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Brent Fischer
Grammy®-winning Producer, Composer, Arranger
Director of the Clare Fischer Bands

Video: Elvis Costello and The Roots with The Brent Fischer Orchestra

What would you find important to shed light on?
The first thing that comes to mind is to carry on the traditions that my father conceived of, and I think he was one of the first people to conceive these types of –I refer to them as- musical traditions. They’ve been around since he started writing when he was in his teens, so that is a long time now 75 or 80 years. A lot of these concepts aren’t really used by many people. The two main hallmarks of Clare Fischer style: one was the very uncommon harmonic vocabulary which I enliken to a gifted writer – someone who writes books. Most people go through their lives speaking their native language, and they’ll learn about 3000 words in their native language, whatever language that is. Average people learn 2000 to 3000 words of a working vocabulary. Words that you would use on a monthly basis as you live you life. Every once in a while you would read a book by a really good writer, and you come across these words that you either haven’t seen for a long time since you were in high school or or you can guess what they mean by the prefix or the suffix, or if you know the way the word is formulated you can guess what it means.
You might need to go to the dictionary to look it up, but once you understand the full meaning of that word, you see why it was the perfect choice for that sentences to convey that subtle shade of meaning that cannot be conveyed in any other way, or is a more creative way to convey that meaning. So it is with my father’s writing, there is a harmonical vocabulary there that was an amalgamation of a lot of different sources. In some points it was the study of all the historical composers that came before him from Bach on up to Bartók, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and even beyond that Dutilleux later on in his life. He became aware of Dutilleux in the seventies or the eigthies, but that’s also mixed with all the jazz training that he had, and especially a lot of these street educated musicians who didn’t really know what they were doing, they were just kindof playing with what sounded good to them. In a lot of cases there where a lot of so called ‘mistakes’ – that in modern music theory are considered mistakes, or things that teachers might mark you wrong for if you were to write something like that, but he found a way to put all of these together and combine it with his knowledge of what Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Bartók have been doing, and to find a way to make sense out of it and to create a deeper use for all of the vocabulary there. So it’s almost like he has added words to the language of music. So that’s the first part of the harmonic vocabulary, which is not really existent in a lot of other composers’ work.
Well I got surprised when I was down in Brazil. I met a really fine composer down there, he was also playing during the festival, he had a great band and I noticed in his work that he must have listened to my father. I talked to him and he said he was a big fan of my father, he still is. Because I hear, I’ve heared specific harmonic words, that to me, I don’t find anywhere else except for in the writing of Clare Fischer. So that is the first hallmark.
The second hallmark is the unusual orchestrational sense where you combine these instrumental colors, and even later in his life when he got to the point to combine electronic sounds, synthesizer patches, things like that. But always in an orchestrational sense. He never used a synthesizer sound to replace an orchestral instrument, but as a color to add to a piece just because he liked that particular sound. He liked the way it blended with whatever else he was writing for, so an unusual instrumental sense of finding interesting combinations of players for instruments.

Video: Bachi – Clare Fischer

He had learned how to play all these orchestral instruments when he was in high school. He traded harmony lessons, free harmony lessons from his highschool teacher for being the all purpose band member. When he was there any instrument that the teacher needed for a song, or for a concert he would just give my father the instrument, the fingering chart, and the music. My father would go home and learn how to play the instrument, and get a good sound out of it, and be able to play that part in a concert. So that was invaluable for orchestration.

Video: Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band at Typhoon Restaurant, Santa Monica

