remember my piano teacher, Prof. Richelle Rivera, saying something to effect like, “Playing fast is not the goal. We already know you can play fast. Producing a good tone is.” I am of course paraphrasing my piano teacher’s words but in essence meaningful expression is always more paramount than superficial flash. I remember getting a bit impatient about myself playing slowly on pieces by Bartok and Beethoven and so I decided to speed up a bit (especially on the Bartok Bagatelle I was assigned to work on), only to be reprimanded by my teacher who insisted that I play the piece at an almost dragging pace. In such a manner, I was again reminded that playing slow is actually more difficult than playing fast. Articulating the notes in a way that accurately represents what you want to communicate to an audience is harder than impressing an audience with a gazillion notes per second. To this day, despite no longer being a piano major, I still work on my piano skills as my teacher had instilled upon me.

So, to shred or not to shred? To shred, as long as it is done meaningfully and appropriately, the opposite of shredding as a means of self-indulgence.

Cycfi Inc., Neo Pickups Coming Out…Soon!

I happen to be one of the few people who have tried out the prototype of Cycfi’s Neo Pickups, and so I have first hand experience of how awesome they really are. With its flat response, Joel (Mr. Cycfi Research himself) and I were talking about sculpting and shaping its sound to whatever we want, only to be limited by the capabilities of a parametric EQ and one’s imagination. I remember saying that one of the most basic things you can do with it is mimic an acoustic guitar. A few days later, we now have this video demonstration:

Notice that this guitar player is assuming a classical guitarist’s seated posture, playing Francisco Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” on a Fender Strat, but it does not in any way sound like your typical quacking Strat! (I would know how a Strat should sound like because I grew up with one). Matter of fact is that it sounds eerily close to a concert classical guitar. I’ll be first to admit that (having had some classical guitar training) certain nuances like the sustain and attack of the notes would give away that it’s not a classical guitar, the timbre is very close that only classical guitar nuts (like some of the people I know) would be able to tell that it’s not. Perhaps there is some form of bias on my part that I know it’s not a classical guitar (having physically manipulated that guitar), but it would be safe to assume that a casual listener might not be able to figure it out.

This is a point that was proven in a blog post by Roy C (http://royconguitars.blogspot.com/) regarding the Neo Pickups. In this test, there are four clips and the challenge was to try and identify what sort of guitar and/or pickups were used in each clip:

Is it a MIDI guitar, a Martin, a Taylor, a Gibson, EMG 81s? None of the above, folks! It’s just a Fender Strat with Neo Pickups. Heck, the guitar could have been a cheap knockoff and it would have sounded like some of the most expensive guitars in the world with those pickups. I suppose it would be safe to say that what the E-Bow people call “string synthesis” could be easily done with Neo Pickups. Who needs MIDI guitars when you have these, right? And it is very obvious that I am GASsing for one of those that I already envision taking out the EMGs on my ESP LTD and replacing them with these. Without a doubt, I will soon write a composition utilizing these pickups (with the side effect of fulfilling one of my composition requirements at the university, hahaha!).

The Cycfi Neo Pickups target release date will be somewhere around March 2014. For more details, visit http://www.cycfi.com/projects/neo-series/.

Modes Made Somewhat Easy

One of the things that make many musicians scratch their heads are the modes. Let’s face it: They are so confusing yet in fact you need to learn and understand how to use them if you want to improve your musical skills and knowledge. We always hear how to use the modes in everything from writing songs to soloing over a complex jazz piece. In this piece, I’m going to show a couple of ways regarding how to understand modes.

Now, for us to understand this tutorial, we need to know what a major scale is and the names of the modes. Since we have seven notes in the major scale, we also get seven modes.

The Major Scale and it’s Relative Modes

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We have this nice graphic above that shows our C major scale and its relative modes. We can easily play the each of the major scale’s relative modes by starting the same major scale at a different note and then we name the mode according to that starting mode. For example, if I want to play D Dorian, I just play the C major scale a.k.a. Ionian mode starting at D as a root. Sound-wise, you will notice that by starting the same scale at a different note, you rearrange the order of intervals. Add to the fact that you now consider the different note as the root note, you will tend to return to it every now and then, making you hear a scale that is very different from your original major scale.

