Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Weird Instruments 5 - The Lap Skate Guitar

Take a skateboard deck. Add some strings, frets, tuning pegs, and a pickup, and you've got a manbearpig... er... a lap skate guitar.



It looks and sounds like this:



Here's a write-up, including an "OMG" headline which I'm too proud to reproduce: [LINK]


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Weird Instruments 4 - The Sapeh


Today we have a traditional lute from Borneo... the Sapeh.

(Or sape... Or sampet... Or sampeh... Or maybe sapek... in this case the spelling seems so informal as to be accidental)


At first it looks just like any other lute, but upon closer examination you'll notice some unique features:
Sapeh front, side, and back
(click to embiggen)
  • Only one of the strings is fretted. It's the only string used for melody. The other three strings are drones. The frets themselves are tiny, just extending across the one string.
  • There's no sound hole. That's because it doesn't need one.  The instrument has a hollow back, and the whole thing is carved from a single bole of wood.
  • For such a heavy instrument, it sounds light and ethereal. The resonance chamber opens away toward the body of the player. 
  • It has electric pickups. As it turns out, these things are very easily converted to electric use.
  • The tuning pegs are rudimentary dowels.
  • The strings are of different physical lengths, and each has its own nut. They're fed through holes in the head to the tuning pegs.

The Atlas of Plucked Instruments (did you know there was such a thing?) surmises that this instrument was devised by boat builders, which may account for its odd design.

There's a site on Angelfire where you can actually buy your very own finely crafted beast. However, if you were to carve one yourself, you might want to note the tuning, which should be as follows:
String 1: Tune like the middle C of the piano
String 2:Tune like C one octave lower than middle C
String 3: Tune to A, a minor third below middle C
String 4: Tune to F, a perfect fourth above middle C

And now that you've had the nickel tour, here's a playlist of sapeh music to keep you busy:






Sunday, August 16, 2015

Spintunes Champions vs. Shadows: Showdown

OK, it's the final round of this mini-contest, and we get to  rank the finalists, with a real live counting vote, since we were eliminated in the first round.  Here are all the songs of the round:



As usual, we're ranking based on how well a song meets the challenge, and while we ranked them together, Dave is writing the critiques (hence the apparent schizophrenia in the writing), so let's review the four conditions of this challenge:

1. Write a song in which you're counting down to something.
This is a lyrical imperative. It doesn't ask you to imply counting, and it doesn't say the song must be about  counting. It says plainly that you must be counting in the song, and to me that means discrete units in finite quantity. The more discrete, the more it feels like a countdown to me. Seconds, minutes, hours, years... yeah. Sand in an hourglass, less so. I don't care if there are all sorts of lyrics in-between the counts, but they should be there. Just saying you're counting down might get you through on a technicality, but very weakly. Showing beats telling, so I'm giving a lot of weight to showing us, in some way, that the person in the song is counting down to a distinct goal.
2. Musically the song should imply that time is getting nearer to whatever you're counting down to as well.
This is a perfect opportunity for rubato, accelerando, ritardando, key change, or some sort of building or decreasing of tension. I don't care what it is... the song should sound qualitatively different as the event approaches, and in a way that indicates that approach. And personally, I would prefer if it happens during the song as it progresses. Here's an example of a technique not mentioned above: in a song in which a person is counting the years to his death, the number of voices in the chorus diminishes each iteration until he's alone.
3. Once again...avoid going meta.
Easy, don't write a song about the song.
4. As an added challenge, you need to collaborate with someone else on your team
Also easy, and well defined.
 So those were our thoughts prior to hearing the songs.


GENERAL THOUGHTS:

Everybody left something important out.

I feel terrible for saying this, but if Dr. Lindyke were an official judge and went just by listening we would have to consider carefully whether to DQ the entire lot. But every bit as much as I feel terrible for saying that, I feel a disappointed, because you're all top contenders and champions, and any of you could have nailed it.

But since we're not official judges, and because that would be a terrible buzz-kill anyway, and because nobody's realistically going to get DQ'ed, we're pretending that the requirements are optional, and rank these in the order of those that we felt best met them. As usual for, this doesn't necessarily reflect our enjoyment of the songs, and whatever portion of the challenge that remains trumps execution. In weight, lyrics come first, then musical depiction of counting down, then personal preference.


