Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Weird Instruments 3 - The Yaybahar (by Görkem Şen)

I'm not exactly sure what bucket to put this in, or whether we should even try.

Yaybahar by Görkem Şen from Olgu Demir on Vimeo.

This brainchild of Görkem Şen is certainly percussion, but it's also melodic and can be played with a bow. It's resonant and totally awesome. To me it sounds like whalesong. If whales played strings. And drums. And didgeridoos.

The Yaybahar is described on Vimeo thusly:
"Yaybahar is an electric-free, totally acoustic instrument designed by Gorkem Sen. The vibrations from the strings are transmitted via the coiled springs to the frame drums. These vibrations are turned into sound by the membranes which echo back and forth on the coiled springs. This results in an unique listening experience with an hypnotic surround sound.
What you hear in this performance is captured in realtime without any additional effects and with no post audio processing."
There's a website,, which contains nothing but this video and a single link to the email address:

Follow the Vimeo link for credits.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Weird Instruments 2 - The Theremin and the Light Harp

This installment of "Weird Instruments" features touchless music, high-tech and sanitary.

Part 1: The Theremin

A theremin consists of two radio antennas, and you interact with it by moving your hands in the EM fields. One hand controls the volume; the other, the pitch.

It's what gives 1950's sci-fi movies their eerie soundtracks. For the most iconic example, refer to the classic soundtrack of 1951's "The Day The Earth Stood Still" by Bernard Herrmann.

In this TED talk, Pamela Kurstin demonstrates the theremin's versatility, making it sound like a musical saw and a bass.

Part 2: The Light Harp

Light harps (or "laser harps") come in all sorts of styles, but they're all played basically the same way: by interrupting or reflecting beams of light with your hands. The light beams substitute for strings and either trigger a synthesizer directly or produce MIDI codes to send to an external synth.

Here's "Theremin Hero" performing the Tetris theme on a reflective Laser Harp.

There are several basic approaches to building a light harp.

1. Scan with a single laser using a rotating mirror (similar to the way a scanner works at the grocery store checkout). The note is indicated by where the beam is when your hand reflects it to a sensor.

2. Use multiple laser sources and one (or few) detectors. It's similar to method one, but suitable for compact models. Basically, power is swept across multiple LEDs, and whichever one is turned on when the light is reflected is your note.

3. Use multiple detectors. It can be done with one scanning laser, or many individual ones. Since laser LEDs are so cheap, It's not terribly costly to use a bunch of them. I like this one approach because you don't necessarily have to scan, and I think you're likely to get better response, and it could manage chords. I also like relying on hardware more than software.

Whatever approach is used, the light harp can either directly control a synthesizer or act as a MIDI controller.

For the technically inclined, here are instructions on how to make a sophisticated laser harp (by Stephen Hobley). Steven points out that technically it's not a harp, but a lyre. I point out that technically it's neither, as it has no strings.

For the not-so-technically inclined, here are instructions on how to make one with an Arduino processor and simple breadboarded parts from Radio Shack.

Weird Instruments 1 - Hurdy-gurdy and Nyckelharpa

Lately I've been sharing some links to odd instruments I've come across with some friends, and thought you might like to see them, too.

Part 1: The Hurdy-gurdy

If a violin were gene-spliced with bagpipes, a piano, and a sewing machine, the result might look like a hurdy-gurdy. It uses a rosined wheel to vibrate drone strings, while the melody is played on a melody string using a keyboard. This TED talk explains the instrument nicely.

Part 2: The Nyckelharpa

The nyckelharpa resembles a violin, is carried like a guitar, or lute, and like the hurdy-gurdy, is played with wooden keys that do the fretting. But in place of the wheel it uses a more traditional violin bow. The addition of sympathetic strings give it a very rich sound. In this video, Thomas Roth most certainly does it justice.



Monday, August 11, 2014

Shadow: The God of All Small Boys

For SpinTunes 9, Round 3. The challenge:
SCORE! - Finally! Your favorite book is being made into a decent movie! The producers need a title song to promote the film and hopefully win an Academy Award. You're hired. The song must have the same title as the book. (2 minute minimum length) 
Uniquely, this song was actually written concurrently with the book. The book is "The God of All Small Boys" by none other than SpinTuner and Master of Song Fu Joe 'Covenant' Lamb. The book reached completion at about the same time as you were writing your songs. Joe provided me with an advance draft, which I read and for which I wrote this song specifically.

It's a tale about a group of pre-teen boys; a coming of age story set in Dundee, Scotland during the Great War (WWI). The lyrics were based on a description of a "den" constructed by the boys, and depicts a single scene, on a grassy hillside into which the den is dug. Joe was then kind enough to write the song back into the book, thus it is quite literally a scene from the book. The book is being submitted to a writing competition, and will be released shortly after that. Now all that's needed is a movie producer. Having read it, I can tell you that it is a movie I'd like to see. I highly recommend it.

