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  • Peter J Felice

ZENTANGLES: From Images to Sound


My wife is an elementary art teacher.

So naturally this means I get the luxury of participating in all of the backstage work of various projects and activities she prepares for her students. It is a great opportunity for us to spend time together sharing in her interest, as she does mine while attending my performances, but what makes these experiences even more rewarding is being exposed to so many interesting designs coming from the simplistic, yet dynamic minds of children. Often times, while helping Alison cut construction paper into various shapes or put up artwork while watching 'Perfect Strangers' episodes on Hulu, I think back to my life as an elementary student and how much I remembered my art classes over the other subjects. Before I became so invested in music at a young age, I had a vigorous affinity for artwork. I have vague memories of elementary school; in fact I can't even picture my teachers faces or any of my classmates, much less can I remember conversations I had while in school. But I can recall a an assignment I was working in which I was attempting to create a jack o'lantern with painted dots. I got so frustrated with how it was turning out that I bitterly folded the paper in half smearing the paint before it had dried. When I opened it up, I was on the verge of tears when I friend, noticing my frustration, leaned over and said 'dude...it looks like a tree!' Sure enough, after hearing this perspective I realized that this seemingly disaster of a pointillism project had been transformed into an impressionistic autumn tree. I was overjoyed with pride when my teacher put the picture of her bulletin board in which only the best of the best works go on. All because of a moment of frustration and an impulsive decision on my part. I remember that. And very well. Don't remember anything else outside of the art room - but I remember that, along with many other projects that were done in that class.

To say that I miss art is an understatement. I was just as passionate about design creation as I am music composition. My mom was always buying me new art sets for me to let loose my creative impulses. I didn't always take care of them, but I sure used them. I never considered myself that proficient of an artist - not like my older brother, whose works always seemed to be highlighted by an unprecedented perfection that would only come from someone who didn't allow himself to make mistakes. His works were absolutely gorgeous in my eyes, and there was definitely a part of me - in my adolescent years - that felt like I needed to follow in his footsteps. But I was too impatient. Often times I would be so focused on finishing the project I would forget that part of art was enjoying the journey to get there. The result of this would be what my family members and close friends would likely call a beautifully created barrage of imperfections.

Truth be told, that is who I have always seen myself as. I believe it is only fitting that I married an artist, because she has been able to help me embrace these imperfections through empathy, encouragement and support. And while I spend those rare Saturday or Sundays apart from my day job helping her organize her classroom a feeling of content and nostalgic satisfaction besieges me. And one of those days - a key moment for me that has inspired a new universe of musical ideas, Alison casually suggested to me 'You should write music based on Zentangles."

Zentangles? What the heck is a zentangle?

This was a new word for me - and it was intriguing. And when I asked her what it was, she explained to me that it was something she was currently teaching her students - a relaxing technique that relies on creating patterns that collectively form an ultimate design. And from what I could tell, there are no restricting rules on what kind of patterns you could create - it was almost like focused, structured doodling. This seemed like the perfect activity for a child struggling with an attention deficit, and I wanted to know more about it. Come to find out, after researching the word, The Zentangle Method, to my surprise, is a fairly well-known technique in the graphic art industry. As it was initially explained to me, it involves structured patterns that can be combined to form a mosaic like effect. What is more intriguing to me is that zentangle designs typically have no endgame during their construction - rather an artist may freely develop a pattern without caring about where it will go. Not focusing on the final result is what helps with relaxation and can in turn result in a very creative product. So this is what a zentangle is - this is how the method is put into action - and this is how many of the beautiful designs I discovered not just from Alison's students but also through a google image search were created. Zentangles. Wow. Can I make this into music? Can I use the Zentangle method in a musical setting? Getting back to Alison's original suggestion - I had thought a lot about putting the Zentangle method into music. I have already reached out to a few new music groups about this idea - some of them showed mild interest, but I would imagine a concept of this singularity needs to have its own tangible structure behind it for it to be better comprehended. I needed an opportunity to turn this concept into a reality and thus bring it to the stage.

Cue Cory Barnfield and his DynaSax quartet. If you have not read my previous blog entry,

Shadows of Paris: The Soul of Composition, I would suggest doing so as it better explains the recent project Cory and I last collaborated on for his Album Out of This World. Following the success of this project, we both met to conspire our third collaboration - originally a concept for saxophone soloist and percussion which has now turned into a full quartet piece with percussion ensemble. The intention was to submit the proposal for this new commission to the North American Saxophone Alliance conference in taking place in Cincinnatti in March. With the deadline for submission rapidly approaching, I had danced around several ideas before deciding to resurrect my wife's idea for zentangles in music after putting it on the back burner for a few months. So I pitched the idea to Cory and he submitted the proposal along with this brief description of the concept: My wife, an elementary art teacher in Indiana, has recently introduced me to the artform called The Zentangle Method: A method that relies on structured patterns that form a specific design. In many instances, one zentangle can contain main different patterns and designs that form an entire portrait. Zentangles, in their purest forms, can be seen as a practice technique to teach focus and persistence however often times they are used in more professional settings. In this work, I have adopted this art form to serve as an entertaining array of musical ideas that are intertwined within each other to form a complete musical creation. In each of the three movements, several patterns are introduced while following a definite style. These patterns will return throughout the additional movements to help embellish newer designs created until the piece concludes with a final defining theme. So the proposal has been submitted and we won't find out until mid December if it has been accepted or not. But Cory and I have both agreed that even if we are denied this opportunity, it will not stop the project from being completed. There are several local music groups who we could reach out to that would likely work with us on getting performance space. One thing is for sure - I see a very promising concept that could hopefully become a trend in musical composition. I plan to work diligently to turn this into something. Hopefully this concept is as successful as I want it to be.

Zentangles. Wow. My wife's idea - not mine.


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