Interview, Features

Wayne Alpern: Riding An Endless Creative Existential Journey


Wayne Alpern: Riding An Endless Creative Existential Journey

By Susan Frances

Wayne-Alpern2 Composer and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Alpern has been on a proverbial magic carpet ride. An endless journey motivates him to listen to his inner voice and in equal measure to learn from mentors covering a broad spectrum of musical styles. His lengthy catalog of recordings never grows old. The way classics like the iconic television series I Love Lucy is eternal to TV viewers and The Wizard of Oz is perennial to movie buffs, Alpern’s releases are ageless to music, continuously relevant through the passage of time.


 Many artists create music that reflects the time in which the music is made, but Alpern makes music with more permanence, reaching generations long after his own generation will pass. The source of his creativity is multi-fold, able to regenerate his imagination with infinite possibilities for improvisations.


 “I’ve always been interested in the confluence of multiple musical styles, genres, and traditions,” he discerns. “I don’t elevate one over the other, or view them qualitatively as better or worse, high art or low. The different styles of jazz, classical music, pop music, folk music, country music, and ethnological music from various cultures around the world are merely different ways of approaching organized sound, emphasizing various technical aspects and musical qualities in relative degrees. I value them all.”


 Early in 2020, Alpern released Standard Deviation, a collection of rearranged, recomposed, and reimagined popular standards. One classic pop tune covered by Alpern is “She’s Not There” by the Zombies. Alpern retraces how he chose the track to dissect and rephrase with meaningful improvisations sewn into the main motifs.


 “I played guitar in a rock band in the late sixties,” he initiates, “and the Zombies’s ‘She’s Not There’ was one of my favorite songs. The so-called ‘English invasion’ was spearheaded by the Beatles and Stones, both of who had huge repertoires, but there were several other British bands with just a few major hits, and many of them like this were unusual. The chord changes of I’m-Vsus7/9-Im7-Vsus7/9 provided a nice harmonic structure for improvisation as well.”


 He spotlights the musicians who brought his vision to reality on the recording. “Ben Sutin is a fantastic violinist specializing in Klezmer music, and he did a great job in bringing that style and spirit to bear.”


 He also points out from the recording, “Jon Challoner’s main contribute to Standard Deviation in my view is his unbelievable muted and muted trumpet solo on Dylan’s ‘Dear Landlord.’ I think it’s probably the highlight of the entire album, and one of the best solos I’ve ever heard, for reasons similar to my response above. It is very creative within a musical framework.” 


 “The solo,” he asserts, “doesn’t go off in all sorts of musical directions merely displaying technical prowess, but is a highly structured musical entity that plays directly off the tune’s motives. Jon’s performance with the mute literally sounds like a poor tenant pleading with his landlord because he can’t pay the rent. He is speaking his solo in an older jazz tradition dating back to Ellington and Armstrong.”


 “Owen Broder,” he credits, “was the musical director for this album and handpicked and assembled all the musicians. Owen’s one of the best young saxophonists on the jazz scene today with outstanding creative and organizational skills. He has helped create an important vehicle to support jazz musicians called Live from Our Living Rooms during the pandemic. He introduced me to Nick Grinder, an equally wonderful young trombonist, who then became the music director for my next project, Skeleton.”


 Additionally, Alpern adds about Broder, “He’s a great networker and has a large stable of super-talented musicians to draw from. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, we had the marvelous Matt Podd on the piano in ‘Dear Landlord’ and ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ I should also mention Nick Finzer, another fabulous trombonist, who was our studio producer. It was a great crew.” 


 Another track on Standard Deviation that Alpern massaged and infused with poignant improvisations is Michael Jackson’s pop tune Wayne-Alpern“Thriller.” He lauds, “‘Thriller’ is one of the most significant blockbuster songs in the last several years. My list of all-time greats in pop music, in no special order, is Elvis, Dylan, Hendrix, Beatles, and MJ, with Aretha and James Brown coming off the bench. Somewhere I’d have to include Sinatra and Streisand on a different kind of list.”


 “My arrangement,” he defines, “is a tribute. I had heard many jazz arrangements of ‘Thriller,’ but they all sounded sort of corny. I wanted to give it a funkier and more personal touch. Like all my music, I tried to mix order and freedom, so the arrangement alternates fully notated sections with open areas of improvisation. These are generally smaller than most jazz musicians might prefer, usually only 4-8 measures, but this reins them in to be creative within structural boundaries. We rehearsed for an entire week on this album and did a lot of work to get the bass right.”


