Generations (2009)

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Liner Notes:

Generations is a continuation down the musical road that began with Mirror (2006). The idea in mind was, and is, to create forms for improvisation that imitate aspects of the natural world: growth patterns, organic proportions, symmetry, polarity, gravity, momentum, recursiveness, the harmonic series, the wave forms of melody, the rhythmic cycles of life. Of course these ideas are not new: they have been explored in music and art since ancient times. The goal of this music is to look at ways that the blend of composition and improvisation might be able to mirror the balance of order and chaos found in nature. The first album, Mirror, was a kind of survey of many different possible directions, and Generations is a close look at a very few of them. While Mirror focused on rhythmic cycles, Generations focuses on harmonic cycles. A small number of guiding principles are the seeds which “generate” the forms and sounds. Like siblings with the same DNA, the compositions are all related, but not the same. In reality, the genetic material of this music lies in visual shapes and symbols, which can be seen in the accompanying illustrations

In an effort to convey the natural energy, sound, and spirit of the performance, Generations was recorded in a continuous hour-long take. There are no overdubs, no breaks, and no studio or electronic effects. The goal was to capture an hour of time on tape, and hear how that hour was filled with sound on one particular day. The hope is that the listener can feel the natural progression of a live performance. Someone expecting a “guitar” record may be surprised to find that, while there are a few guitar solos, the focus here is on group dynamics and interplay, rather than guitar technique or any particular notion of a “leader.” The performance by seven musicians on this album represents one cycle of life of a handful of musical seeds, the birth and death of a organism. The nature of improvised music ensures that each succeeding generation of this creature will have its own character and purpose.

About the Compositions

(These notes are somewhat technical, but can be understood by non-musicians).

1. “Overture”: The opening begins with a contracting and expanding rhythmic phrase in the shape of an hourglass. The hoursglass represents time, both in duration (an hour, the length of this record), and in the sense of setting time in motion. The double triangular form symbolizes the creation of world through the union of male and female energy, manifest as sound. Much of the music here is involved in seeing how musical forms look at different scales of magnification. The process of visually zooming out is somewhat similar to acceleration in music. In both cases, you lose detail, but gain a wider perspective. The hourglass drum phrase in this case speeds up and goes through several transformations as it is seen in less and less detail. The entrance of the horns introduces the harmonic theme for the rest of the album, which is a set of interlocking triads that together form the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Here, the melody is a made of symmetrically arranged pentatonic scales.

2. “Sun”: The Sun provides the energy for that allows life to exist. The rising of the sun signals the beginning of the song cycle, and the bringing to life of a single performance, or generation, of this cycle. The previous rhythmic figure leads into the entrance of the main composition, a rotating sphere of symmetrical tonality, which the other compositions orbit around. Any four consecutive triads make twelve tones.
(Improvisation by Miles Okazaki)

3. “Waves”: Waves exist everywhere where there is cyclic activity: In the motion of water, in our heartbeat, in sound and light. In Quantum Mechanics, it is shown that particles have a wave-nature, and vice versa. In fact, any object that we think of as solid actually has a wavelength as well, but in large objects like humans, it is practically undetectable. This composition is a meditation on this dual nature. A fixed set of rhythmic tiles operating in time is expressed in a melodic wave-nature, phasing through a 16 beat cycle until the final conjunction of the two orbiting structures signals the ending. The cycle moves constantly through four triads that make twelve tones.
(Improvisations by Miguel Zenon, Christof Knoche, David Binney, in that order)

4. “Magic”: Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While this idea usually refers to an encounter with something from an alien or futuristic civilization, it may be possible as well that humans in ancient civilizations had technologies that would seem like magic to us. The Chinese Lo Shu, or “Magic Square,” is an arrangement of the numbers 1-9 in a square that, according to legend, was found approximately 5,000 years ago on the back of a turtle emerging from the river Lo by the emperor Yu. The numbers add up to 15 in each row, column, and diagonal. The rhythmic form of this song is nine phrases which are played in each of these eight directions, making 15 beats each time. Harmonically, any four triads in any direction make twelve tones.
(Improvisations by Jen Shyu, Dan Weiss)

5. “Generations”: Generations is a word with many meanings: the products of a creative or procreative act, the cycle in life of an organism, the revisions and improvements on a single idea or product, a group of people living at the same time or in the same culture. As improvising musicians, we learn our instruments and theory from earlier generations of players, we generate compositions based on this tradition and what our place is in it, and improvisations are the spontaneous generations of the mind and body in real time. This composition is generated by the interaction of two musical seeds, rhythmic and harmonic, as they grow together into one tangled organism. The rhythmic figure from “Magic” zooms out (accelerates) and becomes pulse for “Generations,” as four bars become four beats. Drums and guitar form one rhythmic machine that plays a continuous polyrhythm of 3, 4 and 5. Chromatic voice leading from one triad to another creates accents, generating a structure that is rotating harmonically and rhythmically. The destination triads at the end of each voice-leading passage make twelve tones. This resulting texture is the form for improvisation.
(Improvisation by Miguel Zenon)

