Shadows and Whispers

When I was in music school, I was in a few saxophone quartets. At the University of Miami there is usually a freshman quartet, with the four freshman jazz saxophone principles assuming the four chairs in the group. It’s a great way to focus on intonation and blend. I’d never played in a “proper” rehearsing quartet before, and it was a challenging and exceedingly valuable experience.

My senior year, a group of upperclassmen actually put together an advanced quartet in order to tackle some really challenging music. The group consisted of me on tenor, Dan Kinzleman on soprano, Chris Shade on alto and Paul Roth on bari. UM Sax Prof Gary Keller directed us.

. We played a bunch of serious modern repertoire, including a Dave Liebman quartet that was as “out” as out can be. Lieb actually came down and listened to us play it, which was awesome and a bit harrowing. And in the spring, composer Jim Mcneely was the guest artist for the Concert Jazz Band, in which I was playing second tenor. Before the concert, our sax quartet took it upon ourselves to learn the final movement from a Mcneely piece called “Shadows and Whispers; Slash and Burn.”

We recorded it live at Gusman hall in early 2003. Every time I come back to the recording I’m struck by just how incredible Mcneely’s writing is, and how advanced the music was. His big band writing is equally cool, but something about the purity of the quartet really brings out what he does so well.

A (fantastic) student of mine named Ben is applying to UM, and Gary really likes his playing. Which is so very cool to hear. I saw Gary last week in New Orleans at the JEN convention, and we talked fondly about the Mcneely quartet. Gary went ahead and forward the recording along to Ben, so I thought I’d share it here, as well.

As you listen to it, bear in mind that there is no improvising in the piece – all of the notes were written. Check out how it goes in and out of focus, going from unison to harmony to rhythmic disjointedness and back. (Update: if you would like to purchase it, it is available via Advance Music.)

“Shadows and Whispers; Slash and Burn” by Jim Mcneely:

My Favorite They Might Be Giants Lyrics

In addition to being able to carry more music with me in general, a side-effect of having increased portable music-player storage space is that I can finally take my entire They Might Be Giants collection everywhere I go.  No more weighing various albums, going with older volumes just because they’re classic, cherry-picking songs from records… I finally have the entirety of my music collection’s giant-y goodness with me at all times.

I’ve had a really good time re-visiting their entire catalog, remembering what makes this band so special for me.  Their music is so free, so unpretentiously groovy, but even more than that, their lyrics? Are amazing.

I thought I’d compile a list of my favorites from among John and John’s many amazing lines and refrains.

Without further ado:

Murfins and Burglars Top 15 They Might Be Giants Lyrics

Continue reading “My Favorite They Might Be Giants Lyrics”

Arranging: Writing for Student Ensembles

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Good Times.

This past Sunday, my band at The Urban School of San Francisco gave our Spring concert, and it was, by all accounts, a crashing success.  The group I direct there is the beginning group, dubbed the “Lab Band” – the idea is that students develop their skills in my band before graduating to the Advanced Band, led by Urban’s head jazz director, Scott Foster.  This kind of hierarchical setup works really well, both in motivating students to improve, so that they can move up, and allowing those who are just starting out on their instruments not to feel overwhelmed in the early goings.

Continue reading “Arranging: Writing for Student Ensembles”

Anatomy of a One-Man Band Pt. 2: Electric Melodica-loo

Part 1, detailing the gear in my looping rig, is here.

I’ve recently been working on becoming more self-sufficient as a performer. One of the great things about The Exited Door was how many brilliant musicians I got to contribute, but the flip side of that is that it can be difficult to perform the material without them!  Generally speaking, I’ve always had the intention of performing with a huge-ass group, giving the tunes a literal reinterpretation of what’s on the record, but that kind of show is A) logistically hard to pull off and B) financially unsustainable.  So, my plan had always been to come up with a way to perform solo or in small group settings – the trick was figuring out how.

Enter my loop pedal. Well, actually, Nervo’s loop pedal that he loaned me, but same difference. Using it, I’ve put together a pretty cool one-man band setup, as I detailed in a post a few weeks ago. It’s been a blast coming up with little “mini-melodies” and working out how to perform them. It didn’t take long to realize that, in addition to playing loop-specific songs, I could use the pedal to creatively add the flavor of the orchestration on the record.

