>> write // chris trinidad's chant triptych i: liner notes
Chris Trinidad: music
George Van Grieken, FSC: reflections
Patrick Martin, FSC: illustrations
Produced, Recorded, and Mixed by Chris Trinidad at Elemental MusicWorks, Pinole, CA
Mastered by Andro Ernst on 10 October 2014 at Art of Ears Studios, Hayward, CA
Layout and Design by Peter Meredith
My first foray into music composition was not with a pencil applying clefs, keys, and notation to paper. It was with simple step-sequencing computer software called “trackers” that triggered sound samples. Think of the tracker as a late 20th-century technologically augmented version of the old paper roll driving a 19th-century player piano. It was an opportunity to explore music composition in a way that was informal and unencumbered by theory and analysis. I was working directly with electronic sounds and arranging them in ways that appealed to my neophyte sensibilities. As I listen to these sketches today, they are cringe-worthy and lack sophistication. But as innocent as they were, these little sound explorations were important to my development as a musician.
I put the tracker-sketching aside momentarily when I picked up the bass guitar and began to get more serious about music performance rather than just composition. In search of a genre of music that I could uniquely identify with—and which ran opposite to what was popular to adolescents in the mid-'90s—I discovered the progressive rock of Pink Floyd and King Crimson. The first Pink Floyd album I bought was their penultimate release, The Division Bell. The opening track (which, incidentally, featured no bass guitar) brought me to another world. It was the gentle piano playing and analog synthesizer sounds of Rick Wright that captivated me. Listening to King Crimson led me to Robert Fripp, whose independent work with Brian Eno gave birth to a genre of music they respectively called Frippertronics (later Soundscapes) and ambient music.
Much later, after my college foray into jazz studies and early in my choral conducting career, I developed a fascination with Gregorian chant. The interest was stoked by the late Maestro John Trepp, one of my conducting teachers, and Father Lawrence Donnelly, with whom I sang in the Saint Jude Schola Cantorum. My exploration of this music led me to a rich spiritual place. I sought to better understand the deep history of the faith tradition of the Roman Catholicism that I was raised in. Eventually, I would find my spiritual and pedagogical home in the Lasallian educational mission. I worked as a teacher and lay partner with the De La Salle Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic religious order dedicated to the human and Christian education of the young, especially the marginalized. Their 17th-century founder, Saint John Baptist De La Salle, is the patron saint of teachers of youth. His spiritual insights and creativity in solving the educational problems of his time and place had a profound influence on my music and work.
Convergence of Disparate Interests
This project was born out of the convergence of my multiple disparate interests. With most of my music projects, I aim to combine the wisdom of the old with the experimental possibilities of the new. How could I explore current music technology in a way that was informed by my early work with trackers? What would it sound like to combine the ideas behind Frippertronics, Wright’s synthesizer sounds, Eno’s ambient music, and the Gregorian chant melodies of Saint John Baptist De La Salle's liturgical feast day?
To find the chants assigned to his feast day, I pored through various editions of the Graduale Romanum, the Catholic church's official songbook containing chants for the Mass. To my delight, I found the chants in the 1961 edition. (After the Second Vatican Council, the chants for his feast day disappeared from future editions without explanation.)
I re-contextualized these monophonic melismatic modal melodies, which had originally been intended for sung liturgical music. I stripped away their text and rhythms, focusing solely on the melody as the starting point for all of my pieces. I put the melodies into my digital audio workstation, much like I did in my days working with trackers.
After isolating the original chant melodies, I generated a list of approaches for re-setting them in a new environment. I used traditional compositional techniques like melodic diminution, elongation, imitation, and displacement. I combined these with technological strategies like time-stretching, cutting and pasting, and volume and panning automation. I made liberal use of delay and reverb, and experimented with other sound-processing effects to reshape the audio. I attempted to mimic Eno and Fripp's phasing, looping, and tape-delay techniques.
When consonance, dissonance, tension, and release naturally occurred as a result of any of these processes, I left them in. Any resulting harmonies and rhythms were therefore incidental rather than planned. Ambiguous tone clusters occurred as synthesizer lines meet one another in haphazard ways. Rather than focusing on the proper alignment of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, I made timbre, texture, and mood the prime variables in these pieces. If the music sounds like it is meandering, then I have succeeded.
