Firsts

firsts-front-3000My first commercial album is now out and available for purchase! Seriously!

Very cool stuff.

You can get MP3 downloads of the album or the shorter movements (under 10 min) from Amazon or iTunes (search for ‘joseph nemeth firsts’), and you can download a higher-quality version, or purchase the CD, from CDBaby.

This features the Piano Concerto and the Summer Symphony.

And in an act of naked commercial self-promotion, I’d like to ask that if you’ve heard these, and you liked them, hop over to CDBaby or Amazon and drop a review.

Third Movement

concerto-iiiSo, it’s done.

I may remix the Concerto again in this lifetime, but I think it’s unlikely. Certainly, electronic orchestras keep getting better, and I can easily imagine a day when this set of samples will sound as crude as the “synth violins” on my old Korg M1. But playing that future orchestra is a whole different matter.

Even though I’ve spoken somewhat disparagingly about sampled sounds, the real issue is, as always, the performer. I’m sure that I will, bit by bit, become more proficient at performing a whole orchestra. But to really make these samples sing as they should, would take a wholly different level of artistry. Just as learning to play the violin, or the saxophone, or the guitar, can absorb a lifetime of effort and still leave you wondering when you are really going to learn to play the darn thing.

So yes, I may someday upgrade my orchestra again, and maybe I’ll decide the Concerto needs another remix.

But I’m pretty pleased with this.

Enjoy.

(Music at http://www.themonthebard.org/music).

Piano Concerto Second Movement

concerto-iiI’ve just posted the second movement of the Piano Concerto, remixed using my latest instrument samples. It’s as big an improvement over the previous mix I posted, as that mix was over the one before that.

I took a painting class ‘way back during one of the summers between my junior-high-school years. At one point, we were painting clouds, and the instructor told us, “Sometimes when you’re painting a cloud, you’ll start to see shapes in the clouds you’ve painted — houses, faces, animals. When that happens, the best thing to do is to paint over the whole thing, and start over. Because no matter how many times you try to paint the face out of the cloud, it will still be there, and it will drive you crazy.”

It’s the little things that make you crazy when you’re remixing music. I thought I had a good mix at one point, created a full mixdown track, and then, when I listened to it — for probably the hundredth time this week — the piano had this one note that was too loud. It poked me in the ear.

“Nah,” I told myself. “No one will hear that. There are dozens of little errors in this performance, things that aren’t as smooth as they should be, phrases that aren’t as expressive as I’d like, other choices with the instrumentation that might have worked out better. This is just one more little thing.”

I listened again. It poked me in the ear. In fact, now I couldn’t hear anything else in that section.

It was a face in the cloud.

I went back and fixed that note. And two more that were bothering me.

I’ve been doing that for a couple of weeks, now.

There comes a point where you just have to let it go. So here it is.

This mix actually comes fairly close to the way I’ve heard it in my head all these years. I really am pleased with it.

Enjoy!

(Music at http://www.themonthebard.org/music).


Postscript: I got up this morning and re-listened with fresh ears, and there’s another spot that poked me in the ear, where I needed to exchange the viola and cello parts. Just one phrase. One tiny phrase. But now it won’t bother me.

Beauty Born in Tragedy

 

concerto-iI’m posting yet another remix of the first movement of my Piano Concerto. It is, again, a vast improvement over the previous mixes. I still hope to hear the music performed someday by a real orchestra, and a real pianist.

Why?

I’m one guy with a few years experience of fooling around with a computer disk drive containing a handful of captured sounds that some sound engineer thought were “representative” of the instrument. They’re nice samples. Really nice samples. But they’re only samples. I piece them together like Lego blocks into something that sounds like music.

A real symphony orchestra is made up of fifty-some-odd people who have each been mastering their single instrument all their lives, conducted by a master musician who merely directs these other musicians to apply their human, musical minds and hearts toward making music together. They understand music — and they have the knowledge and skill to get just the right sound out of their instrument. A dramatic horn swell. A light violin spiccato. A mysterious timpani roll.

There is, in the end, no contest.

The piano concerto is my first major work, and like a first date, a first kiss, a first love, there is something about this music that has become an irreplaceable part of my being. It will never be quite right. It will never be entirely wrong.

It was born in tragedy, finished in calamity, and has always been solace.

The concerto began on a dark night sometime in 1986. In January of 1985, our almost-three-month-old daughter, Christina, died of SIDS in the middle of the night. As I fell apart, then slowly put myself back together (with help) and moved on with life, I would occasionally console myself by trying to recover some skill with the piano, which I’d stopped studying in high school.

