Friday, 14 April 2017

Creativity and Musical Arrangement

To find out what arrangers think about the creativity and music arrangements, I interviewed Allan Gilliland, dean of fine arts and composition at MacEwan University and a prolific composer and arranger. His base of operation is classical music, but his experience as a jazz trumpeter has allowed him to write and perform in many music genres for both small and large ensembles. When I spoke to him, his recent musical adventures included the scoring for the Edmonton Citadel Theatre's production of Sense and Sensibility and a new orchestral composition for jazz legends Tommy Banks and PJ Perry for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's 2017-2018 season.

Typically, Gilliland says, an arranger works with someone else's melody. The arranger must do, as Gilliland says, "everything else." This "everything else" includes scoring for the instruments in an ensemble, harmonization, bridging, transposition, and countermelody.  One form of arrangement popular in jazz is contrafact: the use of chord progressions, rather than melody, from someone else's composition. An arranger in contrafact thus creates the new melody over the chords.Thus George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" has lent its chords to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and to Django Reinhardt's "Daphne."

Gilliland says that some "famous and great arrangements" have not received the respect they deserve because of the music industry's greater valuation of original composition. Arrangers are paid through fee for service. Unlike composers, arrangers tend not to get royalties, since only melodies can be copyrighted. Gilliland gave the example of Gil Evans, whose collaborations with Miles Davis are legendary. Also legendary is the fact that Evans received no royalties from the success of those collaborations. (Read Stephanie Stein Crease's biography of Gil Evans to find out more.)

In the case of contrafact, chord progressions cannot be copyrighted in American law, so a musician can generate a copyrightable melody over an uncopyrightable chord progression. The contrafactual arrangement, therefore, lies in a tender zone at the interstices of copyright law and the emulation of other musicians.

Gilliland says that the diminished status of arrangers is unfair because they are doing "really creative work." Jazz and big band in particular use arrangements heavily, so these genres lean on the labour and ingenuity of arrangers.

Gilliland  both composes and arranges, and he says the creative act is present in both. For arrangement, he says that creativity feels different, more "bound" to the originating melody. He agrees that there can be a "clash of creativity" between the original work and the arranger's desire to interpret that work through instrumentation and scoring. Some song standards have been arranged countless times, so the challenge is to make an arrangement that stands out from others. Gilliland says that some arrangers will ask themselves, "What can I do that people won''t expect?" Some arrangements, for example, are "deconstructions," such that the original has been dispersed in complex ways into the arrangement. Compare, for example, Dave Ballou's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's "Smada" to a recording of the original.

Or compare a standard version of "O Canada" with Gilliland's arrangement.

Sunday, 2 April 2017


As part of my novelty agenda for this year, I plan to be a busker for a day. Why a busker? I was walking around doing chores and thinking of novelty ideas. All kinds of strange thoughts enter my head when I am desperate for ideas, as I often am. The word busker surfaced, and I had to admit that, yes, I have never busked before. No way around it. Other ideas I generate I can eliminate because they cost too much money to arrange (go to Easter Island, buy a horse), or I can see no reasonable route to accomplishing  the novelty (compete in the Olympics, become an inventor), or I just don't want to do it (yell at a rude person I meet in public, rob a bank). Busking for one day, though, I could not handily dismiss.

I can more or less play a piano accordion, so I plan one day this summer to go outside to a street corner and play. All my work in coming up with a repertoire of songs got me thinking around music arrangements. I want to do one or two new songs to supplement my existing collection of accordion music, which is dominated by classical music, folk tunes and American jazz standards. Has someone out there, for example, arranged "Hotline Bling" for piano accordion? (Yes, of course.)  If so, where can I find the sheet music?

From this speculation, I asked myself, What kind of person would be in the business of arranging Drake songs to publish as accordion sheet music, or as sheet music for any other instrument, for that matter?

I need to investigate.

Monday, 6 March 2017


My local library branch has begun to display book-spine poetry. These are poems built with the titles of books as printed on their spines. To create the poem, you stack the books in the order you want.

Artist Nina Katchadourian tends to get credit on the Internet for this art form. Her website has many examples of her work.

Book spine poetry is a form of cento, a genre of poetry extent since the first centuries C.E. in which the lines come from other people's poems. 

I have books. I have been known to write poetry. Why not, then?

If you want to write
Primal myths
Daughter of Earth
Unwinding threads
Writing down the bones
Making a Difference
You can't go home again

The wars
inside memory
fatal passage
under the ribs of death
on the road
all on fire
under the banner of heaven
never let me go

The technique reminds me of using poetry magnets. The writing process is less flexible but permits flights of fancy that might not otherwise arise.

The waves
to the lighthouse
the known world

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Follow-up to Creative Stimulants 3

Below is part of the outcome of my creative stimulants exercise from last time. I did not include the entire story, though I have written it to its close, since it goes on for some time and I wanted to spare the blog the long chunk of text.

