One extremely formative part of my early development as a composer was finding Steve Coleman’s essays ( on his music and thoughts on composition. Similarly, shortly after I moved to New York Steve Lehman very kindly sat down and went over a few of his pieces with me in exacting detail. I have no pretense that my music operates in the same orbit as either of those musical luminaries, and it’s hard for me to write about my music without feeling like it is somehow presumptuous or vain. There are no doubt many musicians who find the game of my pieces quite easy to identify aurally. I also am tormented a bit by my training as a music theorist—it can feel downright silly to bring a skill set honed on Schubert and Webern to bear on my own music, which in any event is not fully at ease either in the world of contemporary classical or modern jazz music.

But I do think that discussions of compositional process are useful — not only for audiences or for other interested composers, but also, selfishly, as a way of starting to refine my own technique as a composer. So in the interest of paying it forward (to the extent that phrase still holds when I’ve taken a big cut of the payment first), I’m going to write a bit about a piece called “Strong, ME.,” off of my album “Beams of the Huge Night.”

The first thing I wrote was a melody of uneven phrases, more or less in a duple meter. I wanted something that felt kind of sad and lilting, over a bass line that approximated a descending chromatic scale. This piece is named after the town of Strong in northern Maine; it housed a toothpick factory that used to produce more toothpicks than anywhere else on the planet. The factory shuttered in 2003, but the town’s motto remains “The Toothpick Capital of the World.” I found that a profoundly sad, plangent slogan to cling to — the kind of rural post-WWII motto that would be gently ridiculed in a Phillip Roth novel, now rendered purely nostalgic, but nostalgic for what exactly? Nostalgia and failure both make for poignant art and music, and so I thought that I’d use these feelings about this small town near where I was living to help structure a piece. I don’t really like for my music to be explicitly programmatic, but that doesn’t mean that the process of composition itself must lack a program or narrative.

The melody + bassline I wrote looked like this:

Next, I knew I wanted to warp this somehow. I grew up in Maine and spent a lot of time looking at wooden boats. The image of warping wood to fit around the hull of a boat has been a potent one for me. There’s a way of thinking of a straight board as a perfect shape: meticulously measured and calibrated and standardized. We tend to think of the hull of a boat in similar terms: smooth, sleek, somehow perfect. The idea that one perfect object would need to be warped, sometimes violently, to form another perfect object — and that both are corruptions in their perfection, neither figure being found in nature — is an image I return to when I need to get some creative momentum going.

I like odd-meter rhythms that have multiple grouping possibilities; 18, 21, and 25 are particularly fun to play with (there are two songs on the album with sections in 21 and one song in 18). I think of the rhythm for Strong as being in 21/16, though I think most of the band thinks of it in 7 divided as triplets; it depends on whether you like to entrain to grouping or meter, but I definitely hope that listeners think of it in the jerky, off-center grouping pattern rather than the more even 7/4, hence the notational choice I made. The grouping rhythm is 5+4+5+4+3, which the drums, bass, and one guitar emphasize. I augmented the melody above into what in 7/4 would be eighth notes expanded into quarter note triplets (but in 21/16 where dotted eighth = quarter they remain eighth notes). The bassline changes pitch at whatever attack point in the 5+4+5+4+3 pattern is nearest to the corresponding melodic change; they rarely change together (as they do in the original version) and sometimes the bassline anticipates the harmonic change in the melody and sometimes it follows it.

As for the harmony itself, the original sketch of the melody + bassline suggests some harmonies, but I wanted to avoid making those suggestions explicit. I decided to harmonize simply with descending power chords in the guitar, which give the entire phrase a hollow feel that meshed well with my desire for a melancholy phrase.

Here's what it ended up looking like (I added a few rearticulations in the bass + guitar more or less intuitively, based on what I thought would groove well):

Next, a confession: I hate the “Modern Jazz Vamp,” or, at least, I work hard to avoid writing them myself. Anything works over a vamp: start with an irregular rhythm, give it a bass line with 1-3 pitches, and any melody will sound completely badass on top, from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.” This doesn’t interest me precisely because it’s so easy, and frankly it doesn’t interest me because it’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous in modern jazz composition. Novelty is important to me aesthetically, and the pursuit of novelty has often led me to land on happy accidents that proved fertile ground for composition. There are only three proper vamps in the entire 65-minute span of my first album, and all three are in service of a larger destabilizing effect — they’re fake-outs.

“Strong, ME.” is one of the three: it starts with a Modern Jazz Vamp and puts the main melody on top; for me, when the actual harmony comes in it feels like a pretty radical reframing of the melody — a lot is destabilized, quite quickly. Here’s what it looks like on paper:

I often write music from the middle of a piece working out, and here the chronological order of ideas that I’ve presented starts in the middle and works to the front: the original melody, the warped version with harmony, and the warped version over a harmonically static vamp. I spent a while thinking about when and how to insert the non-warped original melody, and the way I’ve ended up doing it — as a form to solo over and introducing the melody as a background — has never completely satisfied me. It’s the kind of move that John Hollenbeck makes all the time and I was (and remain) wary of inviting people to compare my music to his: I feel my aesthetic is different but, more to the point, any competition he and I enter into will end swiftly and unfavorably for yours truly. (He even out-puns me, which is no mean feat.) You can listen to the full song below, beginning with a great solo from Andrew Smiley and with another killer guitar solo from Travis Reuter in the middle. I've not discussed the 2nd half of the piece, which in any event is partially repetitive and easy enough to surmise aurally. (The basic gist is a harmonic progression outlining half-diminished 7th chords, with descending chromatic lines on top.) Happy listening.