When she’s not touring the world with the Decemberists, collaborating with an array of local musicians, or writing and recording her own solo works, Jenny Conlee teaches piano—mostly via Zoom.
So she was fully prepared, when asked during an interview, to explain the seven ancient Greek musical scales—or modes—that form the foundation of about half of her new album Tides: Pieces for Accordion and Piano, which also happens to come out on Friday via Jealous Butcher Records.
“I've been wanting to write pieces in the modes for a long time,” she says, pulling her keyboard towards her with a practiced motion. “Because I’m a piano teacher and an accordion teacher, I wanted to write teaching pieces to explain how those [scales] sound.”
Most of the Greek scales have unique qualities—a sharp note here, a flat note there—that make them sound and feel exotic to our ears, which are accustomed to hearing music in the major and minor scales most commonly used in Western music.
Major and minor scales tend to provide our brains with a feeling of completion and stability by resolving from dissonance to consonance, Conlee explained. The Greek scales don’t have the same intervals, so they don’t really resolve in the same way.
“They always seem kind of like they’re floating because we can’t feel the root note,” she said. “You can’t find ‘home,’ so it feels a little bit drifty.”
That’s why the first half of Tides: Pieces for Accordion and Piano evokes a sense of melancholy for many people. Conlee wrote its seven tracks for solo accordion using the Greek modes as a framework and the Washington coastline as inspiration.
“I submitted a proposal for an artists’ residency at the Sou’Wester Lodge [in Seaview, Wash.] and the idea was that I’d write songs in each of the Greek modes and they’d be based on folk tales,” she said. “But when I got out there, I decided I’d just base them on what I was seeing, because I would get up in the morning, go to the beach and be like, ‘I want to try to make the sound of the sand. What mode would that be?’”
The answer, it turns out, is the Aeolian mode, a minor scale that gives the song “Sand” a sort of wispy, slowly shifting feel. “Wind,” on the other hand, was written in the Phrygian mode, Conlee said, so it would “sound like a whirling dervish kind of thing.” The suite’s penultimate track, “Shell,” is unmistakably somber, thanks to the Locrian mode’s dissonant tonic triad, while “Dune Grass” flutters playfully atop deeply rooted chords in the Lydian mode.
“The classic Lydian song,” Conlee says, plunking out some familiar notes, “is the ‘Simpsons’ theme song.”
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The second half of Tides features five entrancing, melodic ostinatos for piano, written by Conlee over the past few years. They're good companion pieces and nice palette cleansers, after 21 minutes of distinctive accordion sounds. All five are generally bright, beautiful and, in spots, heavily influenced by jazz giants Chick Corea and Bill Evans.
Conlee credits the Sou’Wester residency with giving her the time and space to finally complete her long-mulled project, and to stretch her classically trained musical muscles, which she tends to ignore when she’s busy with Portland-based folk-rock heroes the Decemberists, for whom she has played keyboard and accordion for the past 23 years.
“I like getting to play a grand piano in front of a listening audience to indulge my classical side a little bit,” she said. “I got my degree in piano and then ended up in rock bands, and I’m definitely happy that I’m in rock bands because the classical world is very competitive, and I’m not that kind of player. But I like the music and I like to compose in that way.”
At Sunday’s album-release show at the Old Church, Conlee will not only perform Tides in its entirety, she also plans to project video of coastal Washington to help take the audience back to the place where she wrote the music.
“I really like to think about that place and those things when I’m playing it, because I want to bring it out so much,” she said. “It’s almost like I made a soundtrack to the ocean, and I want people to see that and feel that.”
Jenny Conlee plays the Tides album-release show at the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th, Sun, March 26, 7:30 pm, $20-25, tickets here, all ages