“The Still Small Voice”
The 70 piece North Netherland Orchestra (NNO) performances in Holland on May 24th and 25th 2013 were marvelous for me. We premiered a new composition I wrote called “The Still Small Voice”. The whole concept for this piece came to me in a flash. The idea was for me to start the piece on my guitar with a simple 3-note motif that was extracted from “The Middle of Everywhere” and then hold the last note for a full 17 minutes by using the sustainer on my guitar, while the orchestra weaved musical tapestries around it.
“The Still Small Voice” was actually written as the second part to “The Middle of Everywhere” which was also performed on the two nights in May, but was originally premiered about 2 years ago with the NNO.
“The Middle of Everywhere” is very dense, complex, and mechanical sounding. I used a technique I call non rhythmic counterpoint in which at no point in the entire movement is one note held longer than another. This creates quite a tension.
Metaphorically it’s sort of a depiction of the awareness of man being completely trapped in it’s own self made egoic mind patterns and identity without any awareness of it’s connection to it’s true origin.
In contrast, the music for the Second Part, “The Still Small Voice’ is relatively easy and is in contrast to the 1st part.
“The Still Small Voice” starts with the 3-note theme that is woven throughout “The Middle of Everywhere”, with the last note, the “ F ” above middle “ C ” being held through the entire piece on the guitar. At first various instruments enter and slowly start to separate (one note at a time) from the rigid linearness they were trapped in during the first Part.
It’s as if the notes themselves find their independence as they break away and discover they can start moving independently of each other. Soon they start to create counterpoint and the various movements of the second part morph into a multitude of dynamics, harmonic and rhythmic proportions. All this while I hold the still small note at the top of my attention and the tip of my finger.
Metaphorically, (and there always seems to be a ‘metaphorically’) this movement is representative of the evolution of the awareness of man as he enters into the era of consciously dwelling in the dimensions of both the physical and the spiritual. This is where man becomes aware of his own creative potential and exercises it in the world.
I imagined the one note would take on multiple and colored dimensions based on the continued shifting of the music that underscored it. Conceptually the one note is the representation of the stillness in the depth of our being where all inspiration arises, while the orchestra movement represented the myriad thought patters that race through our head, the mind noise so to speak.
One of my challenges was to get this one note, an F, to work throughout the melodic and harmonic structures of the entire Second Part, “The Still Small Voice”.
In visualizing myself performing this piece I imagined standing perfectly still for the full 17 minute duration with very subtle facial and body gestures (and a little vibrato here and there). This delicate movement would illustrate the connection between the still small voice within and the triggering of the mind patterns that arise when we move with inspirational creativity to manifest our insights into the world.
After I waxed on visually in my head about the piece there was a moment after that where I had to face the reality of how an audience might react with a statue of Vai holding one note for 17 minutes. I suspected many people would be expecting shredder Vai to blister away over the orchestra, (and I do like to do that on occasion) but I knew it would take a different kind of attention from the audience’s perspective to stay with this piece. A more focused, more spacious concentration then what most people might be used to.
But I felt if they stayed with the piece they might be able to experience that elusive sensation of sheer exquisiteness in art. Or perhaps we would discover that I’m just an eccentric loony-bird. Eh… I’m ok with either.
Any concern I may have had in regards to the audience’s response was dwarfed by the intensity of the inspiration to create the piece exactly the way I was imagining it.
I believe many of the folks who are drawn to what I do expect the unexpected so I knew this concept would give those people what they were expecting, so I hunkered down for 6 weeks of 20-hour days and composed “The Still Small Voice”.
I worked in shifts of approximately 20 hours and then would sleep for 6-8 hours, then wake and continue the cycle. Days seemed longer with this method and my attention can go unbroken for longer periods. Working this way is not a constant way of life for me but is good for particular projects. I also worked into this schedule a balance of physical exercise, meditation and family time.
I constructed the entire score within a notational program by “Make Music” called “Finale”. This was the first time I had worked this way. In the past I would usually write everything out by hand and then give it to someone to load into a computer but by going through the learning curve of composing directly into the computer I was able to streamline certain activities and eventually found swifter ways of laying out robust ideas directly into a score. I then was able to extract the parts from the score for the various musicians and hand in the score and parts in time for the orchestra to learn the music for the performances.
The rehearsal process went smooth and the moment of truth had arrived, the concerts themselves.
After performing the piece the first night I think the audience was a bit stunned at what they had seen… or didn’t see. I can totally understand this. They seemed to be confused. I could hear their minds and it appeared that some got it and some didn’t.
That night I had a vision on how I could refine my performance for future performances. This vision took shape the second night where I felt more confident and in tune with the one single note and the connection it had with the orchestra and the music.
Performing “The Still Small Voice” the second night was perhaps a career highlight for me. Standing there holding that one note with razor sharp attention and feeling it’s vibrations washing over me and spilling into the audience as the orchestra ebb and flowed in a surrealistic surround sound resonation, was something I will never forget.
The way the audience responded this night led me to believe they felt the same way.
Perhaps because the word got out what I was going to do and they knew a little bit more what to expect.
I’m still dreaming about it. That performance is haunting me beautifully. There is great satisfaction in having a unique idea, creating it and then enjoying it. It’s a life gift. To some extent I actually feel as though I was honoring one of my creative purposes in life. I felt, and still feel, tremendous gratitude over the whole experience, from the moment the idea came to this moment right now.
Both performances were recorded but were not video taped. I’m not sure why I opted not to video tape but perhaps something inside was telling me to wait until I perform the piece a few more times to get a handle on the vibe of it. I feel as though not filming was the right choice.
In regards to what I heard from various people after the shows…
Well, after the first night’s performance I did a little meet and greet, actually there were like 400 people there, and the moment I sat on the comfy couch to be interviewed, a very heavily intoxicated woman broke through the guard rope and virtually attacked me. She got about 3 inches, (maybe 1 inch) from my face and while grabbing my collar and shaking my head she screeched at me… “Don’t ever do anything like that again, it was shit, you are better than this orchestra shit, don’t ever do that again, I saw you in Tilburg and you were amazing, why are you doing this shit!!!!!!!!!!!.” etc. etc. Her putrid breath and vile spit spewing into my being! All I could do was yell for help. ahh, that was one perspective.
Fortunately the creative director of the symphony and my friends at hand enjoyed it very much. But my harshest and most insightful critic, and perhaps the one person who seems to have a fair equanimity and inspired insight into my work, and the one person who I’m comfortable taking cues from, my wife Pia, gave it a big approval.
Here’s another perceptive that came to me from a long time friend, who can at times be very critical.
last Friday, May 24th (the day of the premiere), I think I had
the privilege to witness one of the highest and glorious spots of your
The Middle of Everywhere rendition was quite a thing, despite
the fact you were not on stage, but in my opinion, the genius really
showed up right afterwards – twice at the same time (I mean both your
physical presence and your skills) – during the Still Small Voice
performance, when I saw you keeping a single note for at least 15
minutes while the orchestra behind you was developing that marvelous
range of melodies, I’d say the most lyrical ones in the latest phase.
Quite a remarkable thing from a shredder, often pointed out as a
fretboard wanker only capable of playing too many notes…at the end of
the day: from a million notes to just one, that’s pure genius (to
Thanks to Andrea Cardillo for the above perspective, and also thanks to the inebriated woman who screamed profanities at me as her perspective is valid also.
So folks, I’m hoping to make this recording available soon.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s good or bad, I think it just is, but I do enjoy it. And while internet surfers and critics spin wheels trying to decide the historical value of what a person does creatively, I suggest just keep making more of what you enjoy doing.
June 23, 2013