It shows up in all the unique combinations that he came up with. The most recent comes from our latest album: “Music for strings, percussion and the rest”, in his piece “Miniature” which is for percussion ensemble, keyboards and string orchestra. It’s just a wonderful combination and I’m sure there are people who have used that combination before, but not that I’ve heared, where its writing is accessible to those beyond the room of the purely avant garde classical music genre. First of all you don’t hear any – and this is something I found out very early when I was getting my percussion degree – you don’t find any works for percussion before the twentieth century. All percussion was.. an after thought for all the composers up till the twentieth century. It was only then that they started to get integrated into compositional ideas. You have percussion instruments that were holding their own against the musical ideas that were being played by some of the other orchestral instruments, but this one particualr piece “Miniature” I feel is in that style, but just because it was written in the late twentieth century, doesn’t mean that it had to be a lot like what other late twentieth century composers were doing really. Just trying to reinvent the wheel. Like: let’s take everything that history has done upto this point, because well.. it’s been done, you don’t wanna do it anymore. Let’s just reinvent the wheel and be this complete avant garde and as eclectic as we can, and what ended up happening was perfect fifths became replaced by tritones, octaves became replaced by minor ninths, so then you get this whole series of compositional genre where actually the least desireable intervallic relationships were ‘harmonic relationships’. Of all the music preceeding in 300 years or 400 years, since we had the development of our tonalities system. That’s then replaced, but then it all sounds the same again, because almost every octave is replaced with a minor ninth, now you just have a bunch of minor ninths hanging around. To me it’s still kindof lacking creativity, because you’ve just replaced one set of vocabulary for another. What I like about what my father has done, is increase the vocabulary rather than an abandonment. It’s almost like what he’s doing is incorporating not just all the words that are coming on to you by a particular language – because in this case the language is music – but all the slang too. If he were still a writer he would use terms that people where using in the 1920’s or 1980’s, as well as modern slang and so it is in music. He’s got that knowledge of all this stuff and so you have for instance a piece that he wrote about 20 years ago for one of our vocal albums called “Baroque” and it starts off sounding very much like a Bach counterpoint piece. The difference is that it’s written in seven instead of three or four or one of the other common meters. And then within that song I’m happy to say I had a small part in him coming up with his idea. In that song we go through a variety of different rhythmic styles. We start with a sort of seven/four rock feel, we go straight ahead into swing also in seven, and then we come back to the original feel and then finally the piece ends up with just an accapella choir singing this again very contrapuntal sounding, with Bach overtones. So here is something that incorporates nearly 400 years of musical expertise into one piece.

So this is the Baroque piece, right?
Yeah, it’s called Baroque, it was on the album “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (1997) which was the second to last vocal album that we did as of yet. I have plans for another one. There will be another one and we’ll be using existing keyboard tracks that I recorded before he passed away. So we will get a chance to do that at some point in the future. I have to figure out where to fit it in the schedule.

The famous Clare Fischer song “Morning” in a stunning arrangement for voices:

What are your two favorite chords at the moment?
That’s a very interesting question, because I can’t say that there is any chord that jumps out to me, and first of all I don’t think in terms of chords, I think in terms of voicings. So a lot of voicings that I may use are difficult to put into chord symbols. One that I like and have been using a lot recently is an ninth chord with a fourth added, but the third is still in the chord in the form of a ten. So in other words, if you were reading from the bottom up, you would play a C, then an F, a B-flat, a D, and then E. Then on top of that you could put a G or an A. That type of harmony is the ‘sister chord’ of an idea that I also find is almost uniquely attributeable to my father, and that is a true eleventh chord. A lot of people write C11, what they really mean and what you hear is an G-minor 7 over C. In other words they leave out the E-natural. They don’t like the idea of the C, E, G, B-flat, D & F. Again the minor ninth – again that favorite interval of the avant garde people is still not the favorite interval of the rest of the mainsteam population. We are trying to use this here in a way that is musical enough, and remember it’s not just playing the chord because it sounds cool. It’s how you arrive at that chord an how you leave that chord for smooth voice leading. Those two chords are very interesting to me and I’ve used them a lot in my writing, and will continue to do so. The other one which is also a very interesting idea which I first heared from my father. I have heared it used by other composers and that’s taking a seventh or a ninth chord and placing it over a base note that is a fifth lower. So if you were to for instant using a C7 or a C9 you’d have an F in the base and if you just stack the notes in thirds it doesn’t sound that great. It was a matter of fact, let’s say, tertiary harmony in general has not been a favorite of my father and mine. We prefer voicings with mixed intervals in them, but if you use some other inversion or some other way of voicing that C7 or C9 chord either as an open structured or a closed structured inversion of some kind. Without just a stack thirds and then you put it over that F base note. It’s a really interesting sound which you have there basically. If we were to count it over the F which you have it’s an F major nine chord suspended. So with an F suspended 4 major nine, or F suspended nine major seven. Now that is another one of those things where the existing Jazz, harmony and chordal theory doesn’t really work for what we are doing. But we still do it anyway. So those are two.