 “Since I mentioned the other three above,” referring to the fore-mentioned musicians Owen Broder, Jon Challoner, and Ben Sutin, “let me add that Adam Larson is a brilliant musician like the others and one of the best young tenor players around. Dave Baron nailed the bass line, and Nathan Ellman-Bell captured the funky drums we needed to make this MJ arrangement click as the lead tune on the album. I added the sound effects at the beginning and end to create that Thriller feeling.”


 He comments about Standard Deviation, “I suppose the Gotye tune ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ posed the most significant challenge because it has the strongest classical overtones, though all the arrangements utilize linear counterpoint, extended harmonies, motivic imitation, and stretto.” 


 “The tune,” he discusses, “in arranging, be it the Beatles, Dylan, Gotye, or whatever, functions like an anchor that allows me to exercise creative freedom within recognizable bounds. As the French poet Paul Valéry once said, ‘the tighter the shoe, the more original the dance.’ The listener has an entryway into the music, something to hold onto, rather than each piece starting with something unknown. The give [in the] tune provides an anchor. What Renaissance musicians called a cantus firmus or fixed song, so the listener can better appreciate the creativity I’m trying to apply in developing and distorting it. Somewhat like a theme and variations in the classical repertoire.”


 Following Standard Deviation, Alpern released Skeleton, a collection of jazz standards that he rearranged, recomposed, and reimagined. Performed by a coterie of trombone and trumpet/flugelhorn players, accompanied by Josh Bailey on drums, Evan Gregor on bass, and Billy Test on piano, the CD breaks the mold of perennial scores, carving out a future for them to be relevant to burgeoning generations.


 “I chose the album name because it’s heavy on the trombones, or ‘bones’ as musicians say,” Alpern relates. “I also liked the term ‘skeleton’ because it captured my creative credo of treating a tune like a skeleton and putting different skin on it.”


Wayne-Alpern6 He further divulges, “The underlying melodies and harmonies are the skeletal structures of my musical arrangements. As music theorists, we analyze pieces by stripping them down to their skeletons, their bare-bones as it were, through a process of structural reduction, removing their musical elaboration layer by layer to get to their deeper foundations in the background. Arranging and improvisation are essentially the reverse processes of building up a music surface from a deeper structural framework, embellishing and putting a novel and unique skin on a familiar skeleton in the background.”


 Alpern applied his scientific mind to retweaking one of his original pieces for Skeleton. He sets up, “‘Blue Bones’ was originally called ‘Blue Flat,’ but I changed the title to fit in with the theme of Skeleton.” 


 He describes, “‘Blue Bones’ is a synthesis of jazzy and classical musical styles with the addition of musical humor, wit, and hopefully charm. These are important aesthetic values for me illustrated by Haydn in the classical world, and Duke Ellington in jazz, particularly early Ellington like ‘Black Beauty,’ which I’ve also arranged both for jazz ensemble and string quartet.”


 “‘Blue Bones,'” he establishes, “started out as a little piano piece. ‘Blue Flat,'” he interjects, “I composed in the late seventies after Yale [Law School] as part of an intermediate piano series that was supposed to be, but never was, published by United Artists while I was working there briefly as an editor/arranger.” 


 He notes a significant aspect about the track, “One interesting thing happened serendipitously along the way. The bass part was originally pizzicato, like most jazz bass lines. The regular bassist Evan Gregor couldn’t do a rehearsal one day, and a sub sat in for him. I, unfortunately, don’t remember his name, but he suggested switching to arco, with short, crisp bow strokes. This increases the humor of the whole effect, like a creepy dancing skeleton. Whoever he was, I’m indebted to him but still less than I am to Evan, who did a superb job on the entire album. I later played in a piano trio with Evan and Mark Ferber on drums at a reception at the Metropolitan Club in New York for the Center for Contemporary Political Art directed by Charles Krause.”


 Returning to “Blue Bones,” he proffers, “I later scored and rearranged ‘Blue Flat’ for trombone quintet and renamed it ‘Blue Bones’ after I met Nick Grinder through Owen Broder during the Standard Deviation sessions, and Nick graciously proposed working together.”


 A composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure is termed a contrafact. Charlie Parker’s compositionWayne-Alpern5 “Ornithology” applies this technique. Alpern draws correlations between Parker’s piece and his own arrangements on Skeleton, which shows him leading a 12-piece orchestra.


 “‘Ornithology,'” he broaches, “can be played by a sax, a tuba, or a violin, and it’s still the same melody. Arranging or composing then is much like a pencil drawing; the instrument just changes the color. Orchestration or instrumentation is, therefore, the process of allocating a particular musical line to a specific instrument so that it has a particular instrumental timbre or color. Hence, while the Skeleton ensemble had an available palette of twelve different instrumental colors to choose from, spread out across the musical range, which has a significant impact on the selection, an individual piece or track only draws on a particular subset from the total universe.” 


