Friends and fans! My new album Masquerade is now available and you may listen to samples/purchase it by clicking here.. I am so excited to share it with you all. This is an album that has been in the works for several years, and is actually my first entirely solo record. Read on for a little bit about how it came to fruition, as well as the influences/inspirations behind the music.
The Circus Theme
There isn't one answer as to how I came up with the circus theme, but I can think of several inspirations. Growing up, I would often watch Cirque du Soleil shows on TV and was enamored by the incredible talent of the performers as well as the beautiful set design and music. When I was in college, I was also fortunate enough to see one of their productions live, which I believe made a lasting impression. This is perhaps the most obvious influence for Masquerade especially as one of the tracks is a medley of two beautiful pieces from early Cirque du Soleil productions. Other inspirations I can think of:
All in all, the circus theme served as a vehicle for unifying the compositions and arrangements I selected for Masquerade, which musically ended up as a sort of hybrid between modern classical music and jazz, with flamenco and Latin-American elements. It is a truly personal album that brings together a myriad of influences that I hope I was able to combine into a cohesive whole.
The brilliant Jessica "Sieskja" Albert has once again provided her talents for Masquerade after having also designed the artwork for my two previous albums, Wistful Tendrils and Echoes of Love. The above four beautiful paintings were made especially for Masquerade and perfectly capture the album's essence. The paintings are imbued with longing and mystery, as well a sense of connectedness to nature and to one's surroundings -- notice the way in which the curtains of the circus blend into the white-haired maiden's dress as though they are one, or how the circus itself is as though a living and breathing entity, sending its roots deep into the earth.
There is also a feeling of contemplative isolation -- observe the juggler looking onward into the night sky, or the young acrobat, whose only companion is her loyal canine, peering beyond the stage's curtain, or even the fact that the circus is situated in the middle of seemingly endless, sprawling blue hills. It gives the impression that this circus is a destination, a magical entity that can only be found by those who know of its existence. Lastly, there is a certain warmth to the art, particularly evident in the rehearsal scene with the four acrobats. The earthy orange hues are welcoming, as though inviting the audience to stay just a little longer. So too I hope that you will revisit Masquerade many times, so that it can serve as a respite in our world of constant hustle and bustle.
Send in the Clowns
Originally written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, Send in the Clowns really has nothing to do with circus clowns. And yet, I felt that it would serve as a fitting opener not just for its name but also the atmosphere I sought to create with this arrangement. Inspired in part by the rendition of Danish vocalist Ulla Neumann on her album With Joy and Feelings, I utilized a D-G-D-G-A-D tuning (a slight twist on the famous D-A-D-G-A-D) to squarely ground the piece in the key of D, with frequently-appearing suspensions in leu of a pure tonic that are almost evocative of the harmonies on Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (albeit, a lot less dark!). Also of note, the album intentionally opens and closes with jazz ballads performed a tempo -- this arrangement's musical "sibling" is Never Let Me Go (more on that one later) -- which gives it a sort of cohesive symmetry.
A medley of two compositions written by René Dupéré and Benoît Jutras for Cirque du Soleil, I came across both pieces when the idea of a circus theme had already been formed. The original Marelle, from the 1996 Cirque du Soleil show Quidam, is performed by a vocalist and captures exactly the sort of cognitive dissonance between the circus's cheerful exterior and a more somber, if not sinister underbelly. Meanwhile, Tango bears resemblance to compositions by the great Astor Piazzolla, which is probably as good a reason as any as to why I enjoyed it so much when I heard it. The original rendition features a bandoneon, percussion, and what to my ear seem like electronic keyboards. I utilized a C-G-Eb-G-C-Eb tuning for this three-guitar arrangement, creating a deep, rumbling sound thanks to the resonance of the low bass notes.