Minimalism, Limitation, and Balance
Since music technology affords any artist a wide palette of options and sounds, I wanted to use minimalism and limitation as additional parameters in my field of play. I believe that there is value to simplicity in life and art. When we are inundated with and often paralyzed by the plethora of choices available to us at any given moment, perhaps we can use minimalism and limitation, trusting quality rather than quantity. Even with the various processes I had constructed to create a field of play, I would return to simplicity when the procedures would get overly complicated. It was within these restrictions that I found the greatest artistic freedom.
I further limited myself to ten analog synthesizer sounds, including five bell tones and five string tones. Each sound carried the original chant melody once. The other sounds accompany or provide a subtle counterpoint. Each instrument is featured four times through the set, and each piece features four of the instruments. If an instrument appears on one track, it does not appear in adjacent tracks. At times my computer screen looked like a gradient between a Sudoku puzzle and a constellation map.
To balance the electronic sounds, I added live acoustic percussion. I had always been intrigued with the work of Airto Moreira, Nana Vasconcelos, Trilok Gurtu, Marilyn Mazur, and Lisbeth Diers. I sought to understand how their playing added colors to their music. In general, when the pieces used the bell tones, I resorted to recording earthy, woody, watery, and sustained percussion sounds that I had collected in my travels. When the piece used string tones, I went with more metallic textures. While recording the percussion, I resorted to relying on intuition, improvisation, and spontaneity, and letting the influences of those percussionists flow through me.
I do not approach music-making as a solitary event. I often try to create community in my work as a musician and teacher. I conceptualized and recorded this project by myself, but I wanted to prevent it from becoming an exercise in self-indulgence. Therefore, I brought in additional voices to inform this work.
Brother George Van Grieken, FSC, is a trusted friend whom I met along the journey of fulfilling the Lasallian educational mission. I asked him to write reflections that could give educators an opportunity to focus on some particular aspect of Saint John Baptist De La Salle’s spirituality or ministry.
For each track, I asked him to include the scriptural text that had accompanied the original chant, a quote from Saint John Baptist De La Salle, and a couple questions that would invite the reader to apply the reflections to their own work.
Brother George quotes extensively from the several of De La Salle's books. The Meditations are a series of reflections that De La Salle wrote to inspire, motivate, and accompany his early teachers, bearing in mind their daily responsibilities while reminding them of their apostolic commitments. His Conduct of Schools is a practical teaching manual combining the best practices of his time with the ideas of French education reformers. De La Salle's Letters collects his correspondence with the flourishing communities of teachers that would later band together as consecrated brothers.
Brother Patrick Martin, FSC illustrated the vignettes that accompany these reflections. Based on Brother George’s reflections and my 'scene' suggestions, Brother Patrick created the pen-on-paper artwork that adorns these pages.
How To Use This Music
While my original intention was for these pieces to stand alone, I am also mindful of others ways in this music could be helpful to educators.
This recording can be played in the background to gently accompany meditation on its written reflections. It contains ten pieces of six minutes each, which could be used for:
(1) a single hour-long retreat, divided into ten segments;
(2) a half-hour retreat of five segments;
(3) a two-week session, featuring one track each morning, noon, or night every weekday;
(4) a one-week session, featuring two tracks each weekday.
The pieces can also function as a background presence to aid with study, contemplation, meditation, prayer, or sleep. Like Eno’s ambient music experiments, these pieces are designed “to induce calm and to provide a space to think,” and they are meant to be as “ignorable as they are interesting.” They can be played at low volume in classrooms to accompany group work, individual activity, or other situations where music lightly ornaments a space. They can be played during retreats as an “audio incense” during periods of reflection.
You may have seen classroom posters that invite attention, inspire contemplation, or simply adorn the walls to add color or texture. This music can be the audio equivalent. I invite you to play the pieces without introduction and watch student reactions (or lack thereof). Whenever your ear is drawn toward a piece, you can allow it to lilt in the background, or allow your attention to linger alongside.
Of course, you are welcome to contemplate the sounds in an intentional, active way. While I do not wish to intimidate you with a dizzying array of choices, my hope is that you can find some pragmatic use for what we have rendered here.
My appreciation goes to all who have contributed to this project: Brother George Van Grieken, FSC; Brother Patrick Martin, FSC; Peter Meredith; and Andro Ernst. Extra special thanks to Pia, my wife and life partner whose support and unconditional love makes it all possible. This work is dedicated to all of the Lasallians worldwide who provide a human and Christian education to the young, especially to the economically marginalized.