 He highlights Skeleton, “Not all twelve instruments are playing at the same time. Even when they are playing, from a structural perspective, there are a limited number of so-called ‘real parts’ beyond which the rest are purely coloration, doublings, or embellishment. Even in very large ensembles, bands, orchestras, and symphonies, there are usually only four to six real parts, rarely more than 8 because that gets too dense. These are the familiar choral parts known as SATB, or soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.”


 “The same numerical limitation,” he puts forth, “is true for harmony as well: from a purely structural orientation, tonal chords have only three or four so-called ‘essential notes.’ A triad is a three-note chord, rarely used in jazz, and a seventh chord adding the 7th, [which] the standard in jazz is a four-note chord. Anything beyond that, i.e., 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, in all their myriad sharp and flat varieties and combinations, are purely color and have no structural influence upon chord quality: major, minor, half-diminished, diminished, and dominant or tonal function: tonic, subdominant, and dominant.”


 Alpern’s scientific technique for arranging scores would be applied later in 2020 to his release Scarab with tracks performed by pianist Billy Test. The CD is a collection of Beatles tunes, revamped, reimagined, and retooled.


 “The Beatles represent the pinnacle of modern popular music,” he portends, “I’m not sure they will ever be equaled. I’ve listened to and played their music intensively for decades. In addition to simply being personally attracted to one song perhaps more than another, I’ve also dissected them from an analytical structural perspective.”


 “In order to arrange a tune in a serious musical way,” he imparts, “it must have sufficient structural depth, stability, and sophistication to allow or actually withstand creative distortion or deviation and still retain its musical identity. Some tunes, therefore, even Beatle tunes, are more suited to the arrangement than others.” 


 “‘Hey Jude,'” he singles out, “for example, is a great song almost in the nature of an anthem, but given my creative process, it’s not well-suited for arrangement since the harmonic and melodic structure, relatively speaking, is too simple and repetitive. That, in fact, is the very power and beauty of the song and accounts for its popularity, but it doesn’t make for an interesting arrangement in my view.”


 Perceptively, “‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Blackbird,'” which are each Beatles tunes performed on Scarab, “maybe rarer as you put it, but they offer more musical material to play around with: there’s more going on there. I tried arranging several others that were ultimately dead ends and just didn’t work out. I even wasn’t sure ‘Yesterday’ would make the cut until I gave it a radical facelift. The tune has so much inherent integrity that no matter what I did, it sounded too much like a standard ‘rendition’ rather than a creative recomposition.”


 “So,” he determines, “I had to take it pretty far out by separating the notes of the melody and embedding them in a dense contrapuntal web, utilizing an atonal serial technique called ‘partitioning’ developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone followers to extract and isolate a particular motive or melody from a complex dodecaphonic structure. It’s certainly the most abstract and conceptually advanced arrangement in the collection, but it works because the melody is so familiar.”


 “All my music,” he encapsulates, “including Skeleton is composed and scored in advance down to the last sixteenth note, interspersed with open areas of 4, 8, 12, or 16 measures for improvisation based on chord changes drawn directly from the score. I make all the parts myself by extracting them from the score. The process of making parts inevitable results in modifications of the score because it allows you to see and hear the linear line each instrument is playing.”


 “My music,” he investigates, “especially at this point of my career, having come with what I feel is full circle through the minefield of ‘new music’ is essentially tonal and traditional, a return to ‘back to Bach’ or the roots of jazz, if you will.”


 All of Alpern’s compositions are published by Henri Elkan Publishing Company, which has a significant role in his life. “I didn’t start Henri Elkan Music Publishing Company,” he clarifies, “I inherited it from my wife’s family. Her grandfather was a wonderful musician named Henri Elkan. Henri came to this country from Holland during the war and started the company in 1958. He was a classical conductor, string player, and arranger who arranged several classical pieces by Mozart, Haydn, Telemann, Grieg, and others for small instrumental groups. He had a classical music store in Philadelphia where all the classical musicians hung out.”


 He recounts, “Henri also created pedagogical books for clarinet, saxophone, and flute. He sold sheet music to retail stores across the country and in Europe as well. The market for print music is primarily students and schools. Most importantly, Henri had the rights to sell Debussy and Ravel in America.”


 “The company in those days,” he proceeds, “was called Elkan-Vogel after he took on a junior partner named Vogel. They eventually got into a dispute, and Henri basically gave Vogel the rights to the French catalog. Vogel turned around and sold it to Theodore Presser, which became rich off of it.”