The first original composition on the album, Time Forgotten is my latest exploration of a genre I call neo-Renaissance/neo-Baroque jazz (I use the terms loosely). It is in a similar vein to my previous compositions The Knights Templar (from Rainy Highway), Bachianne (from Wistful Tendrils), and A Meadow by the Sea (from Echoes of Love). It follows Marelle/Tango for the simple reason that it too is in the key of C minor, except the tuning used here is the very unusual C-G-D-G-Bb-Eb. Truth be told, I arrived at this tuning simply by trying different combinations, and soon enough the main theme came about. Compositionally, the piece is in four parts (not counting the introduction) -- the rhythmic main theme, which includes a somewhat contrapuntal improvisation, a somber arhythmic section conceptualized as a reprieve from the constant movement of the first, a wistful jazz waltz that ends on harmonics that evoke the sound of church bells (as though a call-back to the original music), and finally a recapitulation of the main theme. As for the name itself, I thought of it as both a play on words and an homage to the jazz pianist Bill Evans' composition Time Remembered.
Fantasia for Two Guitars
Another original composition, the theme for this piece had been percolating for a number of years, spanning back to my work as principal guitarist for a 2011 Russian-language theatre adaptation of Don Quixote. My music for this play -- a mix of mostly Segovian-repertoire Spanish arrangements intermingled with brief improvisations -- was at first supposed to be mostly original work, the main theme of which was going to be this piece. Given that the guitar served as more of a background rather than a solo instrument for the play, I shelved the idea only to resurrect it for Masquerade. Saving it for the studio also allowed me to compose and overdub a second part, some of which was improvised. With that in mind, I consider this piece to be a fantasia -- a sort of formalized improvisation that lacks a traditional musical structure. That being said, listen for several recurring melodic motifs that weave their way throughout the piece.
As the title implies, this is a short, improvisatorial miniature that is meant to evoke a feeling. Just as the piece's theme appears to begin its development, the last phrase ends abruptly and unresolved with a dissonant chord (at this point, I should mention my penchant for ending my compositions/arrangements with unresolved harmonies!). This piece serves as a bridge between Fantasia for Two Guitars and You Were There, two relatively up-tempo pieces. The tuning used here, B-F#-D-F#-B-E, I also previously used in my arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim's Retrato em Branco e Preto, featured on my album Wistful Tendrils.
You Were There (From "Ico")
My personal favorite of the arrangements on Masquerade, the story behind this piece is rather simple. Those who know me personally know too well that I am a huge videogame aficionado. But somehow, I had never played the games designed by Fumito Ueda until a few years ago. I wanted to rectify the situation and bought The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for the PlayStation 3, which is a remaster of two of Ueda's most famous games. When I turned on the game, I froze as You Were There began to play on the title screen. I didn't make it past the main menu that day as I was struck by the beauty of this composition. Originally written by Japanese composer Michiru Oshima, this gorgeous piece was performed in the game Ico (which, by the way, is brilliant) by a soloist from the world-renowned choir Libera. Upon hearing it for the first time, I just knew I had to make an arrangement! Breaking it down into three guitars allowed me to weave a musical tapestry that fit right in with the rest of the music on Masquerade.
Another shorter miniature not unlike Vignette, this piece is in the often-unwieldy (for guitarists, anyway) key of F minor, whose difficulties I circumvented by utilizing another unusual tuning -- C-F-C-G-C-F. The recurring descending motif is contrasted with the phrases marked by upward melodic motion, as though to show hope amidst seeming hopelessness. The piece reaches its apex at one of the latter ascending phrases, but slowly tumbles down again to a rather airy, ambiguous chord -- again, no harmonic resolution. The name for this composition came from the 1954 movie La Strada by legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, a heartbreaking story of a gentle spirit who meets a tragic fate as part of a traveling circus troupe.
A Latin-influenced original composition in B-F#-D-G-B-E tuning, Reverie is perhaps the most playful and technical of the pieces on the album. A three-note chromatically descending motif is the most immediately apparent among the bass lines, but take note of the almost contrapuntal interplay between the melody and bass, written as though a guitar and bass duet. Shortly after the solo section, I added a second guitar part to more fully realize the harmonic ideas introduced initially.
