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by Ben Allison

Specks of Dust: Generating Compositions

Composing is a psychological mind game that balances my desire to create something new and interesting that I like with my fear of going too far out on a limb or sounding derivative. But if I dont take chances with my music, it wont move forward or evolve. Ultimately, its the feeling of risk and the thrill of discovery that inspires me to compose. The composition process is a slow one for me, usually involving many hours of staring at a blank piece of paper followed by an intense flurry of activity. I often spend several months accumulating ideas or musical fragments in my mental scrapbook and then try to piece them together. But in order to get started on a tune, I need the seed of an idea, in the same way that water needs a speck of dust to cling to in order to crystallize into ice. Creating this first speck of dust is the hardest part of the process. Earlier in my musical life, I became fascinated by the music of Alban Berg. I was interested in serial and 12-tone compositional techniques and how they can suggest a multitude of melodic and rhythmic ideas. Berg was of particular interest because he would take the raw materials generated by 12-tone technique and shape and remix them, discarding what didnt work. By applying his own esthetic sensibility, he came up with something beautiful. He used musical technique only as a means to an end. Using things like tone rows, matrixes and random processes (like assigning notes to a deck of cards, throwing them up in the air and seeing which ones land face up in a prescribed area) always generates melodies that are quite different from anything that I might have come up with off the top of my head. This is one quick way to fill up my mental scrapbook. In the early 1990s I used a few of Bergs tone rows (and their inversions, retrogrades and retrograde inversions) as jumping off points for a whole suite of material. In recent years, the starting point for many of my compositionsthe speck of dusthas been working with particular ideas of timbre or rhythm for the bass. I think of the acoustic bass as the love-child of a guitar and a drumset. In the hands of some ingenious musicians of the past century, the bass has evolved from being merely the lowest in pitch of the violin family of stringed instruments into a multitimbred, groove-generating fun box. While musicians
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such as Milt Hinton were bringing the percussive possibilities of the bass to a high art form, others, such as Charles Mingus, were showing that composing and bandleading from the bass chair can give the music a distinctive sound. With my band Medicine Wheel, Ive been experimenting with extended techniques for the basswrapping seed pods around the strings or striking them with a drumstick, picking them with a folded MetroCard or severely detuning them until they are nearly falling off. The bass can generate a seemingly endless array of sounds by playing the other side of the bridge, hammering on or pulling off the strings, bending the strings off the fingerboard, pushing down, across or snapping up with the right hand, weaving paper in and out of the strings, or fingerpicking triple-stops like a guitarist. Im also curious about the extended techniques of other instruments the sound of a plunger trumpet playing into a piano while the pianist holds the sustain pedal down, multiphonics on the saxophone, a piano prepared with pennies playing in unison with a kora or bowed with fishing line. Once I get a particular texture or groove in mind, the melodies and harmonies usually suggest themselves. In one sense, I start with the arrangement or orchestration of a piece before I write it. However, with all of these textural ideas in mind, I have to be careful not to employ them gratuitously. I dont want them to become the focus of the performance. I like to use them as colorful palette shifts to add areas of interest to the sonic painting. The focal point always has to be on the group sound and the interplay of the

musicianshow they act and react to each other. I think of compositions as landscapes that musicians explore. I like to add unusual textures, variations in form, and different grooves giving musicians, including myself, something from which to react and bounce off. Another starting method that Ive found helpful is to put myself in a hole and try to dig my way outto make things more difficult for myself at first so that they can become easier later. Sometimes the challenge created by narrowing my musical options gives me a positive boost. Writing for the kora was one such challenge. The kora is monochromatic, that is, it can be tuned to one of only a handful of keys. My dilemma was how to create music that has motion and sustains listeners and players interests once Ive all but eliminated harmony as a building block. The result of this experiment was my band Peace Pipe and the recording of the same name. The addition of the kora into my group sound has pulled me in a different direction from where I might have otherwise gone. If all else fails, I employ what I call the American Idol approach. I watch as many episodes of American Idol as I can tolerate just to remind myself of everything I dont want to do. Im serious about this technique. It helps on occasion. By working in reverse, my hope is to eliminate all the sounds that I dont like and then DB be left with something more personal.
Bassist/composer Ben Allisons recent CD, Buzz, is available on Palmetto Records. For more information, visit