We've Got To Find A Way

We've Got To Find a Way for tenor, electric piano, and fixed media
composed by Michael Malis
after "What's Going On" by Al Cleveland, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, and Marvin Gaye

Denzel Donald, voice
Michael Malis, electric piano
Premiered at Sidewalk Festival, Detroit MI, 8/3/2019

A recomposition of Marvin Gaye’s seminal piece “What’s Going On,” “We’ve Got To Find A Way” expands on “What’s Going On” by featuring newly composed material for electric piano and voice. This newly composed material is interwoven with an electronic backing track that samples the original track extensively, bringing the recomposition into conversation with the poignancy of the original recording. The track consists of nearly 200 different samples, and is comprised almost entirely of samples from “What’s Going On.”

“What’s Going On” is a song that asks deep questions about peace, power, and utopia. Set in the civil unrest of the late 1960’s, Gaye gets straight to the heart of many of the issues that faced society at that time. In many ways, it’s staged as a lament for the ails of society (brother brother / there’s far too many of you dying.) But it also strikes a hopeful tone (you know we’ve got to find a way / to bring some loving here today.) This classic song transcends the times that it was written for and is extremely relevant to our current era of social and political unrest. Furthermore, “What’s Going On” has an extra layer of importance in Detroit, the city that birthed this masterpiece.

Almost 50 years later, it’s appropriate to ask: what, if anything, has changed? “We’ve Got To Find a Way” highlights that question, and gives audiences the opportunity to investigate this question themselves. Some of the recomposed elements of the piece are a radical departure from the original, allowing the audiences to meditate on what has changed. But by using samples from the original track, this piece stays tethered to the original, allowing the audience to meditate on what has stayed the same, for better or for worse.

Spring 2019 Part 3: I Got To Keep Moving

Composed by Balance (Michael Malis/Marcus Elliot)
After texts from I Got To Keep Moving by Bill Harris (Wayne State University Press)

Bill Harris — narration
Gerald Cleaver — drums
Marcus Elliot — saxophone
Michael Malis — piano

Most people who have been following my work over the last few years know about my duo collaboration with saxophonist/composer Marcus Elliot, Balance. Our musical relationship goes back a very long time (to our high school days, actually) and he is really like a musical brother to me. We’ve released an album as a duo, but in the last couple of years we’ve also invested time and energy in creating projects that expand our ensemble. These projects feel less like “duo plus” projects, and more like larger visions that Marcus and I co-manage. It’s been a great working relationship, and we definitely have more plans to keep working in this direction. Our collaboration with Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, which I posted about a couple of weeks ago, is another example of this kind of project.

A few years ago, Guggenheim fellow and legendary Detroiter Bill Harris casually mentioned to us that he’d be interested in collaborating with us one day, we leaped at the opportunity. Bill is someone whose face I knew before I knew his work: his portrait is emblazoned on a building that I passed by almost every day for six years:

It’s a little hard to see in the Google Earth screengrab, but that’s Bill in the bottom right corner. Also featured in this mural by Nicole MacDonald is Sixto Rodriguez (a.k.a. Sugarman,) Robert Hayden, Terry Blackhawk, and other Detroit literary giants. Being on liquor store mural with Sugarman is pretty much the definition of “Detroit Famous.” Simply put, Bill is a legend.

Bill recently released a collection of short stories called “I Got to Keep Moving”, which portray loosely interconnected stories of the Great Migration. They begin on a plantation in Alabama, and trace similar characters as they and their ancestors journey north. It’s a strikingly powerful set, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Marcus and I took three of these stories and set them to music. In a series of live performances with Bill, we performed while he read. We performed the show three times over the course of the weekend: at the Toledo Museum of Art, at the University of Michigan School of Music, and at the Detroit Public Library Main Branch.

We decided to invite Gerald Cleaver on board to round out the quartet. Gerald is from Detroit, but he and Bill had never met. I was a little unsure of how the group was going to gel, since nobody (other than Marcus and I) had played together before.

All of my worries were quelled as soon as we sat down and played. Bringing Gerald on turned out (predictably) to be a great decision. His playing is completely and utterly phenomenal. Of course, I knew that already, since I’m a major fan. But I wasn’t really prepared for how much fun it was to play with him. His sound on the instrument is inviting and unobtrusive, but strong, solid, and without any ambiguity. His ears are laser-sharp in their responsiveness. I realized over the course of the weekend that, for years, Gerald has been the benchmark that I measure all other drummers against. I didn’t know that I was doing it, but now I know. It was just such a joy to play with such a masterful musician. I feel like playing with him brought my own playing up at least a couple of notches, and he really made the ensemble sound amazing.

The real star of the show was Bill, whose stories are deeply powerful and moving. He was incredible in all of our shows, showing off his skill as an engaging and poignant storyteller. He (and the rest of the band) really found his groove by our third show, at the Detroit Public Library. That show felt like a hometown reunion, and there was an incredible energy in the room. Many of the old Detroit Jazzheads were there. Gerald’s family came out. Some of my students came. A lot of Marcus and I’s friends came. It really lifted my spirits.

