Composed from November to December 2016 and debuted live in February 2017, "The Empress" is a through-composed, 40 minute, 4 movement work for an acoustic/electric chamber ensemble. Written specifically for the instrumentalists in The Forgotten Prophets (Chris Bell, Jonathan Geer, Aaron Lack, Pat Harris, Steve Schwelling), the piece was inspired by The Empress Tarot card artwork, symbolism, and meaning. The title of each movement corresponds to the large themes found on the card, and the structure of each movement and piece as a whole directly references the numerology contained within the art itself.
"In here. In this silent space I own. Souls are born."
An essay by Pat read aloud before the premier in February 2017:
I’ve never been at a loss for words until I’m called upon to write words on demand. It’s not something I’m used to doing. When I write, be it music or prose for the website, it’s always because there is something on my mind. Some switch has been tripped. Some inspirational spark needs to be documented. And yet, I’ve had the worse case of writer’s block trying to come up with something to say that goes along with the theme of The Empress. Maybe I’ve said all I had to say through the music? It’s pretty expansive in and of itself: 881 measures, 45 minutes, twenty nine pages, five instruments, a whole lot of key, tempo and time signature changes. I’ve thrown the whole kitchen sink in there. Maybe I’m tapped out.
Why The Empress? Why today? Valid questions. The story of this goes back a few months ago when Carla emailed me about performing for the Revel Unclassified concert series. Carla was contacting me about a gig? I was absolutely going to do it. It was a no-brainer. Me being me, I blasted back a stream of conscious email expressing my excitement and enthusiasm, and proceeded to list all of the possible groups or configurations I could bring to the table. I could bring in my band The Forgotten Prophets, I could do a jazz thing… maybe solo bass. I was just starting to write some pseudo classical pieces that are bass features— No. Nobody wants an hour of solo bass. But it’s an option. I’m just letting you know. I could do a jazz thing. Jazz Thing is my personal discreet code for, “Yes, I could throw something together with very minimal effort on my end that could fill time at your function.” Depending on the client, a Jazz Thing is either the first of my offerings or the last minute go-to if the gig is just around the corner. Oh, you’ve got a wedding reception tomorrow? Outdoors at 3pm? It’s either going to be wet and cold or blazing hot. You know what, I’m positive I could put a jazz thing together for you. Fact is, with a few months notice, I knew I could do better, and if not better, certainly bigger.
As I was getting lost down the brainstorm rabbit hole of my mind, another email came in. It was Carla. She’s great. “I know we have the one date on the books for February, but what if we did a Pat Harris residency, and you did something on February 5, 12, and 19?” Who was this guardian angel sent down from on high throwing creative opportunities in my lap? Yes. Yes to all. Do you have more dates? I’ll take whatever you can offer. Anything helps. Hungry. You begin to realize that being a freelance musician is not dissimilar from standing at a busy intersection with a sharpie and the inside cardboard from a twelve pack of some kind of beer that will leave you in a bad way the following morning.
Three dates, three themes. I want to do something cool, something unique for at least one of them. At least one spun a bit out of control. Why The Empress? Sometimes things just work out as they are supposed to. Once I had the dates, I emailed The Forgotten Prophets: Aaron, Chris, Jonny and Steve to check their availability. They were all able to do February 12. Done. Settled. What’s the theme for February 12? The Empress. Done. Settled. Things are going great. So, what does the Empress do? The mother, the world of nature and sensation, being fertile, bringing something new into the world. The Empress can represent and idea before it is fully born and the need to be receptive to change. Coincidental? Possibly. “Bringing something new into the world” seemed like a solid sign that this would be the show to do some writing for. Being receptive to change is something I need daily assistance with.
The Forgotten Prophets first came together in the Spring of 2015. It’s a rock band’s rock band molded in the style of The Band, The Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Ry Cooder, and a laundry list of other influences. To me, few things are more musically satisfying than playing a song with a great set of lyrics that makes you want to go on a road trip. What may not be readily apparent or sonically visible, is that the Forgotten Prophets are the Seal Team Six of music, and everyone in the group is a fantastic person. I must impress upon you how rare it is to be in any kind of working situation where everyone around you is cool. No jerks. No egos. Not a one, and that’s pretty darn impressive. And rare. Especially in the arts.
Got the date. Got the band. Got the theme. Got no music. No music, no problem, but no music was precisely the problem. I went online for a quick hit of inspiration. Search for Tarot Empress Meanings. The internet has something for everyone. Literally everyone. Browsing through the various home grown psychic websites, they all look like something from the mid 1990s, before website design really became sort of important. Little animated crystal balls and dragons. All of the text on each page looks like it was just copied and pasted from somewhere else. Inspiration dwindling. New plan, Google Image search: The Empress Tarot. Much of the same standard image, scrolling down, scrolling down, and then some freaky fan art representations of the card. The internet has something for everyone. I went back to the original card found in most standard decks. Owning one of these decks would be an easy way to get you secured to a burning steak back in the day, but my sister had a deck when she was about six without any issues. With the way things are going in the world today, we may be circling back to some quality witch hunts, so you should all take heed and throw out any symbols of the occult you may have.