 After I finished my story, I read the host story, as it were, Julia Alvarez's “Trespass." That story focussed on a child, while mine focussed on an adult who was visiting the American Garcias. My Garcias are Argentinian, a more or less random choice of country. I have some Argentinian relatives, whom I met once when they visited here. The father in that family was a doctor, so I made my father of the family a doctor too. The class differences have an impact on characterization as well as on the plot, such as it is in my story. I noted with interest the sordid turns that both of the stories ended up taking. I don't know why that would be. 

I have work to do on this story still. But for what it's worth, here it is in its first draft.

True Blue
“The day the Garcías were one American year old, they had a celebration at dinner.”  Julia Alvarez, “Trespass”

     The oldest García, Jacinta García, was not an American. She was visiting from Argentina. She insisted on cooking, however. She made her version of a true-blue American meal: hot dogs and French fries for her son Diego’s two youngest children; roast beef, mashed potatoes and coleslaw for the adults and the two teenagers; and apple pie with tiger tail ice cream for everyone.
     None of the children liked the pistachio ice cream. Pablo, the oldest grandchild, said, “Abuela, you should have asked me what kind of ice cream we like.”
     Jacinta nodded. A smile twisted her mouth even as an exasperated frown threatened below it. “You’re right, Pablo.” Jacinta was a diabetic and had not eaten ice cream in years, neither American nor Argentinian. “Here I thought ice cream on sale at Sam’s Club was ice cream most people liked.”
     “It is,” Diego’s wife Maria said. “Your grandchildren have become picky all of a sudden.”
     “You can’t know America from watching telenovelas,” teenaged Brisa said.  “You should have asked us.”
     Jacinta had waited ten years for this visit to America, and now, with a sweep of her hand, she had alienated her grandchildren from her. Since Diego, Maria and the two oldest had citizenship, she had felt safer coming over. She had heard stories about American immigration not letting their family stay in America if they let an older parent come to visit. In the past they had come to visit her for long periods, often taking advantage of the visit to sort out details of their planned application for citizenship. Once Diego had managed to convince Jacinta to come to America when they were in California but that was because Maria had just had given birth to Ana, and Diego had said that Maria needed help--the pregnancy had tired her out, and she was slow to recover. Maria’s youngest sister Nadia wouldn’t come, so Maria had no one else. Even so, Jacinta had stayed only for three weeks.
Jacinta was grateful for Diego’s courage in visiting Argentina so frequently and ensuring she could keep in touch with Pablo and Brisa. She had wept over her grandchildren the most when Diego moved to the United States. Her first two grandchildren had loved her so much. And now she had ruined this first attempt at showing that she loved them just the way they were, whether they Argentinian or American. Of course the littlest ones had been born in Spokane and so had always been American. They had never known their grandmother as anything other than someone from a foreign country. Jacinta had become like one of the itinerant parents she had been acquainted with through her childhood school friends. So many fathers of her friends lived somewhere else to work or do graduate studies and came to visit their children only once or twice a year. Her best friend Elenora’s father had been one of those men. He lived in Dubai many years. Elenora had told Jacinta that she had never viewed her father as a real father. Elenora’s mother had taken a lover, one of her many, in the meantime and considered him to be her real father.
     “What kind of ice cream do you like, then?” Jacinta asked all four children the question. The two oldest waited for the two youngest to answer. Ana, the five-year-old, looked up at her grandmother and opened her mouth. A word Jacinta didn’t understand came out.
     “Birthday cake flavour,” Diego translated.
     “Ice cream with the flavour of birthday cake? What does that taste like?”
     “You know,” Pablo said. “White cake, with sprinkles, and very sweet icing.”   Pablo smiled as though he shared Jacinta’s skepticism, but Ana seemed irritated. Nevertheless, she said nothing and neither did Brisa. Jacinta wondered if Ana knew any Spanish. Diego said she did, but she had never heard Ana speak a word of it. She had only heard Ana speak English, and only then when Jacinta was not in the room. Once Jacinta walked in the room, Ana’s eyes narrowed, and she shrunk into a small package of herself.
     The littlest one, Connor, just past one year old, didn’t speak at all, except for “Mama” and “Papa.” 
     Ana said something else, and Diego didn’t translate immediately.
     “What did she say?”
     Brisa said, “She asked you have any birthday-cake ice cream.”
     “Is there a place to get it?” Jacinta asked.
      “Oh, no, you don’t, Mama.” Maria shook her head in that exaggerated way she always shook her head, like a nervous horse tossing her head at a strange sound. “The kids don’t need birthday-cake ice cream.”
     Brisa wrinkled her nose at Ana. “You can’t even buy that in stores,” she said. “You can only get that in ice-cream shops.” She spoke in Spanish, as though she expected Ana to understand her. Ana frowned as though she had understood perfectly.
     Baby Connor picked up a piece of cut-up hot dog and pushed it cautiously into the scoop of ice cream in his plastic dish.
     “That won’t help, Connor,” Ana said in English.
     Late, while Jacinta, Maria and Diego did the dishes, Jacinta wanted to have a smoke. With Diego around, however, she didn’t dare bring up the subject. One thing she had liked about Diego not being home in Argentina was that she could smoke whenever she wanted to. Ever since Diego started medical school she had not been able to smoke around him. She had even quit smoking for his sake. Once he had moved to California for his residency, he had left her, yes, and taken his family with him, but he had also taken with him a barrier to one of his mother’s great pleasures. She restarted her smoking only one week after he left. Now in his permanent job in Spokane, he had not changed his ways, and he had his eye on her. “I hope you aren’t smoking again, Mama,” he said when they were driving from the airport to his home.
“Sometimes, yes.”
“Not inside the house, of course!”
“Of course.”