We also got a really glowing review in All About Jazz. Here’s a nice quote from Troy Dostert:

“What was most striking about the synergy between Harris and the band was the sheer beauty of the music: the stark contrast between the grim realities of Harris's story and the band's melodic core, located in Elliot's exultant phrases and Malis's evocative runs, was stirring. And much of the music's strength was found in the spirit of resilience and defiance that permeates Harris's text.”

The Detroit show was incredibly well documented. In addition to the trailer posted above, the full performance was shot and I suspect the video will be on the internet at some point in the (hopefully near) future. I’ll make sure to post it. In the meantime, here are some additional photos by Troy Anderson and Steven Stark:

Spring 2019 Part 2: Dividual

Written by Paul Manganello
Music Composed by Michael Malis
Conceived by Paul Manganello and Michael Malis

Of all the artistic collaborators I’ve been lucky to work with in my life, Paul is probably the one with whom I have the longest relationship. Paul, along with his brother Jim, and I, all went to middle and high school together. In fact, I was on stage with both of them in our middle school production of The Music Man (!). I had the honor of singing Shapoopi in that production. There is an embarrassing video that exists on a VHS. If that video got out, it would crush any shred of credibility that I currently hold as a serious musician.

But since middle school, Paul and I have worked together several times. I’ve scored two productions by the theater company that he co-directs with his brother Jim, Fratellanza. Working with Fratellanza always has the tone for me of stretching my artistic sensibilities, and every time I work with them I grow in leaps and bounds.

The project that Paul and I worked on in Cleveland was not a Fratellanza production — we were very clear on that from the beginning. We began this project sometime in 2016, and we got about halfway through what seemed like was going to be a radio play before life got in the way and we had to abandon it. But last year, Paul recommended that we apply to the Cleveland Public Theater’s Test Flight program to try and finish our work. Test Flight is a new play development program that exists to get shows out of the development process and onto a stage. It was a perfect fit for our fledgling piece.

We started thinking about this new, staged version of the piece in earnest this Fall. I knew that I wanted to use this as a vehicle to work in Max/MSP, which is a platform that I’m becoming more and more familiar with. I also knew that I wanted to work with percussion, but that I didn’t have a huge budget to work with. So I took my close friend Costa Kazaleh Sirdenis, who is a woodworker and overall very crafty guy, to a local junkyard. Costa is also a photographer, videographer, composer, and actor, and he helped me find some amazing sounding tailpipes and brake drums. We cut them off cars with an angle grinder and got them cleaned up. I was ready to start working.

This was a fun way to start the project. I ended up recording countless samples of these instruments, as well as a glockenspiel, finger cymbals, and other knick knacks. These sounds became one of the primary sound worlds of the show.

Paul and I spent the winter conversing over the phone (he lives in Los Angeles now.) He would send me drafts of the script, and I would send him some of my sonic creations. He would record a demo of himself reading the script, and I would send him back a few different versions of different scoring options. This worked to get us to a starting point, but when we arrived to Cleveland we still had a lot of work to do.

Myself being a bit of a novice in the theater, I didn’t have a full appreciation of how skeletal our crew of 2 was. We didn’t have a director; we didn’t have a lighting designer. For me, this turned out to be an incredibly fulfilling void to step into. To be clear — Paul did the bulk of this work while we were in Cleveland, picking up most of the slack. But I was able to give input on all of the lighting cues, as well as give input on directorial decisions. I have to say, this was an incredible thrill for me. I’m immeasurably grateful that Paul trusted me enough to ask my opinion on these things, and it was extremely fulfilling artistically. It reminded me that I don’t have to always put myself in the narrow, predefined box that I often think of myself in.

The show changed a lot in our short time in Cleveland. We consulted with Cleveland-based playwright David Hansen, who served as “outside eye” for our rehearsal process and offered insightful, thoughtful, and clear feedback (David wrote a great blog post about his role in our process.)

Over the course of the week we really discovered the show. Part of that stemmed from a decision we came into the week with: we had as a tenant of the show that I should be on stage. Over the course of the week, we discovered why. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that over the course of the show it is revealed that I’m not just scoring the show, but am actually a character in the show. That ontological shift is close to the heart of the show, and many of the important moments in the show hinge on that shift.

We performed the show three nights, and got great feedback from audiences. Paul delivered a masterful performance, putting on a masterclass in all the focus and attention it requires to be on stage in that way (it’s more focus and attention than is required of most musicians, ever, and it is terrifying.) We came in with a half-baked idea and ended with a product that we are both incredibly proud of. We’re currently in the stage of figuring out what next steps are, but we are very much looking at continuing to develop the show into something evening-length. Hopefully we can make that happen soon.

