During the Fall 2017 semester at Hostos Community College, I was grading Exercise 2 (E2), a recording and editing assignment in Introduction to Recording Techniques (DM106). For this assignment, students were asked to choose a page or two from the syllabus, a technical manual, or a poem and record themselves or someone else reading the text, and then edit any reading errors. It’s always interesting to see and hear what students choose to record for this assignment. The first student I graded chose the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and he did a great job recording himself reading it. As I began listening to it, unaware of what it was at first, I noticed that it sounded strangely familiar. Coincidentally, a few months prior, one of my piano students shared the same poem with me! It immediately occurred to me that I needed to do something creative with this poem:
“The Road Not Taken”
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When I read this poem I think about some of the major decisions I’ve made in my life. Like most people, there were times when I had to decide between one path or another and the decision made had a profound effect on the direction of my life thereafter. Now, years later I can look back at the results of a certain decision and ponder what might have happened differently if I chose a different path.
What if I pursued (or didn’t pursue) that job or relationship?
What if I followed through with (or didn’t follow through with) that project/habit/goal?
What if I had (or hadn’t) gotten that degree (or chose a different major)?
The what ifs are endless. Even small, seemingly insignificant choices can have a dramatic effect. In every moment we are deciding something. The ramifications of this can be overwhelming.
Anyway, as a result of pondering the Frost poem, I decided to create a new music composition featuring indeterminacy, requiring performers to have to make specific choices while playing the piece. As a result, each performance will never sound the same, ever. This is kind of like a version of jazz except that there are specific choices of rhythms and melodic shapes required for each “Road.”
In September 2017, right before I graded the E2 assignments in my DM106 class, I participated in a performance of Terry Riley’s “In C” with Audible Abstraction, during our concert at Scholes Street Studio in Brooklyn. “In C” also features indeterminacy since each member of the ensemble performing it is asked to repeat a given sequence (there are 53) indefinitely before moving on to the next one. As a result, this composition never sounds the same either. Interesting combinations of melody, harmony and rhythm occur as each musician has to spontaneously decide in performance when to move on to the next part; the order of the sequences is determined.
“Meditation on Roads Not Taken,” was written a year later when I was teaching Production 1 (DM206) at Hostos during the Fall 2018 semester. I invited Audible Abstraction to record a few original compositions live in my class for students to mix for the following week. Students had to each choose one piece from the session to mix. The same student who recorded the Frost poem a year earlier, inspiring the creation of my new piece, was now in this class! He chose to mix “Meditation on Roads Not Taken,” of course. It would take me another 2 years before I would get around to editing (there were two takes), mixing my version and writing this blog post.
“Meditation on Roads Not Taken” features 6 themes (“Roads”) from my “pile” of unfinished ideas, like my orchestra piece, “Resurgence.” Each idea came to me at one point in my life and I felt compelled to notate them and then file them, hoping to develop and elaborate on them later. Like many of the ideas in the “pile,” these 6 themes became “roads not taken” and just sat in my filing unit and/or in a Finale file in my computer, waiting for me to do something with them one day. In “Meditation on Roads Not Taken,” each of the 6 themes are presented on the piano mostly as they were original composed without any development, one at a time. Each “Road” is repeated a number of times before moving on to the next one and the number of repeats is determined by the pianist. In addition, this written music may be varied in reaction to the other instruments if the pianist so chooses. The other instruments (trumpet and soprano saxophone in this version) improvise using two specific rhythms and melodic shapes (the notes are not specified) below each “Road” in the piano part, and they can play inside or intentionally outside of the tonality of the piano part. By the way, these rhythms were also from the “pile.” They were all transcriptions of the rhythms of complaining I heard one day coming from upstairs in my house when I was downstairs in my studio. Music is always all around us! Although these specific rhythmic fragments are intended be the main event for the improvising musicians, other improvised lines are encouraged to occur in response to everything else going on.
“Meditation on Roads Not Taken”