 He elaborates further, “Henri continued his own smaller and less profitable catalog on his own. When he died many years ago, I took it over and handled all the manufacturing and distribution. It is still primarily a classical publishing house distributed by Charles Dumont, a large print distributor. I have expanded it to some degree by including my own music, both as a publishing company and recording label.”


 He advocates, “I don’t think it’s necessary for artists to start their own publishing company since they can get all the royalties and mechanical fees themselves unless they are affiliated with another publisher or label that requires them to part with that as a publisher’s share.”


 “I’ve represented several artists,” he maintains, “as an entertainment lawyer over the years. There are advantages and disadvantages to being affiliated with a publisher or label. Artists need to consider what benefits they can get in exchange for these payments. It may or may not be worth it. Often artists with sufficient market power are able to form their own publishing company to collect royalties and still be affiliated with a record label, which is willing to forfeit that income, or at least part of it, in exchange for adding a well-known artist to their roster.”


 “I was fortunately in the position,” he cites, “of already having a publishing company, albeit one focused on classical print music. The name is well known in classical music circles, and I like to use it because I’m proud of it and feel it gives my work a certain amount of class.”


 “Finally,” he provides insight, “artists need to remember that their music is automatically copyrighted without registration with ASCAP or BMI. Copyright is a legal process, and these are private companies engaged in the process of performing rights royalty collection. Music is copyrighted under the law from the moment of creation and distribution. Artists should put circle C and circle P on their recordings, the first as public notice of ownership of the composition or arrangement, and the second for the sound recording.”


 Continuing his stream of thought, he explains, “A publisher or label may require the artist to part with one or both of copyrights beyond a share of the royalties, and that should generally be resisted unless there are offsetting benefits. Artists like me who arrange pre-existing songs in addition to their original compositions need to obtain and pay for rights to arrange those tunes from the original publisher. This is done through the Harry Fox Agency.”


Wayne-Alpern4 “Depending on your financial situation,” he advises, “these fees are not inordinate. Many jazz artists exclusively record their own compositions in part to avoid these fees and in part because they find this more creative. The problem I sometimes have is that while many of these artists are talented performers, they are not really honed in the art of composition.”


 Perhaps it was kismet, karma, or fate that endowed Alpern’s wife with her grandfather’s music publishing company. Whatever it was, it was a gift from heaven for a musician who claims, “I’ve composed music for as long as I can remember, even before I learned to play written notation. My impulse at the piano has always been to make something up, not render what someone else had written, no matter how great they were.”


 He reiterates, “I’ve been composing and improvising ever since I first sat at the piano.” 


 He then theorizes where the impulse to make something up comes from inside him, “In part, I guess because I wasn’t that good. As a kid, every time I played Mozart, for instance, I would make a mistake, and it always seems like a different mistake. But instead of seeing what I did as an error, I saw it as a possibility. As a result, I discovered the novelty and creativity of imperfection. I knew, of course, that my errors, distortions, deviations, if you will, were not as ‘good’ as Mozart, but I liked them more simply because they were mine, not his or anyone else’s. I was essentially composing, or recomposing Mozart, simply by being unable to play him correctly.”


 Searching inward, he discovers, “In fact, even today, I often come up with creative options as a result of making a mistake, even a notational mistake, and discovering something I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I continued to play classical and popular piano for several years in this way, using the score more like a collection of suggestions rather than commands, recomposing and rearranging everything I could get my hands on. Music schools didn’t like this any more than they liked my compositional exercises in stylistic impurity, merging and melding different genres.”


 From Alpern’s transcript entitled “How I Became a Composer,” he shares with audiences how he was put on the track to becoming a musician, composer, and arranger. “My earliest memory of music-making,” he chronicles, “was playing piano and taking lessons as a child in Detroit where I grew up. My grandmother Annie Alpern bought me a baby grand piano for my Bar Mitzvah in 1961. She was an excellent pianist and would sit next to me as I played. I owe my musical birth to her.”


 From that point, he examines, “I studied classical piano intensively from a very early age, focusing on Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven. This taught me the technique of motivic variation and development. Later on, as a teenager, I learned to play and arrange popular songs by extracting the familiar tune and substituting my own harmonic accompaniment. I gradually learned how to alter the melody itself as well as the harmony, and improvise around it through motivic references and extensions.”


 “Classical music, thus,” he surmises, “provided the structure and technique, popular music provided the social and human connection, and jazz finally provided the ultimate ingredient of creative freedom and imagination.”