That’s it for Dividual. The next post will be about I Got To Keep Moving. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading,


Spring 2019 Part 1: Five Stations

For Piano, Saxophone and String Quartet

Composed by Michael Malis
Premiered by Balance, May 31 2019, presented by Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings

Michael Malis — piano
Marcus Elliot — tenor saxophone
Kimberly Kennedy — Violin
Jiamin Wang — Violin
James VanValkenburg — Viola
Jeremy Crosmer — Cello

In the spring of last year, Marcus Elliot and I were approached by Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. They asked us if Balance (our duo collaboration) would like to do something with them. We proposed this project. We’d been extremely excited about these pieces ever since we booked the show. And when we heard that we’d be performing with musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, our excitement only grew.

Marcus and I share a deep love for the string quartet. Speaking personally, I can say that the string quartet is one of the formats that led me to the world of classical music. When I was in high school, I heard four pieces that had a deep impact on me: the Debussy string quartet, the Ravel string quartet, Phillip Glass’s 5th string quartet, and Bartok’s 2nd string quartet. These four pieces were actually the first four scores I ever acquired for study: somehow I discovered that University of Michigan’s music library had all four. I had a sister at U of M at the time (not in the music school) and I begged her to check them out for me. She did, and even photocopied them all for me to have (thanks Katina — you’re a good sister!) Studying these scores actually led me to write my first ever piece of concert of music later that year: a string quartet in four movements. This piece will never see the light of day, but it was a really important development for me as a young person.

I started this new piece for piano, saxophone, and string quartet in January 2019. I decided to use the system of composition that I’ve developed that uses playing cards/tarot cards to derive generative materials for pitch, rhythm, and form. (One of these days, I’ll devote a whole blog post to how this system works — there is some information in the post about my string quartet, Emerge. Although I don’t use cards in that piece, it uses on a similar system.) This is the spread of cards that I started with:

I use Caitlin Keegan’s deck,   The Illuminated Tarot  . I like it because the cards are beautiful, the writing is simple and open-ended, and the deck is reduced to the size of a standard deck of playing cards which works great for my compositional system.

I use Caitlin Keegan’s deck, The Illuminated Tarot. I like it because the cards are beautiful, the writing is simple and open-ended, and the deck is reduced to the size of a standard deck of playing cards which works great for my compositional system.

I won’t go into the details of the representation of each card, but I will say this: the first card in the spread (the 2 of hearts) represents Balance. I took that as a good omen.

From that spread of cards, I mapped out this page. This page contains all of the precompositional materials of what would eventually become Five Stations. Some of the material from this page never made it into the composition: for example, the third pitch set (under “Resultant Tonalities,” E F# G# A D#) never really felt like a complete set for me, and the second rhythm (the 25 beat structure at the bottom) didn’t really work. But the rest of the material on the page became crucial to the piece.

Precompositional materials for  Five Stations , derived from tarot cards.

Precompositional materials for Five Stations, derived from tarot cards.

In particular, the rhythm at the top of the page (the 23 beat structure) recurs throughout the piece, and is often layered on top of itself, occurring simultaneously at 2 or even 3 different speeds. And the 1st, 2nd, and 4th pitch sets under “Resultant Tonalities” (labelled 0, 1, and 7) are the only pitch sets that occur throughout the entire piece. So from that perspective, the piece is based on a very tight set of materials.

Once I started composing, the structure of the piece started to reveal itself. The piece ended up being five miniatures, each one inhabiting its own world. This to me started to feel like an allegory for the “stations of life”: this idea that in life, one extended period of time that feels whole, full, and universal can cede to another extended period of time that feels altogether different but no less whole, full, or universal. I was composing this piece during a period of intense personal upheaval — my wife and I were being displaced from our apartment and figuring out where we would live next during the period of time that I was composing this piece. I started feeling that sometimes these transitions in life happen seamlessly, and sometimes they happen quite jarringly. I began thinking of this piece as a model for those transitions between “stations.” My wife and I ended up purchasing a great house, landing safely and evading what could have been a tricky situation. I was finishing this piece throughout April, as we were moving, and put the finishing touches on it on May 1, May Day, the day that we officially moved into our new house.

The act of putting the piece together with the ensemble turned out to be fairly challenging. We were beset by a bit of bad luck — the original cellist suffered an injury and couldn’t make the performance. We found an amazing substitute in Jeremy Crosmer, who stepped in and did a fantastic job. But we also only had one rehearsal with the full ensemble.

In spite of these challenges, the ensemble turned in a world-class performance. I’m really proud with how this turned out. I’m extremely grateful to my partner in crime Marcus Elliot, who wrote a killer piece of music himself (Aesthetically Present — more on that one very soon.)

A week after this premiere, Marcus and I went to Grand Rapids MI to perform our pieces with musicians from the Grand Rapids Symphony, led by violinist Chris Martin. Chris is a staple of the artistic community around there, and we’ve been super grateful to cultivate a wonderful relationship with him and his wife Laura. They’ve introduced us to lots of musicians in that area, and we’re hopeful that we’ll continue working with them in the future. We performed at a house concert on Friday June 7 and at the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts on Saturday June 8. I’m looking forward to many more collaborations with these musicians.