However, as I began to implement this idea, I noticed a few things.  For starters, my setup was taking up too much space – I had all my wind instruments laid out with my percussion on a separate chair, and four pedals in front of the amp… it was just a little too busy.

Another thing I realized was that while it would actually be possible to play a good number of the tunes from the record solo or with another guitarist, I’d need to get creative with triggering loops that I recorded using the melodica.  What’s more, there wouldn’t be time for me to reach over and grab the melodica every time I needed to play a solo (like, say, the trumpet melody on “No Crow, Scarecrow”), so I’d need to figure out a way to have quick access to the instrument while playing guitar.

Melodica Apparatus
The Apparatus.

I’d been thinking about designing an arm-mount for my melodica for a little while – it always seemed like a natural fit for the instrument.  That said, I’m kind of shocked that I actually pulled it off!  All it took was one trip to the haight, where I picked up two matching big thick leather belts and some heavy-duty velcro.

After initially attaching the upper-arm band and the wrist band to my arm and threading the wrist-band through the handle on the back of the melodica, I attached velcro to the outside of the upper-arm band, as well as the underside of the melodica.  It worked great for a bit, but after I started practicing with it, it became clear that I’d need a second strap around the top to hold the instrument in place.  I was initially using string, but that was pretty flimsy; another trip to the hardware store and I found a 24″ velcro strap that was perfect.  I attached another strip of velcro to the top of the melodica, wrapped the strap around, and voila!  The thing wouldn’t fall off if I was chased by an angry mob.  And, taking into account how awful it sounds when I screw up one of these loops, the possibility of that happening isn’t quite as remote as it may sound. Heh.

To detail how it was put together, I took a few pictures (a few used my mirror, so they’re inverted):

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The shoulder and wrist straps. Also, the gun show. Yeeeahhh baby.
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Reinforcing the shoulder mount & the finished product.

But enough pictures, time to show this thing in action! Without further ado, I give you the YouTube debut of my looping mini-composition “Happy Pants.”

The Evil Version of Me

evil-cartmanI’ve spent a good amount of my life fairly certain that somewhere out there exists an evil version of me. It goes back to when I was in school – while at UM, just about every guy in my group of friends was assigned an “anti” version of himself. Anti-Kenji was this fratty Asian dude we always saw at the cafeteria, Anti-Russ was pretty similar to real Russ, and Anti-Kirk was this big tall guy who always wore basketball shorts and a visor, with his school ID card stuck into the brim.  The theory was that if any of us ever actually came into contact with one of these dudes, we would cancel one another out and cease to exist, as well as possibly rip a hole in the space/time continuum.  Needless to say, we kept our distance.

So here it is all these years later, and again I find myself confronted with an evil twin. It started yesterday, when Dan A. sent along this picture of a CD he found in his friend’s car:

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AWESOME. Is it possible for this guy to be any more of an evil version of me? He’s like a checklist of evil-version characteristics.  Facial hair?  Check.  Black leather jacket? Check. Unkempt appearance? Check. Vaguely threatening jewelry? Check. And then there’s the issue of his name. I mean, seriously. I can’t think of a more perfectly evil variation on my name.

Dan also pointed me to his myspace page – which I feel I should note contains a bunch of great music – and I decided to friend request him. I sent the request along with a note explaining that we were clearly evil versions of one another, and that we should probably never meet, lest we cause all of existence to cancel itself out.

A couple of hours later, I got word that he’d accepted my request, and also that he’d left a comment on my page.  I’m not sure I can find the words to explain what makes it so unbelievably effing awesome (in particular, the fact that it was obviously written by an auto-commenting bot) so I took a screen grab so that y’all could see for yourselves:

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You’re welcome, Dirk Hamilton.  I will visit your page often.  Mainly to keep tabs on where you are so that we never accidentally run into one another.

After all, I’d hate to be responsible for the negation of existence as we know it.dirks-new-comment1

Anatomy of a One-Man Band

Loop it!
Loop it and swoop it.

This week, I got to do something fun and different – my sister is getting her masters’ in counseling at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS), which is a very groovy counseling/therapy institute located south of Market.  I heard through her that a group of CIIS students were looking for a musician to accompany them during a drama therapy performance, and, with no idea what exactly would be involved, or indeed even what Drama Therapy was, I said “what the hell” and decided to go for it.

