Wednesday, October 27, 2004


There I was all proud that I was in the top 15 hits on Google for tintinus. Turns out it's spelled tinnitus. Poor spelling is another side effect of exposure to loud noises, really.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Shringy and Flooby

I spend a lot of my time in imaginary worlds. I inherited a love for fantasy and science fiction from my father. Indeed, I still hold a subscription to Analog magazine that he began back in the 60's. These types of books rarely talk about music and the ones that do usually aren't very good. I'd recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's "A Memory of Whiteness" and "Synners" by Pat Cadigan but that's about it.

Lately I've found myself wondering what the music of these created worlds would sound like. The answer depends on how good the writer is. If I'm getting a sense of the world as a whole then it comes quite easily. Music is an outgrowth of culture and if the writer has done his/her job then that culture has been made clear. Mind you, I tend to hear in my head the music of the real world culture that most closely resembles the book's.

I've read descriptions of alien music and most of them fall flat. Part of the problem is the lack of sound specific words in English. We tend to borrow words to describe sounds. I've mentioned this before. Dang, only 30 odd posts in and I'm repeating myself. I don't think we'll ever create those words. In this age o'information description isn't necessary, not when the actual item is available with just a few mouse clicks.

I used to think that email and blogging would restore the art of descriptive writing. Didn't think about hyper-links, it's so easy to create a link to an example, why wouldn't you? This worries me a little. It seems symptomatic of a deeper problem.

It appears to me that as a culture, the west is loosing it's imagination. Popular music, movies and television all seem to be rehashing the same themes using the same styles. It's not that interesting innovative stuff isn't being made, but that society at large doesn't seem to value it. When one's livelihood is dependent on one's popularity it literally doesn't pay to create unusual works of art.

For this reason and my slightly left of center political views (blame being born in Canada) I don't have any problem with government money going to experimental artists. The more controversial the better.

But I digress. We live in a strange time. One that hungers for novelty, witness how fast bands come and go, and yet shuns originality. Green Day wasn't particularly original when they first broke and Good Charlotte isn't particularly original now, despite their popularity. Maybe this has always been the way of it; I don't know enough history to say for sure.

In the interest of reversing the trend I'm going to go home tonight and put some really weird sounds on the track I'm working on. I'm also going to invent some words for that sound. I think I'll shoot for a shringy guitar tone with maybe a just a hint of floobiness.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Who's in charge here anyway?

Sunday night I dusted off the song I've been working on since I bought the digital recorder. I did some good work. I added a piano part and some found percussion.(1)

I'm especially pleased with the piano part. I miked it in stereo and ran it through a phaser and a panning digital delay. (2) The sound is almost exactly what I'd hoped it would be, recognizably a piano but mutated enough to be interesting.

I'm not the kind of composer who can hear the piece in his head and then write it down. I usually start with a very intellectual idea and get progressively more intuitive as it goes along. For this one the theme is about falling so I wrote a chord progression for guitar that steadily descended. Then I wrote out a bass line on paper using my music theory knowledge, tweaking it just a little after hearing it. Actually I wrote a whole bunch of bass lines but only one worked. The second guitar part I wrote about half of it on paper and improvised the rest. The piano was straight improvisation, made more random by the piano being tuned down a half-step from concert pitch. (3)

I'd stalled out on this tune partly because of all the mixing work for the band and partly out of frustration. I like the chord progression, the arrangement and the verse lyrics but I can't for the life of me think of a chorus.

Normally I think of verses as being where you talk about whatever your subject is. They answer the question: "What do I have to say about that?" The chorus is where you distill the "that" down to a few phrases. In a perfect world the chorus would always be pure poetry: concise, imaginative and evocative.

On this tune coming up with chorus lyrics has been impossible. It doesn't help that I'm trying to be at least a little ambiguous. I have a tendency to over-explain (surprise!) and that isn't good art. There should be room for people to find their own interpretations. I'm having trouble articulating what I feel this song is about without hitting people over the head with it. There's also a problem in that the song could be taken as an endorsement of suicide. Treading that line has been interesting but each re-write has made it less likely to be seen that way. Very few people will ever hear this tune but even so I'm not comfortable with the possibility of anyone taking it that way. I keep wanting to put blatant "It's stupid to kill yourself." slogans in the chorus. Not good.

I've written other pieces that have an instrumental chorus but I didn't want to go that way with this one. It's looking like I'm going to have to this time. I hate being forced into decisions like this. I mean, who's in charge here, me or the song!? Oh yah, it is the song. And that's really how it should be, doing whatever the piece requires rather than sticking to arbitrary decisions I made before starting.

