Category Archives: blog

Something Sweet, Something Tender

Going through an archive of my 90s-era site, I found this transcription of the head to Eric Dolphy’s Something Sweet, Something Tender, from his classic Out To Lunch. 

I organized a concert for my brother’s movie Shag Carpet Sunset, and wrote this for my friends Greg Sinibaldi and Josh Stewart to lead our pickup band through.  A beautiful tune.

b

Guitar + Meditation: Reduce

Reduce what you do to it’s simplest form. Break problems down reductively.
 
In trying to play something complex, it’s always tempting to ‘brute force’ your way through a piece. You might pick 8 bars at a time, and just stoically repeat those 8 over and over, intending to ‘shed’ your way to playing the 8 flawlessly. There might be one stumbling block or several, but (to take the metaphor further) you will continue to run along the path, stumble on the blocks, but eventually count on muscle memory to take over.  
 
This reliance on muscle memory is cool to a point, because you do want to train to the point where you can play from ‘that place’, but there is more work to do to avoid stumbling. Being present in each step of the piece is the approach I take. 
 
In the above example, I think there is a stumbling block at x. I would start by playing x, play x-1 then x, x-2, x-1, then x.   
Observe what’s happening – what is the block? Is it a shift in position? No, this section is entirely in one position.
Is it a challenging fingering or other LH issue? Are you sure the fingering you’ve chose is the best? That might be it – try different fingerings, and notate the solution that works best for you. Here, I suggest second finger on the 6th string, using 1st, 3rd and 4th fingers as they naturally fall.
 
What about the RH – is there something challenging there? Definitely – that’s why it’s called ‘Skips’.
 
Now, create an exercise from the smallest fragment you can play, using the prompting questions above as a guide to find trouble spots. You might consider pulling these from what we looked at:
Look at your watch: give each exercise 3 minutes, then revisit your passage. What’s changed? Observe how you feel playing it. Can you observe your RH’s motion better during the 8? Is the shift now ingrained in your muscle memory?

Guitar + Meditation: Repetition and Focus

Many of my pieces are born out of repetition and focus.

I start my practice sessions connecting with my inner calm, and approach my practice sessions from a place of beginner’s minded discovery. What was the first time you played anything? I was so free. I want to get back there every time I make sound.

Start playing and notice where your hands go, without controlling them. Observe what happens. My muscle memory takes over, and I make something that sounds somewhere between spaghetti western, recitative, koto and space. Rhythm free. It takes me 5-10 minutes to warm up this way, then I can focus on some trance-inducing exercises.

I begin by playing through modes of the major scale, and really kind of wander around them, looking for patterns to percolate up that have the slightest inkling of musical value to my ears. I always give myself a small challenge to keep things fresh – lately, I work through the circle of 5ths in one position, so I might start on Bb ionian:

..then move to F in the same position

And so on. When I started out, I was shown to cycle through intervals and sequences in groups of 3 and 4, but I grew to apply that thinking with groups of 1 and 2 (great aid to learning where notes are on the neck), as well as 5 and 6 and on up.  Here are some verbose examples with this F scale:

Intervals:

Sequences:

Notes per string:

You get the idea – there are multiple approaches to playing with scale material which I permute with groupings of 1-6 (I usually stop there, but you need not). You will find something worthy of repeating and permuting with time spent. I will quickly find something deserves technical attention and needs to be played slower and with more presence of mind. In slowing it down, I will hone in on something to repeat, which leads to permutations, and ultimately to something resembling a piece of music.

I’ve writing a bunch of music this way, which I’ll be diving into here. For me, these scale fragments permute into something engaging for the ear and hand.

So: the takeaways for practice time:

  • Start by sitting and observing what you naturally do.
  • Begin to add structure with simple scale exercises.
  • Look for interesting things to focus on and repeat, then evolve these to new exercises.
  • Any of this, of course, can be fodder for new music.

Here’s the last one from my notebook:

Ballard Guitar Group: May 2017

Ben and the Guitar Group at The Chapel, May 2017. Photo by Rob Zverina

The first half of 2017 was a busy time for me as I delved deeper into composing for a group of electric guitars, culminating in Mandalas being performed as part of the UW’s Alumni Alchemy (we are all alchemists now – very validating). What did I learn?