Minha Alma Canta
Literally My Soul Sings in Portuguese, this composition is a reflection in three parts that calls to mind the music of famous Brazilian composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos, Baden Powell, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. To me, it is the most tragically romantic piece on the album, and the one that has the most personal significance. The main theme weaves its way throughout the piece, contrasted with the shorter but more stately B section and the sense of urgency of the C section. Note that while at first listen it seems like the piece is in the ABACA form (not unlike a Brazilian choro), the last repetition of the A section takes a deceptive turn and segues into a series of passages that lead to an abrupt finish -- the end of a song that seems as though it could have been sung for much longer. The tuning used in this piece is D-G-D-G-B-E.
The famous piece popularized by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, Moon River was a particularly fun piece to arrange. After deciding to use a C-F-C-F-A-C tuning, rendering the piece a dreamy and open sound, I sought to preserve the integrity of the melody and therefore played the first run-through of the theme relatively "straight." After this, the theme is repeated but in a more improvisatory manner. My favorite part is the series of harmonics a little past the halfway point; seeing that it was possible to play even a small section of the melody with only natural harmonics in this tuning was a fun realization. The unconventional chord voicings in this arrangement were perhaps subconsciously inspired by the inimitable guitarist Ted Greene.
One of the most famous compositions by Polish jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda, my arrangement is in the tuning of C-G-D-G-Bb-D to preserve the original key. You may wonder about the logic behind the second string being tuned to Bb -- some harmonies simply didn't seem to work any other way! This is mostly a straightforward arrangement with the exception of the latter half of the middle section, which I composed as a bridge to return to the initial theme. As an aside, I created this arrangement originally as the final project for a medical school rotation called Medicine and the Arts to illustrate Komeda's multi-facted career, as in addition to being a world-class composer, he was also an otolaryngologist!
The first part (of three) of what I dubbed "The Circus Suite," this piece is actually a reworking of an older composition titled Recollections, which was written as the soundtrack for a friend's animated short film and was previously featured on my album Rainy Highway. Though mostly the same, the composition is performed here in the spirit of a tone poem, with the opening theme, performed as a cheerful waltz, leading into a mysterious jazz ballad (perhaps calling to mind darkness that hides behind the smile of a happy juggler) that climaxes in a flamenco-esque arpeggio section, which then ends with a more somber restatement of the initial theme. This is another piece with an unusual tuning -- Eb-Ab-Db-G-B-E -- with a capo placed on the first fret, giving the impression that the lowest three strings are tuned correctly while the first three are a half-step higher. The idea for this tuning comes from flamenco guitarist Gerardo Nunez, who used it for a piece called Templo de Lucero from his 2004 album Andando el Tiempo.
This piece began its life as a spontaneous improvisation and was recorded only a few hours later. In fact, if not for a video recording, I'd be hard pressed to remember it now! The piece is ironically titled, as the piece itself is a somewhat mournful jazz ballad, once again exploring the juxtaposition of happiness and sadness among circus performers. This piece serves as the slow, more reflective middle section of The Circus Suite, a "calm before the storm" of the last part...
The concluding original composition on the album as well as the last part of The Circus Suite, The Acrobat started its life purely as a two-guitar, flamenco-inspired improvisation, loosely using the rhythm of the fandangos form with the tuning of the rondena flamenco form (D-A-D-F#-B-E). After the initial chord progression, there is a brief melodic motif that sways back and forth as though acrobats on a trapeze... hence the name!
Never Let Me Go
Another beautiful jazz ballad, this piece was originally composed by Jay Livingston for the 1956 movie The Scarlet Hour. I first heard it as performed by the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett as part of his Standards Trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Jarrett's haunting version was featured in the 2002 movie Mostly Martha. I sought to utilize more closed-voicing, pianistic harmonies for this arrangement, as well as to create a somber, contemplative mood. Though at times it sounds as if I am using an altered tuning, I actually only used a capo on the third fret because I preferred the sound of the resulting key. As I mentioned in the beginning, putting this piece last gives Masquerade a symmetrical feel, as both opening and closing tracks are arhythmic jazz ballads with a similar character.
To those of you who made it this far, a heartfelt thank you -- I am so grateful for your continued support. I sincerely hope that you enjoy Masquerade.
Yours in music,