Below are the program notes I wrote for the piece. They might bring some context to what was in my mind as I was writing.

Recently in my life, I've made a series of very intense transitions in a relatively short period of time. As my habits have changed, so have my priorities. And as I continue to grow as a person, I realize that this process of constantly being in flux is nothing to be scared of; rather, the act of perpetually inventing and reinventing oneself is something to bravely welcome with open arms.

Upon reflection, I've realized that the rhythm of these transitions is such that one extended period of time that feels whole, full, and universal cedes to another extended period of time that feels altogether different but no less whole, full, or universal. I've begun to think of these contrasting extended periods as "stations" -- resting points, places of reprieve, and the defining textures of my daily life. I've sought to transliterate this idea to a musical process in this composition.

This piece consists of five distinct "stations" -- extended sections have their own defining life-forces independent of each other. These stations share certain characteristics in terms of materials -- pitch sets, interval structures, and rhythmic orientations -- but much of that similarity is buried beneath the surface. These five stations are meant to contrast with each other, showcasing extended musical ideas that should feel whole and full in their own right.

I hope this piece inspires performers and audiences to reflect on the stations that their own lives have traversed through, as well as the stations of life yet to come.

-Michael Malis, May Day 2019

Lastly: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this piece would not have been possible without the generous support of these kind patrons. Thank you so much for trusting me as an artist:

Commissioned by:

Marc and Christine Andren
Tim and Jane Stoepker
Paulie Bianchi
Kevin Kelly
Maury Okun
Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings
Jim and Gabriella Jacobs
Stephen Haines

That’s it for Five Stations. The next post will be on Friday, where I’ll be doing a deep dive into my recent collaboration with theater artist Paul Manganello, Dividual.

A few amazing things just happened

Hey friends —

I spent all of winter 2019 more or less underground. While I was in hibernation, a few major personal and public things were in process. On the professional side of things, I started working in earnest on three big pieces of music. All three of these pieces were developed throughout the winter, and were premiered in April and May. It was a period of intense work, and when I look back on the whole period I’m grateful to say that everything went better than I could have ever hoped for. I thought that while everything is still fresh I might as well try hard to say a little bit about what these pieces have meant to me.

So over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about these three pieces, as a way of putting a cap on this intense period. I’ll be working in reverse order:

  1. On Monday June 17, I’ll make a post about Five Stations, a piece for piano, saxophone, and string quartet which was premiered by Balance through Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings on May 31

  2. On Friday June 21, I’ll make a post about Dividual, my collaboration with theater artist Paul Manganello, which was premiered at the Cleveland Public Theater April 11-13

  3. On Monday June 24, I’ll make a post about I Got to Keep Moving, a performance piece by Balance featuring the stories of eminent author Bill Harris and the drummer Gerald Cleaver

So that’s what’s coming up! Stay tuned.

Serpent's Serpent

I’ve told the story several times on stage before performing this song. I had a daydream that there were two serpents, and each serpent had their own serpent. And those two serpents were weaving a web of “time” between them. And that “time” is where we people live.

What I usually don’t get into is that I made a drawing of that vision as I was having it. So here it is: a video of myself and Marcus performing “Serpent’s Serpent”, paired with the drawing of the Serpents’ Serpents. Hope you dig it.

IMG_0830 2.jpg

Marcus Elliot Quartet + Karriem Riggins play No. 3 by Lawrence Williams

Throwback to about two years ago when Karriem Riggins came to Cliff Bell’s and sat in with us on Number 3, the legendary and fierce composition by Detroit drummer Lawrence Williams. I’ve only gotten to play with Karriem a handful of times, and each time leaves a huge impression on me. In terms of feel, I think he’s my favorite around today.

Karriem did a live band set at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit last weekend, featuring some of Detroit’s finest: Ian Finkelstein on piano, Sasha Kashperko on guitar, Robert Hurst on bass, and Dwight Adams on trumpet. It was a great night. Great energy in the room, and great energy coming from the stage. I ran into so many friends at that show. It felt sort of like a class reunion, but one you actually wanted to be at.

This video is cell phone quality, but worth the watch. Karriem’s playing is terrifying. This is one of my favorite musical moments, paying tribute to our collective musical ancestry through this landmark piece of music.

Compositional Process: Emerge

"Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency."

"Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth."

-Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

view all of my scores here

These two quotes come from different chapters of Rebecca Solnit's masterpiece, Hope in the Dark. First published in 2004, Hope in the Dark is a retelling of the history of the radical left, from an equally radical position: the position of hope. Solnit argues that movements can easily fall into pessimistic traps -- that because the idea of a movement is inherently oppositional, the idealism of movements can easily be engulfed by their opposing forces.