  • Have a goal lined up, or interest dwindles (duh).
  • Tab everything out
  • The more the merrier in the case of this piece/anything where Ebows are concerned.

Those last two months leading into May were awesome, and after taking the summer off (mostly) we’re working on a new round of music, and I’ll be writing and sharing here as we continue. For now, check out two of the recordings we’ve got posted on my soundcloud page:

This is the original demo I cobbled together from home recordings:

Here we are at the Meany Theater at UW:

…and at the Chapel later that month:

and, finally, a shot of the group after our Chapel show.

Ballard Guitar Group at The Chapel, May 2017. Left to Right: Matt Wainwright, Joshua Kohl, John Featherstone, Jacqui Gilroy, Ambrose Nortness, Eric Amrine, Ben McAllister, Don Craig, Cassidy Williams, Jake Savin, Brian Heaney, Bob Crow

New Guitar Group Announcement

Hello!

I’m writing to you today to tell you about a group I’m forming. I’m hoping it’s something you, or someone you know, might be interested in: an ensemble of electric guitars, couched somewhere between:

Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose:

Glenn Branca’s Symphony 1:

Robert Fripp’s League / Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists:

and most of all Fred Frith’s Guitar Quartet:

If you’re someone who’s wanted to do some deep listening with other guitarists, if you’ve wanted to delve into the range of this instrument in a group setting, if you’ve wanted to play a different role in a group than you have before – this is your group.

I’ve been writing pieces for this ensemble over the last ten years, knowing I’d get it together when the time felt right. The first set of pieces we’ll dig into is a set of fairly minimal works I call Mandalas. They all start at a center, expand out to the edges, and retract back to a center. 4 movements of the larger work are demoed here:

You’ll notice some Ebow (http://www.ebow.com) work as well as some work (4th movement above) with a similar device created by Portland inventor Paul Vo, the Wond (http://www.paulvo.com/). I’ll be supplying Ebows to those who do not have them, and will work with each of you on technique if need be. I’m working on Mr. Vo to see if we can’t secure some of his experimental devices as well.

Performances:

I have one performance scheduled either May 25 and 26 at Good Shepherd Chapel in Seattle, and will be scheduling others once I know the size of my group and availability. I’m looking for at least 7 of you, and hoping for twice that.

Rehearsals:

Leading into May, I’m looking to rehearse twice a month, beginning the week of Feb 2/21. If you are interested, please respond – I look forward to hearing from you. I have a small space in Fremont which should accommodate us, but have access to bigger rehearsal space if need be.

Reading:

All parts will include tablature, so the majority of the reading will be around rhythm, dynamics and technical notes. Some of the pieces are challenging and we’ll want to be tight and practice on our own outside of rehearsals, but you won’t need to read any crazy busy passages without tab to help.

Thanks for reading!

If you are interested, let me know by emailing me at ben@listenfaster.com

If you know any interested guitarists – please pass the message on!

Ionisation

198478l

I remember hearing Ionisation for the first time in 10th grade. Zappa had crowed about Varèse and I must’ve picked that up somewhere.

I was baffled.

I bought the Robert Craft recording with the awesome Miro knockoff on the cover, all scratched to hell. There was a punk-rockness I felt that was way more powerful than anything I felt from Black Flag, fIREHOSE or Minor Threat (huge groups for me). This was ME, MINE, a sound only I knew. It was so noisy and disorganized to me initially, I was overloaded. I wish I could re-experience it now.

“By brute force, I will understand this,” I thought echoing in my mind Varèse’s call to arms: “the present day composer refuses to die.” I spun it another time, maybe 4 complete listens before I caved and put on something else. I tried repeatedly to penetrate the fog, only to identify favorite moments, the overall structure still elusive. Call in the big guns.

Meg Dezell, powerful shaman whose father toured with Brubeck, heard my plea for guidance. My orchestra teacher raised her eyebrows and chuckled, “that’s pretty difficult stuff. Not my thing at all, but there’s a score in the Norton Anthology.” She produced the tome I’d buy 3 years later for Music 101 at Shoreline Community College. “Try to count the beats in the bars as you listen.”

Bam.

That’s all I needed to hear.

When you hear a young person’s curious questions, hang out and answer them simply. This advice from my teacher was pivotal for me, a key unlocking every score I’d tried to follow. Varese had a beat, the rhythm was his blanket. Listen for the rhythm, identifying the layers, and you’re halfway there. The next step’s all about witnessing the counterpoints played by these layers (objects) and identifying how they make you feel, what they have you see.

Funhausen

An Oswaldian remix of The Stooges Fun House:

There’s something freeing in enforcing limitation. I’ve done a bunch of pieces where I restrict myself to a single loop or brief sample (https://listenfastermusic.bandcamp.com/track/anxious), and I guess I’ve always thought ‘remix’ was the wrong word. When I hear Reich take a fragment of an idea and expand, contract, vary, blend, mold and turn it inside out, it feels divorced and devoid from the original material. Here, bringing up the original material changes your frame of reference, adding a subliminal color to the listening experience. I could listen to Funhausen raw, power through the soundscape makeup and come out the other side fresh, not knowing the source. Listening to it on the way in, I’m standing on the original, hearing the difference in the tin bag guitar sound of the original and pulling a picture together that’s made up of what I hear on this disc, and what my ear memory supplies. Anyways, cool little EP.

fIREHOSE: Flyin’ the Flannel

I’ve spun this thing so many times. There’s something deeply poetic about these songs, their sequence. The whole is a sum of the parts, and these parts are strong. 

Back in 90, Watt surprised everyone I knew by signing to Columbia. SST had been going so strong for so long, it was hard to swallow an end to SST glory days, but Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, everyone SST was seeking greener pastures. f had released 2 killers back to back (Ragin + If’n), but fROMOHIO was weak to these ears. Felt slapped together. This was a return to form, a 2×4 to the head. 

I always heard this album in 3 acts. Listen along and see if you hear it too:

Act I: Rock tunes: Down w/the bass, Up Finnegan’s Ladder, Can’t Believe, including the singles. Is this classic A&R ‘start with the hits up front’ thinkin? Good tunes, then the mood swings.

Act II: Road tunes. If act one is getting out of bed and hitting the coffee, act two is hitting the road, crystallizing beautifully in ‘Too long’. 

Act III: Angular tunes: the last third is more Minutemen to my ears than anything they’d done at that point, ‘cept bits of Ragin. Maybe it’s just the energy in Ed we hadn’t heard before.  In my sequence, I cap Act 2 with Toolin, making Act 3 hold together a little more, but that’s just me.

This one rules.  

Gerard Grisey’s Le noir de l’etoile

Fans of Xenakis’s Pithoprakta need to listen to Gerard Grisey’s Le noir de l’etoile. In the late 50s, architect/composer Xenakis expressed what he heard and felt during his time in the Greek resistance, using deep math to generate his pieces, evoking (for me) rainfall, rocks caught in a strong current, bullets flying by ears and choirs of shouting voices.

This piece of Grisey’s, inspired by the discovery of pulsars, comes from similar sound world to my ears. Natural phenomena made flesh through notation, though I can’t say exaclty what phenomena yet. Beautiful piece – I can’t stop spinning it this week.  The Boston Globe wrote a great intro to this piece here.

Here’s Pithoprakta, in case you haven’t heard it:

Medicine Hat: Tri-Cities, 1994

I was guitarist for Medicine Hat, a Seattle rock band active in the 1990s during Seattle’s grungy mcGrunge period. Yuck I’ve always hated that word. Anyways – this is a little reflection on an awesome couple of years playing with my best friends.

Over the spring of ’93, our drummer and bass player convert a derelict moving truck into a tour van that sleeps 6, and things feel official. It’s the beginning of summer and we’re over the mountains, heading east to do another mini tour of the state: Yakima, Tri-cities, Spokane, maybe Boise. This time we’re in a van all our own, just like Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, the Police, etc. We’ll never have to borrow my parent’s station wagon again.

Flying east on 90 to the Tri-cities, we are headed for the Hoedown, which at the time brings to mind the music of Mule, Phleg Camp, and other noise-minded twangpunk bands we were listening to at the time. “We” meaning everyone but our singer Sean, who would recoil in horror at the first sign of Phleg Camp. Hoedown means country to us, and we’re not sure whether we’ll be welcomed by kids or a rain of beer bottles like in the Blues Brothers.

Anyone from Washington will tell you it’s two states for two reasons. There’s the Red and the Blue, divided by ideology and politics, and the wet and the dry, divided by the Cascades. We leave the Seattle cloud cover ceiling, cross Snoqualmie and hit glorious sun. We’d played with Tri-Cities superstars Small a few times so we’re probably playing their tape with ‘Legalize It’. It’ll be a flat few hours’ drive to the southeast corner.

We pull into the club and it’s hot. 90s and dry. Unload and grab food. I nerd out reading Carlos Castenada in our van for maybe 30 minutes, and emerge to see two parking lots full of people and cars, sneaking beers and joints. A cop hangs nearby.

I split a bottle of cheap wine with a few folks who drove from Seattle to see us. I walk in to play and my clothes are immediately soaked with sweat. I’m dropping my fogged up guitar but manage to put it on. I’m 6 feet tall and clumsy, and I’ve got maybe 6 inches of headroom until I hit ceiling. Not so bad, perhaps, because it’s carpeted, though craft-minded instrumentalists have woven coiled bits of broken guitar string everywhere. I’ve also got hair down to my ass at this point in life, and by end of set “rocking out” has tangled me in the carpeted-ceiling-string mess. We have to cut a chunk of my hair off to liberate me from the stage.

Next up is Tchkung: the unique and awesome. Multiple drummers wrapped bass and maybe guitar in tribal calls to action, always pro-earth.

YOU CLEAR CUT?
DUNga DUNga dun DUN.
WE SPIKE!
YOU CLEAR CUT?
DUNga DUNga dun DUN.
WE SPIKE! was my favorite. An expanded show awaited hungry anarchists this time, as there was a firebreather joining in. In a small sweaty club with very low ceilings.

I pull my stuff out to our van and load back up, sit inside for a moment, take some more wine and listen to the Tchkungdrums through the van wall. There is a break in the sound. Power outage? A lengthy enviro-sermon from the stage? The parking lot is full again with people and the cops have brought reinforcements. The fire breath had caught the ceiling carpet on fire and the show was over. Or paused – I can’t remember. You see, I read too much and often miss out on things like this.

-=-=-

Later that year, we’re invited to play with Treepeople and Engine Kid down in the Tri-cities. Treepeople are too big for Hoedowns, so we’re rocking a giant tent in a dormant state fairgrounds. We’ve got company this time in Jeff the photographer, Dave Lights, and a gorgeous woman named Runhilde, who will later turn up as vocal gymnast lead singer of Thorr’s Hammer with one of the Engine Kid (and later Sunn O))) fellas.

We’ve got a full house to play to, but my amp dies. After scouring the Tri-cities area for tubes, I return empty-handed. Treepeople let me play through their Treeamp though so all’s well. There’s a healthy crowd for us, which is lucky – we are the opener, and they like us.

The Engine Kid hits the stage next, a trio. They quietly sing through the first verse of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, and we have to stop talking to hear the singer in this boomy space. “…never saw an eagle flyyyyyy, rocky mountain….. BBBAAAAMMMMMMMMM.” The wall of sound that accompanies the chorus on ‘High’ melts our faces off. Cool. No wonder we were the openers. Treepeople ruled, but Engine Kid stuck with me.

Being an all ages show, we had some super drunk kids on our hands at the end. Drummer Jason, ever the pure soul, opted to drive em home on our way out of town. In school he’d written a paper on the ‘evils of alcohol’, cinched tight with the closing line “our children are being herded into an alcohol ranch of no return”. He hits every kid with this line as we drive them, one-by-one, home to their parents.

Medicine Hat – I AM from listen faster on Vimeo.