I spoke with a group member, Jessica, on the phone and she explained what exactly they were doing, and what they’d need from me. The method they use is called “Playback Theatre” and in it a troupe of actors solicits stories from the lives of the folks in the audience and then plays those stories back to them.  It’s all improvised, and pretty abstract – men can play women, women can play men, scarves are involved…

My gig would involve improvising a soundtrack to the various scenes.  I’d been wanting to get my loop station together for some time, so I thought this would be a good excuse to go for it, so I ordered a couple of missing components and got to work getting ‘er set up and working.

After rehearsing with the actors, we did our performance today. It was really cool!  Listening to the stories while simultaneously thinking of what to play is a unique challenge – “Okay, she’s talking about the circus, what do I know that’ll work… and where do I start the loop… what key will this be in?”  It’s fast and really enjoyable to do, you gotta think on your feet! My only complaint was that we didn’t perform for longer, though I have a feeling that today will not be the last time I join an improv group onstage.

Incedental to that performance, I got my loop station complete and MUNI-transportable, and I worked out a couple of fun little ditties that I can recreate pretty consistently and cleanly.  I thought it’d be fun to post them here on Murfins. So, first I’ve written a breakdown of what I’m using and where, and then a posted few examples of some loops I did. The examples are far from perfect, since they were recorded live and on-the-fly, with no overdubbing or tweaking after-the-fact. That said, I’m pretty happy with them!

Without further ado:

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Gear Breakdown

1. Tambourine (gotta have it!)
2. Flute
3. Avocado Shaker (which I dearly love)
4. Clarinet
5. Melodica (my new favorite instrument)
6. Microphone Stand (the hardest thing in the whole unit to transport)
7. Shure Beta-58, the mic to end all mics
8. Boss GigaDelay, Mic only
9. Boss NS-2, mutes the mic, supplies power to the pedals
10. Boss RC-20 looper, on loan from Dan Nervo. The heart of the beast.
11. Volume Pedal
12. Ovation Celebrity
13. Tuner
14. Crate Taxi 15-watt amp (rechargeable, portable, and LOUD)

To make a loop, I usually start with some sort of set pattern, and the challenge for me has been to speed up my transitions between instruments.  It’s quite fun to jam out with a looper, but in the interest of making something that’s actually enjoyable for people to watch and listen to, going in with a very specific gameplan (and instrument choreography) is very important.

A Few Examples
(Links go to downloadable MP3s.)

1. Dancing Pants

I really enjoy this first loop – the loop length is very short, and I think that might be why it works so well. I call it “Dancing Pants.” Got off to a good start, added things quickly, and got a pretty mean groove going by the end.  I’ve been in the habit of starting loops off with the guitar, and it’s nice to start it elsewhere (in this case, on the clarinet).

2. Forlorn Pants

Second loop is a down-tempo, so I guess I’ll call it “Forlorn Pants.”  The pants are forlorn, people. Pretty easy, with nice volume swells, though there are some pitch problems going on with the guitar that become evident later on – the big trick with this one is that it takes a little while to cycle around, so the whole thing moves quite a bit slower.  Using the delay on my flute to add ambient texture is really fun, and something I want to experiment with more.

3. Happy Pants

Third is a longer loop which is quite happy – it’s called, you guessed it, “Happy Pants.”  I’m a big fan of this little melody – I came up with it recently, and plan on working it into a larger show with a full band.  It’s very stroll-in-the-park-y.  Also, some rhythmic issues crop up, but whaddya gonna do?  Go with it, that’s what.  It’s still tough for me to get this groove settled without hearing the melody, for whatever reason.

4. Lemon’s Loop

Here’s an alliteration for ya: Last but not least is a little loop I made out of the Liz Lemon-y lick I noticed last week while re-watching last year’s 30 Rock episode “Greenzo.” It is one of the main reasons that I want to be Jeff Richmond, the guy who wrote it. I love it so much that I wanted to play it, so I did – it’s called “Lemon’s Loop.”  My apologies, Jeff Richmond, if you’re reading this.  And also, if you’re reading this, hi, Jeff! You are the man! I hope you like my blog!

…um, anyway. So, yeah, more timing issues come up in this one, there’s this effing late note that comes around every time, but once stuff gets going, it’s not that noticeable.  I’ve played this one better, but I’m happy with the clarinet solo, so, yeah!