Solnit tells stories of resistance and success -- large successes like the WTO protests in Seattle in the late 90's, and small successes like the process of how a farmer's market came to exist in a San Francisco town square which features racist statues. All in all, her book is an argument for the idea of keeping hope alive.

Video from the premiere of Emerge.

Commissioned by the Detroit Composers' Project Premiered at the Detroit Institute of Arts Riviera Court on September 9, 2018 Eliot Heaton, Yuri Popowycz - violins Jasper Zientek - viola Kellen Degnan - cello

This is a beautiful book to read in 2018. Incidentally, this summer I read this book and another book from the pre-Trump era -- Grace Lee Boggs' The Next American Revolution, published in 2011. I found that these two books offered a rare insight into today's combative political climate. I feel a little like it's impossible to create a truly cogent analysis of what's happening right now, because it's all happening so fast and we're all observing it in real time. These two authors, Solnit and Boggs, write with such urgency, and their ideas transcend their time.

When I began writing this piece, I knew that I wanted to write something that had some relationship to our current times. But I also knew that that could get unpleasant, fast. Nobody wants to go to a concert where we all sit around and talk about how shitty everything is. I know I don't want to go to that show. Solnit offered a way though for me. I took the word "Emerge" from the above quotes and coded it into the piece in various ways; most notably pitch collection, interval structure, and form. I'll go through and show how that process worked.


If we can equate each letter to its place in the alphabet, E = 5, M = 13, R = 18 and G = 7. E M E R G E = 5+13+5+18+7+5, which = 53. 5+3 = 8. So I used as I starting point, I used the numbers:

5, 13, 18, 7, and 8.

I experimented with the numbers in various ways to try to extract pitches from them. The methodology I settled on hinges on the idea of the "digital root," which I've been using a lot lately. The idea is simple: any two digit number can be reduced to one digit by adding up the two digits. So to find the digital root of 13, add 1 and 3. 1+3 = 4. So my next step was to take Emerge and find a digital root for the entire word. 5 + 1 + 3 + 5 + 1 + 8 + 5 = 28. 2+8 = 10. So the digital root of Emerge was 10.

You might notice that 7, the "G" was conspicuously absent from that calculation. To be completely honest, this was a mistake in my process, and by the time I found it I was already down this road and didn't want to turn back. But I got lucky. As the structure for the pitch collection emerged, 7 became an important structural number. I'll speak on that further down.

I now had these numbers as my primary numbers: 5, 13, 18, and 10. I put everything into mod12 (%12), meaning each number that was greater than 12 was reduced to a number less than 12. So 5 stayed as 5, 13 became 1, 18 became 6, 7 stayed as 7, and 10 stayed as 10. And when I put 1, 5, 6, and 8 into prime form, what I got was this: [0158]. This 0158 is the cell that everything follows from in the piece.

Pitch Collection

I started with "D" as my generating tone, and projected [0158] in both ascending and descending directions, resulting in a row of F#, A, C#, D, Eb, G, and Bb. I then decided to see what would happen if I projected that same numerical pattern of 0158 into the overtone and undertone series, using each tone in the row as a generative tone. The results were fascinating, and are detailed on the chart below:

The precompositional map that determined the entire pitch set of this piece. The pitches in the box titled "Generative Row" are the original pitches: starting with D as 0, they're [0158]'s in either direction. The pitches in the boxes above and below that box are pitches that follow from overtones 1, 5, and 8, and undertones 1, 5, and 8, from each tone in the Generative Row.

The precompositional map that determined the entire pitch set of this piece. The pitches in the box titled "Generative Row" are the original pitches: starting with D as 0, they're [0158]'s in either direction. The pitches in the boxes above and below that box are pitches that follow from overtones 1, 5, and 8, and undertones 1, 5, and 8, from each tone in the Generative Row.

As you can see, I fixed the generative row to specific pitches: F#3 to Bb5, with D4 in the middle. When I projected upward and downward into the overtone and undertone series, I now had a pitch set that spanned the full range of the string quartet -- actually, beyond that range -- and that was sufficiently chromatic but also with quirky and idiosyncratic limitations. I decided that my goal with this piece would be to use this pitch set, and only this pitch set. The only exception I made was to transpose various tones in the extreme upper and lower registers, to put the tones within the playing range of the instruments I was writing for.

I also decided that I would try to treat this material in as many different ways as possible -- both extracting vertical harmonies from each generative tone's overtone and undertone sets and creating horizontal melodies that jumped between generative tones' pitches.

Harmonies 1, 2, and 3, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

Harmonies 1, 2, and 3, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

Harmonies 4, 5, 6, and 7, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

Harmonies 4, 5, 6, and 7, mapped to the range of the instruments. (some of these ranges, especially in the violin, were modified in the final version of the piece.)

