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.

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.