And so, to figure out…

…the Ionian mode, we start our major scale at the 1st note (it’s just the same major scale, duh!) (I).

…the relative Dorian mode, we start our major scale at the 2nd note (ii).

…the relative Phrygian mode, we start our major scale at the 3rd note (iii).

…the relative Lydian mode, we start our major scale at the 4th note (IV).

…the relative Mixolydian mode, we start our major scale at the 5th note (V).

…the relative Aeolian mode, we start our major scale at the 6th note (this also happens to be our relative minor scale) (vi).

…the relative Locrian mode, we start our major scale at the 7th  note (vii).

Easy, right?

Figuring out the Parallel Modes

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Figuring out how to learn and play the parallel modes (e.g. C major, C locrian, C Phrygian, etc.) is a trickier thing. There are a number of ways to do it. The technical way is to analyze our relative modes, check the order of intervals, and then apply that order of intervals to a particular root note. For example, I know that the Ionian mode/major scale follows the order of whole step (W)-W-half step (H)-W-W-W-H pattern of intervals. By looking at, say for example our E Phrygian in our relative modes section, we find out that the pattern is now H-W-W-W-H-W-W with a flat 2nd. So, let’s say I want to know what Bb Phrygian is, I figured out that it is Bb-Cb-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab. I can do the same procedure for the other modes. Quite taxing, isn’t it?

What if we put it this way instead? We can categorize each mode as major (if it has a major 3rd) or minor (if it has a minor 3rd). By figuring out the formula for each mode, I now have this shortcut:

Major modes = Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian

Minor modes = Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian

All I have to do next is figure out which interval is different from that of our standard major and minor scale. Now, let’s assume that we already know that the major scale (Ionian) has a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th. Let’s also assume that we know our natural minor scale (Aeolian) as having a major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. It’s time for us now to figure out how our other modes are built:

Dorian = Minor scale with major 6th instead of minor 6th

Phrygian = Minor scale with minor 2nd instead of major 2nd

Lydian = Major scale with augmented 4th instead of perfect 4th

Mixolydian = Major scale with minor 7th instead of major 7th

Locrian = Minor scale with with minor 2nd and diminished 5th

Still too difficult to figure out by this method? Okay, by doing it this way, it does involve some time to study. However there are easier ways.

We can use the relative mode order in order to figure out how to play a mode correctly. All you have to do is know what order does a particular mode appear to know the sequence order of the root note of that particular mode in a particular major scale. Confusing, right? Here’s a concrete example:

Let’s say that I want to play a D Mixolydian.  Now, from the study of relative modes, I know that Mixolydian is the 5th mode and so its root note is the 5th note of a particular major scale, which I find out to be G in this case. And so, all I have to do play D Mixolydian is play the G major scale but start with the D.

Let’s also say that I want to play Ab Phrygian instead. Since Phrygian is the third mode, Ab is the third note of the Fb major scale. Now, you might say, “What the hell, Mark! There’s no such thing as Fb major.” Relax, I’ll explain it for you. From a strictly music theory standpoint, there is. But for the sake of practical use, it is just the E major scale, and so now we think of Ab as G# and then play the E major scale starting at G# to get ourselves the Ab Phrygian mode. I think that this is the simplest way of learning and playing the modes.

As for actual use in songwriting, composition, and soloing using modes, there are plenty of resources on the web for that. Anyway, you can always drop a line or two at the comments box if you have questions regarding modes and other stuff. Thanks.

An Electric Guitar, a Tube Amp, a Hymn, and the Dream of an Electric Guitar Orchestra

The idea of having an electric guitar is nothing new. It’s been done before in the studio by the likes of Brian May and in live situations by somebody like Glenn Branca. However, that does not stop me from being fascinated by it. As a matter of fact, I still dream of establishing a purely electric guitar orchestra in the Philippines. I don’t know if that idea has already been implemented in this godforsaken country where I live but I hope to turn that idea into reality.

