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Prelude #8: after Monk
Like a lot of composers (and musicians, and people), I love the music of Thelonious Monk. The jagged, off-kilter rhythms and fragmented melodies leave lots of space for us to wonder. With his classic tune “Evidence,” every “note” in the “melody” hangs in space, disorienting, yet clear as day, and the musicians seem completely without doubt, as if “of course this is the way music should be.” There is a strong sense of counterpoint too, where closely woven lines move against each other, creating “chords” that don’t seem to fit the normal jazz harmonic vocabulary; it’s almost like we’re only seeing part of the whole, a window into another universe that only opens briefly, giving us snapshots of a mysterious magical realm with its own musical rules and practices.
Here are two versions of Monk’s “Evidence,” the first a classic, by Monk himself, and a second one that I fell in love with many years later, by Paul Motion, Joe Lovano, and Bill Frisell:
The lead sheet gives us a better idea of what the musicians are working with, often just in the mind’s ear—there is no way a listener could know that the first note is an offbeat (unless there is a clear count off, or someone plays the downbeat, which sometimes happens, as with Paul Motion in the above video), or that the D implies an Eb chord! And even with an active bass-line, the fractured melody is disorienting, sometimes overwhelming the metric feel and harmonic implications of the bass.
These “active offbeats” are remarkably powerful, sometimes turning around our sense of the offbeat and making it feel like a downbeat. They also become the basis for the bridge:
In Frisell’s take on the bridge in the video above, he shows these downbeats via bass-notes, but the effects are watery (perhaps he’s using a volume pedal to hide the attack), making the downbeat hazy and the offbeat sharp.
Musical memory and senses of similarity are curious things. When I first wrote my spin on “Evidence”—called “Evidence Lost”—it sounded to me so similar to Monk’s, and I must have had my ears laser-focused on particular aspects of both, because now to me they sound only slightly similar, mine with some shadows of Monk’s but a very different spirit. The end of the opening phrase, with its rising little hook (m8 above), is probably the biggest catch, but even just the different key makes it more distant than I expected. Decide for yourself:
Prelude #8, “Evidence Lost” (after Monk), by Dan Trueman performed by Adam Sliwinski:
Technically, I drew some direct inspiration from the Monk, starting on the offbeat and the 7th of the key implied by the signature:
The bitKlavier “OffbeatBackbeat_1” preparation is quite simple: it is only triggered by the A, C and Db, and will repeat the played note down an octave an 8th-note later, and then again two beats after that, two more octaves down. This is illustrated in the first measure, where the opening “offbeat” A recurs down an octave on beat 2 (the “backbeat”), and then again two octaves lower on beat 4. We see this again in the next measure, where the C is similarly echoed and transposed, but since the C is on the beat, the first echo is now an offbeat (the 2nd expected echo, two octaves lower, is interrupted by the Db in the right hand, though if the player is slightly behind the beat, it will sound, which is cool too). This is all done via the Synchronic preparation, and there is one subtlety: the echo notes are in reverse, so their attacks are gentle, more like the Frisell watery downbeats than his sharply articulated offbeats in the bridge. “OffbeatBackbeat_2” (which is automatically and instantaneously configured when the G in m3 is played) is similar to “OffbeatBackbeat_1,” just triggered by different notes (G, Bb, and B).
A bit later, at letter B, there is something of a play on Monk’s chromatic rising bridge, with the hazy downbeat (akin to Frisell’s pedaled downbeats) leading the player, but barely:
The Synchronic downbeat comes from the previous high B, 3.5 beats earlier (in m26 above, as indicated by the red arrows, the high B downbeat in the bottom line is triggered by the performed offbeat B in the top line of the previous measure (with an intervening triggered low B): all accomplished by yet a different bitKlavier setting, “BackbeatOffbeat_high”), so the player is bound to the timing of their much earlier playing, but again, these downbeats are reversed notes, so they are gently articulated, watery—there is a kind of tension between the player and the Synchronic machine here, but it’s a soft-edged tension. The player maintain’s their inner sense of pulse, driving the piece, with some pushback from the machine.
These rhythmic relationships shift automatically during the course of the piece, with, as described above, “OffbeatBackbeat_1” shifting to “OffbeatBackbeat_2” automatically when the G in m3 is played, and then through a sequence of nearly a dozen more settings (including “BackbeatOffbeat_high” at letter B), all instantly configured by notes that are part of the performed music (as opposed to hidden, silent keys, or buttons/foot-pedals), making the nature of the machine/instrument relationship dynamic and elusive, not so unlike the original “Evidence.”
Adam Sliwinski, for whom “Evidence Lost” was written, has this to say about it:
The most unique challenge for me when performing on the bitKlavier is the possibility for complex and interactive rhythmic relationships to emerge via the Synchronic preparation. It is not surprising that I would gravitate towards these challenges, since I'm a percussionist! It also means that I can cut my teeth with a piece like “Evidence Lost” to try to make it groove. My feel in this piece is very unlike Monk's—completely straight rather than swung.
It is sometimes difficult in a bitKlavier recording to convey how interactive the synchronic setting is. If I succeed in making everything tight, it sounds like an effect which has been layered in after the fact. But each synchronic note depends on the exact timing of its trigger note, so it's actually an avalanche waiting to happen. What I love about this is that it feels like playing chamber music or being in a rhythm section, rather than a solo: my choices all have downstream effects.
I take great pride that many of Dan's bitKlavier pieces have experimented with the boundaries of rhythmic playing to challenge me (sometimes I have even wondered if they were there to thwart me!). I think it adds unique additions to the repertoire for keyboard instruments because my skill set is so peculiar. I hope that more pianists will want to dive into the deep end of the pool with me.
Here’s the complete sheet music and the bitKlavier gallery, if you’d like to try it:
“Evidence Lost” became the starting point for a piece for string quartet in scordatura, composed for the Bergamot Quartet—more on that soon!
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