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.

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