Phrygia (Hera’s Saga): A new soundscape by the idiosyncratic beats of dejacusse

My dream is to co-create musical soundscapes for dance, theatre, yoga classes and art galleries. I am living this dream as I speak it. Since retiring, I have had the opportunity to create soundscapes for dance and art galleries. My next art gallery soundscape will be performed on August 15th at The Makery in conjunction with photographer Allie Mullin’s show Svadhyaya: Discovering Self Through Asana. I feel very connected to this idea as I have experienced shifts in my physical/emotional/spiritual body from doing yoga asanas.

I began the soundscape as I usually do by ear searching through the Ableton library for some basic sounds for the current project. Percussion and plucked strings came to the forefront, and I began laying down ideas. Several ambient synths made their way in to fill out the opening sonic pallette. Then tempo became a powerful consideration. I began with a languid, trance-like rhythm, perfect for the grounded still place from which asanas are approached. Now there was a need to energetically engage. The beginning tempo was 120 bpm, so I played around with increasing tempos and layering in more parts. For the grooves, I focused on a broad drum kit that contained pretty much every percussion hit one could ask for from samba whistles to four different floor toms to cymbals of various diameters and tonal qualities. Then I added a drum rack that was as small as the first one was large, containing maracas, cymbals, tamborines and agogo bells. These two racks allowed me to work out some lovely groove varieties that can be pulled in at whatever tempo at any given moment.

I got stuck mid-week- caught up in melodic figures feeling too facile, not enough depth for my ear. I am working in E Phrygian mode which makes E the tonic of the primary scale for the piece. In terms of chakra tones the E is related to the heart chakra, which feels very fitting given the theme of Allie’s exhibit. While E Phrygian is a natural minor mode, it can be shifted to a dominant mode by raising the third degree of the scale. So I played around with that for a while. Ableton allows me to play parts into a clip using a midi keyboard or I can insert a clip and draw in the notes where I want them. I can move notes around, change the grid to accommodate note lengths up to 1/32nd. I can adjust rhythmic relationships and even build in a “live” feel by adjusting quantize settings to less than 100%. I once told a friend that Ableton allows me to manipulate the molecules of music!

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Here is a screenshot of my Ableton template so far. The columns on the left are tracks that contain clips. Each track houses a particular instrument voice. Each clip is a phrase that can loop or play once or repeat two, three, however many times I choose. I can set the loop to play for a certain number of measures and then trigger a new behavior. The column on the right is the Master fader and trigger for each scene. The lines across are referred to as “scenes” which are full of melodic/rhythmic statements. The entire piece is divided into 5 sections that get increasingly faster with more complex layers. Sorry the picture isn’t clearer, but it gives you an idea of what I am talking about with using Ableton.

“In C” is influencing my approach to the work as I develop patterns that can be played in unison, or overlapped in counterpoint and still have sonic integrity. This is where things get fun. The melodic instruments I am using are a plucked samisen (a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument), a bass, something called New Age Strings, and, of course, vibes. I LOVE the sound of vibes and I doubt I will ever create a piece without them. I frequently end up crafting a long, conversational melodic line with them; no hook, just a stream of conciousness flow of intervals. I will someday challenge myself to solo for as many measures as I can. For now, the final scene, at 300 bpm, will be the space for the vibe conversation. It will be my Pattern 35.

I am spending this second week of work finding the organizational flow for performing the soundscape. How will I move from one scene to the next? How do the clips overlap rhythmically and sonically as the tempo rises? Today I color coded clips by scene and instrument type. I named some of the rhythmic clips so I would have an idea of the feel of each one. Some of the big drum kit grooves may need some tweaking. I am thinking about moving forward and then backward through the scenes. I want to add in some acoustic sounds like vocalized Sanskrit words and some rattles and bells.

This afternoon I played the piece forward through four tempo changes and then back three. I am really happy with the way the clips all hang together through all the tempo changes. I have some momentary off the beat grooves on high bells that really give a kick at the right moments. The piece ran 37 minutes- I was laughing with Trudie that my soundscapes always seem to come in at about a half hour- the length of my attention span! (Not bad) Anyway, I listened to the whole thing again and got this idea to take a half a dozen hand percussion instruments and invite the folks at the party to “talk” to the soundscape. Anyone who wants can carry one around and just talk back when they notice something in the sound as it unfolds. I think this would be cool.

Here is a sampling of the opening as it is at the moment:

So now I have a satisfactory backup recording to load onto the Ipad- I always like to be ready in case my main computer malfunctions. (Jody Cassell has ingrained in me the need for having backups. It is a smart practice.) And I am feeling very good about this piece being able to extend over a long period of time. The first section ran 8 minutes and it could easily go 20 maybe 30 minutes. The fastest section is short and then I start moving backward through the piece bringing the tempo down. I discovered (for myself; you probably knew this already) that raising the tempo abruptly works most of the time, but lowering it abruptly, not so much. So I will map the tempo adjustment to a knob on my interface so that I can turn it down slowly. This will also allow for a lengthening of the piece.

The name came to me as I sat drinking a spicy tea which warmed me into a lucid dream state. “Hera’s Saga” is an anagram of a special name for someone with whom I have a deep heart connection. Plus Hera was the Goddess of Marriage (particularly fitting in this case) and the reigning female deity of Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek Gods and Goddesses. Sagas are, of course, stories. “Phrygia” refers to the E Phrygian modality the piece is rooted in. I was looking for a Sanskrit name, but this one seems right and good to me. Reminds me of younger days when I thought I had finally found my religion in Wiccan/Goddess Spirituality. So powerful to move from a lifetime of God as old white guy to the vast, suppressed history of female deities.

Isis, Astarte, Diane, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna. One of my first chants.

I digress. If you live anywhere near Durham, NC and are up for seeing some wonderful photos and hearing some awesome grooves, please do come!

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