Happy Valentine’s Day! As we celebrate this day of love, hope, and at times longing, I want to share with you a new recording I’ve made that beautifully captures all of these elements by composer Judah Adashi. You can download my arrangement of his piece, my heart comes undone, for solo electric guitar by signing up for my email updates on the right sidebar of my website. The recording will be delivered to your inbox for download.
Progress is never a straight line:
A little over a year ago, I contacted my friend and colleague at Peabody, Judah Adashi, about a piece he’d recently written: my heart comes undone. I was familiar with the string ensemble version of this work that was commissioned and premiered by the Peabody Preparatory Strings Department and had become acquainted with the version he made for solo cello and loop pedal that was premiered and recorded by Lavena Johanson.
At that time, I was preparing to launch the Laptop Tour and asked him if he’d be open to me creating a version of the piece for solo electric guitar and loop pedal for the tour. While I had always played the electric throughout my life, I never worked with the instrument regularly for music I was to perform in concert and I craved the challenge. The Laptop Tour felt like a perfect place for me to share this piece.
As I set to work, several discoveries were made:
- The guitar is NOT the cello or any other bowed instrument.
- The quest for the perfect tone on an electric guitar is a challenging task that requires as much focus, detail, and study as creating it on a classical guitar.
- Working with a loop pedal shows you at your best and your worst…in the beginning you hear yourself primarily at your worst.
- Key Signatures are important (more on that in a minute).
There was a learning curve. I had to figure out a way to make the long lines of each part sustain and connect similarly to that of a bowed instrument while still remaining true to the guitar. Also, how could I create a sound that was as full as a cello and yet as clear and transparent as I imagined in my head? You can hear my early attempts at this here. My setup was simple: Guitar + Tube Screamer TS9 (that’s an effect pedal—yeah, I like the name, too) + Loop Pedal + Amplifier = Sound.
The result was clear and focused but felt a little thin, at times gritty, and uneven across the guitar. I was getting some of what I imagined though I felt I had more work ahead of me. While navigating the sound, I was knee deep in the owner’s manual of my loop pedal. I had spent a good bit of time with this device performing Ingram Marshall’s Soe-pa but Judah’s piece was going to require a new level of study and experimentation. My first efforts revealed how much of an art there is to creating a perfect loop. For those not familiar with what a loop is, click here. If my early loops were a layered cake, mine was lopsided and leaning towards the right. But with a little practice and willingness to pick myself back up when I toppled over, I managed to count my way towards a cohesive collection of loops that held together.
With my newly acquired skills (and bruises from the learning process), I gave my first performance of Judah’s piece on April 18, 2016. I sent him a note telling him of the performance and shared some clips I made of the work. Judah followed up with me and gently mentioned that the F#’s didn’t seem to be happening in the performance.
“What? What F#’s? No, not possible.” I pulled out the score…yes, indeed possible and true. Key Signatures are important and details are, too.
Armed with this new information (and my father’s voice in the back of my head saying: “We learn by doing…”) I scrapped all my work and started over. As I rolled up my sleeves for another round, I thought about how could I best capture the sound and color that I imagined for this music. What could I do this time to make it more than just an arrangement for the guitar? I wanted to make this work feel as though it was written for my instrument. Enter musician/recording guru Ed Tetrault. In speaking with Ed about recording Judah’s piece he brought a level of creativity that was extraordinary. Ed helped me reimagine my approach to the piece and in the process brought out a serious amount of guitar gear. My rig for the recording became: Guitar + volume pedal + compressor/tone + reverb + delay + amp 1 + amp 2 + amp 3 + leslie speaker.
This process was transformative and Ed worked with me to create a sound that matches the one I imagined all these months ago and has reshaped the way I perform the piece so that it feels like it belongs to the guitar. You can see the recording process of this piece here and preparations for the most recent live performance at the Mansion at Strathmore here.
This has been my journey, thus far, with Judah’s piece. As I’ve taken the time to get to know Judah’s work, I wanted everyone to have the chance to meet him, to learn about how this piece came to be, the significance that February 14th holds for this work, what inspired him to create it, and about his process as an artist. Our Q & A is below:
Zane: Can you talk about your work as a composer and how you came to write, my heart comes undone? What was the inspiration?
Judah: My recent work explores two intersections that especially interest me: the intersection between classical music and pop music, and the intersection between music and social justice (as in my piece Rise). I try to write music that is clear and direct, so that the emphasis is not on the music itself but on the opportunity to enter into a particular psychological or emotional space. Every listener’s experience will be different, but I consider it my job to create a musical narrative that invites them into and guides them through this figurative space.
my heart comes undone was commissioned by the Peabody Preparatory Strings Department, directed by my colleague Rebecca Henry, for its outstanding Pre-Conservatory Violin Program (PCVP). I asked Rebecca if I could conceive the music so that it could also be a surprise Valentine’s Day gift for my then-girlfriend, now-wife Lavena Johanson to play on cello with a loop pedal. Rebecca graciously supported this idea, and I gave music to PCVP and to Lavena on Valentine’s Day 2014, three years before your release! They premiered the respective versions in early April of that year (you can listen to them here and here).
The piece was inspired by my wish to write something that presented new challenges to the PCVP violinists, by way of its contrast with their characteristically virtuosic repertoire. It was also inspired by my relationship with Lavena, which took a long time to develop (for various reasons, nearly two years elapsed between our first meeting and our first date!), and by her cello playing, in particular the experience of listening to her practice long, slow scales.
