compositional process

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.

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.

E M E R G E

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)

Form

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.

Conclusion

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.