One night my fingers started playing a rhythmic little tune. It was a strange experience: I heard the music in my head, and my fingers almost knew how to play it. I knew two things intuitively and instantly: I had never heard or played this music before, and it was the opening to the third movement of a piano concerto. It grew from there.

The second movement came next, a few years later, as a lullaby for my two sons.

The first movement came to me last, well into the mid-1990’s, as the sound of horns blowing through my mind. I had by then written my own MIDI sequencer for the Amiga computer, playing through a Korg M-1 keyboard, which allowed me to do very simple polyphonic orchestrations.

I remember walking across a frozen parking lot to meet friends for a New Year’s Eve drink (or three) in 1994 at an upscale little Italian bistro near my home. I needed a haircut. On a whim, I decided in the middle of that parking lot, between one step and the next, to let my hair grow until the concerto was finished.

My hair was almost shoulder-length in late 1995 when I cut a digital audio tape of original compositions, and made 100 copies through a little commercial studio in LaPorte Colorado, to give out as Christmas presents. I didn’t include the concerto: it wasn’t finished, and I didn’t have nearly enough raw processing power on the computer or the keyboard to perform it, anyway.

I got busy with other things, cut my hair, and stopped composing.

I finally finished the concerto in 2003.

I had bought a new keyboard, a Roland XV-88, and a new PC with a commercial sequencer, Cakewalk. I had all the good intentions in the world, but I was very busy with work.

I went in to see the doctor about a little problem with bleeding hemorrhoids. They told me it was colon cancer.

That’s a hell of a thing to be told on a Thursday afternoon. They wanted me in surgery Friday morning, but could not make it work with their schedules. So I was scheduled for Monday morning, first thing.

I knew that, though the odds were small, I might not wake up on Monday afternoon. What do you do with your last three days of life? My answer was: pretty much the same thing you’d do anyway. Three days isn’t enough time to write out your bucket list and do anything about it. You really don’t want to run around to all your friends and say, “I love you, good-bye.” You aren’t going to “get your affairs in order,” and besides, the last thing you want to be doing with your last three days is paperwork.

After surgery, and throughout chemo, I had a great deal of time to ponder my life, which at that point, consisted mostly of promises of great things yet to come. Promises that might not be kept, now, and by the way, weren’t all that great when you looked at them closely as an epitaph. As the chemo deepened and I found myself with less and less energy, I decided I’d use my good days to finally finish the concerto. I’d worked out all the piano parts by then by playing them over and over: I could almost perform the work, though now I didn’t have the stamina to get through more than a few measures at a time. So I recorded (as MIDI) in little manageable sections, and orchestrated it, and cut myself a CD.

As early summer moved into late summer and the chemo started truly kicking my ass, I would lie in bed, with my crappy little recording on my crappy little boom-box playing quietly into the night as I drifted somewhere between waking and restless sleep, and I would say to myself, “I wrote that.” It seemed like the one unambiguously beautiful accomplishment in my life. Everything else was tarnished or in doubt. My marriage had ended. My mother was gone, my father was slipping into dementia, my sister was long-since estranged. My kids were not doing well in school, and I wondered how badly I’d already failed them, and how much worse it would be if I up and died on them. My career — bah. A bunch of technical challenges solved to make someone else rich selling gizmos to the morally incompetent to increase their power over the rest of us, to be replaced at the first opportunity with the next new gizmo and forgotten.

But this — this was unambiguous. It was beautiful, certainly as I heard it in my mind through the muddled samples and the poor sound reproduction. Even if it was never heard by anyone but me, even if it was a sand castle washed away without a trace, I wrote this.

And yet, I also feel I didn’t write it, I merely wrote it down. It came from someplace outside me, yet inside me, in a way that’s impossible to adequately describe. Those of you who have been seduced by a Muse will know what I’m talking about.

I remixed the concerto a few years ago with Garritan sound samples on my brand new iMac. That’s the mix that has been up on this site for some time, and it’s a lot closer to what I hear in my head than the crappy little recording from 2003. But it’s still not right.

This one is a little closer.

Technical features. I’m still using Cuebase 7.5. These are the East West Sound samples, the Platinum Orchestra and Platinum Pianos collections. This piano is a Steinway D, and it’s pure chocolate gorgeousness.