Just another place in my life where I'm not really in control, sigh.

Geek stuff

(1) "Found" means I looked around the house for things to hit rather than using real drums.

(2)A phaser is an electronic device that takes the signal put out by a mic or electric guitar or other electric instrument and manipulates it. It creates a whooshing sound that pans from one speaker to the other. The digital delay does what it implies, delays the signal. The setting I used created a slap-back effect. It sounds like the sound has bounced off a wall and come back to the listener. In essence a really quick echo.

(3)Because the piano (on semi-permanent loan from friends) is old and cranky it's been tuned to a slightly lower pitch than normal. This relieves some of the tension on it, hopefully prolonging its life. It's really hard for me, a non-pianist, to figure out which note is which. This is great for true improvisation because it's hard to intellectually tell which notes are in the key. A half step is the distance in pitch between a white key and the next black one on a piano. The smallest division of pitch in the western tradition.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Inspired by "The Motorcycle Diaries"

Does one believe that people are inherently good or evil? It's a question that has caused religious schisms, persecution and strife over and over again in human history. We don't think much about it today, I can't remember ever discussing it even during drunken college philosophy bull sessions.

I haven't resolved my opinion on this. I don't believe that we're born with sin, no baptism needed here. I look around me and see people living their lives as best the can, causing as little harm as they can. Sure there are some pretty bad people out there, the one who cold-cocked me from behind in broad daylight because "He's bigger than me." springs to mind. So does my drunk father standing in the door of my bedroom, saying to my 8 year old self: "You don't love me." But for everyone one of those you meet there are thousands or hundreds of thousands who just walk past you in the street or shield their children from pain. So I guess I'm leaning toward the inherently good camp.

One of the reasons is because of music. Specifically making music with others. I don't claim any metaphysical connection with the people I play with, but there is a feeling of non-verbal communication.* It can also happen in a good conversation with likeminded people. The feeling that the ideas are bigger than any one of us but together we can hold them. A sharing of understanding that seems to be deeper than the spoken words.

I have to believe in the innate goodness of my bandmates. Even when they're pissing me off by not showing up to practice or whatever. If they are inherently bad then the feelings I get when the band is really clicking are false or at least inaccurate. I couldn't really live with that level of self deception.

And yet I also believe that everyone, myself included, is capable of enormous evil. To take away that capacity is to deny free will and I believe we are nothing if not self determining.

I guess this is another question about which I shrug my shoulders and say "I don't know."

I'll have to add it to the list that includes: "Is there a God?" "What happens after you die?" and "Why do I love Monster Garage so much?"

*For the record I'm a skeptic philosophically and an agnostic religiously.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

It all changes

Did some overdubbing yesterday. We're trying to record live off the floor as much as possible. Not only is it faster, but there's an esthetic to it that we like. Unfortunately we got some really good takes where my lead line was the only part that sucked. In the interest of getting it done I decided to overdub.

It's a weird process sitting in your living room and playing along to a band that isn't there. A process made weirder by the dreaded "Recording" syndrome.

One of the nice things about overdubbing is that you can do as many practice takes as you like. The bass player isn't going to get bored, the drummer won't lose focus and throw you off. Essentially you're in complete control and no one's going to get annoyed.

I played through the tune maybe 10 times and was playing better than I've ever done in a live situation. Until I hit the record button. I know it's all in my head. Nothing changed, the sound in the headphones was the same, the guitar was still in tune, my hands were still attached at the wrists. Nothing changed except the knowledge that this was for keeps.

Not even for real keeps. There's no one waiting to use the studio nor a producer reminding us how much studio time costs. And yet it was different. It goes back to the ability to get out of your conscious head. With the recorder running it's much harder to slip into the state where it all flows easily.

I used to poo-poo people who told me that even if you've lived together for years being married is different. My mother once told a couple who'd been shacking up of 9 years "Why spoil a good thing." when they announced they'd be getting married. I guess I'm going to have to rethink that.

PS I just got an email from P. He says that my overdubbed take was the best he's heard so far. He wants to do more me-less backing tracks. Dang, I knew this was going to backfire. We're going to end up doing a track by track recording and take years to finish. Ah well, it's been years already.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


I've been thinking about possibilities. I dwell a lot on the future and all it's attendant dangers. I also dwell a lot on the past and all the shitty things that have happened. What I don't think about is all the possibilities in the past.