The titles for each movement were taken from the imagery and symbolism of the card:
6 Points, 12 Stars is taken from the her crown. The 12 stars represent dominance over the year, 12 zodiacs, 12 hours on the face of a clock, and each star has six points.
In Defense of Love and Art is taken from the shield, and the shield has the symbol of Venus on it. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, and the shield acts to protect and defend love and art from those who wish to see them destroyed. “From love do I come, from love do I go.”
Extreme Force and Tranquility is reflected in the waterfall. The waterfall is emotion flowing freely. With tranquility comes extreme force; a very dualistic concept.
Fields of Abundance, the final movement, is represented by her throne being placed in a field of wheat which symbolizes dominion over living things, abundance, and fruitfulness. In a world full of a sense of scarcity, this is a reminder that there is always enough for everyone.
Have you ever written a large scale work? Neither have I. There’s a maiden voyage for everything and everyone. I’ve written songs and tunes in different genres, and those sort of play themselves out in a very natural way. At many points along the way, I wanted to scrap this concept entirely, call the guys and say, “Jazz Thing. We’re doing a Jazz Thing.” Once I had the general flow and structure for piece mapped out, I was in way over my head as far as the time requirements. Even after coming up with the material, I had no idea it would take such a painfully long time entering everything into notation software and getting it to a place to where it actually had meaning to musicians that have never seen it before.
Severely overestimating my abilities to compose and arrange, and do both with some degree of coherence and quality, and it being mid-November, I had to make up some serious time if everything was going to be ready. Even though the performance is in February, I needed the majority of the piece complete by our first rehearsal on January 9, and I need to factor in that nothing will probably be accomplished the week between Christmas and the new year. For my writing process, for every one idea that sees the light of day, at least nine ideas are scrapped ahead of time. If I don’t think I’ll like the way something will sound in thirty years, it gets tossed. Thus, there are many days when I literally accomplish nothing for no money despite working tirelessly for 8 to 10 hours. Too many of those days in a row start to make me crazier than I already am.
Naturally, the piece wasn’t complete at the time of our first rehearsal, but we hacked through it like a bunch of lumbermen in the northern woods. For the first few rehearsals, there would always be new music. Thanks, gents. I know the music is 19 pages, but here are four more. I know the we’re up to 25 pages, but the second movement needed a little something else so here are four more. They put up with my constant adding, subtracting, altering, changing and note giving in rehearsals. I love getting completely lit up on coffee, and these guys handled all of my manic requests with a smile and a nod even though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t using actual words most of the time.
I can’t sing the praises of these musicians enough. These guys are so talented and so patient, and it was with them specifically in mind that the music for today came together. Even though the score will say vibraphone, it’s really for Aaron, the same with Piano Man Jonny, Guitarist Chris, and Steve on Drummer. They were and are integral not just to the performance but to the creative process going into the music as a whole.
I would like to thank you all for attending today, for 4th tap for hosting, and a huge thank you to Carla McElhaney for facilitating all of this. This is something special. You’re here, and you know that. More people need to know it, though. The live experience is a final frontier and there is a real danger to its sustainability. I never got into music for the money or for the security. We play and we create because it is what we do. It’s not up to the artist to determine if their work has any value. I can like something I’ve done. I can be proud of it, but I can’t tell you that it has value. The patrons determine the value, and in this day and age, there is an excessive abundance of things you can do for entertainment. We artists are in a competition for you, dear listeners, but my thought process is a bit different than that of my peers and many of the people who have found success before me. Streaming has decimated the music industry. Recordings do not generate nearly the money that they once did. For small groups like us, recordings are still great and we are positively affected by each dollar you spend. Every CD you buy from a small artist goes directly to that artist, and allows us to put that money into an savings account so we can produce more music. I don’t want to take advantage of you, and as consumers of entertainment, you’ve we’ve all been taken advantage of by the plenty of times by now. Here’s the thing, though. I’m night fighting for your wallet. I’m not fighting for your time… I’m fighting for your attention. Your attention is worth more to me than anything else. If we give you our honest music, and you give us your honest attention, then we will have created something together that can only exist here and now and never again. You can’t stream or download that. To engage is to be active, and if we can create an experience together, we all walk out of here happier, fulfilled and more hopeful than when we walked in. That feeling can’t be monetized.
From Austin, Texas, The Forgotten Prophets are an artistic musical collective— immediately accessible to any listener
seeking genuine musicianship, song craft, and honest heartfelt performance. Chris Bell, Jonathan Geer, Aaron Lack, Pat Harris, and Steve Schwelling weave their unique abilities into a cohesive and timeless aural tapestry....more