Technical Notes on "Origin Story"

Abstract black and white painting for "Origin Story" single
Artwork by Sharif Anthony for "Origin Story"

I composed "Origin Story" in early February 2018 while deep in the throes of my Lester Young immersion period, which lasted for several years as I found myself magnetically drawn to the playing of Pres. 

Originally, I envisioned writing an album's worth of music inspired by Lester Young (similar to what I ended up doing with <3 Bird during the pandemic), but of the few pieces I did manage to write at that time (including "Bad Lady" and "Facsimilate"), I think "Origin Story" was perhaps the most literal and compositionally straightforward of those. 

With an unstoppable conviction in the power of Lester Young's rhythmic line and casually elegant melodic sense, I figured: what would happen if I tried playing the solo backwards? Not literally backwards, but keeping the integrity of the original rhythmic phrasing (i.e. the melodic rhythms) and just reversing the sequence of pitches? 

Sheet music of "Shoeshine Boy" first chorus melodic rhythm

Sheet music of "Shoeshine Boy" second chorus melodic rhythm

I thought it might sound terrible, but I was curious, and ultimately the strength of the rhythmic line wins out, preserving the narrative logic of the original story while recasting it with a strange arc of pitches that sound familiar, but don't quite meet our syntactical conventions. It's almost like hearing an obscure dialect of your native tongue, where you can make out bits and pieces, but it still feels foreign on the whole.

By reversing the order of pitches, you still get the graceful curving lines of the original "Shoeshine Boy," albeit placed often in rhythmically unexpected places, which was part of what I found charming and inspiring for improvisation in this compositional experiment.

Sheet music of "Shoeshine Boy" first chorus pitches (prime/original sequence)

Sheet music of "Shoeshine Boy" first chorus pitches (retrograde/reverse sequence)

To clarify, the head-in is the first chorus of the master take of "Shoeshine Boy" with pitches reversed, while the out-head is the second chorus. If I had really wanted to adhere to the formal scheme, I could have reversed the pitches of the entire solo starting from the end of the second chorus and assign them to the melodic rhythms from the beginning, but for whatever reason I decided not to. 

Sheet music of "Shoeshine Boy" second chorus pitches (prime/original sequence)

Sheet music of "Shoeshine Boy" second chorus pitches (retrograde/reverse sequence)

I think I didn't want to push it too far, maybe, since doing so would further abstract the relation of the pitches to the rhythmic line beyond what I was doing for a single chorus, and I decided to end the piece with the second chorus rather than ending at the "true" origin point because the end of the second chorus sounds more conclusive than that of the first chorus.

The last step was the most (or perhaps only) creative and intuitive portion, which was harmonizing the new melody. I mostly kept it diatonic with some chromatic movements here and there, and I made use of the surprising melodic motion in the rhythmic placement of the bass counterpoint.  

PDF of "Origin Story" technical notes

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"Origin Story," the first single for Mute's second album, After You've Gone, is streaming everywhere as of February 2, 2024.