I'm really good at seeing the negative in everything, a trait that doesn't make me happy. But I've just realized that the past is full of missed catastrophes. Of all the things I've worried about a stupendous majority of them haven't happened. I like to think that I'm reasonably realistic in my concerns. I don't waste much time worrying about invasion by carnivorous aliens for example. So here I sit, healthy and happy and I realize that I'm so very lucky to be that way. If the world is as dire as I imagine it to be then every day should be a victory celebration.

This is a convoluted route to get to an appreciation of life, but hey, I've got a convoluted brain.

I've said for years that I want to be able to create music that has joy in it. I'm really good at writing about the trials of life, some would call it whining. I think I've just taken a real step in the direction I want to go.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


Man, you talk about death and everyone just goes away. Hmmp, anyway back to our irregularly unscheduled whining.

I spent last weekend in the mountains with the LUC. She's on a non-profit board and they had a weekend retreat. This meant I got a free ride to the mountains, well the foothills anyway. Got some quality mountain biking in, just the thing I needed to clear out a little of the grief. Nothing like 2 hours of moderate to frickin' steep climbing followed by a half hour of hair raising descending to get your mind off things.

I've decided I'm too polite to be famous. We stayed at a hostel and part of the hostel experience is gathering in the common room. I'd been hiding in our room practicing so as not to disturb anyone, but the LUC insisted that I play for everyone. I really didn't want to do it. That sort of demonstrative act always feels like showing off. "Lookit me, lookit me, I play guitar!" Bah. Fortunately my travel guitar is very quiet. I don't think I annoyed anyone, only one person got up an left after I started, but who knows?

I want people to hear me play but I hate the idea of putting people in a position where they have to listen. As far as I was concerned the people sitting in the common room were entitled to the peace and quite they had when they sat down. On the other hand a few people stopped to listen and the LUC enjoyed it.

My other concern is, well, drool. Yup, if I really get into it I kinda forget to swallow. I enjoy improvising and as I don't know any recognizable covers I always improvise in these situations. It also has an advantage in that no one can say you played something wrong. The drool only happens when I'm improvising or practicing intensely. To the best of my knowledge it's never happened in public and I want to keep it that way. I won't let myself be caught up in the music the way I would in private so it's not as fun, nor is it as good. If I get to the point of slobbering on myself I'm so far gone that the only thing in my head is what I'm playing and what I'm going to play next. It's the point where hands and ears are working together perfectly and musical thoughts are expressed without conscious effort. If I could keep control of my saliva I'd love to get to that place in front of an audience.

Last night at practice I had a great moment. I was playing a rhythm line that has a lot of stops in it. Less is more is a concept that I'm still struggling with and I recently changed my part on this tune. My new line ends on the first beat of the last bar of the phrase. The idea is to let the drum fill to push it into the next phrase. I was startled to hear my line being finished without me! It really sounded like I had played the line through to the cadence like I used to. The even more startling thing was that the cadence came from the drums. [a cadence is a sequence of chords that resolves harmonicly to the chord around which the key is based]

Most people don't know this but drums sets are tuned. The various heads are tightened to different pitches and good drummers will put them in tune with each other. Watching someone do this is a bit like watching them trying to level a table. It's a fiddly, time consuming process that's never ending. E, being an excellent drummer, keeps her drums in good tune and whatever she hit was a perfect ending for my line. It was really like I'd played it myself.

When the band is clicking it's like 8 hands with 1 mind and that's great feeling. Now if we could only push that symbiosis to the point of group drooling....

Saturday, October 02, 2004


This is hard, and it's not about music. My boss for the last 16 years has died. She had lung cancer that spread to her spine, not surprising considering she was a lifelong smoker. Her death was a surprise however, she was such a fierce, vital woman that I never imagined her dying.

We didn't see eye to eye on many things. Politics being the foremost. I've often described her of being to the right of Ghengis Khan, but that's harsh. Let's say that she was a conservative and I'm a little left of center. Our relationship wasn't a friendship exactly, but it was more than an employer/employee one too.

I didn't like her politics, but I did respect her. I was even a little afraid of her despite all the years working together. People with focus and drive are intimidating to me. How can they be so sure they're right? I've never had that kind of confidence. She did.

I grew up in this company, I was 22 when I started and still learning who I was. Some of the qualities that I'm most proud of came from her. Whatever sense of loyalty, perseverance and duty I have came at least in part from her. Those things will live on in me.

I'm going to miss her.