Technical Notes on "Frozen in Profile"

Double exposure of small dog and blurred person
single art for "Frozen in Profile" (accidental double exposure from my first film roll)

To be honest, I could not exactly remember the concrete formal or emotional motivation at the time of writing the episode of music that's known as "Frozen in Profile" on my upcoming album. All I could recall offhand was that I did sketch out the material during the apex of the lockdown months of the pandemic in 2020, roughly mid-March through May and early June. 

It was three years ago today (on Friday the 13th, 2020) that I texted my friend Walter and we decided not to go see a friend's show at a local bar out of an abundance of caution; that weekend, everything closed and everything shut down in the city more or less on Monday, if I remember correctly.

All that to say that those few months moved by in a strange time-warped blur, which inevitably colors the musical material in a similar way. At the time, I remember the feeling of deep uncertainty about when I'd get to play music with other people again, so one source of relief from the anxiety was digging into the recordings of Charlie Parker–incredible documents of improvised music played at the highest level of excellence and feeling–while another was sketching out musical spaces purely from imagination, which became From All This Stillness

Fortunately, I took notes and was able to decipher some of the scribblings from this period. It looks like I was interested in creating a flowing extended piece that had a main idea connecting a series of episodes that act as brief tangents, which each depart from the main idea ultimately return to it and the primary narrative thrust of the piece. 

Other points of interest:

  • "specific sonorities with sufficient ringing/sounding" [in order to make] "space for swing, but also mixed meter and formal invention"
  • "specific voice-leading"
  • "enough specificity/ambiguity for improvisation"
In essence, I was trying to strike a balance between distinctive composed musical entities or sounds and leaving room for improvisation and for musical personalities (my friends/collaborators) to interpret, explore, and transform.

Chicken scratch from the sketches, dated April 12, 2020:

At the top of my first page of notes, I wrote "tonic to subdominant & back," with a G7 chord pointing to a C7 and back again:

I'm sure this was partly motivated by studying the music of Mark Turner, who told me in a lesson that his piece "Sonnet for Stevie" was partially inspired by the motion of tonic to subdominant (a harmonic move we associate deeply with American blues music, not to mention lots of Western classical applications), and I think I basically alit on this idea, but for my own long, abstract compositional dive.

As you can see above, I described the main idea as "ascending, flowing arpeggios," writing out a lot of stacked 3rd shapes that have somewhat ambiguous tonality by virtue of being so stretched out, but whose interior tensions give them a character (at the very least, some point along the spectrum of dissonant and consonant, or feeling settled or less settled). I wrote a brief bass melody made up of 9 notes organized in groups of 3, which roughly outlines the shape of a subdominant moving to a tonic (albeit the tonic is dominant also):

It's sort of like G7, G7b9, and D7 (taken in groups of threes), so it could be IV, IV7b9, I7, or it could also be I7, I7b9, and V7 (strange progression), but purposely ambiguous although not totally random. I transposed the same line into the key of C, lopped off the last note and altered the end slightly to tie it back to the original, and that became the grounding bass motif that counterbalances the ascending arpeggio motif—the latter perpetually threatening to kite off into the clouds, the former tethering the chains of pitches to a basically tonal foundation (with some ambiguity).

This moment I just described is essentially the middle of "Frozen in Profile," which originally happened in the middle of the piece rather than as the opening of the suite. Ultimately after recording the movements, I sequenced the episodes by the dramatic logic of the music rather than the core pre-written material, as the atmospheres and dynamics produced by myself, Dana, Simón, and Matt trumped the loose narrative arc that I'd constructed (or rather used as a scaffold for completing the individual movements).

The opening of the piece (and the record as a whole) is saxophone playing high over a contrapuntal section of simple triads in the treble and a rhythmically contrasting bass line, which contains fragments and intervals from the original bass melody above. It's a bit too convoluted (and probably unhelpful) to fully explain here, but the triads are re-voiced from a harmonization of triads that are themselves generated different sequential three note groupings of the bass line (e.g. G-F-D, F-D-Ab, D-Ab-B, etc.) and the bass line's pitch inversion starting on C (subdominant) instead of G. 

I had some rhythmic formula for the triads, basically a sequence of long and short pulses in a long syncopated line, which comes up elsewhere in the piece (notably the piano and saxophone solo moments of "Interior Choruses" and the beginning of "Ghosts of Repetition"), and that seems to emerge in the piano part here, although less syncopated and more sustained for each sonority. The bass part has a repeating figure using different subdivisions that don't land together with the treble part at any time, which is by design.

When I started, the groups were quarter note quintuplets, half note triplets, and quarter notes.

Of course, I was unable to resist the temptation to make things more complicated, so I rephrased them in the actual piece as a bar of 4, a bar of 15/16, and a bar of 9/8:

This happens twice before the bass switches into a simpler pattern (half notes) and the chords also space out into half note triplets and dotted quarters. Less rhythmically "dissonant," and harmonically less dissonant as well so as to provide some relief:

Seymour Euge, a trusted associate, was listening in the control room and suggested sticking to the highest registers of the horn for this section, which I think was a great strategy: it lets the doubled bass line figure emerge more into the foreground while giving an airy, spacious quality to the proceedings—sort of like being carried aloft in the clouds to a distant kingdom.

The aforementioned ascending arpeggios and bass melody section happens afterwards as a statement of theme for From All This Stillness, which then abruptly transitions to a development of the previously loose arpeggio idea to a more rhythmically structured version alternating at different speeds and doubled by the saxophone and piano.

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"Frozen in Profile," the first single from From All This Stillness, is streaming everywhere starting Friday, March 17, 2023.