Improvisations for Cello, Piano and Flowers
( Adapted from a blog post May 25TH, 2017 )
This new “Touchstone” from Colors in Motion is still very new to me. I kind of fall into it. I feel that it just appeared, like a lightning bolt or a burning bush, and left me in complete dazzlement. That may sound over-dramatic – but when a project like this is completed, one has such a long gestation period and requires the talents of so many people – when it is finally born, it feels as if I had nothing to do with it. It is its own being.
Ambient Light began on January 1st, 2016, when my son Damiel and I visited Christopher Graefe’s media studio. We were working on the visuals for Sleep Like a Baby, a Touchstone based on my piano improvisations, that came out in February of that year. Linda Dehart, artist, visionary, and the other half of Colors in Motion, found that Damiel was a cellist and invited him to collaborate with me on a new score. I was floored – she’d never heard Damiel play – but Linda is one of those people who fly by intuition. I am grateful for her accuracy!
Two weeks later, my sister unexpectedly left this life. When Damiel and I began improvising Ambient Light early that summer, that tragedy was still quite present for both of us, and I think the music became a way to work some of that out. We never talked about it, but we named two of the simpler, happier pieces for her sons, his cousins – Waltz for Rowan and Milo’s Lullaby. And six months later, we improvised Bride in the Wilderness for her, based on a Hebrew folk song my sister and I used to sing together. (I wrote the previous post by that name for the 1st anniversary of her passing).
I am the luckiest person in the world, because there is nothing I would rather do than play the piano, and there is no one in the world I’d rather hang out with than my son. While making this album, I got to do a lot of both – and at a level so deep I think it surprised us.
Years ago, I took a course in Continuum Motion with Emily Conrad-Daoud, and she said, “You inherit your mother’s breath.” When you are sitting in two separate rooms on headphones, with no visual cues and nothing connecting you except the sound and the silence – then that shared breath can be very useful. There were times when I would hear a line in my mind and then Damiel would play it – or we would both be holding stillness until, as if a conductor had cued us, we would come in exactly together. The process wasn’t all smooth, of course, and we experienced neurosis (me) and checking out (him) but the breath carried us all the way through.
There is no way we would have gotten to Ambient Light without having first gotten to Music for People. When Damiel was in junior high, I took him with me to some of their improvisation workshops, where we spent whole weekends making music from scratch in an atmosphere of joy and experimentation. Other musicians took Damiel under their wings – including MfP co-founder, cellist David Darling, who generously gave him several private lessons during those formative years. The two share a love for the minor keys, rich layered textures, and strange harmonics that Damiel used to populate Ambient Light.
My sister was a Gemini, always searching for the other half that could understand her, complete her, make her feel whole. For her, relationship was the most important thing – to talk things over, to connect. She considered superficiality to be a personal insult. Her river ran deep and she longed always to be met in its deepest currents.
Here’s a bit about each piece on the album:
Calling the Mountain (00:17). We “rehearsed” a lot – coming up with ideas for pieces, recording repeating base lines to play against – but when we came into the studio, we left space to just improvise in the moment, without preconception. It is like Calling the Mountain and getting an answer.
Bride in the Wilderness (3:34) is based on a Hebrew folk song, Dodi Li. Although this song is second on the album, it is actually the song we recorded last. We improvised it one winter evening, and then brought it to the studio the next day where we did four completely different takes. This version was the second – and hands down, the best, although we didn’t realize that at the time.
Cellamento (7:32) is a piece we originally improvised together on a riff of Damiel’s – and then it became apparent that it was really just his. He created this version by layering six different cello tracks on top of one another. When we first played it for the Colors In Motion team, Linda looked surprised – and then burst into tears.
Looking at the World Through A Rose-Colored Piano (9:48) was based on an ostinato I wanted Damiel to play as a cello line – and then it became apparent it was really just mine. For me, this song is about willing the world into beauty- no matter what the moment may be made of.
Patterns on the Forest Floor (12:47) is one of those pieces that begins with a kind of sublime noodling . . . throwing around swirls of sound until it settles into some kind of form, a melody line with a harmonic progression underneath it . . . but always flitting back to the diaphanous mass to be recharged and renewed.
Waltz for Rowan (19:06) began as a melody line Damiel just played in the studio – and it’s a good thing it was recorded, because it was so simple and surprising that I don’t think either one of us would have remembered it. Later, I came up with the B-section. Waltz for Rowan was actually the most difficult piece for us to record – keeping that sense of joy and freedom, while working within a strict form where everything showed.
Figuring It Out (21:35) is one of those one-take wonders. We were pretty tired from a piece we were rehearsing, so we took a break to “figure it out.” I don’t think that piece we were working on resolved that day, but Figuring It Out made it all worth while.
Milo’s Lullaby (30:19) is something Damiel started playing on the cello late one night, and my piano wanted to cradle his “baby” in a kind of music-box tinkle. Out of the chaos of ambient fifths, form emerges – a lullaby asleep in little white blanket of C-major. We end with that purity, that potential we each have to recreate the world every day of our lives.
Thanks to: Christopher Graefe and Linda Dehart of Colors in Motion, who provided the inspiration and graphic know-how and visual color and so much more . . . to Jim McClure of Betsy’s’Folly Studios in Lyndeborough, NH, who hosted the process of turning music into audio signals with skill and humor and grace . . . to Gene Faxon, who provided encouragement both in terms of enthusiasm and of lots of perfect piano tunings. . . and to all of you who listen and watch and share this ambient sound and light with us.