THE RESULTS
In order, winner first:

1. Zoe Gray - 4-3-2-1
Collaborator: Brian Gray
To us, this didn't sound as though the music were getting closer to the event. Nevertheless, this one wins on the strength of the lyrics, which are closest to the challenge of all the official entries. And as the countdown is integral to the "plot", this gets the top spot.
2. Bubba and The Amiable Kraken - Tired Of Counting Down
Collaborator: The Boffo Yux Dudes
It's about counting down, it contains counting down, so it strongly meets that portion of the challenge.  It still doesn't sound to me as though it's getting nearer to the event. To us, the fade out makes it sound a bit like the opposite is happening,
3. Governing Dynamics - The Dream is Winding Down (Lucid)
Collaborator: Jenny Katz
Grammar Nazi strikes: "you've gone" or "you went". Pick one. Lyrically, this squeaks by on a technicality in the last line of the chorus. Other than that it doesn't really sound to me like it's counting down to anything. Also, doesn't feel like it's getting closer to the event to us. 
I should mention that the technical challenge is something we judged before reading any song bios, because it's very important that the songs effectively communicate that countdown musically. I've read your song bio, and while I respect your interpretation, we still have to rank it for effectiveness. Your descending motif is a bit too ornate for us to have interpreted it as an approach to consciousness, and I think it goes in the wrong direction. Most people would describe a descent into sleep. We didn't catch its purpose on multiple listens.
That said, this is among my favorite Governing Dynamics songs now. 
4. Jenny Katz - Goodbye For Now
Collaborator: Travis Norris
Of all the entries, this alone does feel like it's getting closer to something, so that portion of the challenge is well met. However, though it does lyrically depict progression or anticipation it doesn't feel like a countdown in that the anticipation isn't quantified. You may be counting down, but it's not really depicted in a way we understood to be a countdown. So... I feel that if I have to choose between this approach and another, I've got to pick somebody who went straight for it. I feel like a heel for putting it here, because I love this song. It has a permanent place on my phone now. But we're not ranking based on simply which is our favorite (in case you missed it, it's this one), but on the challenge first.

SHADOWS

Rob From Amersfoort - Countdown To Nothing (Shadow)
No collaboration, so a DQ, of course. I like the ticking clock. There's a sort of nihilistic ambiguity about "countdown to nothing" that lets me imagine a singular event such as a nuclear blast or financial or political collapse. I like it better than I like it.
Brian Gray - Off the Grid (Shadow)
No collaboration, so another DQ, of course. If you had collaborated... one shake of a tambourine or "YOPP!" from Zoe would have done it... and were an official entry, you'd have won our top spot with this. To me, this is the go-to example of how to depict a character who's counting down without saying it or just doing it explicitly. " 'Cause the digits flip at twelve o'clock" is a perfectly sound lyrical description of someone who is plainly staring at the clock counting down the discrete (and digital!) minutes to a well-defined target: midnight, January 1, 2000.
And top marks for "Time to never do the things I never did". That's possibly the very best phrasing of "time to die" I've ever heard. And Grammar Nazi doesn't mind that you split the infinitive because poetic license. Time to boldly go into my phone's mp3 directory.

COVERS

The Porter Draw - Today's the Day (Cover)
Have they actually heard the song?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spintunes Round 1: Battle of the Champions (Review)

Ok, having done the challenge of “a song about building something”, it’s now our duty to rank the champions for their own entries, which were written in response to a completely different challenge.
Listin' In: Write a list song about any topic you like.  The song should be in the form of a list, not about a list.
Ideally, we would love to see a “pure” list here. Examples would include “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Billy Joel; or “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon. Our own foray into this type of challenge was “Harvey Ray”, which is simply a list of 3-letter acronyms, and the listener is free to provide his or her own associations and meaning for the groupings.

Only one champion gave us a “pure” list; but of the remainder, some came closer than others. As usual, my preferences are for hitting the challenge first, and then song value, and then production, weighted in that order of importance. Here are some opinions, such as they are, in descending order.

1. Jenny Katz: Thoughts on Leaving You
Easily Dr. Lindyke's top pick. First of all, it’s the most clearly delineated and organized of the lists. Jenny sorts her thoughts into pros and cons, and it’s a list. Secondly, the list tells a larger story that we piece together for ourselves. Jenny sings about feelings, and we are left to fill in the narrative with whatever events we imagine… and that makes it personal, and better.  I love it when the audience is given something to do with their intelligence. Finally, I could listen to Jenny sing the phonebook. 
And if she had, she might still have done pretty well: it’s a list, too.