 He resumes exploring his formative years, “I studied the classics with a beautiful older woman named Mary Maas. She was distinguished but very sexy and always wore a low cut dress. I remember making mistakes on purpose just so she would lean over the keyboard to correct me. I was fairly good but never able to get through a single piece without making a mistake. I played Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Chopin. The more I played, the more I strayed from the score and began to experiment.”


 “It gradually dawned on me,” he observes, “I could make up my own pieces, and even though they weren’t as good as the famous ones, I liked them more because they were mine.”


 Partly influenced by his environment, his free spirit flourished as he attributes, “Growing up in Detroit in the fifties and sixties, pop music in particular, especially black R&B, soul music, and funk have always been a part of my life. I was especially immersed in the Motown sound. It was the music of my town, and we were all proud of it. Detroit is the Motor City, and that meant two things that made us special: cars and Motown.”


 He recalls, “In 1965, I went to Oberlin but was in the college rather than the Conservatory. I liked it because it had music, but I didn’t study music there at all. I majored in sociology but played rhythm guitar in a rock band called the Shades. We were the only band on campus and played a lot. We eventually morphed into a soul band with some brass instruments, and I think we played in Cleveland once.” 


 “I was deep into ’60s music like most people,” he prides, “and could play many of the famous songs on guitar. My roommate Kim Herzinger turned me onto Stravinsky, but other than that, I knew very little modern classical music besides the old warhorses. It was a tumultuous time.”


 He earmarks, “The turning point in my musical life, perhaps the most pivotal experience in my entire life, came earlier after I graduated from Oberlin College in 1969. I was a Sociology major and played guitar in a rock band. These were tumultuous years that many younger people today are generally unaware of.”


 He draws from his history, “I applied to law school toward the end of college at Oberlin before I really realized I wanted to pursue a career in music. I came from a Jewish professional background where there was an unspoken expectation that men, at that time, ought to be doctors or lawyers and music was basically a hobby.”


 “My father was a lawyer in Detroit,” he extracts, “my uncle a doctor, and since my older brother was in medical school, law was the obvious choice for me. My grandmother was one of the first woman lawyers in Michigan. Yale is generally considered the best, or at least the most exclusive law school in the country. So once I was accepted, it was hard to walk away.”


 He admits, “I deferred admission though for a few years and during the interim came to appreciate I wanted to pursue music more. I wasn’t uninterested in law though and went anyway, but ended up doing graduate work in music during the same period I studied law.” 


 “In late 1969 and early 1970,” he underscores, “I left the country which was in upheaval and lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with a band of left-wing political radicals. I eventually met a dancer, an American woman who called herself the Princess of Art. I’m serious,” he assures.


 “In 1969, at the age of 21,” he focuses, “I went to Harvard Divinity School to avoid the VietNam draft. I soon dropped out and lived with the Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn for a while. Eventually, I picked up and went off to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to attend a radical school called the Centre for International Documentation (CIDOC) run by the social critic Ivan Illich. There were Black Panthers and Latin American activists there. 


 He pinpoints, “One day, I met an American dancer from Los Angeles by the name of Carol Galante, who called herself Princess SummerWayne-Alpern3 Cloud, the Princess of Art. Many people thought she was crazy. I didn’t. I was deeply influenced by the mystical and daemonic writings of Hermann Hesse and fell under her spell.”


 “Her real name was Carol Galante,” he reveals, “and had lived with the American Indians and believed that everyone, each of us, is an artist in one form or another. Most people thought she was off her rocker, but I didn’t. She had a penetrating insight into me and my character. The Princess told me that I was a composer, and that was my destiny,” he vouches. “We went every day for half a year to the little music conservatory in Cuernavaca where I would work out my first compositions on the piano, which she danced to, which I still have to this day.”


 He recollects, “She made me copy the scores of Bach and Mozart. As far-fetched as it might sound, the Princess hatched me as a composer.”


 “When I finally returned from Mexico,” he extends, “I went to music school and law school in alternating years, practiced law for several years, then went back to music school, taught music, and eventually, decades later, retired so I could compose and record full-time. I have a backlog of music I’ve written over the past half-century since my first pieces with the Princess in Cuernavaca.”


 “While I was at Yale Law School,” he targets, “I eventually tracked down the great jazz pedagogue John Mehegan. John taught me how to improvise and set me free from the score altogether. At one point, he told me I had to throw away the score and ‘make love’ to the piano, although he didn’t use that nice a term. John also taught me jazz harmony, and I practiced endlessly to get jazz chords into my hands without having to think. I am deeply indebted to him.”