I’m driving them, interestingly enough, with the same MIDI sequences dating back to my original 2003 performance, cleaned up here and there. I had to do finer cleanup on the piano part this time, because this sampled piano is so much more responsive to touch. A real Steinway keyboard feels nothing like a weighted electronic keyboard, and my fingering in 2003 was — well, sloppy. Lots of weak notes with the fourth finger.

As the samples become clearer and more realistic, I find that I need to do fewer audio tricks to try to get the sound close to right, and I’ve even been able to consolidate or cut parts.

Cutting parts is good if I hope to have it performed live at any point. Most conductors scowl when you call for two glass harmonica and choir of castrati. I think you have to be Andrew Lloyd Weber to get away with that.

Enjoy.

And I’m very much looking forward to remixing the second movement, to which I’ve never done justice: I think this electronic orchestra can handle it.

(Music found at http://www.themonthebard.org/music).

Sherilyn's Song

So last week, I went completely nuts and bought four grand pianos.

I had to pay a little extra for a new hard disk drive, so I’d have someplace to put them.

I upgraded my entire electronic orchestra last summer, and it has made an enormous difference in the quality of the music I’m putting up on this site. But it was completely lacking in any piano samples.

The reason is simple enough. The piano samples take up thirty-five CDs. Hence, the expanded hard drive. They include a Bechstein 280, a Bosendorfer 290, a Steinway model D, and a Yamaha model C7 — four of the high-end concert grand pianos you’ll find in the big concert halls.

One of my next projects will be to remix the Piano Concerto, because none of the mixes I’ve done to date do it justice.

But just to try it out on something, I decided to remix Sherilyn’s Song, from my 1996 tape. My son was asking about it the other day, and now that I have a decent piano, I thought I’d give it a shot. The result is up on the music page. I think it turned out very well.

There’s a little story behind Sherilyn’s Song. Yes, it’s a love song. Yes, it’s wistful, and a little sad.

In 1996, I was a year out from divorce — entirely amicable, but based on an irreconcilable similarity I won’t go into here — and I was newly single, forty years old, and free to … well, whatever.

At the time, I was rooming with a friend, since the separation agreement involved a year of pretty much all I could afford in child support and maintenance; and so, although I had a good job, I was as cash-strapped as a college student. Jim, who was renting me a room in his house, was a really good guy, and we would go out to bars together on weekends and flirt with the ladies. All catch-and-release fantasy fishing: I wasn’t ready for complications. Jim was equally uninterested in casual hook-ups.

It was a very good time of life for me.

Sherilyn was a bartender at one of the watering holes we frequented. She was a little less than twenty years my junior, cute as a button, and I flirted shamelessly. I even developed a full-scale crush. I’m pretty sure it was not reciprocated, and I was fine with that. It didn’t have to be reciprocated. Dante had his Beatrice.

The flirting, and the crush — let’s call it what it is, a particular kind of love — of an older man for a younger woman, a kind of idealized fantasy of reliving innocence in romance, inspired the music, and allowed me to experience the rather unique pleasure of presenting a score of “Sherilyn’s Song” to her, one day, along with a tape. It was a kind of farewell — I was already moving on into the next stage of my life, and she was still finding her feet in the world.

It’s a beautiful little piece of music. Enjoy.

Mendocino Music Festival

IMG_0304We sang the Bach!

I’m referring to the Bach b-minor Mass, an enormous work in 27 movements that runs for two hours of continuous performance.

This year was the 30th anniversary of the Mendocino Music Festival, and the festival organizers overrode the complaints of all the volunteer local choirs — “We can’t sing this!” “It’s impossible!” “We’ll all DIE if we try to sing this!” — and declared that we were going to sing it anyway.

Last night we nailed it in front of a packed house: a fabulous performance!

I’m still riding a performance high this afternoon.

I made a decision about music forty years ago. I was a junior in college — the Fall of my junior year. It was pretty typical for students in those days to enter college as “undeclared” majors, spend a year or two kicking around and partying, then settle on a major. I’d been moving in a physics/math direction from the start, but I’d kept a strong presence in the music department, playing in the symphony, taking private violin lessons, performing solo occasionally. I was actually pretty good — maybe even good enough to make a living performing.

The Dean of the music department called me into his office that Fall, and asked point-blank why I wasn’t declaring a music major.

I think my decision forty years ago was sound, and my reason mostly accurate, though I’d phrase it a little differently now. What I told him was that I never wanted something I loved so much to become a job. What I would say now is that I’m not strong enough to turn music into a job and continue to love it.