Anyway, as I was going through and studying the hymns that will be sung at the UCCP-MCCD on Sunday, I ended playing our benediction hymn (“The Lord Bless You and Keep You”) on the piano. The idea then came to me to create a test recording of my electric guitar plugged into a tiny tube amp,  a Bugera BC15 (a hybrid actually with a tube preamp and solid state power section). Okay, I know some snobbish gearhead somewhere in cyberspace would have their negative impressions of it but who cares anyway? As long as it can do what I need, I’m happy. Guess what the piece I used for the test recording. It’s the benediction hymn. Not much of a puzzle at all, right?

So, I plugged my guitar into the amp, mic’ed up my amp with my trusty old condenser mic, took the hymnal from the piano and into the other piano (where my recording equipment is located), and I began reading through all the parts while recording. Since it’s SATB, I recorded each part into four different tracks, mixed everything, performed some post-production processing, and ended up with this:

 

So, on face value it seems like I’m trying to channel a cheap Brian May impression. Brian May is, after all, Brian May, and nobody could match what he could do. The point here really is not imitating Brian May (although it somewhat sounds like it), but experimenting and figuring out how a tiny amp and an electric guitar would sound like as an ensemble instrument. It’s kind of like an electric rondalla ensemble, the kind of thing I’m dreaming about. For my ears, it sounds nice although opinions by others may vary. I’m happy that I could realize something like an electric guitar orchestra in a studio setting.

This got me into thinking: I suppose it really is possible for me to organize an electric guitar orchestra here in the Philippines. The thing required to turn this into reality is to get around 12 note-reading guitarists equipped with their electric guitars and tiny amps (with overdrive). This, however, is fraught with certain problems:

1. In a performance situation, having at least 12 guitar amps would be difficult to control. No matter how tiny they can be, each amp can be really loud. This leads us to problem number 2:

2. There are lead guitarists that have an inflated sense of ego. They would complain they are not loud enough, so they would turn up their volume. Eventually everybody starts competing for volume. It can be a big headache.

3. Financing such a project can be expensive. To sum it up, I cannot afford it and the future of an electric guitar orchestra being financially compensated for what it’s worth seems nil.

Possible solutions include:

1. Hooking up each amp into a mixing board. However, the entire point of an electric guitar orchestra is to simulate an acoustic one i.e. I will treat an electric guitar and an amp as a single instrument. Positioning each amplifier in different sections of the performance hall is essential in how I perceive an electric guitar orchestra should sound like. Hooking up each amp to a mixing board with the output ultimately coming from PA loudspeakers would completely destroy the ambient effect I am looking for.

2. Hiring for attitude, training for skill. I should try to employ humble and open-minded guitarists willing to learn how to read notation. I should avoid those who try to be extra special with egos bigger than Yngwie Malmsteen.

3. Getting a grant and looking for sponsors. Perhaps I should turn this into a proposal for a local arts society or foundation and see if they would finance me. Are there local foundations out there who would give a rat’s ass about a project like this? I don’t know. I could try finding if I got the time. Perhaps there might be a couple of rich people out there who have the money for such.

I wonder if this electric guitar orchestra dream of mine could become a reality here in the Philippines. Maybe somebody out there would support it.

The Church Pianist Experience versus the Prog Rock/Jazz Keyboardist

Last New Year’s Eve was very memorable for me. It was one of those rare occasions that happens a few years or so when a church requires a pianist. It’s another case of a regular pianist/organist becoming unavailable and I’m asked to fill in. It’s no accident that such times happen, and I do think it is God speaking through those people to call me up and help in their worship service. Therefore, December 31, 2012 became the second time that I was able to perform some music at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – Makati Church of Christ Disciples (UCCP-MCCD for short). This piece is actually for people who are interested or called into becoming a church organist or pianist, and I would like to share what little experience I have in this field.

First, I’d like to provide a little disclaimer: I am not an authority on being a church pianist or organist. I have much more experience as a keyboardist/pianist in a progressive rock band than a pianist/organist for a typical Christian worship service that favors hymns from centuries past. There are many similarities yet there are notable differences.