 On the topic of jazz harmony, he articulates, “Jazz harmony was largely developed by the French Impressionist composers, Debussy and Ravel. The addition of these color tones has the effect of softening the harmonic palette say of Beethoven. By the time of jazz, the chronic use of coloration blurs the underlying harmonic function in concurrence with the enhanced rhythmicality of the music. The point though is that like instrumentation, even though there are twelve notes in the chromatic scale, and seven in the diatonic scale with five chromatic inflections, not all are used all the time.”


 “I continued to compose all throughout law school,” he reminisces, “and had the wonderful opportunity to play the piano every day in the dining hall for the likes of Bill and Hilary Clinton. I doubt they remember me now, but who knows. I actually wrote a lot of music in the following 15 years, as I practiced law in New York, including tunes like ‘Blue Bones’ and others I kept, revised, and updated on my current projects.”


Wayne-Alpern-modern-jazz-today He takes a closer inspection of his original composition “Blue Bones,” which he revised and recorded for his 2020 release Standard Deviation, and exposes, “Keep in mind these were pre-computer days, so everything was in hand notation as it’s been for centuries. I still have all my handwritten scores. I transcribed and arranged the piano sheet music for Crystal Gayle’s hit country song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ and other records. I was hoping to land a position in the legal counsel office with Sid Shemel, co-author of This Business of Music with Bill Krasilovsky, but it didn’t pan out.”


 He reflects, “Looking back, I’ve essentially had a dual career in law and music. Lawyers considered me a musician, and musicians considered me a lawyer. At times I wish I had the courage to follow my inner desires to pursue music and avoid the law, but I tend to think it was inevitable given who I am, and probably not such a bad thing.”


 “For one,” he enumerates, “it was more economically secure, and I wanted to have a family in New York City. Too many musicians I know are struggling, particularly now. But I’ve always found the tension between the two fields stimulating and symbiotic. It’s not surprising that a lot of lawyers are musicians, and more importantly, that many great composers studied law, like Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Stravinsky, and even Hoagy Carmichael.”


 “The greatest music theorist of modern times, Heinrich Schenker,” he identifies, “had a law degree and actually studied more law than music. I study law, and particularly jurisprudence or the philosophy of law, as an outlet to balance my work in music. In fact, I’m in the process of writing a comprehensive book on the intersection of music theory and law based on my Ph.D. dissertation entitled Schenkerian Jurisprudence: Echoes of Schenker’s Legal Education in His Musical Thought.” 


 “There’s an interesting and close connection between these two fields,” he correlates. “‘Thinking like a lawyer’ is similar to thinking like a composer. Law trains you [about] how to organize your ideas in a coherent and logical manner. Music is most effective, for me at least, when it unfolds in a rational, structured, and directional manner that is also emotionally charged, much like a persuasive legal argument. Lawyers learn how to present material in an efficient, focused, and relevant way, instead of rambling aimlessly. Legal discourse builds upon evidence and a limited number of specific points, much like motives in music that undergo variation and development.” 


 He professes, “Law also pays respect to and draws upon precedents, just as music rests upon traditions and styles of the past, yet in both cases, one creatively adapts and transforms them to meet the shifting contexts and circumstances of the present.” 


 “Finally,” he characterizes, “law like music seeks to navigate the dynamic tension between order and freedom, norms and autonomy, constraint and creativity, and between the collective of the ensemble and the individuality of improvisation. Shifting the pendulum too far in either direction can disrupt the essential equilibrium that lies at the core of music, especially jazz, just as it does in law. Law is the part of society, as music is the art of tones.”


 With his background in law and composing music, he discloses, “I eventually went to music school and fell under the overwhelming academic influence of contemporary atonal ‘new music’ that was dominant in the 1970s. Over a period of several years, following that period, however, I gradually realized composition and artistic creation, in general, is a slow process of self-knowledge as much as a technical endeavor, coming to know and trust your deepest intuitions as well absorbing the music of your time and those who come before you, and that in order to find creative satisfaction and genuine meaning.”


 He regards, “I had to not only learn music theory and music history but discover who I was internally as an artist, indeed a person. I had to find and listen to the small voice within. This arduous process took a long time, with many detours and setbacks, until I eventually realized that I wanted to combine classical, jazz, and popular idioms in a personal synthesis. Around the same time, contemporary composers were shifting away from the high modernism of atonal music toward a postmodern aesthetic that broadly reflected this same eclectic orientation.” 