The latter is not the way a twenty-year-old thinks of himself, and if he did say such a thing, he’d be told it was nonsense and that he needs to work on his self-image — so what I told the Dean was probably as close as I could come to the truth at the time.

I remember the following Christmas concert was my last as a full member of the orchestra. We performed the Dvorak Second Symphony (now called his Seventh), a new musical discovery for me — at that time, I’d only played the Fourth (now called his Eighth), and heard the famous Fifth (now called his Ninth). I’ve always loved Dvorak, and I fell completely for this new-to-me work. I recall the long walk home across campus from the concert that icy, star-studded night in my performance tux, hot from the stage lights but deliriously high on the beauty of the music and the elation of a good performance. I had decided that I did need to get serious, and that I needed to quit the orchestra to focus on my major.

College died for me that spring. I started to move consciously into the world of work, and jobs, and careers, and making a living: the very world I believed would have killed the music, had I permitted it. It certainly killed physics: it was no longer play, it was my declared major, and something to take seriously as an adult. A year later, I was starting to burn out in physics, and flamed out completely two years later, in graduate school.

As I turn that over in my head, I wonder if I have ever been successful at anything that I have taken seriously as an adult?

I’ll have to think about that.

At any rate, going back into the world of performance, singing a major choral work like the Bach b-minor Mass, makes me profoundly grateful for all those musicians who are strong enough to turn music into a job and still keep loving what they are doing. Without them, there would be no opportunity for old, rusty amateurs like myself to slip onto the stage, contribute something to a successful performance, and share a bow.

It is a long-overdue homecoming.

There was at least one other homecoming that happened last night. Standing behind the risers, lined up to go on stage, I fell into one of those distracted, bantering conversations with the nearby singers; someone asked me a question, and I mentioned that I’d been in America’s Youth In Concert in 1976.

One of the singers did a double-take and asked, “Were you in the R group or the L group?”

I hadn’t thought about that in years. I struggled a bit, and then said, “R group, I think.”

“Mozart’s Coronation Mass,” he said. “Dr. Ramsey directed it.”

We’d both been on the same tour. In 1976, the Bicentennial Tour. I didn’t know him from the tour, because he’d been in the choir and I’d been in the orchestra, and the groups didn’t mix that much off-stage.

Somehow, we’d ended up in Mendocino, side-by-side, singing Bach.

It’s yet another of those strange coincidences that make me feel I’ve come home.

Symphony is Finished

UnknownAll four movements are up on the music page, now, in the correct order.

The fourth movement is a short night, and a glorious dawn. The opening clarinet harkens back to the child falling asleep at the end of the second movement. Night has fallen, and deep in the woods, the drums begin their fitful call as the night drummers find their places. They drum through the night until the first birdcalls of the false dawn. And then, finally, the sun rises.

Composing this, then performing and recording it with Themon’s Electrophilharmonic Orchestra II, has been quite a trip for me.

I remember my first composer’s competition: the 1972 Wyoming Music Teachers’ Association held one, which solicited compositions from junior high school students around the state. I’m not sure I placed that year, but I placed in the 1973 competition and got to perform the work, a little two- or three-minute piano piece.

By the time college came around, I was just too busy to do any composing, and in those days, of course, there was no Themon’s Electrophilharmonic Orchestra or anything like it. The closest then would have been the old MOOG synthesizer (introduced in 1967, and used by Wendy Carlos to create the album, Switched-On Bach.) A synth was no more affordable than renting out an orchestra in those days. So composing meant you either wrote solo works for an instrument you could play, or you gathered musicians, just to find out what it really sounded like. The more ambitious the work, the more the investment required for (and by) the musicians.

A full symphony was pretty much out-of-reach. It was a kind of catch-22. You could not attract the musicians for a performance unless you had a good reputation. But you could not get a good reputation without successful performances.

It had always been that way. Beethoven had no trouble pulling together his ninth symphony, a technical monstrosity with a large orchestra, a full choir, and four soloists — but his first symphony, which was performed when he was just thirty years old, was his “break” into the composing business, and I suspect it was rather more difficult to get that one performed.

It’s different, now. Someone with more experience than I have could do a much better job of performing this, and a good sound engineer could make it sound like honey and roses. But all by myself, I can — after struggling through the manuals and a bunch of trial and error — pull off a creditable symphonic performance and share it with people.

And that is simply amazing.

I hope you all enjoy the result.