here we are, then, on the cusp of another year, 2013 is over, seemingly in a flash, while 2014 is about to begin: and with it, my second major classical work, “providence suite” which has now been published on bandcamp – on the newest eternal album, “classical”, available for your listening and downloading pleasure. if you read my last blog entry, you will know about the music for this project; it was meant to be a collaboration between John Orsi and myself, but, this was one project that was fated not to be, at least not in the collaborative sense that it was originally intended.
the seven new pieces that make up “providence suite” join my only-just-released first-ever classical work, which was a piece written on the guitar synthesizer and released earlier this year (2013), “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar”, from the dave stafford eternal album, “classical”. originally known here on the blog as “the orsi-stafford project”, at some point during the work in 2012, after some months and some deliberation, John and I had agreed that our new band should be called “providence” – so – “providence”, the band, was born, from our collaborative / collective imaginations.
when I heard the sad news of John’s untimely passing earlier this month, I felt even more determined to see if I could complete and finish my “providence” demos – which consist of two fruitful days’ recording in the studio, back in march, 2012. so over the 2013 christmas holidays, I sat down for another two days, and had a good look at the material. these two sessions done three weeks apart during march 2012, over the past week or so, with 2013 winding down and 2014 looming on the horizon, have captivated my attention and my ear; the music has somehow, almost magically, transformed from two (rather large and somewhat daunting) batches of unrealised tracks into a substantial piece of classical music: “providence suite” by dave stafford (music inspired by the band “providence”). I was surprised (and still am, if truth be told) at both the quantity and the quality of the music, I remember being satisfied with it at the time, but I had forgotten exactly what was there…musical buried treasure.
inspired by our discussions and plans for the band, I sat down to record “sketches” for John to listen to and consider, so he could listen to what music I was thinking of for the project, from which he could then work out what his percussion goals for the album were, and respond with sketches of his own. the bulk of the demos for “providence suite” were played by myself on the keyboard, for the first two movements, on march 4, 2012, and for movements three through seven, from (what became) the final “providence” demo session on march 24, 2012.
since I am known primarily as an ambient looping guitarist, I didn’t want to sit down and create lots of really beautiful, but perhaps, predictable ambient music, it seemed too easy: I could just set up my guitar, and create a bunch of ebow loops (which, I now realise, I’ve been making for over 25 years…sigh), and send them away to John. so I decided to purposefully do something unexpected: instead of doing what was comfortable / expected / easy – instead, I played the piano. and, stranger still, I wrote classical themes, instead of ambient or rock or pop.
such an ambitious move might well have backfired, but good fortune smiled on me; my many years of self-taught piano playing stood me in good stead (not to mention my fortunate / apparent / ability [??] to improvise without rehearsal or plan!) – the two sessions went very well indeed. of course, if you are known as a guitarist, ambient or rock, what you do is…play classical piano? well, strange though that idea may seem – it worked out quite well in the end.
so, I set up my MIDI grand piano in the now-familiar way, with more than one sound output; so I could have a choice of grand piano, and various mellotron “versions” of the pieces, with which to later build the album. I then sat down and played – and for the most part, with some minor editing, what you hear in “providence suite” is exactly what I sat down and played.
played extemporaneously, I might add – for example, “grace”, is compiled from a series of 16 takes of the same evolving theme, with a number of mini-musical-themes within those 16 takes, originally, it was three mini-themes: takes 1 and 2 were “theme I”; takes 3 and 4 were “theme II”; takes 5 through 15 were “theme III”; while take 16 was my attempt to incorporate all three themes into one single take – certain piano phrases, chord changes, and melodies that repeat in different configurations, as the takes…and hence the resulting movement…progress.
when it came time to assemble the piece, it just sounded “right” with all of the variations intact (the original plan had been to use the “best” takes – but what do you do when all sixteen tracks seem to be…”best”?. you publish them all…of course!) 🙂
so, the movement consists of all 16 takes, in sequence, in the order that they appeared – simply “tacked together”. I merely “closed up the spaces” between the takes – and that was the movement – “grace”– it could not have been simpler.