 “Throughout this creative existential journey,” he deems, “I continued to compose my own original music as I always have, for both classical and jazz ensembles, but increasingly I turned to arranging, or really rearranging, almost recomposing popular music employing a variety of classical and jazz styles and techniques. Likewise, I moved in the opposite direction by rearranging classical music, especially Bach and Mozart, my greatest teachers from the past, utilizing popular styles and techniques. The result of these efforts might be called ‘post-genre music’ whose overarching aesthetic is stylistic synthesis and integration rather than mere juxtaposition or alternation, which is often the case with this type of endeavor.”


 “There is another important element at play in arranging as well,” he anticipates. “Recognizable melodies provide structural standards from which to creatively deviate, musical templates to tug against as normative frameworks. This generates a dynamic tension in music between freedom and order, or really freedom within order.”


 “There’s a wonderful image by the great Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker,” he alludes to, “who described creativity as a boat tethered by rope to an anchor below. What we see on the surface, comparable to what the listener hears, is a boat floating freely with the waves. But it’s always anchored underneath to constrain its motion here and there within a certain limit. The anchor is actually what allows the freedom because otherwise, the boat would crash on the shore. At the same time, the rope can’t be too tight, or the boat can capsize. It needs freedom of movement, but only a partial or constrained freedom.”


 While philosophizing, he asserts, “The function of counterpoint is to articulate the vertical harmony in a moving horizontal web, prolonged over a harmonic rhythm of a half-note or more while making sure each individual part played by each instrument alone, not just the top voice usually playing the principal melody, presents an essentially conjunct or step-wise melodic horizontal line in its own right.”


 “Recurrent motives,” he judges, “can be imitated or repeated in multiple parts to weave an integrated texture. Above all, the bass should be as linear as possible. Indeed, the melodic logic and coordinated independence of each part is a major lesson we learn from Bach. History tells us that the correction Mozart gave most to his composition students was to linearize the bass. Even though this was a large ensemble, keep in mind not everyone plays on each piece.” 


 “Orchestration or instrumentation,” he distinguishes, “is different from arrangement or composition. The process of arranging or composing structures the music into individual horizontal lines whose convergence through counterpoint creates vertical harmonies. From a purely structural perspective, it doesn’t matter which instrument plays any particular line, as long as it’s within the proper register.”


 Moving forward with his stream of consciousness, he proclaims, “Melodies are structurally constrained through the use of keys, scales, and modes, and harmonies are constrained by tonal function and tertian chord structure, building chords in 3rds. Of course, both of these are greatly expanded or even eliminated in atonal music and free improvisation. Tertian chord structure gives way to quartal and secundal harmony, diatonicism gives way to chromaticism, tonal progression gives was to modality, and eventually, pitch itself gives way to timbre as the principal vehicle of structure.”


 He reasons, “So consistent with my general aesthetic, I use the constraints of tonality operating through the history of western music to generate what I believe, for me at least, is actually greater freedom, or more meaningful creativity, rather than jettisoning these constraints altogether to achieve what might feel or even be perceived as greater musical liberty. As Stravinsky said, my constraints are my freedom. He seemed to be pretty creative to me.”


 His foundation in law and music composition offers him a bottomless reservoir of possibilities to make new music as he briefly outlines his forthcoming efforts, “I am currently working on a number of fascinating projects. I just released my latest album called Jukebox, consisting of 20 arrangements mostly of show tunes, jazz tunes, and pop songs, but also some classical arrangements, all miraculously performed by the Dorian Wind Quintet, one of the finest woodwind quintets in the country if not the world. That took nearly three years to make, and I couldn’t be pleased more with the results. The album feels like a jukebox of short, charming selections to shuffle through.”


 He unveils, “I’m also now in the final stages of mixing Frankenstein, a jazz fusion album I recorded in layers last year before the pandemic with my engineer Dave Darlington, which I think maybe the best thing I’ve ever done and I ambitiously hope to nominate for a Grammy. My music director is Dave Mann on reeds, who plays with the Eagles, John Patitucci, one of the elite jazz bassists in the world, and several other outstanding studio musicians in a 12-piece band. It seriously rocks.”


 “Next,” he commemorates, “I’ve already recorded a CD of my original compositions for string orchestra called The Shape of Strings performed by the String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC) under the director of concertmaster Monica Bauchwitz. This is probably my most important album from a purely creative compositional perspective.”


 “Then I have my electronic New Age album Secular Rituals,” he addresses, “where I composed and performed everything on my own, followed by the string quartet album I just recently recorded with the incredible Sirius Quartet and am now in the process of mixing remotely with Dave Darlington. Here I go, in the opposite direction by making jazz arrangements of Mozart, specifically Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the Piano Sonatas in C Major, A Minor, and F Major, and the G Minor String Quintet. The disc is tentatively called Rezurrektion because I’m resurrecting the past in a new incarnation.”