The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (1/2)

The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (1/2)

The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (2/2)

The entire pitch set in ascending order, mapped to the range of the instruments (2/2)


I decided that the 7 primary harmonies derived from the above scheme would determine the form of this piece. This, incidentally, is how the chords got their order; not through any process of divination. I simply played through them all in various orders and settled on an order that I liked. Treating the 7 harmonies as a structural element had another benefit: I could reclaim the 7 that I had forgotten in the earlier precompositional stage. 7 was now buried deeper into the structure of the piece. Intuitively, that made sense to me. My birthday is July 7 (7/7) and 7 has always been an important number to me. Baking 7 deeply into the structure of a piece called Emerge just felt right. I decided that my earlier mishap of forgetting to use 7 was actually a happy accident.

In terms of how the music would progress through the 7 harmonies, the structure I settled on was this: various instruments progress through the harmonies as different rates, meeting up at various structural moments.

Each instrument follows a preset cycle of alternating between completely "free" playing -- i.e., the ability to play the complete set -- and simply holding their tones within any given primary harmonies. Furthermore, while each player follows the same cycle, different players progress through that cycle at different rates. This has the effect of creating moments where more than one player at once are playing subsets of different primary harmonies at once, and also has the effect of creating moments where all members of the ensemble are playing "free" simultaneously.

As a clarifying element, I decided that all players would coalesce on primary harmonies after one complete cycle, then start again on a new cycle.

The cycle that the players moved through is this: 5-13-5-18-5. Players alternated each beat unit between playing "free" and holding their subset of a given primary harmony. So, for example, the piece begins like this: after an initial statement of harmony 1 by the entire ensemble, violins 1 and 2 play free for 5 beats, holds harmony 1 for 13 beats, plays free for 5 beats, holds harmony 1 for 18 beats, and plays free for 5 beats. This is one complete cycle. It then continues by playing harmony 2 for 5 beats, playing free for 13 beats, playing harmony 2 for 5 beats, playing free for 18 beats, and playing harmony 2 for 5 beats.

Meanwhile, the viola and cello are completing the same cycle, but at a rate that is twice as slow. They play free for 5 beats, hold harmony 1 for 13 beats, play free for 5 beats, hold harmony 1 for 18 beats, and play free for 5 beats. But in the space of their one cycle, the violins complete their first two cycles.

All instruments coalesce at this moment on primary chord 2.

Some version of this pattern continues for seven revolutions. This is long enough for the viola and cello to cycle through all of the primary harmonies once, and for the violins to cycle through all of the primary harmonies twice. This makes up the bulk of the piece. This precompositional map that I made expresses this entire form:

Precompositional map for the form of  Emerge . All instruments progress through a pattern of 5-13-5-18-5, alternating between free playing (within the strict pitch set) and holding subsets of primary chords. But the two violins move through that pattern twice as fast as the viola and cello, creating the framework for overlapping harmonies and wild contrapuntal motion. This map was adapted as the piece was actually composed. For example, note that this map expresses a third layer of speed -- see the violin 1 part in the 2nd system, the viola part in the 4th system, the violin 2 part in the 5th system, and the cello part in the 7th system. This "fast lane" was abandoned throughout the course of composition.

Precompositional map for the form of Emerge. All instruments progress through a pattern of 5-13-5-18-5, alternating between free playing (within the strict pitch set) and holding subsets of primary chords. But the two violins move through that pattern twice as fast as the viola and cello, creating the framework for overlapping harmonies and wild contrapuntal motion. This map was adapted as the piece was actually composed. For example, note that this map expresses a third layer of speed -- see the violin 1 part in the 2nd system, the viola part in the 4th system, the violin 2 part in the 5th system, and the cello part in the 7th system. This "fast lane" was abandoned throughout the course of composition.

In order to make sure these formic values were being expressed, I started composing with the idea of different instruments in different time signatures. The original version of the first draft of the score looked like this:

First version of the first draft of  Emerge

First version of the first draft of Emerge

Of course, I cleaned that up and gave everybody unified time signatures for the final draft. The players had enough on their hands without having to deal with different time signatures. Here's the same stretch in the final draft:

The opening of  Emerge  with unified bar lines and time signatures between the players. (Notice too that I ended up taking the violins down an octave for their held "primary harmony" notes. This decision was made after the first reading session, where the violinists' valliant efforts were still not enough to overcome the unwise decision of writing so high so consistently. Taking these 5ths down an octave throughout the piece was the best decision I could have made for the piece.)

The opening of Emerge with unified bar lines and time signatures between the players. (Notice too that I ended up taking the violins down an octave for their held "primary harmony" notes. This decision was made after the first reading session, where the violinists' valliant efforts were still not enough to overcome the unwise decision of writing so high so consistently. Taking these 5ths down an octave throughout the piece was the best decision I could have made for the piece.)

After these seven cycles are completed, the piece ends with an extended Coda in which all players loop through all seven chords together. This happens four times in total, with the 1st violinist playing a virtuosic obbligato line over the progression. This ending is supposed to be a big payoff for the listener and for the player -- something tangible has finally emerged. I had a hard time finding an ending, and I settled on this ending, again, sort of through intuition. It really just felt right.


There were a few other aspects of this piece that I didn't get into -- most notably, the interval structure that manifests in the surface of the piece, and also the particular properties of the harmonies that resulted from the mixing of two or more primary harmonies. Nonetheless, I hope this writing offers a window into the process that I've been developing over the last year, and how that process manifested itself in the composition of this piece. If you have any questions, I'd be thrilled to talk; get in touch with me via the Contact page on this website.

Thank you for your interest, and thank you for reading! I'm also endlessly grateful to the quartet who premiered this piece -- Eliot Heaton and Yuri Popowycz on violins, Jasper Zientek on viola, and Kellen Degnan on cello. Lastly, thank you to the Detroit Composer's Project for asking me to write this piece in the first place.

Live: Two Very Different Solo Recordings

In June 2018, I performed solo at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor, MI. The gig was interesting, and sort of odd: they have a beautiful and very old Steinway B in one of their galleries, and I when I arranged the gig I asked if I could play it. They agreed, but also asked me if I could bring my keyboard and do something electronic in a different part of the museum. I agreed. So I played one set on their Steinway, and one set on my keyboard in their Atrium, routing the sound through a patch I built Max/MSP.

Above, you can listen to a recording of an excerpt from the solo piano performance. It was a really interesting playing experience for me. On the one hand, it wasn’t really a performance; a few people were sitting and listening, but by in large most people were milling about the gallery, checking out the art. But nonetheless, I had no desire to completely recede into the background. So I decided to improvise freely, and let the music be guided by the art that came into my awareness.

The one piece of art that I had a perfect view of from the piano was this one:


I found out later that this piece is called Judith with the Head of Holofernes, by Gaspare Traversi. I know nothing about this artist, and next to nothing about the subject. But the look in her eyes completely arrested me. I don’t think I took my eyes off of her for this entire performance. She seems completely at peace with herself, and it is so incredibly attractive.

After I played in the gallery for about 45 minutes, I headed over to the Atrium for a very different type of thing. I had my Korg SV-1 set up, as well as a microphone. Everything was being routed into my laptop, which was running a patch that I built in Max/MSP. I actually built this patch for the piece Logical Conclusions, a solo bass piece that I wrote for Ben Willis. He has yet to have the opportunity to perform that piece, so in the meantime sometimes I trot out this patch to improvise with it. The patch is sort of fun, but ultimately simple: it’s a looping station that gives the performer control of up to 6 loops. Loops can be sped up and slowed down according to the harmonic series, reversed, granulated, and parsed. It’s fun. For Logical Conclusions, the performer is supposed to loop very particular pitches in very particular ways. But for this performance, I just improvised and had fun with it.

Turnout was low for this particular performance. That was probably for the best; I felt completely uninhibited and felt find about stepping out into musical territory that was somewhat unfamiliar to me. My friend Brian Juarez, who is a good young bassist, came and caught almost the whole set. We went out to lunch afterwards and discussed his massive record collection. All in all, it was a good day.

In terms of the how this style of playing fits into the greater suite of what I do, I can only describe this as “something that I do sometimes.” It’s very different than the type of playing that I show, for example, on my trio record, or even on Balance. But this sort of “ambient improvisation” is something that I spend a fair amount of time doing in my personal creative practice, and it’s something that I’m looking for more opportunities to develop. I have lots of homemade recordings in this vein, and some of them incorporate my Rhodes, my piano, my SH-101, electronic effects, and various percussion instruments and vocal effects. At some point, some of those recordings will make their way onto this blog.

Michael Malis Trio Tour Launch Show, Trinosophes July 2016

Michael Malis Trio Tour Launch Show, Trinosophes July 2016

Just over two years ago. Amazing how much has happened since then! Miss playing with these guys. michaelmalistrio.bandcamp.com to listen to the record we put out in 2015.

All photos by Troy Anderson

Past — Present — Future

Today I bought my first tarot deck. I spent a lot of time at the shop going through the different decks they had, and the one I settled on was this one: The Illuminated Tarot by Caitlin Keegan. It’s a bit of an unconventional deck — only 53 cards, compared to the normal 78. But I got it because it’s directly correlated to a normal deck of playing cards — Major Arcana are reduced to make that work. The extra card (a normal deck of playing cards has 52 cards) is a joker.

I’m interested in using playing cards to generate musical material — Numerology is the farthest I’ve taken this so far, but I employed similar processes in the creation of Resound, What Follows From, Orbital, and Double Double. So the fact that this deck was relatable to playing cards was a big plus for me. Furthermore, It’s beautifully illustrated and simple. I don’t know that I’ll be able to do full spreads with it, and maybe one day I’ll have to get a more robust deck, but for now it’s interesting and it resonated with me.

