Letters from the Muse Room #30 (November 2021)

The “Muse Room” is the room in my house where I make music and my wife makes visual art. Published the first Friday of every other month, each issue of Letters from the Muse Room includes news and updates about my music, as well as something that has inspired me creatively over the past month.

Dear friends,
Happy fall! Unlike (perhaps) last time, we are now fully into autumn, as dropping temperatures (I had to defrost my windshield a few mornings ago) and changing tree colors attest:

[A colorful tree in my neighborhood.]

[Two-toned tree in my neighborhood.]

I love two-toned trees like this.

[Looking out from a window of Shirley Bush Helzberg Symphony House, where I work.]

[Beautiful trees with a beautiful building in the background.]

Can you tell that I really like colorful leaves?

It’s been a bit of a slow month or two in the Muse Room. I am beginning work on an orchestra piece for a friend of mine; I can’t share any details yet but it will be unorthodox and fun. More to come.

Speaking of fun: While cleaning up my hard drive recently and deleting some old files, I was reminded of #illomusicfriday. What is #illomusicfriday, you ask? Well, Illustration Friday was a website (sadly now defunct, it seems) that used to post a single word as a prompt every Friday, and illustrators would create an illustration for that word. It was a fun challenge that was an easy way to practice creating art around a particular idea.

In 2015 and 2016, my wife (who is a visual artist) and I decided we’d take on this challenge together: she would create an illustration based on the Illustration Friday word, and I would compose some music based on the word, and we’d put them together into a video. Sometimes we would coordinate — one of us would do our part first, and the other would base their part off that — and sometimes we worked independently.

[#illomusicfriday 1/29/16: “Orbit”]

This was one of my favorite ones.

So if you’re looking for some fun music and artwork to kick off your weekend, might I recommend for you: #illomusicfriday on Youtube.

[#illomusicfriday on YouTube.]

––––

I wish you could have experienced what inspired me this past month; it was so inspiring because it was an in-person experience. I attended the Kansas City Symphony’s first full-orchestra in-person concert since March 2020, and it kind of blew me away.

[The Kansas City Symphony.]

The major work on the program was Mahler’s First Symphony. While I enjoy Mahler, hearing the piece live, after not hearing a live orchestra for almost two years, was breathtaking and electrifying. That jump up to D major in the last movement — it gave me chills.

If you’re interested in the piece, the San Francisco Symphony made a terrific documentary about it in their “Keeping Score” series, which is free to watch on YouTube (and includes a full performance of the piece after the documentary): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5DfYcT5icY&ab_channel=SanFranciscoSymphony.

[Good looking guy?]

But more than that, I encourage you, if you’re comfortable, to go see some live music in person this month. Performing arts organizations, ensembles, bands, all need your support and also are so excited to be playing for live audiences again. And after such a long hiatus, I can tell you: Live music is good for the soul.

Be well.

Peace,
AJ Harbison

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#illomusicfriday Letters from the Muse Room News

#illomusicfriday 6/3/16: “Prince”

Welcome back to #illomusicfriday! We’ve taken a break for a long while, as I was finishing school and Eleanor was caught up in other projects. But we’re back, a few weeks late, with a tribute to Prince. Eleanor drew a prince and created a pattern for his cloak, while I took a song by the musician Prince and arranged it in a style that might be more suitable for a traditional prince’s court (string orchestra). Enjoy!

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#illomusicfriday 4/1/16: “Wisdom”

This week’s #illomusicfriday word was “Wisdom.” I didn’t have any immediate ideas, but Eleanor decided to draw an old pig imparting wisdom to his eagerly listening grandchildren. That image, coupled with a score I looked at yesterday in the UMKC library (Br’er Rabbit at the Wolves’ Party by Victoria Bond), gave me the idea to do a short banjo piece. I imagine this would be somethin’ ol’ Grandpa “Brick House” Pig might strum to dramatize the story of the Big Bad Wolf for his young audience.

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#illomusicfriday 3/24/16: “Masquerade”

As I’ve mentioned before, Eleanor and I usually get our #illomusicfriday word from http://www.illustrationfriday.com. But for some reason the site wasn’t updated last week, so Eleanor decided to choose her own word and we went with “Masquerade”. I wrote a new waltz, loosely based on the waltz I did for “Dance” a few weeks ago; but since nothing at a masquerade is what it seems, I tried to give it as many surprising harmonic twists and turns as I could. I tried not to rely too heavily on mode mixture, since that has become a not uncommon harmonic language even in pop music; some of the root notes of the harmonies are drawn from mode mixture, but I kept the melody fully in the “key” of whatever harmony the accompaniment happened to be in at the moment. Eleanor drew an elegantly dressed dog descending an imposing staircase, so I imagine a string quartet and a clarinet providing music for the dancing at the fanciest dog ball of the season!

