Charles Pillow: Sound Crafter
AAJ: Is there any precedent for that in jazz?
CP: Well, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn did their take on Tchaikowsky's Nutcracker Suite (Columbia, 1960). And somebody did a big band version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) adapted the work of the composer Joaquin Rodrigo. Jazz musicians of course are good at taking familiar melodies and doing something with them.
CP: With Pictures, the most recognizable melody is the "Promenade," which is basically in the pentatonic scale, which is often used in jazz, and I found it very adaptable. I had played in a concert band version of Pictures in college, on bass clarinet. Pictures has some really great bass clarinet parts and doing that made me aware of the piece. When you perform a work, it brings you knowledge that you wouldn't have just listening to it. So that was a real treat, even a band version was really cool. I studied the score, and took the melodies and played them on saxophone or oboe until I internalized the melodies to the point where it felt almost like I made them up, which makes it easier to re-orchestrate them. That's how I started to compose that piece.
The Planets was a little more difficult, because I didn't know the piece as well when I started as I knew Pictures. But I familiarized myself with it as much as I could, and I think my adaptation is even less recognizable than Pictures. I was very liberal with deconstructing it. I took just what I needed, a smidgeon of melodic material. Plus, with Planets, I used a production format more like a pop record, and I was using electronica at the time. I was interested in improvising over a beat or a vibe more than a set of chord changes.
Although there are chord changes in the piece, I was trying to reconcile a classical melody with what was basically an electronic beat. So I felt forced to strip all the harmonies away, and use almost a Schenkerian analysis of the melody. [According to Wikipedia, "Schenkerian analysis is a method of musical analysis of tonal music based on the theories of Heinrich Schenker. The goal of a Schenkerian analysis is to reveal the underlying structure of a tonal work; in fact its basic tenets can be viewed as a way of defining tonality in music." This approach has led to many changes in music that influenced the development of modern jazz.]
I stripped the music bare, and just tried to take the most important notes and start from there. Bare bones, like a skeleton of the melody. So people would ask me, "Is that really based on Holst's work?" However, some parts do bear a resemblance to Holst.
AAJ: I've noted in your recordingsand it's really a complimentthat it's hard to discern what is composed, arranged, and/or improvised, it's so continuous in its effect. What parts do you actually write out as opposed to what you give to the players to improvise?
CP: Are you talking about the Van Gogh Project?
AAJ: That's what brought the question up, but also Pictures and The Planets. All three are "composed" by you, yet there's significant room for improvising.
CP: That is a compliment, sort of what I was hoping for, especially in the Van Gogh, but also in The Planets. In the latter, nobody solos until about five minutes into the recording. I was trying to write more. I remember that in high school, reading a quote from Joe Zawinul, about Weather Report, which was fairly new then, and he said of that group, "We're always soloing and we're never soloing." That really stuck with me all those years, and I think about that whenever I'm putting a project together, to try to get away from the solo/ melody/solo type of format.
AAJ: Now, in the Van Gogh Project, you seem to have a lot of improvisation going on, perhaps in the same sense that Bach would routinely improvise parts when his works were performed. The Van Gogh has the quality of French impressionist music like Debussy perhaps, but I gather that a lot of it is improvised around your instructions. There are only three players in your composition, but I gather a lot of what they do is improvised.
CP: What it comes down to is having little pieces of my own material that can change the direction of things. For me, that comes from listening to those Miles recordings of the late '60s, early '70s bands, where he would play a little signpost, and the band would change directions. They'd play medleys, several songs, and it always struck me how a little melodic phrase of six notes or even less would change the direction of the tune on a dime. Trying to write with that idea in mind, the Van Gogh is a little more put together than that. We did everything in my home studio, which was a new way for me to work, which gave me a lot of freedom to change things. I did some of the keyboard work, and then Jim Ridl came in and did solos.
So that created a whole different work flow for me. The melodies were sort of raw material. After doing Pictures and Planets, where I was deconstructing other composers' materials, I thought it was time for me to take the same process to my own melodies. Whereas before, I would write a melody and leave it there, and then harmonize it. But Pictures and Planets taught me to do more with the melody itself. So, for the Van Gogh Project, I decided to take specific sentences in the letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about his life. I took some sentences that I was intrigued with, and tried, in a way, to play the sentence on oboe. I recorded myself speaking the sentence, and as played the speaking back, I played it on oboe, and recorded whatever I played without any tonal reference, key center, or anything. So I had about ten or twelve short melodies, each from a sentence that Van Gogh wrote in these letters. Oh, I should say, I read and used the English translation of the letters. They're in the titles of each song, "The Storm which Threatens" referring less to the weather than difficulties in his life; one about the sunset, and so on.