this is an example of myself composing classical music on the fly, and luckily, with the recorder running; but at the same time, it’s a glimpse at the creative process, too; with each take, I am improving the themes, testing out alternate ideas, and generally perfecting the themes on the fly, as I was playing them. the takes for “movement no. 1 – grace” start out fairly basic, and then they grow and grow, and then for the final take, take 16, I attempted to reiterate each of the three mini-themes within the session all in one take – so that take does a wonderful job of recapitulating the 15 takes that went before, and was the perfect way to conclude the movement, too.
using both the piano tracks and the various mellotron variations, the music recorded in the first session, on march 4th, could then be assembled into the first two movements, “movement no. 1 – grace” and “movement no. 2 – redemption”. “grace” is strictly solo grand piano, to clearly establish the themes using a familiar instrument; while “redemption” (which uses 17 iterations of the same 16 takes from grace, re-configured) restates those themes using the various mellotron voices and piano, including some unusual-sounding voices such as “after glow”, along with the more traditional, and more easily-recognisable, string and choir voices.
originally, there were four main keyboard themes, which shared two titles (“grace” – representing the march 4th session; “providence” – representing the march 24th session) – so originally, themes one and two, from march 4th, were “grace”, and themes three and four, from march 24th, were “providence”. in the end, while I was assembling the pieces, and realising that I had a lot more viable material than I at first thought, I expanded the titles to seven distinct movements, which incorporate the four original themes.
when I read the above paragraph back, it seems a bit unclear ! so perhaps the simplest way to clarify it, is to draw a mapping from “theme” to “movement”:
providence demo session – march 4th, 2012:
themes I & II “movement no. 1 – grace” (solo grand piano themes) – from 16 sequential takes total (essentially a live performance, with some minor edits)
themes I & II “movement no. 2 – redemption” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 17 iterations total (from 16 takes)
providence demo session – march 24th, 2012:
theme III “movement no. 3 – providence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 13 takes total – including. from march 4th, one short excerpt from theme I and one short excerpt from theme II – which neatly ties together all of the themes from march 4th into the “providence” movement (the only movement to contain music from both the march 4th and the march 24th sessions)
theme IV “movement no. 4 – atonement” (live performance – takes 1 through 5 of theme IV) – 5 of 9 takes total
theme IV “movement no. 5 – purity” (live performance – takes 6 through 9 of theme IV) – 4 of 9 takes total
theme IV “movement no. 6 – perfection” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 1 through 5) – based on the same live performance as “atonement” – 5 of 9 takes total
theme IV “movement no. 7 – transcendence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 6 through 9) – based on the same live performance as “purity” – 4 of 9 takes total
the themes were originally intended to be first piano; then piano and after glow mellotron; and then, finally, a combination of those two plus additional choir / electric piano tracks, which were recorded live / direct from the output of my MIDI keyboard (using it’s very high quality internal voices).
however, thanks to some relentless digital noise (a constant problem with “pops” that plagued my studio for many months, and is now blissfully, mostly gone), all of the MIDI keyboard choir, strings and electric piano tracks were scrapped (ALL of them – from both sessions – so, dozens of tracks – all too damaged to salvage), which at first seemed an insurmountable loss – until I came up with the idea of re-creating them in an even more beautiful way, using a violin orchestra and a specially-designed stereo choir. problem solved.
that is the beauty of working with MIDI – your output can be literally anything – although for classical music, I would basically always stick with using true pianos software for the grand piano sounds, and the m-tron pro mellotron software for more exotic sounds, in this case, strings and choirs.
by adding the additional three mellotron elements in – violin orchestra, choir ahs, choir oos, I was then able to “mix and match” instrumentation for any of the sections within each theme or movement. and where the instruments change, that’s an indication of one take ending, and another one starting – so in some of the pieces, you can actually hear where each individual take “is”, because the instruments change each time the take changes from one to the next – solo choir, then piano and strings, then piano, strings and choir, then solo strings, and so on.