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#illomusicfriday 3/18/16: “Dragon”

I was working hard on my thesis again this week (almost done with revisions!), so I stole from it again for this #illomusicfriday. The word was “Dragon,” and Eleanor decided to draw an ominous but idle one, sitting on her hoard of treasure, and I happened to have an ominous motive in my thesis which is played by the bass clarinet, bassoon, and contrabassoon. Sadly, in the Logic sample library (the only one I have right now), there was no bass clarinet and no contrabassoon; so this version is played by two bassoons (panned left and right) and a regular clarinet. The motive is imitated exactly by the two higher parts, but offset by a couple of beats, until they come together for the final chord, which I diminish (with the clarinet) from a minor triad to an augmented one. Her drawing is a work in progress, as is my thesis!

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#illomusicfriday 3/11/16: “Childhood”

This week I was hard at work on my thesis, the composition which is the culmination of my entire academic career (but no pressure or anything), and I didn’t really have time to write something new for #illomusicfriday. But it just so happened that a passage I wrote for my thesis fit well with Eleanor’s concept for this week’s word, “Childhood.” Both of our pieces aim for the mystery and seriousness and inner worlds of childhood, rather than something light and fun. I used all three of my music/audio applications for this piece: Sibelius (a music notation program, which I’m using to actually write and engrave the score for my thesis piece), Logic (a digital audio workstation or DAW; I thought I’d try using Logic’s instruments rather than Sibelius’s, but it turned out that Sibelius sounded a little better), and Pro Tools (another DAW, which I used to edit the audio file from Sibelius).

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#illomusicfriday 3/4/16: “Village”

This week’s #illomusicfriday word was “Village,” and Eleanor and I decided to go with a fairly standard interpretation. She drew up a town street; I wrote a folk melody and orchestrated it for a group of street performers. Folk songs, particularly in Western cultures, have some interesting and consistent features: simple, repetitive melodies and rhythms; straightforward harmony; often pentatonic or modal scale material. I mixed the last of these a little—parts of the melody are pentatonic, while the end of each phrase has a flatted seventh, making it Mixolydian. But there are also normal sevenths too. It’s an eclectic folk song!

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#illomusicfriday 2/26/16: “Shelter”

This week’s #illomusicfriday process, and product, turned out differently than usual. The word was “Shelter,” and Eleanor and I were both excited about it. She started working on a piece with a small cave providing shelter from a large storm, and inspired by that I created a piano riff with my favorite pair of reverbs (two Space Designers in Logic—one for ambience and one for shimmer), and some cool delay, to abstract the rain from her piece. Then she realized that she wanted her piece to be a fully-developed drawing for her portfolio, which she wouldn’t be able to finish by Friday. So instead of posting that, she decided to substitute a piece from her last portfolio called “Shooting Stars,” which also shows a cave as a sort of shelter, but with a different feel. I took the piano riff, made it into shooting stars instead of rain, and added a bass line and some subtle electronic percussion—using the same Logic instruments that I used in my fixed media piece And See The Flaming Skies. I know I’ve said this before, but I really feel like this one might be my favorite #illomusicfriday yet—I love this piece of hers, and the music adds a new element to the world she’s created. I want to see this in a movie. And maybe we’ll do an extended/altered version of this piece when she finishes her “Shelter” drawing!

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#illomusicfriday 2/19/16: “Dance”

Normally the word that Eleanor and I use for #illomusicfriday comes from IllustrationFriday.com. But the children’s book organization that she belongs to, SCBWI, also puts out a monthly illustration prompt, and we opted to use that word this week instead. For “Dance,” I reached far into the mists of the past and pulled out a waltz for piano I had written back in 2002, I believe right before I started my undergrad at Cal State Fullerton, and orchestrated it for a string orchestra. Ironically, Eleanor ended up illustrating a girl playing a piano….