2. Matt and Donna: Reasons My Kid is Crying
This title (pardon the expression) cries out for a very listy list. This is sort of a list, but it’s not a very listy one. It’s a succession of questions, which I don't think is “in the form of a list”, as per the challenge. If you say you're going to give me reasons, then tell me the reasons. But with these questions, I don't really know if any of them are truly reasons. It could be none of the above. I know this sounds like sophistry, but we do have a challenge, and we have to rank these somehow. This is ranking high for song and production value, more so than for hitting the challenge. 
It’s a great idea, though… particularly with a baby, every parent has gone through a checklist of things that always seem to happen at once and leads you to run through a list of actions, all necessary: change the diaper, and the wet sheets, feed the baby, burp the baby, where’s the bear, where’s the damned bear?!? It’s wedged between the crib and the wall. That’s where it always is... why didn't you check there first? And when everything else is satisfied, you still have to wake up the other parent, because you're just not the right one to sing the lullaby; and even if you are, you just don’t smell right.  
With older kids it’s the same tune, different lyrics: the nightlight, the monster, the water, the story… and there’s still that same motherf--ing bear.

3. MC Ohm-I: Favorite Games
This has a high degree of “list-iness” compared to other non-Katz entries. And I like that MC Ohm-i tied it up with the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune from The Sound of Music. On the other hand, to my ears, the homage was a bit overdone. As a motif… yeah, go for it. But it needs to be a motif attached to a largely original tune. The rap is good, though it seems there were technical problems with the mix. I don't care much about those.

4. Governing Dynamics: Room Stop Spinning
We've pored over the lyrics, and we're still looking for the list. While it’s true that “all the sentences in War and Peace presented in order of appearance” is technically a list, particularly in Lisp… it’s still not a list for this purpose. Likewise, the lyrics you wrote for some random song about being hungover is not a list. It's a nice song, sure; but it's not really an answer to this challenge.



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pigs

OK, for SpinTunes of Summer of '15, the challenge is to write a song about building something. That's the only direction we get, except that it can't be about building a song.

In other words, write a song.

Alright, this is the sort of Plan B stupidity I do while waiting for lyrics from William. I don't really know what to say about this, except that it's a variation of The Three Little Pigs, of course. Fortunately William did come up with something. I questioned even publishing this, but finally decided... meh.


PIGS
(clean version)

I saw a little pig 
    Building him a house of straw!
I said I saw a little pig
    Building him a house of straw!
It was small but it was tall, it was all that I say
A little bitty shack made from a stack of hay
He built it in a minute and called it a day
And then feeling just a little beat
He went in to rest his little feet

[CHORUS]
    Then along came a wolf with a big toothy grin
    And he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house in
    And the piggy ran away to just to save his skin
    And said, "I ain't gonna do that again".

Then I saw a little pig
    Building him a house of twigs!
        (say WHAT!?)
I said I saw a little pig!
    Building him a house of twigs
He called it "reclaimed lumber" to impress the chicks
And the chat about slats just might fool the hicks
But you can't fool me with a pile of sticks
And when he finished with his little hut
He went in to rest his porky butt.

[CHORUS]
    Then along came a wolf with a big toothy grin
    And he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house in
    And the piggy ran away just to save his skin
    And said, "I ain't gonna do that again".

[BRIDGE]
    And I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    No, I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    No, I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    See, the wolf, he knows what's shakin'
    And everything's better with bacon.

Then I saw a little pig
    Building him a house of bricks!
        (NO WAY!)
Yeah, I saw a little PIG!
    Building him a house of bricks!
It was laid on the level and raised on the plumb
It was solid and stolid, the pig wasn't dumb
He heard from the others just what was to come
So he stocked it with survival gear
And went in to rest his hammy rear

[CHORUS]
    Now, you might not know the wolf had served in the Corps
    So he blew the brick house with a pound of C4
    And he walked right on in there and picked up the boar
    And he ain't goin' hungry no more!
    
    And I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    No, I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    No, I can't blame the wolf!
        (Can't blame the wolf!)
    See, the wolf, he knows what's shakin'
    And everything's better with bacon.


