Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Gregg Belisle-Chi, March 16, 2014


I’ll be opening this Sunday’s Racer Session with two pieces for solo guitar and one piece for guitar/vocal duet featuring Chelsea Crabtree.

The Tragedian

A character in the C.S. Lewis book The Great Divorce, the Tragedian is a puppet or an actor, a character of the person we’re not, who we hold onto tightly but who ends up pulling us around by a chain.

Throughout the process of composing this piece, I noticed that I had certain compositional habits. For one, I would hold onto the original motif for a while before letting it develop. I wanted the melody to be strong and identifiable, even through the atonal sections. Secondly, it was difficult for me to transition the piece into tonality. The first two bars were derived from a 12 tone row which, at first, I wanted to maintain throughout. However, the more I wrote the more I felt it needed to “resolve,” rather than stay amorphous and harmonically ambiguous. A challenge I would give myself after writing this piece would be to compose strictly using atonal methods and to explore implied harmony and implied resolutions, either using melodic or rhythmic devices.

Sabbaths X (1998)

This piece features vocalist Chelsea Crabtree. Originally I intended for all the music to be solo guitar. However, I realized that a lot of the music I write is inspired by literature or poetry. I decided to pay homage to Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets and authors, by setting a selection of his words from his poem, Sabbaths X (1998), to music. Musically, this piece was inspired by Charles Ives and Theo Bleckmann. I really love the simplicity and the mystery of some of Charles Ives songs, a la Songs My Mother Taught Me or Serenity. Theo Bleckmann is an incredible vocalist and composer. At the time I was writing this piece I was listening to his solo and duo records (with Ben Monder) a lot.

The impetus of this piece was exploring the 5:2 polyrhythm and seeing if I could make the melody/harmony clear without it being too juxtaposed, as some polyrhythmic music can be. The piece begins solo guitar, wordless vocals enter, and then evolves into a second section where the lyrics begin.

The accompaniment is repetitious, probably to a fault, though I’m overall satisfied with the result. I wanted the focus to be on the vocals and lyrics, even if to the sacrifice of the accompaniment part. Chelsea did an amazing job interpreting this piece and I learned quite a bit about writing for vocals. Moving forward, I would challenge myself to simply write more for vocals and vocalists, to develop as a composer and think beyond my own instrument.

Fear and Trembling

Inspired by Søren Kierkegaard’s essay on the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, an exploration on the anxiety and terror of Abraham, when “God tested [him] and said to him, take Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain that I shall show you.” As Abraham raises the knife, an Angel comes and stops him, directing him to instead slay a ram that was caught in a thicket nearby.

The piece is in three sections. The first is a 12 tone theme followed by variations, utilizing open strings to create a harp or piano effect. The meter, generally, is two bars of 12/8, one bar of 13/8, and another bar of 12/8. This was an attempt to “shift” or prevent the listener from settling into a “groove” or ostinato.

The second section is rubato, another 12 tone row played in several registers, retrograded, and another 12 tone row played simultaneously in the bass. I also explored several artificial harmonics, which are plentiful on the guitar.

The last section is in D major and is essentially an exercise in dexterity for the right hand, due to the quicker tempo and the repetition in the fingering. Fingerpicking on an amplified guitar can be difficult, especially when using open strings. For one, the notes ring out longer than on an acoustic guitar, so sustain can sometimes clutter the articulation, like playing a piano with the sustain pedal always down. Also, dynamics can be hard to control; on an acoustic guitar, to project louder you pull the string harder. On the electric guitar you more or less end up straining your right hand and everything ends up about the same volume. These were both challenges I came across, particularly in this section.

The Session:

I don’t expect people to have the same musical challenges that I do, but I think that in writing this music I came across several obstacles that everyone, at some point or another, can relate to. It would be great if we could attempt to tackle these obstacles together in the improvisations to follow.

To recap, here are several things to maybe think about as you’re improvising.

  1. Play with tonality and atonality. Be conscious of your melody, give it shape and form. Be conscious of how you’re reacting and responding to the other players, if they’re playing tonally and atonally.
  2. Know when you are soloing and accompanying. Creating a texture is also viable, but mindlessly “blowing” is not.
  3. Think compositionally. Not all improvisations need to follow the same form (ABA [soft-loud-soft] or AB [melodically dense- melodically thin.]) Your phrasing and your listening will shape the improvisation much more than your preconceived notion of how something should turn out.
  4. Challenge your facility on your instrument. This could be range, breath support, left hand/right hand, tempo, etc. It’s absolutely crucial to develop our ears, but there is a difference between “hearing it” and physically “doing it.”
  5. Make a list of things to work on after the session, go home and practice it. Repeat until you’re dead.

Gregg Belisle-Chi 3/11/14