 “Finally, I just started a new double CD project for solo piano,” he furnishes, “with a phenomenal young female Chinese pianist, Routing (Ting) Li, to be recorded with the master piano engineer Joe Patrych, which is perfectly suited for these quarantined times. This endeavor is literally a musical autobiography of my development for the past half-century. And whenever this pandemic ends, or at least permits, I have further albums already in the works for jazz ensemble, woodwind quintet, string quartet, and string orchestra.”


 “As my friend,” he applauds, “the great composer Steve Reich. I was his copyist in pre-computer days, put it to me recently, I’m trying to make the most of this pandemic as an enforced opportunity to ‘get things done.’ Now, if I could only sleep better at night.”


 Speaking of which, Alpern declares, “The pandemic had been a disaster for performing musicians. But for composers and arrangers like me, it has largely meant work as usual. As another composer put it, we were already quarantining before it became cool. That is the challenge of composition: it’s a solitary endeavor. To write music, one must cultivate the ability to be alone and learn to trust your own instincts and intuitions. We’re already socially distanced.”

 An analogy that relates to this period calling for social distancing enters his mind as he recites, “An old composition teacher of mine once said composition is the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In order to compose, therefore, one must confront the solitude the pandemic is now demanding of us all. This is one reason why Beethoven is perhaps the greatest role model of a composer we have — he was existentially alone. Not being famous or even well known, let alone Beethovenian despite what one flattering critic may have said, my work has always been alone.”


 “So,” he concludes, “the pandemic has simply intensified my challenge: can I sit here alone day after day and still find enough resources and resilience within me to be productive? Fortunately, I have several recordings already in the can that allow me to continue editing and mixing remotely with my ace audio engineer, Dave Darlington, who I’ve worked with from the start. Many people consider Dave a legend, and for me, he’s been a lifesaver. We’ve been able to continue our work remotely on several projects during the pandemic. In fact, we even recently recorded a new album of my jazz arrangements of Mozart string quartets tentatively called Rezurrektion performed by the phenomenal Sirius Quartet.”


 “String players,” he concedes, “are faring better than brass and winds because they can wear masks. These guys — Chern Hwei Fung [on] violin 1, Gregor Huebner [on] violin 2, Ron Lawrence [on] viola, and Jeremy Harman [on] cello were willing to record together in Dave’s studio, and I supervised remotely. Beyond that, distribution these days is essentially all digital, so Amazon, Spotify, Apple, and a host of other smaller online distributors continue to make my music available around the world.”


 “Finally, my tireless promotion wiz, Kari Gaffney,” he commends, “has continued her superb work during the pandemic of getting my music out there to radio stations, jazz charts, and excellent publications like yours. I have her and you to thank for this wonderful opportunity to discuss my music.”


 In retrospect, Wayne Alpern considers the multiple skills musicians must hone as he weighs, “It’s hard these days to be both a skilled performer and a skilled composer. Many of them have not studied composition and the structure of musical forms by analyzing the works of great composers like Bach and Mozart, or Ellington and Gershwin. In the same way, it takes years of work and training to become skilled in playing a musical instrument, it also takes years of work and training to become skilled as a composer.”


 “My pieces, generally,” he deciphers, “are modeled after classical compositions, with an exposition, development, and recapitulation, with various episodes and interludes. The jazz standards that most performers used to improvise on were all composed by high skilled composers, such as Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, and others.” 


 He views, “Many current jazz compositions are not really structured works, but rather free-form processes kicked off by short riffs, heads, or ostinatos that are highly repetitive and offer simple vehicles for extended improvisation. Others focus on timbral novelty, exploiting some unusual sound rather than a coherent pitch structure.”

 “Moreover,” he advances, “unlike an older generation of jazz musicians from Armstrong to Parker, their improvisations are not motorically or harmonically related to the tune or head itself. They are impressive displays of technical prowess or aural distinctiveness. I personally do not find this a fruitful approach to creativity, and in fact, it seems a little old fashioned or even indulgent in my view.”


 “For me,” he assesses, “the most creative thing at this point is to return to the jazz tradition, but revitalize it through infusions of classical music and contemporary vernacular music, which are in turn, symbiotically transformed and enhanced themselves through the creative process at a higher level of synthesis.”


 The proverbial magic carpet ride for Wayne Alpern continues. His journey into exercising his imagination and dissecting the works of masters as the canvass for his improvisations is never-ending. He has made his recordings ageless, always relevant through the passage of time.

About Susan Frances:

Wayne Alpern: Riding An Endless Creative Existential Journey 1Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.

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