  1. First obvious similarity is the instrument. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Second similarity is the need for repertoire knowledge and technical keyboard skills. Just like playing in a progressive rock or a worship band, you need to have some good chops because hymns are not easy to play. The ability to sight read is also a necessity because unless you have impeccable memory you only have a few hours to practice and get your repertoire for the service at a considerable level.
  3. Third similarity is the the need for improvisation. In certain sections of the worship service, the need to improvise becomes apparent such during certain sections for prayer, offertories on occasion, etc.
  4. The last one and most important similarity is the need for synchronicity between pianist and choir/congregation. In a worship service, almost everybody will sing, and the church congregation is always an active participant in the music making experience. Just like the prog rock or jazz keyboardist, a church pianist must be able to play in sync with the congregation’s flow and momentum.

When I say playing in sync with the congregation’s flow and momentum, I mean to say that a pianist should have the attitude that the congregation would become a band or ensemble member and that the pianist will treat the congregation as such. This goes both ways:  Sometimes, a church pianist will dictate the tempo and overall mood of the piece/hymn through his playing (unless the choir conductor takes charge of that). There are also times when the pianist has to adjust his playing in accordance to how a congregation would typically sing. One example I can think of is this: There are congregations that are used to singing a hymn in a particular key other than it was originally written. A church pianist must be able to transpose such hymns on the fly. A church pianist would have an easier time playing a hymn as written when a congregation consists mostly of members with some form of musical training. In cases where a congregation has little or no training at all, a pianist must be prepared to adjust accordingly. The worst experience I had regarding this was a congregation that tends to sing hymns in different keys after each stanza. Whew! That was challenging.

Now, let’s take a look into some differences between being a church pianist and a prog rock or jazz keyboardist:

  1. The instrument: A church pianist playing in a service where old-style 16th- to 18th-century hymns are in order only has a piano and/or an organ. Prog rock and jazz tends to be free and experimental, and therefore they can call upon a wide array of sounds as their instruments can call up. Keyboardists in a contemporary worship band have the same options as guys who play in prog rock bands.
  2. Repertoire: Church pianists would typically play the classic hymns. Prog rock keyboardists go anywhere from renaissance-era music to contemporary.
  3. Improvisation: While church pianists have the need to be able to improvise, their improvisations cannot be indulgent! No shred piano for me while in a church service. When I function as a church pianist, I can’t play blindingly fast and aggressive a la Franz Liszt. Prog rock and jazz keyboardists can be all over the place and blaze away with solos that rival Spinal Tap proportions.

Being a church pianist is an exercise in restraint and control. While I am required to have some considerable chops and precision, you need to be able to hold back and only play what is necessary. You can improvise but you cannot chop up your keyboard like Keith Emerson stabbing his L-100 Hammond organ. Such control is VERY important because the goal of being that sort of musician is to facilitate the congregation to focus on God through music and not focus on the musician.

Here’s some advice for aspiring church pianists and organists:

Learn the material: Get into the habit of sight reading hymnals every day. Make it a goal to commit to memory popular hymns like “Amazing Grace”, “How Great Thou Art”, etc. even if you can manage to play the melody at minimum.

Learn how to improvise: Improvisation helps in many ways. First, you can compose some lovely pieces on the fly and on the spot for sections of the worship service like the prelude/postlude, prayer time, offertory, etc. Second, given the fact that playing all four voices of hymns can be difficult to manage at times (e.g. intervals that go up to the 12th and 13th, unless you have really huge hands like Rachmaninoff!), being able to improvise an accompaniment based on the melody of the hymn is VERY important.

Brush up on music theory and ear training: This helps prepare you for improvisation, which is essentially an application of both disciplines.

The most important thing to take note of is pray to thank the Lord for such an opportunity to serve. Thank the Lord for allowing you to become an instrument for his glory. Also ask the Lord for necessary strength for the task. All that preparation will always fall short without the strength of God.

My pastor friends tell me that that particular instance of being a church pianist/accompanist is God’s calling. I have no doubt that in that particular day, God led me to that path in order to serve. However, I still don’t know if God would want me to go towards that direction in the long run. What I am certain is that that it’s one sign that the Lord has called me to be involved in a very musical life. I’d like to emphasize once more that it is not out of my own strength and skill that has made me capable. It’s only through the Lord that I gain the confidence go ahead and be a church pianist, even it if it’s just for one particular day. This experience always reminds me of Philippians 4:13 which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”