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 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.

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