tarot

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.

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:

FullSizeRender.jpg

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.