Video: Clare Fischer and Salsa Picante – Como Come!

What are your favorite chords of all time?
It’s hard to put that one into place, but I would have to say that I gravitate because my father got me interested in stacker harmony. That is like harmonizing, because I like this idea of harmonizing melodies in five and six part harmonies. A question I get often asked by students; “How do you harmonize a melodie in a five or six part harmony?” Especially when we are talking about a scale that only has seven notes in it. The answer is you do it pandiatonically or polytonally. So when you’re dealing with pandiatism – or near-pandiatism, right because if you have six out of seven notes in the scale it’s not technically pandiatonic, but it is almost there. If you are harmonizing a melody in six part harmony and you being diatonic about this, or pandiatonic or near-pandiatonic about it, that means like every chord you play of that melody to harmonize that melody has almost every note of the scale in it. So it becomes tricky where you have to try and make it so that the one note that is missing from that six part chord in each one is different from the note that was missing from the last chord. That’s how you get variety out of it. Otherwise it just sounds like you’re revoicing the same harmony. And then in the case of polytonality the boarders are freed out a lot more, because you can get as high as ten part harmony without sounding like a cluster. If you spread the chord out among 3 or 4 octaves, I have been able to get twelve note chords. I actually have used twelve note chords. I can tell you specifically where it was: the last two chords in the ninth movement of my arrangement of “Pictures of an Exhibition” right before the drum solo. I used three stacked full diminished seven chords, a major 7th apart, and then after that I used four stacked augmented triads, a major 7th apart. That’s interesting because that is tertiary harmony there but instead of repeating the notes when you go from one octave to the next, I repeat at the major 7ths instead. By doing that and again because it’s spread out over a number of octaves, it doesn’t sound that thing, it is very thick. I don’t think it gets to the point where it sounds like atonally at that point so polytonality gives you a lot of room for experimentation with getting into seven, eight and nine part harmonies. Ofcourse each note that you add to the harmony becomes exponentially more difficult then to move on to the next chord. If you’re dealing with three part harmonies it is very easy to find a suitable voicing for the next chord. Then you put four part harmonies in it, and it’s not just twice as hard, it’s ten times as hard. At five part harmonies it’s again ten times that difficult because you have ten times as many choices in a sense. Okay, maybe not ten times as many but you see what I’m talking about. Permutationally the options just exponentially increase when you are dealing with this type of harmony, so that’s a general answer to a specific question. What are my favorite chords of all time? They are pandiatonic and polytonal, any of those who are used in very creative ways. I mean I can tell you one chord that always stood out to me. It’s the last chord in my fathers song “Minor Sights”. In that song, he takes a progression that makes an very interesting voicing of a major ninth chord, and he just moves it up. By the time he gets to the last part of the top he’s playing a Gmajor9, but then he hits an E-flat in the base and so if you spell that out, if you try to get that chord a symbol, E-flat is the root, it becomes an E-flat major 7 minus 5 plus 5 plus 9. So that is something that is still spellable using standard theory. However will you get what you’re looking for if you just put it down in front of any keyboard player, and ask him to play? My experience is when I put chord symbols like that in front of any keyboard player they leave out all the extensions that don’t make sense to them, if it’s something they haven’t seen. I can remember so many times when I would just write out, what I considered just a simple basic chord. I’m always using C as the root just for simplicity’s sake, a C major 7 with a raised 5th and a raised 9th. To me that is a very natural sound. Then they see us with the big band and see that chord, and they won’t play the raised nineth. They’ve heared C major 7 with a plus 5, but they’ve never heared one with a plus 5 and a plus 9. So they just don’t play it the way he did. Again it’s not really the chord symbol itself but that G major 9 over the E-flat. The way he got it voiced, and the range that he uses it in, it’s just a really brilliant chord. Also the last five chords of the song. Unfortunately I haven’t looked at the chart in a while so I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on there, but it’s just a very unusual arrangement of chords. This is a very unusual harmonic motion, there’s no II-V-I in there anywhere. But it’s beautiful. So these are the types of things that I love to listen to but it’s also difficult to get other people to listen to it sometimes, because you get people who’s ears are not trained or maybe haven’t done a lot of transcription. I had one guy listen to that chord one time, and he said ‘wow that is so thick, what is that? A diminished chord?’ he figured well it doesn’t sound like a major chord, it doesn’t sound lika a minor chord, so it must be a diminished chord. That’s as far as their training has gone and so when I played the chord for him at the piano, and I showed him and explained him exactly what it was, he looked at me like I was some alien from a different planet. Like, where did you come from? My dad had a wonderful phrase he used to use: “For those who don’t understand no amount of explanation will suffice”. Although as an educator I do try, but I try with the people who do understand. It’s not a question of that they understand everything, but that we are. To demonstrate themselves to have some sort of gift or ability that then I as an educator can work with. To extend their knowledge, in some cases it is not even people who I even think of as students, these are people who are maybe older than me, who may have their own accomplishments in the music industry. I’m giving them a different thing to think about, so it’s almost like you’re peering notes at that point. That’s always fun for me, to being able to explain that to somebody, and then I can see the look on their eyes. It’s like the cartoon, where the lightbulb comes up. They are like ‘wow yeah’ that’s an new idea, I’m going to use that, and it’s in this way that I find that I can help to propagate these ideas, which I attribute to my father and almost nobody else. I’m sure you can, I’m not a music historian. I’m sure if you look around enough you can find some other users, by the combination of all these different ideas put together, in a way they put together, they get the element of creativity. Also this simplicity of the logic you know, because that chord is just a whole bunch of complicated ideas. In the chord is a very simple logic, which makes absolute sense to me. There is a piece that I once had discovered, that dad just had written. He had written a vocal score for one of his original compositions. He had already released it with the Latin Jazz Group, we already released it with the clarinet choir. So we had two different arrangements of this already and now here was a third that I’d found although there were no accompanied rhythms section parts, it was just the vocals. I notice that while the melody was more or less the same, he had altered a few elements. He altered some of the harmonies, he had altered a little bit of the melodic structure, but it was essentially intact. But the middle section, this development section, was completely different than the other two arrangements. I had to deduce chord symbols from this. I had to deduce what he was thinking about so that I could make an accompanied band arrangement to go along with the singers, and when I showed it to the singers, you know what they asked me? ‘What chords are these?’, ‘what are we singing here, because we have nothing to grab onto here?’, ‘all I’m doing is I’m singing the notes that is says on the paper, but I’m not understandig how it fits in.’, ‘look at this, can you tell me what that is?’ and I said yes, like there is one thing were he had a D9 chord but two octaves higher and there was a major7, so it’s almost like he had an A triad over that D7 chord. You know it’s if you just look at that, there is no base note there. All the six part harmonies did not include any base note. They were all harmony notes, but it made perfect sense to me, because I had an idea of why he would have done something that way. It was very simple actually. The baseline was just II-V-I-VI. How common is that? Even when I told him what the baseline was it was just als simple as II-V-I-VI progression, but all the extensions on top of that to get polytonal is a lot for people to wrap their minds around. So they had to go on into the studio, and really just sing the notes only based on the reference page that they had in their hand. Rather than truly understanding how their notes fit into the harmony. That was an interesting experience, but we did it. We got it done.

Which song was that?
Panpipe dance from the vocal album “..and sometimes instruments”.

¡Ritmo! by the Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band won Best Latin Jazz Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards:

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For all the music by Clare and Brent Fischer, and also all the available sheet music (!), see: