Map of Trees

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A forest of notes and sounds in an album exploring the limits of what it means to play the piano. Original 'comprovisations' involve playing on the keys, inside the piano, and in duet with a computer. The genre lines of jazz and classical tangle in a new, 21st-century jungle of music.

If you are an interested pianist with access to a piano that you can torture, please contact me for the score and computer files.

Map of Trees is a concert work for solo piano, using extended techniques and free improvisation. It consists of 9 different movements which can be performed in almost any order. The scores for each movement allow and call for a high degree of improvisation.

Several of the pieces in the set - "Ashtottara Shatanama" "Spring Tension Rites" "Copse Circuits" are for prepared piano (combs, screws and door stops alter the sounds of the strings across the range of the keyboard). In "Taiga Liturgy" mechanical pencils are ritualistically rearranged inside the piano. "Fruit, Tree, Flesh" calls for muting the strings inside the piano with one hand while playing the keyboard with the other. "Monky Business" and "Dendrochronology" have more traditionally notated lead sheets but both contain wild free-form solos. The titular "Map of Trees" takes its minimal notation - a few rhythms and squiggly lines, the barest indication of textures - and transforms it into a virtuosic display. The three parts of "Slivers of Crystal Forest" use sampled piano sounds in different ways to create a hyper-piano duet with a computer.

Full track-by-track liner notes here!

Artwork design by R Michael Wahlquist. Cover photo courtesy of koko-stock.

Map of Trees

About a decade ago I wrote a journal entry that consisted entirely of the words “build a better piano.” In some ways Map of Trees is a fulfillment of that ambition, but rather than start from scratch, I've taken a grand piano and added my own extensions. As my Master's thesis composition project, Map of Trees allowed me to combine my undergraduate studies in Jazz.

When I got glasses in fourth grade and realized that trees were more than green smudges, I was touched by the intricate and infinitely varied patterns of branches and leaves. Around the same time I was just beginning to love playing the piano. There was that moment as a teen when I stopped seeing the keyboard as an intimidating jumble of black and white and instead saw it as a playground for the imagination. Over time I have expanded this playground to the insides of the piano. Now when I sit down at the piano, it feels like a familiar neck of the woods through which an any number of paths can be taken. The goal of Map of Trees is to somehow share this simultaneous sense of exploration and clarity.

The task of mapping trees is incredibly impractical and never complete. Every year trees are chopped down and planted. Every year they grow taller and wider. Sometimes they are trimmed or reduced to stumps. The more detailed the map, the more quickly it becomes dated, especially in the case of a photographic satellite view. In that case the “map” becomes simply a moment frozen in time. Map of Trees exists as a living concert work, recording it is preserving a sliver of time, the way it was once, no quite the way it is today but somehow related.

When I first started playing and composing this set, I felt sympathy with the would-be cartographers of trees. My challenge was to compose a score for each movement that would both capture its essence and circumscribe the bounds of improvisation. Like different specimens of the same species of tree, certain key traits will always be recognizable even as countless details differ. To me that is the beauty of this project - there is no definitive Map of Trees, but the forest is regrown with every performance. This recording captures various moments in the work's evolution from January - March 2013. Perhaps a few years down the road it will be time to revisit the forest and see what has grown in the meantime.

Notes by Track:

1. Ashtottara Shatanama

I often warm up on the piano with an improvised “prayer” consisting of chords. With this texture in mind I first composed this piece as a musical equivalent of the prayer labyrinths found in certain parts of the world – a winding, irregular path to spiritual centering. The original score consisted of moveable magnetic sections that could be arranged to create many different performances. For this version I have created a graphic score depicting 108 trees of different varieties, in groupings of 1, 2, 3 4, 6, or 9, enclosed in sections of sections of various sizes. The title refers to a Hindu practice of reciting 108 different names of God.

2. Spring Tension Rites

After creating the preparations for Ashtottara Shatanama, I wanted to play around with them in other ways. If Ashtottara Shatanama is a chorale, then spring tension rites is a fantasia – a free improvisation over the given piano preparations. What defines this movement from performance to performance is the variety of sounds of the prepared piano and the general concepts illustrated in the score - 'event - response - ascent - decay - ostinato - interruption.' This setup provides a wild garden of sounds that are explored in a free improvisation that is different with each expedition.

3. Copse Circuits

This movement explores the idea of sectional form within an otherwise improvised structure. A copse is a small group of trees, represented in the score by the different boxes containing instructions. The circuits are the arrows that connect the boxes. The resulting maze structure shapes the piece in a way that will be self-similar but infinitely different with each performance. As a companion piece to Ashtottara Shatanama and Spring Tension Rites, Copse Circuits provides yet another way of exploring the exotic sounds that result from the prepared piano.

4. Monky Business

Influenced by Thelonious Monk, Monky Business is a rather straight-ahead jazz tune, albeit one with quirky rhythms and meters. After playing the head more or less as written, I take a rather free solo that is not so much over the chord changes of the tune as influenced by them, a practice Ornette Coleman called "harmolodic improvisation." During the solo, the score becomes a garden of ideas for the improviser. Chords, snippets of melody, rhythmic gestures and any other elements of the score can be plucked out to be developed and cultivated. The title Monky Business suggests a certain amount of playfulness as well. I particularly enjoy finding different ways of returning surprisingly-yet-inevitably to a reprise of the tune.

5. Fruit, Tree, Flesh

The title refers to the Garden of Eden – the fruit that opened Adam and Eve’s eyes, the Tree of Life that was put out of their reach, and their exodus from the Garden as they became mortal flesh. This story is the most meaningful to me as I think of how it represents a symbolic progression in each person’s life – knowledge gained, innocence lost, and opportunity opened. This movement is divided into three distinct sections, all of which involve playing on and inside the piano simultaneously, muting the strings to create a variety of startling sounds. For each section a collection of pitches is given, along with a technique of muting the strings.

6. Dendrochronology

The title refers to the study of the annual rings of trees. These rings help to determine the age of a tree. They can also reveal information such as whether or not the winter was hard that year, or the rainfall plentiful. In this movement time can seem to stretch out and be distorted by the lengthy repetitions. The central solo becomes a moment of change, a new way to mark the passing of time.

7. Taiga Liturgy

Over the Thanksgiving break of 2012 I took to tormenting my parents’ piano with mechanical pencils in as many ways as I could think of, tallying a list dozens of methods long. Gradually these experiments formed into a piece, bringing to mind the brief but cohesive movements of the Orthodox liturgy services. Taiga is the type of dense evergreen forest covering the northern parts of the world.

The score has no notes but consists of a series of 'rituals' to be performed with pencils inside the piano. Performers are instructed: "Perform each RITUAL with a sense of ceremony, solemnity, and just a touch of the manic. Each RITUAL may be elaborated beyond the given instructions, although some have a naturally more transitory nature. No RITUAL should last for more than 60 seconds." Naturally, precautions are taken to avoid damage to the piano.

The censer of incense sways - The ashes fall - The depth of the font is sounded - The first circle dance is joined - The candles are lit - The second circle dance is joined - The old one speaks - The children and the birds sing in tongues - The bells all ring.

8. Map of Trees

The more I have played through this loose map around the keyboard, the more I have stretched the boundaries of the score. Like a forest growing, the work is still essentially the same, but with new interludes popping up here, textures becoming thicker there, the basic ideas soaring higher and reaching further.

9, 10, 11. Slivers of a Crystal Forest

One way of looking at this set of movements is as a one-man duet; another would be to say that it aims towards creating a “hyper-piano.” Pre-recorded piano samples are mashed together in the program RTcmix and played in various mutations as the program code is manipulated live on a laptop placed on the piano, with speakers placed inside the piano. The first section, Rooted Sentinels, features lower, inside-the-piano textures; In the Thick uses the computer to create complex rhythms to accompany an improvised melody; Fractal Leaves uses rapid and even granularized textures. All three may be played as one continuous movement or broken into three separate movements. The electronic samples are all taken from recorded piano sounds.

The title again refers to the taiga of the north. In an inexplicably powerful experience, I was mesmerized for hours while riding a bus across Russia and looking out the window at endless tracts of forest covered in snow and ice. The feeling was one of numerical infinity similar to the way the scriptures refer to the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky – countless trees, countless branches, countless crystals of ice.

I. Rooted Sentinels: A thousand concentric rings bear witness: these dark trunks keep watch from age to age.
II. In the Thick: No straight path lies under the canopy, only a winding way between the looming shafts.
III. Fractal Leaves: I will multiply thy seed as the leaves of the forest.