LENI STERN: Drones for Peace
Any musician who uses his or her gift to help the nation come to terms with September 11 is an angel. Having said that, the deluge of post-tragedy works have proven it’s a risky business addressing real horror and loss through pop songs. Th constructs of words and music, verses and choruses, can compromise even the most sincere artistic intentions by being too Sesame Street (such as Paul McCartney singing "Talkin’bout freedom"), too righteous, or too gruesome. The pure sound of instrumental music, however, can express complicated emotions without agitating the listener with an inappropriate word or phrase. Even better, the individual’s imagination is free to interpret how the textures and melodies rouse their feelings.
For Leni Stern, the healing started with a groove. The New York-based guitarist, singer, songwriter, and orchestrator didn’t conceive her Finally the Rain has Come (LSR) as a remembrance of 9/11, but songs such as "For Peace to Come" were formed by her perceptions of living with the aftermath. "That song was inspired by this wild tabla and drum improv between Zakir Hussein and Keith Carlock that, to me, expressed the feeling of September 2001 in NYC" says Stern. "They just started playing, and I rolled tape." However, it took months for Stern to analyze the drum track and develop a song form. "I didn’t really know what to do with the track at first," she says, " but I knew I couldn’t not put it on the album – it was just too amazing. Eventually, I surmised the form was basically a pattern of 4 and 8 bar phrases, and I wrote a chord progression with my Martin that fit the rhythmic structure. Then I used my JamMan to loop layer drones in E, B, Am and D that fade in and out of the progression. That was the ‘peace’ part – a big, calming drone.
The tabla rhythms and drones- as well as Stern’s study Indian music amd her love for guitarist John McLaughlin’s western/eastern hybrids- inspired additional Indian textures.
"I decided to begin the song with an improvisation in the style of an India alap- which is a rhythmless outline of the feeling of a song," explains Stern. "I thought that was the best way to introduce this vibe of peace and calm and people connecting. That was something I needed at the time of tragedy, and I felt that was the right message for the song to deliver. Of course, there’s no guitar tradition in Indian music, but they have a 4,000-year-old improvisational technique that fascinates me. There are all these embellishments, and yet their choice of notes- and how they’ll use a single interval throughout a piece- are very disciplined. It’s a step further from modal improvisation, but I use their school of improvising within a normal western context- which is my tradition."
When the tabla/drum groove enters afer Stern’s intro, "For Peace to Come" builds and intertwines thematic layers with sitar and acoustic parts performed by Larry Saltzman, and fingerpicked lines played by former GP associate editor (and current Norah Jones sideman) Adam levy. "We spent one Sunday just finding ways of creating textures with guitars," says Stern. "It was like arranging an orchestra- you know, lines coming in and lines coming out- except that we really didn’t plan anything. I just said, ‘Let’s take all the guitars we have and see if we can do something with this beautiful percussion duet.’ We were just soloing along. It was a long process, and later I picked the parts that best fit the song."
The work also features violin lines by Jenny Scheinman and ends with what Stern calls "hillbilly" vocal harmonies. "I added the violin to show that we must remain calm in the face of anger and destructive and destructive power of terrorism," says Stern. "And the outro harmonies bring in this truly hopeful American element. With all the textures and emotional layer, arranging this song was like making a film. I found myself giving the players acting instructions more than musical feedback!"