some of the pieces are presented just as I sent them to John, and pretty much just as I played them, unrehearsed, unplanned; especially the solo grand piano pieces, which had his approval – “movement no. 1 – grace” is very close to the demo versions; while “movement no. 3 – providence” did require some editing – there was simply too much material, too many takes, so I had to (reluctantly) remove a couple of the sections, and edit together what remained – but I was careful to preserve the musical themes – very, very little in the way of music has been taken out, just excessive repetitions of certain phrases were carefully removed.
so “grace” and “redemption” share the themes from the march 4th session; while “providence” presents the third theme (plus a reprise of theme I and a reprise of theme II – one take of each added in to the piece to tie all of the march 4th themes together – within the first theme from march 24th).
in the mixing stage, “movement no. 3 – providence”, gave me the most grief, it took three tries to get a mix I could feel happy about, the exuberance of the young pianist knows no bounds – but a little creative editing sorted that out – while some unplanned and exciting juxtapositions in the last four movements, and indeed, the inclusion of some of the earlier themes in “movement no. 3 – providence”, to tie the whole suite together, well, this was as much of a joy to assemble and mix as it was to play, it really was a pleasure – and it’s difficult for me to comprehend that all this music came from just two days of unrehearsed, extemporaneous piano playing – it was as if I’d composed it in my head beforehand, or in my sleep, in a dream, perhaps, and then; just sat down and played it from memory – the themes appeared like magic, with little conscious input from myself. I recorded quickly, take after take, refining the themes as I went along.
when I sent the demos to John originally, his responses were both enthusiastic and very positive, and, he paid me an incredible compliment; when speaking about one of the pieces, he said “this piece is complete as-is, there is nothing I can add to it – it’s perfect” (paraphrased but you get the idea) – and that speaks to the sort of “completeness” or “completed-ness” if you will, of the pieces – they felt complete, they felt composed, despite the fact that I literally sat down, pushed “record”, and started recording with no notes, no rehearsal – and from that – this massive suite of music now exists – much to my everlasting astonishment!
I was particularly eager to mix and master the last four movements, because they utilise the incredibly beautiful “ebow ensemble” mellotron voice, which while it consists of sampled ebows (my normal instrument of choice) when played back on the mellotron, it doesn’t sound quite like ebows, it has a more ethereal, beautiful, string orchestra-like feeling to it, so it’s like a cross between the most beautiful ebows and the most beautiful strings you never heard…a magical, beautiful musical voice for the final four movements of the suite.
again, I used the strings and special stereo choir to augment the “ebow ensemble” voice on the final two movements, but for “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity”, you hear just the “ebow ensemble” in it’s purest form, with nothing added and no variations – and again, these two movements are basically what I played on the day, march 24th, 2012 – “movement no. 4 – atonement” is made up from combining takes 1 through 5, unchanged and unedited, while “movement no. 5 – purity” is composed of takes 6 – 9, unchanged and unedited, of nine takes total – every note I played is presented in these two themes, as they were played. so in this case, movements four and five are live recordings of theme four, and in fact, they represent every one of the nine existing takes of theme four, as they happened.
by that criteria, in actual fact, movements four and five are completely and totally “live to digital”, while the other themes underwent very minor editing (with the exception of “providence” which did have to be edited more severely) so these two live “ebow ensemble” pieces give you an idea what it was like for me, sitting there at my keyboard, hearing what would become “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity” come out of the mellotron – an unbelievably beautiful sound, which was utterly inspirational, and I hope you can hear by the soaring theme four, just how exciting this last session was – unforgettable. I had never recorded using just the ebow ensemble voice (no piano) and it just sounded amazing to my ears – a remarkable experience. when you press down the keys and that sound comes out, it’s just breathtaking and extremely inspirational.