This arrangement of the song itself was written for SpinTunes, but there's a "Covenant" version that's intended for radio play. Based on feedback, that's what I'm submitting. I like both, so here they both are.

The God of All Small Boys

A dreary Autumn's day 
Just west of the sea 
Beside the Law and Tay 
You will find me 

A shelter from the storm 
Some corrugated iron 
A bit of chimney pipe 
A paint pot filled with fire 
Will keep me warm... 
Will keep me warm... 

And The God of All Small Boys 
is looking down 
is looking down 
The God Of All Small Boys 
is looking down 
is looking down 
On me... 

Listen, you can hear 
Echoes of a war 
Our fathers shed their blood 
There is nothing more 
That we hold dear... 
That we hold dear... 

And The God of All Small Boys 
is looking down 
is looking down 
The God Of All Small Boys 
is looking down 
is looking down 
On me... 
On me... 

The God of All Small Boys 
is looking down 
is looking down 
The God Of All Small Boys 
is looking down 
is looking down 
On me... 
On me... 
On me... 
On me...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Shadow: Nothing But Love

I'm so ashamed.

It's about the SpinTunes 9 challenge for round 2:
Write a song about unconditionally loving someone who plainly isn't worth it.
I was driving home from work, and I was humming Amazing Grace to myself, and I thought what a cool response to the challenge something built around that would be. After all, we don't say who isn't worth it, or who is doing the loving.

So I thought Grace could be the girl's name, and it would be a secular song where the guy is a cheating SOB and the woman loves him anyway. I got all caught up in it, thinking that it could even be a duet, with her part telling him that she loves him and my part being all repentant. That would hit the challenge from both POV at the same time. And it would be tear-jerky and sweet, with a country Gospel flavor.

I'm still going to finish Amazing Grace. I have a melody and counterpoint. I actually have a chorus and some verses, and was trying to think of some more when I thought of the line, "She has nothing but love for me". It didn't fit, but I started wondering what if that were literally true? What if she has absolutely nothing to offer but that? And then I wrote this in something like five minutes... Not a gospel at all... more like Rockabilly, which transformed itself into a Ray Stevens pastiche. This kind of stuff is why I won't be winning any Grammys. It sort of... escalates.

And these jokes feel like I've heard them before, but Google found nothing. So if somebody else wrote the gist of this, as Marta would say, that "doesn't alter the fact that I wrote it again yesterday."

Nothing But Love

She won’t answer the door, she won’t cook or clean
She won’t chip a nail on the washing machine
She won’t change the channel on her own TV
She’s Got Nothing But Love For Me.

She won’t touch a duster, won’t pick up the phone
She won’t fry up the bacon that I bring home
If I press her to do it I’m afraid she'll flee
She’s Got Nothing But Love For Me.

But ooooooooo-weee!
I’m in LOVE, helplessly!
And my baby, can’t you see,
Has got nothing but love for me!

She can’t find the kitchen, she won’t scrub a pan
She’s afraid of the sink and those dishpan hands
She once used a broom -- on Playboy TV
She’s Got Nothing But Love For Me.

She’s not a big fan of societal norms
She’s been to college - but only the dorms
She’s an honorary member of the fraternity
She’s Got Nothing But Love For Me.

[whistling solo]

But ooooooooo-weee!
I’m in LOVE, helplessly!
And my baby, can’t you see,
Has got nothing but love for me!
                          (ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!)

At night when I’m tired and ready for slumber
She’ll meet me in bed, if I’ll just take a number
I’ll even get lucky, if I’ve got the fee,
She’s Got Nothing But Love For Me.
She’s Got Nothing But Love For Me
My baby's got nothing...
                           ...but love....
                                           ...for me!


Monday, July 14, 2014

Spintunes Shadow: O Hail To You Fidonia

The challenge: "Write a new anthem for a fictional country."

The backstory... regarding the definition of a "country", I had told the other judges that in my view, "if a bunch of fleas formed a government, the dog they lived on would be a country."

This is their song.

O Hail To You, Fidonia

O Hail To You, Fidonia
A land of comfort and ease
From your collar to tail-bone-ia
The Homeland of the Fleas

Your rolling hills
So muscular
Are to us heaven-sent
We drink our fill
From your flowing nourishment

O Hail To You, Fidonia!
O Hail To You, Fidonia!
O Hail To You, Fidonia!

Your luscious coat, preeminent
With never mange or thatch
Your tolerance, magnificent
You never roll or scratch

O Fido, fair
Beneath your hair
We live our lives in peace
And sing to you, 
The Homeland of the Fleas
We sing to you, 
The Homeland of the Fleas!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

My Judging Criteria for SpinTunes 9

For the first time in forever, William Hoover actually asked me if we were going to compete in Spintunes. And I'd have really loved to compete in ST9 except for the fact that I've got some personal business coming up that may preclude that. I don't like to promise what I can't deliver. However, I will be judging with William's help, and this time I have the Judge's badge to prove it ;)

Made by Michael Carroll's Badger software.