Zane: One of the first things I noticed when studying your score was this quote you placed within the piece by Rainer Maria Rilke. “We don’t accomplish our love in a single year as the flowers do.” Could you talk about the significance of this text?
Judah: I had read and admired Rilke’s poetry for many years, but I wasn’t familiar this particular line, from his Duino Elegies. I discovered it in my horoscope (Sagittarius!), specifically Rob Breszny’s Free Will Astrology, published in the Baltimore City Paper. Rilke’s words resonated with the gradual unfolding of the music and of my relationship with Lavena.
Zane: You mention that this work was inspired by the music of Arvo Part and Bjork’s “Unravel,” could you talk a bit about how their works inspired this piece? What did you draw upon from Bjork’s song, a vocal line, lyric, or texture within the recording?
Judah: my heart comes undone doesn’t draw anything specific from Arvo Pärt’s music, but is inspired by some of its distinctive qualities: its patience, and its use of repetition. I took my title from Björk’s “Unravel” (the full lyric is “while you are away/ my heart comes undone / slowly unravels/ in a ball of yarn”). The repeating motive, almost a harmonic progression, that forms the basis for “Unravel” is the musical starting point for my heart comes undone. What I feel close to in the work of both of these artists is their ability to create beautiful, simple sound worlds that are at once intimate and expansive.
Zane: What motivated you to create a piece that could be played either by an ensemble, soloist, or soloist with an ensemble?
Judah: This was my first attempt at an open instrumentation. It’s not a new concept: whether by design or evolving performance practice, there are works (for example, Bach’s Art of the Fugue) that can be realized by many different instruments/voices or combinations of instruments/voices. Every piece of music has a life of its own once it’s finished, insofar as different performers will bring their own interpretive instincts to it. In this case, there is also latitude in terms of who might want to play the music, whether by themselves (an option afforded by the technology of the loop pedal) or with others.
Zane: What was your process for creating the piece? How did you navigate constructing a work that can be performed both by an ensemble or soloist? What did you discover in working to build this kind of flexibility within the score?
Judah: I place a premium on writing music that is technically, albeit not expressively, simple. Contemporary classical music is often conceived in very particular, meticulous ways for certain instruments or voices. My approach tends to be more aligned with songwriting, writing music that I think could have a life in different contexts and versions. In my heart comes undone, I made a point of using basic materials (long, slow scales) in a limited range, so that the music could work on many instruments.
The piece is structured as a series of layered repetitions. The bottom two lines, scales a major sixth apart (Björk’s motive occurs in the first two measures of the bottom two voices), repeat throughout the piece, while the upper lines take turns introducing new ideas. To ensure that the piece would work for a soloist with a loop pedal, only one thing could change at a time, from one 7-measure phrase to the next. I had to keep that limitation in mind while also making sure that the music never felt static. I wanted the texture to unfold in an organic and convincing way.
Zane: Is this your first piece that has the option of utilizing technology? If so, has it been a positive experience? Was there a learning curve? If not, what other pieces have you or are you writing that use technology?
Judah: I wrote a piece called Inner City in 2013, for piano and pre-recorded audio, primarily field recordings made in Baltimore. I used a Zoom H4N to make the recordings, and a digital audio workstation called Reaper to edit them. It was a totally new experience for me. On one hand, there was something liberating about working with so much found material. On the other hand, I felt as though I was writing two pieces simultaneously — one for piano, one purely electronic — even before I got to the challenges of integrating them effectively.
There was absolutely a learning curve, from concept to premiere, in making Inner City match the sonic landscape I imagined in my head. I benefited from the wisdom of my friend Matthew Sullivan on Inner City, and he advised me on the solo version of my heart comes undone as well. At first, Matthew designed a patch using Max, a visual programming language, to trigger the various loops. Lavena ultimately opted to perform the piece as you do, with a loop pedal, which creates more demands on the player but also affords them greater control.
I’m currently working on a piece called Unseen that mixes samples of spoken text with live and looped vocals.
Zane: Since the premiere of this piece for both string ensemble and solo cello, could you talk about the other artists and ensembles that have approached you about this work?
It’s been such a joy to see the piece taken up by a variety of musicians — people who have approached me, or to whom I’ve reached out — since that openness was integral to the initial concept. To date, it’s been performed by Caroline Shaw, on viola with loop pedal; by Liam Byrne on viola da gamba with loop pedal; and in unusual combinations (especially by loadbang: (bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice!). Guitarist Giacomo Fiore has made a very different recording from yours, to be released next month on Paper Garden Records, with his own arrangement of the Beatles “Because” as the B-side.
This spring, the brand-new Peabody String Sinfonia, an ensemble devoted to community engagement in Baltimore, will play my heart comes undone in performances centered around mental illness, autism, and addiction recovery for the homeless. Finally, in June, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth will be recording the piece at The Tank in Colorado. I’m incredibly grateful to you and to all of these other artists for spending time with my music, and for bringing so many of their own ideas and insights to it!
Zane: What are your current projects that you’re developing?
Judah: The piece I mentioned above, Unseen, is a major focus right now; that work tells the tragic story of Kalief Browder. I’m also working on a percussion quartet, and a couple of choral pieces.
Zane: How can people find you on the internet?