I should take a moment and talk about the missing piece (my apologies, I am listening to gentle giant as I type this blog entry) ; during the march 4th session, I did record some guitar synthesizer pieces for the “providence” project (before I began this keyboard-based work); these were mostly unsuccessful, requiring a lot of time and effort to make them useful, however, there is one very simple and overriding reason why they are not included here: they are not really classical music – and while I can play classical music on the guitar synth, the pieces I recorded on guitar as demos from providence, were simply not the right material to be added directly to “providence suite” – they were going somewhere else musically – so if and when they are released, it will be…somewhere else :-).
if time permits, I do intend to sit down with these guitar themes (including the unreleased theme “intransigence”) and see if I can create something to listen to, although it may be more in demo form than in completely mixed and mastered form as “providence suite” has ended up – there is not a lot of the guitar material, certainly not enough for an album or possibly even an EP, but if I can master any tracks from that part of the session, of course, I will – but that’s something I plan to look at later on in the new year.
once I set the guitar aside, and sat down at the piano, where I proceeded to play the “grace” theme pretty much as you hear it here…everything started to go right in an incredible way. I can remember feeling so excited about these pieces, and I burned all of the tracks (which were quite substantial) to disc and mailed them away to John for his comments…which came back very positive, he seemed happy with the material, and I was looking forward to hearing his sketches. that never came to pass, so my “half” of the music of providence, now released under my own name, is all there is of the band that was-to-be-known-as “providence”.
life is a funny thing, it never goes as you plan it, as john lennon once said, “life is what happens while you are busy making plans” and that could not be a more true statement for this project – I am amazed, though, that some 22 months after it was recorded, that this piece of music would be so epic, so challenging, so dramatic and so clearly filled with emotion. I tend to pour emotion into the music I write; the chords, melodies and harmonies I choose (minor motifs are common) reflect this, but in this case, it was if these pieces were already present inside me, in the memory of my hands and mind, and the act of sitting down at the keyboard released them into the world.
and here they are – the seven movements of “providence suite”:
grace – 18:54
redemption – 19:46
providence – 20:34
atonement – 10:40
purity – 6:22
perfection – 10:38
transcendence – 6:22
for John, without whom, this music would not exist
www.overflower.com the music of john orsi
www.pureambient.com the music of dave stafford
I recommend that if possible, to listen to the entire suite as a single work – that’s how it’s intended, of course, you can listen to any of the movements in isolation, but playing the seven movements in sequence gives you the music in the way John and I discussed and intended it to be, as an “album” – and given that John was not able to actually contribute any recorded music, I still very much valued his input, I valued our collaboration, and the ideas we exchanged, and his intentions are as well-reflected as they can be in these pieces – I have worked very hard to do justice to his memory, by assembling this plaintive, sometimes sombre set of musical movements, made up of the raw material that was originally meant for the first “providence” album – the album that was not to be.
“providence”, as a band, never completed or released any actual music, which is why I have taken the time to mix and master “providence suite” now, at the end of december 2013, and to release it with my best wishes, sending my positive thoughts with it into the new year 2014. reluctantly, I release it under my own name, rather than under the name “providence” – but that’s not a problem, it’s just an unavoidable issue – this is the way I can release this work, which features only myself performing, unfortunately. if John had had time to send me his parts (it is actually unclear if he ever was able to actually record any parts, or if they were recorded, he never sent anything to me beyond letters), it would be a very different story…and a very different album, too. so what was to be a collaboration of many instruments with ambient and active percussion, with ebow loops and solos, with collaborations…instead, I am presenting these “solo” versions of the seven movements, taken from the original master recordings made in march, 2012 – because that is the only option.
“providence suite” was conceived to honour the memory and intention of the band “providence”, and to honour the input of John as much as is humanly possible when the music presented does not contain any of his recorded sound – but his heart is in it (as is mine), and when I hear this music, I think of the music of “providence” – not of “dave stafford solo recording” – that’s a choice that was made for me, I am very happy indeed, but at the same time, it is with a heavy heart, because John isn’t here to see it happen (and more importantly, he is not present to hear the music inspired by the band – beyond in demo form – and from our collaborative thoughts and communications) – I am most happy to release these pieces now, comprising “my half” of the work, in John’s honour and in his memory.
I never met John “in the real world” but from his letters and other communications, I felt a kindred musical spirit, we shared a vision of a new kind of collaborative effort, across an ocean, from providence, rhode island to the wilds of central scotland – we…stood poised…to set the world on fire with our music – and in hearing “my half” of what the band would have eventually released, I’d like to think that we actually would have :-).
this one is for you, John, wherever you are.