by Max Ridley
One of my favorite things about science fiction is how a creator can project their vision of the future. However, as it is a projection, and we only have our own experience to draw from, often we color this future vision with bits and pieces from our now. Like having characters that exist 200 years from now conversing in vernacular from our time. Or having an alien race appear humanoid. One of the best examples of this is the famous “Cantina Band” from Star Wars playing “alien” music that sounds a lot like jazz.
Listen to the album “Max Ridley’s Sci-Fi Band” while reading the story.
A homage to science fiction
This project was my attempt at both paying tributes to some of my favorite science fiction creators and creations as well as projecting my own vision of the future with what I have available to me in the now. I didn’t want to make the common connection that “futuristic” music equals synthesizers. But I didn’t want to abandon it either.
Therefore, I chose to use a specific instrumentation that could possibly be a standard format (like the string quartet or the jazz piano trio) in the future: two bass clarinets, two trumpets, upright bass and a tap dancer. Matt Hull, one of the trumpet players, made use of pedals and live electronic sampling/manipulation of the band. Thus bringing in synthetic material to the organic creature that is the ensemble. The projection was now a cyborg.
My reason for choosing two bass clarinets as part of the instrumentation is, in addition to loving the versatile yet specific sound of the instrument and being fortunate enough to know two genuinely incredible operators of that machine (Matt Stubbs and Aarong Gelb), the instrument itself looks so retro-futurist. It’s like a black wooden serpent augmented by all the silver metal machinery. An analog cyborg. That’s why I chose to call the free improvisation between the two bass clarinets “Steampunk Serpents Dance” (Steampunk is a subgenre of retro-futurism and science fiction).
Their improvisation sets up the first tune I wrote for this project “Terry Kitchen Splat Splat.” A fictional abstract expressionist from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Bluebeard”; Terry Kitchen was a close friend of the novel’s protagonist and fellow fictional abstract expressionist, Rabo Karabekian. Kitchen used an industrial paint gun to make his most iconic work. He also used a regular gun to shoot himself in the head.
The melody of this tune was written with contours that use fixed rhythm and pitch direction (going up or going down). The exact notes to use are up to the players. The result of this is that the rhythm and direction of the melody are the same, but the notes are different every time it is played. During Ryan Easter’s trumpet solo and Ian Berg’s tap solo you can hear Matt Hull’s electronic manipulation of their sounds happening in real time. That was not added later.
Although “Bluebeard” is not a science fiction novel, Vonnegut is considered to be one of the classic American writers in the Sci-Fi genre. He was also the first writer to really make an impact on me as a young reader.
The next track “I Was First to Find You” was inspired by a great short story from the golden age of Soviet science fiction by Kir Bulychov. The story is about the first faster-than-light deep space mission and the crew of astronauts who signed up for it.
It explores themes of duty, loss, the effects of relativity (potentially returning to an earth that has aged many years while you have aged few) and cosmic isolation (is there anybody else out there?) The trumpet loop that continues throughout the piece is meant to represent radar blips.
I chose to include a cover of the Pixies’ “Where is my Mind.” Because part of what jazz musicians have always done is take popular songs that the general public will know and use them as vehicles for improvisation. This has and will allow jazz to grow, develop and evolve in each era.
The average person’s ear is brought in by a melody they know. So they are more likely to follow as the musicians diverge from the melody and take it farther and farther out through improvisation. Give a little, take a little.
The Next Generation
The final track, “At Tanagra” was written for season 5 episode 2 of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It is set up by a free improvisation between the two trumpets, Ryan Easter and Matt Hull. “Star Trek” is one of my favorite works of Science Fiction and usually presents an optimistic vision of the future and humanity working together.
Setting this tune-up with two trumpets was an attempt at getting the feeling of following a shining, golden, triumphant horn call to the best future humanity can envision for itself. The melody itself is a loose call and response figure between the shining golden horns of a bright future (trumpets) and the scuttling rhythmic chaos of humanity as we try to figure our shit out (rest of the band). The trumpet call is a melodically written figure while the band response is a rhythmic binary between a random low pitch and a random high pitch. The last and loudest trumpet call is going the same direction as the others, but the notes to use are player’s choice like in “Terry Kitchen.”
What happens next and how to end the song are up to band to establish communication and work it out in real time. Good luck and godspeed!