We usually like to start off with an introduction and some indication of what we look for so that the contestants know where they can take risks. Normally I put that in my first reviews, but I think I'll give you a week's warning this time. Understanding that all judges are different and have their own tastes, here are a few of Dr. Lindyke's slightly self-contradictory criteria.
  1. It's all about the challenge. If it's stated, it's typically required, unless it specifically says not. I don't care if you're John Williams, Mozart, or Michael Jackson; if you didn't meet the challenge you will be ranked at the bottom of my pile. I don't care if the other judges choose not to disqualify you. My first, utmost concern is "did you give us what we asked for?"  Just make sure you hit the intent of the challenge. Now, that doesn't mean you can't get clever. The title isn't part of the challenge, and anything that's not forbidden or required is optional. Often that means that a HUGE risk is better than a little one. I'd rather see somebody surprise me with wild creativity than see them obviously explaining away the challenge. Avoiding the challenge for the sake of being 'clever' isn't clever, it's suicide. For Pete's sake, take the risks, but make sure they're worth the possibility of failure.
  2. It's all about the song. By that I mean it's about the composition, not the production. I know there are other competitions that are looking for some kind of polished radio-worthy output, but this is a songwriting competition. Generally speaking, if I can imagine your song produced in a way that is really, really appealing to me, I'll rate it highly. I've done it before, and gone on to cover the song, too! (hmm. I need to remaster that) That's no assurance that I'll like a crappily produced song, and certainly no guarantee that any other judge will rate your composition above your performance, but for my own part I will shine that ray of hope. That said, there are a lot of songs in the first couple of rounds, so it's asking a lot of the judges to interpret your songs. You'll do yourself a favor if you do your very best to get the idea across on your own, because I can't guarantee I'll "get it" every time
  3. Production still counts. I personally don't much care about production, but production is a factor. To me that's not contradictory. I've done this enough times to know that especially in the later rounds the differences in quality between songs is infinitesimal. If your song is just as good as the other artist's, and she performed hers better, then she gets the edge. Sorry, them's the breaks. But I also take into account whether the production is appropriate to the song that was written. Basically, if you've got a really killer idea that sounds good with a washboard and kazoo, you're going to do OK with those instruments. So do a little honest introspection, look at your strengths, and write songs that play to those. One of the best examples I can think of here is Steve Durand's "A Beautiful Voice". After a couple of rounds of feedback on weak vocals, Steve was faced with a round in which no instruments could be used. His answer was sheer genius, and won the round:
  4. Genre doesn't matter.  Again, this goes for me alone. I don't care if it's Hip-Hop or Pop Rock or Folk or Baroque... I'll listen with open ears. Your choice of genre is one of those risks you take. Go far afield, and you'll stand out in either a good way or a bad way, and that's up to you. Generally speaking, I like good surprises, but I'm the weird judge. 
  5. Song biographies help. In an ideal world your song should stand on its own. But sometimes, and for some challenges more than others, it helps if the judge knows where your head was at when you wrote it. You have the opportunity to turn in a brief statement about what your song is about. Spin will publish that on the Bandcamp site along with the song. I read those. Even if only one judge does, I advise you to leverage every advantage you can get. Turn in a song bio, even if it's just a sentence like, "This is about a girlfriend who stole my dog." The more inside information in your song, the more this will help you.
  6. You WILL get constructive feedback... If I can find it. I'm not here to tear you down or tell you that you suck. Tastes differ. You are still OK even if I don't personally like your entry. And if I don't like the song, I'll try to tell you why if I can put it in words. And you should know this... if I don't rate your song highly, but you get a lot of feedback, you should take that as a compliment. It means I listened to you a lot and saw potential there that deserved comment. If your song just flat-out sucked it doesn't take a lot of words to tell you why. In the past I've noticed myself giving special attention to "concept" songs that were a bit too ambitious (see #3).
That's all I can think of for now. With that in mind, the current challenge is:
Imaginational Anthem - Write a new anthem for a fictional country. (examples: Gondor, Utopia, Narnia, Val Verde,  Freedonia) (2 minute minimum length) (your submission is due Sunday, July 13th 11:59PM)
I know there were questions on interpretation, but honestly folks, this one's not complicated. You know the sort of countries for which anthems are written. Examples are examples, not rules... if they can be "interpreted" more than one way, then they should always be interpreted in accordance with the actual challenge given. Weigh your risks, get creative, do your best, and good luck.

Some folks quantify their rankings with some scoring system. It can be simple or complicated, like breaking it down by lyricism, musicality, performance, etc. I've tried that, but I don't do it any more. Why? Because all of the scoring of the individual criteria...? They're subjective, too. And as it turns out, musicality isn't necessarily as important in one song as it is in another. Neither is any other category. 
Even when responding to the same challenge, songwriters attack the problem from completely different places, with completely different mindsets. I personally have found my own attempts at "objective" scoring to be a Procrustean bed, so I've discarded it. 
Instead what you get is my holistic judgement, for better or worse.