To conclude – looping is really fun. I’d say these four examples show where I’m at after working on it for a couple of weeks. It’s an unforgiving medium – one fuckup sends you back to square one, you know?  I’m very interested in picking up an Electro Harmonix 2880 once I have some spare cash lying around – the idea of recording onto separate tracks (woodwinds on one, percussion on one, guitar on one) is immensely appealing.  But ’till then, the RC-20 does everything I need.

Oh yeah – and perhaps the coolest thing of all is how portable this setup is!  For all that’s going on, all of the sounds I’ve got access to, it is entirely battery-powered, collapses into three pieces, and fits onto MUNI like a breeze. Which means that it’s great for busking, and that’s the plan!

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Everything from that first picture is here, if you can believe it.

The Exited Door

cover-art-squareAfter over a year of recording and rehearsing, writing and ranting, working and waiting, my first-ever solo album, “The Exited Door,” is finished and in-hand.  What’s more, as of today it’s available for purchase online!  In honor of that, I thought I’d devote a post to sharing links to all things Exited Doorian.  If you’ve enjoyed my blog or liked reading about the album, please pick up a copy!  It is an entirely self-funded project (look ma, no financial backers or label!) – I made the entire album with my hands and the scant contents of my bank account.  Your support really matters and is very appreciated.

Ways to Buy the Record:

1) The best way is to order the disc online from CDBaby. I love CDBaby, and they love me – the disc is a steal at $11.95, and the physical item is the way to go, not only because it includes all the lyrics, but because it contains all of the wonderful artwork that accompanies the record.

2) Download it from iTunes. The easiest and most familiar way to go. Though you won’t get a copy of the artwork if you do this, you can download it for free as a PDF from my website.

3) Download it from DigStation. Another good way to go – I’m not sure what the deal is with the downloads at CDBaby, but I know that when you download my album from DigStation, I get 100% of the income.  iTunes gives about .67 on the dollar, so that’s a huge improvement.  Plus, you get a downloadable PDF of all of the album art and lyrics, so it’s really the next-best thing to buying a CD.

Links, Etc:

If you’d like to keep track of the latest happenings with the record, as well as keep up to date on live performances, I keep my personal website and my myspace page very current.

I had a really good time writing the blog series about the creation of the album, and have organized the posts below:

  • Part one covered the album’s initial conception; this is the “why” behind the disc.
  • Part two discussed the initial writing process; this was probably the most exciting time in the album’s creation, when it felt like anything was possible.
  • Part three detailed writing the lyrics and creating the initial demos of the record.  This was also a fun project, and was a really fun time of the year (April/May of 2008).
  • Part four got all technical and stuff about the recording process; getting the rhythm section, strings, and horns recorded was a big logistical challenge that was fun to tackle.
  • Part five went inot detail about the final recording sessions – woodwinds, vocals, guitars, percussion – and the initial organization and mixing of the record.
  • Part six covers the mixing and mastering process; in other words, how we wrangled the audio from raw to finished.
  • Part seven discussed the album artwork and design, and the process of organizing the wonderful artists who contributed original artwork to the project.

Contributing Musicians/Artists:

A lot of amazing musicians played on The Exited Door.  Below, I’ve posted links to their various websites and projects.

Lindsay Garfield sings with the alt-folk group Or, The Whale – they are great, see them live!

Dan Apczynski writes for Acoustic Guitar Magazine and is the lead singer of The Cut Loose.

Dan Nervo leads The Cut Loose along with Dan A. – they rule.

Kenji Shinagawa played mandolin, and is an amazing guitarist who lives in NYC.

Brian Fox is a writer for Bass Player Magazine and also plays bass with The Estate. His amazing ex-band Pseudopod just might do some shows soon, too!

Scott Foster teaches with me at Urban and plays all over the Bay Area.

Brian Switzer plays trumpet with Native Elements, among other groups.

Alex Kelly is an amazing cellist, and has done some pretty rad things things.  He plays all over the place.

Joel Behrman played trombone; he is an amazing trumpet player, as well.

Daniel Fabricant played upright bass; his group The Nice Guy Trio is really good stuff.

Khamara Pettus is a fabulous actor and performs regularly around the SF Bay Area.

Fil Lorenz contributed wonderful Bari sax playing, and leads two groups – his Soul-Tet and his larger Jazz Orchestra.

Samantha Fisher did the album design and layout, and is truly amazing.

Michael Romanowski mastered the record, and I can’t recommend his services enough.  He works at Coast Recorders, and is one of the heads of the audiophile record lable The Tape Project.

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