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#illomusicfriday 2/12/16: “Mystery”

This week’s #illomusicfriday didn’t go as planned—though they usually don’t…. I originally set out to create a film noir clip, since that’s what first sprang to mind on reading that “Mystery” was this week’s word. I ended up with a film noir-ish progression, played by a harp, but with some cool effects added with the free Vinyl plugin from iZotope—giving it an old, ill-preserved soundtracky vibe. (Hopefully.)

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#illomusicfriday 1/29/16: “Orbit”

A little late, but worth the wait! Eleanor created a planet with an awe-inspiring aura of mystery, and I tried to do the same in my music, putting in some sci-fi-ish sounds along the way. Star Wars Episode VIII, anyone? J.J. Abrams, take note….

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#illomusicfriday 1/22/16: “Spin”

A dizzy (and dizzying?) woodwind quartet, a car going for a drive along a precipice…. “Spin”!

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#illomusicfriday 1/15/16: “Tropical”

For the word “tropical” I decided to go with “exotic” instruments, along with some birds and water in the background for a more stereotypical “tropical” idea. (And, when I discovered that I did, in fact, have steel drum samples in Logic, I threw them in, albeit in the background as accompaniment.) Relax and enjoy!

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#illomusicfriday 1/8/16: “Moon”

Welcome back to ‪#‎illomusicfriday‬! Eleanor and I took a few weeks off over the holidays, but it’s a new year and we’re back it. This week’s word was “moon”; Eleanor did her thumbnail sketch before I started work on my music piece, so I based my piece off of that and went with a cinematic feel (listen for a not-so-subtle film score reference early on…). Eleanor’s final piece turned out a little differently than the sketch, but I love the way it looks!

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#illomusicfriday 12/4/15: “Punch”

Philip Glass! I don’t really like Philip Glass’ music, but whenever I come across it (in a class at school) somehow it finds its way into what I’m composing. Last semester it was a film score I was working on; this time it’s an #illomusicfriday post! When I saw that the word for this week was “Punch,” I immediately thought of the “orchestra hit” sound on my Kawai keyboard. I found some samples online of various types of orchestra hits and downloaded them. While I was thinking about what to put in between the “punches,” Philip Glass’ additive organ music (like Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, etc.) came to mind. So here it is!

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#illomusicfriday 11/27/15: “City”

This week’s #illomusicfriday was tough for me; I couldn’t come up with anything I liked for “city.” But when I saw Eleanor’s piece a completely different idea popped into my head and I ran with it. Thinking of the word “city,” this music conjures a specific picture in my head, like a scene in a movie: a young country girl coming to a big city for the first time, looking around, taking in the sights and sounds, full of optimism. What does it make you think of?

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#illomusicfriday 11/20/15: “Animal”

An ‪#‎illomusicfriday‬ just in the nick of time (11:40 pm [Central time] on Friday)! The word this week was “animal”; Eleanor had an idea and ran with it, and I had a separate idea (the first thing that came to mind when I read “animal”) and ran with that. I think this may be my first #illomusicfriday post that includes an actual audio sample (instead of just MIDI). Enjoy!

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#illomusicfriday 11/13/15: “Whimsical”

Welcome back to #illomusicfriday! After taking a break last week we’re at it again. This week’s word was “whimsical,” and Eleanor and I did our pieces independently. Enjoy and share!

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#illomusicfriday 10/30/15: “Adventure”

This was a fun one. I know I say this almost every week, but this is one of my favorite #illomusicfriday pieces by Eleanor; it’s funny in itself, and the music (which I wrote before I saw her piece) makes it even funnier. Here’s to adventure!

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#illomusicfriday 10/23/15: “Stuffed,” or, My First Twelve-Tone Piece In 17 Years

This week’s #illomusicfriday piece was a fun one. The word was “stuffed,” and I decided to take that in the direction of the heavy, “bluh” feeling you have when you’re stuffed after eating too much. I wanted to use some alternating treble and bass clusters, and since we’ve been studying twelve-tone music in my theory class for the past few weeks, I decided to make it a twelve-tone piece. I wrote my first twelve-tone piece when I was about 12 years old, and… I’m pretty sure I haven’t written one since. I didn’t do anything too fancy with the rows—derived rows or hexachordal combinatoriality or anything like that—but it was still fun, and it was a nice way to generate dissonant material quickly. I’ve included the score and the twelve-tone matrix beneath the video, just in case anyone who sees this post may be interested….

 

 

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#illomusicfriday Scores