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Creative Stimulants 3: First line

Take the first line, sentence, or paragraph of a piece of writing and create your own story from it. You should acknowledge the authorship of the inspiring piece somehow. Otherwise, write it as you wish. This exercise is most interesting if you use a first sentence from a text you haven't read yet. Read the parent text afterwards and compare.

My parent text is "Trespass," a short story by Julia Alvarez, published in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.

"The day the Garcias were one American year old, they had a celebration at dinner."

The original story is 81 paragraphs long. Likely my piece will not be as long. Stay tuned for it.

Saturday, 19 November 2016


These days, I am all about novelty. I don't mean novelty in the sense of "novelty items" or "novelty stores."  Novelty items are small and cheap toys or doodads that are entertaining or eye-catching. I love novelty items, don't get me wrong. Recently I received two novelty items as gifts: a Batman Pez dispenser and and a Wolverine action figure.

No, by novelty I mean newness. To dedicate oneself to creativity, novelty or newness is a given. Creativity requires the belief that doing something no one else has done is good. I am talking about novelty for novelty's sake. I am not speaking of pragmatism. Certainly novelty may have pragmatic applications or results: acquiring a new hobby, meeting a new friend, learning something to help a person at work or home, saving myself from starvation during a bout of poverty by eating Pez (a theoretical example).

The aim of novelty, at least in the way I define it, is simply to encourage oneself to do something new.

I have been feeling stuck, thwarted and downcast lately. A life dedicated to daily newness seemed to be a solution to these feelings of feeling stuck. If I am doing something I haven't done before, how could I be stuck?

I have become a devotee of novelty. Whom should I worship, then? Who is the patron saint of novelty?  Perhaps Claude de la Columbière or Nicholas of Myra, both patron saints of toymakers, depending on whom you ask. I don't need an anthropomorphism to bow to, however. Instead, I have made a pledge. I pledged to do something new every day for one year: 365 days of novelty.

So far I have done well. Since Oct 31,  I have recorded one novelty per day.  I keep a diary of novelty in a notebook. Newness doesn't have to be like a so-called "bucket list" that involves far-fetched, far-flung destinations. I have gone for coffee in two cafes I haven't been in before, I wrote a one-act play, I coloured my hair red, blue and green (temp colour only), I taught my dog a new trick ('phasers on stun: ZAP!'--that is, play dead), I registered two domain names ( and, and I visited a malthouse. Some of these things are creative, some are related to things I had to do anyway but for which I found a novel way of doing them, while others are whimsical. The benefit, for me, is the idea of novelty as something open to me no matter how stuck I think I am and how powerless I feel at times.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Creativite Stimulants 2: Ekphrastic writing

Ekphrastic writing is writing based on a non-writing work of art. Traditionally ekphrasis is a description of a visual work of art such as a painting or sculpture. The resulting ekphrasis has to add to the experience of the original art work, help vivify it or express its essence through the skillful use of language. Ekphrastic writing tends to be hyperbolic and enthusiastic, rather than understated, but that is only a tradition. For some examples of ekphrastic writing, see John Mullan's compilation in The Guardian of important ekphrastic writing.

Here is a paragraph of ekphrastic writing I wrote based on a little painting I have in my room.

Her small face stares intensely out at my world and asks for my opinion. On what? On her world or the outside world? her world is a small square of wood with infinite depth. Bluegreen flog, white flowers opening their erratic petals, pink spheres, pink flowers that may be birds, a red table top that may be a brick path leading to somewhere inaccessible to this world. Perhaps to her, even. Someone has instructed her to wear a blue sundress. A sheaf of long orange hair sweeps over her shoulder and lies down the front of her cest. She is bent forwards, perhaps to get a better look out of the square window of glass that lets her see out into this world. She smiles as though she knows what I might say. I dare you, she says.