6. “Ghosts”: Ghosts lie on the boundary the visible and invisible. There are also musical ghosts, phantom melodies and rhythms, that are percieved but not necessarily heard by the ear. One example of this is the phenomena of combination tones, which produce a third pitch that is perceived as the difference of their two frequencies. Another example would be the ghost notes played within a melody or groove that serve to lock musicians to each other rhythmically. A bass introduction brings in the theme. Here the melody is a twelve-tone line which stacked on top of itself in canonic form makes major and minor triads, that are themselves twelve-tone collections in any direction. After the saxophone solo, the canon begins with three alto saxophones. Accents between the three horns in the texture generate a third “ghost” melody, doubled by guitar and voice. From this point until the end of the album, David Binney is heard on the left, Miguel Zenon on the right, and Christof Knoche in the middle.
(Improvisations by Jon Flaugher, Christof Knoche, Miles Okazaki)

7. “Fractal”: A fractal is an object that shows self-similarity at many levels of magnification. The musical version of this could be a melody that sounds the same in different speeds. In 1959, Composer Per Norgard began writing compositions based on his discovery of the “infinity series,” a sequence of numbers that is self-similar on several levels. That is, small events and structures are contained within larger copies of themselves, and so on into infinity. The effect musically is something that changes depending on how you decide to listen to it, because there are several different clocks running at different speeds. Based on this idea, an infinite “series” was created for this song to use binary and ternary self-similarity. That is, when you play every second note of the original melody, it generates a melody the same as the original (at half the speed), playing every third note of the melody creates the same melody again (at one third the speed), every fourth note, sixth note, eighth note, twelfth note, and so on. After a slow exposition of the whole melody, it is played in time, and the overlapping speeds enter in turn, from slow speeds to fast. The harmony is a series of triads that make twelve tones in various ways.
(lyrics by Jen Shyu, Group improvisation)

8. “Break”: Twilight is the time of day just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sky is transitioning between light and dark. Existing on this border between day and night, twilight is another boundary area (see “Ghosts”). This time of day has many names (the blue hour, the gloaming, the crepuscule), and it is often associated with mysterious phenomena like will-o’-the-wisps and ghost lights. In the cycle of compositions that makes up this album, this is the onset of evening twilight, as we step over the boundary into the night. The drum break that makes up this track continues where “Overture” left off, marking the end of the day, and the rising of the Moon.
(Improvisation by Dan Weiss)

9. “Moon”: The symbolism of Sun and Moon runs through every culture throughout all human history. Sun and Moon are cosmological symbols of the polarities that are all around us: positive/negative, male/female, light/dark, yang/yin. The rising of the moon signals the end of the performance.
The Moon is visible to us because it reflects light from the Sun, and the rotating twelve-tone harmony of “Sun” is reflected in this composition. 144 pulses are grouped into self-similar rhythmic golden proportions, played in wave-shaped melodies. The theme from “Sun” returns on top of this texture, and generates the hourglass rhythmic chant that continues to the end, winding down as time runs out. The figure slows down, “zooming in” so that we can hear more detail. The final phrase is the clave pattern that has been heard many times in the preceding compositions. This same phrase is also the rhythmic theme of the previous song cycle, Mirror.
(Improvisation by David Binney)

About the Artwork:

The artwork for Generations is a continuation of the method that was used for Mirror (2006). The idea is similar to “subtractive drawing,” where erasures are made on a dark surface (such as paper covered with a layer of charcoal) to create the light areas of the image. In the images for this project, the drawings are made freehand with a fine pen (.2 mm) with black ink on white paper. Then the image is scanned, inverted (so that dark becomes light), and hand-colored with the computer. Many of the drawings use layers, where each element is made separately and then assembled together. Here is one layer, from panel 3:

unifinished and finished drawing

unifinished and finished drawing

In imagining the reverse image, where the black ink marks will eventually become the highlights, the idea is to start with a negative, essentially “drawing with light,” a process technically similar to photography and film. Since so many people see artwork now with projected light (usually a computer screen) as opposed to reflected light (in a book, a museum), it seemed to make sense to use projected light as the actual medium for the artwork.

Panels 1-8:

The eight illustrations for Generations form a visual loop. The theme is magnification: moving forward through the series is equivalent to zooming out, where each image is contained in the one that follows. Moving backward is equivalent to zooming in, where each image is a closeup of some part of the one that preceded it. Moving forward through each panel, it could be described like this:

Tree with Sun, Moon, and single leaf.

Tree with Sun, Moon, and single leaf.

The tree and its surroundings become the pupil and iris of the eye.

The tree and its surroundings become the pupil and iris of the eye.

The same eye is looking through the window.

The same eye is looking through the window.

The window is part of a structure.

The window is part of a structure.

The structure stands in a landscape.

The structure stands in a landscape.

The landscape is seen from above the clouds, during an eclipse.

The landscape is seen from above the clouds, during an eclipse.

The landscape, clouds, and eclipse are contained in a drop of water.

The landscape, clouds, and eclipse are contained in a drop of water.

The drop of water is clinging to the bottom of a leaf.

The drop of water is clinging to the bottom of a leaf.

The leaf is clinging to the bottom of the tree from the first image.

The leaf is clinging to the bottom of the tree from the first image.

– Miles Okazaki, 2009, NYC