I just concluded my first ever self-administered tarot card reading.  I used a simple spread — three cards, each card in order represents either the past, present, or future. I asked the cards to reflect on my aesthetic and creative world, past, present, and future. The results were illuminating and beautiful. 

Here’s the spread I drew:


The card in the Past slot was the Ace of Clubs. This apparently represents strength, overcoming desire, building trust, and courage. 

The card in the Present slot was a 2 of Spades — the Hanged Man. This represents peace through self discipline and freedom from distraction. 

The card in the Future slot was an Ace of Diamonds. This represents the world, peace, travel, and open-mindedness.

In the context of my creative life, it is interesting to think of the Past in terms of strength, overcoming desire, and building trust. I think that my past — my training, my learning, my education, both formally and informally — was a massive gathering of tools, frameworks, and discipline, with lots of focus on learning how to learn. Of course, this stage isn’t over for me; it never will be. But while I’m certainly interested in growth and expansion now, it is absolutely true that there are certain skills that I learned when I was younger that I fall back on and don’t have to think about anymore. They’re my foundation. Tonal harmony and music theory. How to make a gig. Learning by ear. Accompanying a vocalist. Transcription. Reading music. These are my rocks, my touchstones, my strength, the processes that I can rely on when all else fails. 

The second card was also enlightening in terms of the present moment. For starters, I was struck by the image itself. The character is blindfolded, which makes sense to me. I do feel like I’m walking myself in right now, insulating myself from a lot of attention so that I can undergo radical transformation.

This, for example, was one of my takeaways from my recent trip to New York last weekend — how can anyone grow here when everyone is so reliant on self promotion? It does seem antithetical to the openness that is required to fertilize creativity. Of course, those are broad brushstrokes; not everyone is unable to do both at the same time. And of course, it’s self centered; I’m also self promotional, and I’m trying to grow creatively. Still, it was a feeling that I picked up on.

Nonetheless, the idea behind this card — “peace through self discipline — works for me. This card is a reminder of what I should be doing, and how I should be spending every day. I think that at my best, I can find myself here, but I also ebb and flow  quite a bit.

And if I can commit to that work, then what’s waiting for me might be in the last card, the Ace of Diamonds. The world, peace, travel, and open-mindedness (read: open-heartedness). That peace and openness applies to my personal life, but also to a cultivating a more ecumenical spirit in my art. That’s my goal — to find a way to synthetize the width of my musical interests and activities. It seems that I’m on my way, if I can just be patient. 

Also interesting to me that I got Ace — 2 — Ace. The highest to the lowest and back to the highest again. It makes sense.

Stay the course. Stay open. Lead with your heart. Lead with your ears! The rest will follow. 

A Delightful Typo!

Today, I found a typo in Oscar Beringer's "Daily Technical Studies for  Piano." I cannot express how much joy this brought me. This book is a nonstop onslaught of eighth notes, very regularly patterned, and although it clocks in at 151 pages, it is approximately 1/12th shorter than it should be -- each study is meant to be transposed into all 12 keys.

The ritual of practicing out of this book was handed down to me by my teacher, Geri Allen, and I seem to remember her telling me that Herbie Hancock had shown her this book (I can't remember that point definitely -- did any other former students of Geri ever hear this?) In any case, every student of Geri's practiced diligently out of this book. I have practiced out of it, on and off, for 12 years, and recently I've picked it back up again. (Here's a link to the book, if anyone's interested).

That's why finding this typo is so satisfying. For starters, this book is dense, and its sheer density makes it satisfying. But secondly, I'm imagining finding this typo and bringing it into Prof. Allen's studio for a lesson. She was stern, but I know that she would have delighted in this, and it might well have opened an enlightening conversational door. She was like that -- a diffuse thinker, with a strong aptitude for lateral moves.

Lately, my musicianship, creative practice, and career have been changing in circuitous and unexpected ways. This is healthy, and I'm simultaneously nervous and pleased to see how things have changed for me over the last few years. But I have to say, moving forward without having the ability to chat with Prof. Allen has been challenging. Over the last few years of her life, we didn't talk much -- maybe once a year -- but every time we talked, I felt like I had gained some clarity, some mandate, some mission. As I get older, the clarity, mandate, and mission is starting to come from within. It's good, but not having much external feedback can sometimes make you wonder if your internal compass is guiding you in the right direction.

I think mine is. But I won't know for some time yet.


Chamber Music Society of Detroit presents Balance: Extended Ensembles

Shaver Recital Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit MI, May 4, 2018

CMSD presented a concert of Balance (myself on piano and Marcus Elliot on saxophones), and commissioned us each to compose a new piece for an ensemble of our choice. I composed a three movement piece, Numerology, for myself (piano/toy piano/electronics), Rafael Statin (soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, bass flute), and Nicole Patrick (percussion). An extended blog post about this piece is forthcoming; for now you can look at the score and read the program notes in the Compositions section of this site. Here are some photos from the night.

All photos by Costa Kazaleh Sirdenis