LYRICAL NOTES

Now, I should mention that junk like this is very easy to write. You just do something silly and it's not terribly important to make it make sense. The hard songs to write are the ones that are serious, which try to evoke an emotion other than whimsy. Those have to be carefully crafted and consistent, with a very smooth flow, both musical and lyrical. There, crafting lyrics is a very careful, thoughtful process. Here, meaning is subordinate to rhyme, so "crafting lyrics" is just a matter of having a thesaurus open. It's the difference between an artist's portrait and paint-by-numbers, so of the two songs we wrote for this challenge, I think Day After Day is by far the more difficult. I suspect, though, that Pigs might very well be better received.

The lyrics feel a little rushed to me because in these contests you really don't tend to do well if you take the time to build up characters, etc. Instead you tend to shorthand.

Of course, in this version the wolf wins (even with the lyrics cleaned up). The inspiration from that was all of the World War II songs with similar military twists; especially those in propaganda cartoons of the period. Also, since everybody else have the pigs win, we can afford to throw a hungry wolf a bone just this once.

Besides, everything does go better with bacon.

BTW, the original lyrics are NSFW. We'd been drinking at the time. Really. William made mention of the pigs after a couple of pints of Guinness, and I dutifully wrote the thing down along with everything else, only it wasn't The Three Little Pigs.  And apparently the wolf liked your mother. It wasn't until I went with the WWII homage that I went back and cleaned it up, as that's more appropriate to the period. Silly family-friendly songs were popular (see Mairsey Doats).


MUSICAL NOTES

Sort of bluesey, jazzy, and with a nod to big bands like those of Artie Shaw and Cab Calloway with the call-and-response from the band members.

Day After Day

SpinTunes, Summer of '15. The challenge: "Write a song about building something." Our only restriction: we can't write a song about writing a song.

Part of the difficulty with a challenge like this is that it's so wide open. It's very much like saying "write a song". Of course we wanted it to be metaphorical, so whatever we chose to build represented something More Important, but that could be practically everything. In any case, "building a relationship" seems to have won out. While discussing the possibilities, William wanted to know if rebuilding something was allowed. I didn't see why not, and that let him to this.




Day After Day

Deep in my heart where your memory lies
There's a handful of dreams of a summer gone by
And we're a long, long way away from that warm night in July
It's like yesterday is pulling me back to your side

[CHORUS]
Day after day we build castles in the sand
Night after night the tide comes rushing in
Flags that flew on high are knocked down by the wind
Until we pick them up and build it all again

Often things we love become things we revile
So despite our love we split for a while
My heart was standing still as my soul was standing trial
Hoping to recall -- why did we walk down the aisle?

[REPEAT CHORUS]

Here on the strand, years drifted away
Now here we stand with nothing to say
You hold out your hand... who needs talk anyway?
And we pretend it was all just a long midsummer day

[REPEAT CHORUS]

...We'll build it all again.


LYRICAL NOTES

Obviously it's about building relationships. In this case, a rather fragile one that's constantly repaired. This is in several stages:
  • verse 1 sets the stage in the present; 
  • verse 2 is a flashback to a breakup; 
  • verse 3 returns to the present and reconciliation.
We actually had to think hard about using sandcastles, because we were pretty certain that this and the underlying theme of building relationships would be pretty widely used. So I did a few Google searches and sure enough, it is. It's been done by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, the Booth Brothers, and The Philosopher Kings among others. However, they all seem to be focused on how temporary such a structure is. At least none of the famous songwriters seem to have contemplated a couple who were just resolute about sticking to the relationship despite periodic setbacks. Nobody considered a stubborn love. So that's something.

Of course the content owes a nod to Rupert Holmes' Escape, about the couple who tries to cheat, only to find one another anew, though this one lacks Escape's surprise and playfulness. This is more about two people who decide they're just "too" comfortable with each other, but after some separation they decide that's what they want. In the end they don't even have to discuss it.

Update: One of the judges (Edric Haleen) asked whether the "morphing" rhyme scheme was intentional. My answer: yes, it was.

If you look at how they're written out, there are two opportunities for rhyme: at the pause and at the end of each line. We're rhyming vowels at the end, and these are near-rhymes, because this is pop; and we get to rhyme more than those Yankees, because we're exercising Southern Privilege, and a southern accent to go with it.

It's the rhymes at the pauses that are more interesting. Remember our narrative structure:

  • In the first verse, their relationship is broken apart. No rhyme. 
  • In the second, he's reminiscing in flashback. Why did they get together in the first place? The answer is in the verse Love, love. Still don't care about the rhyme, but hitting the love hard. We thought thought twice before keeping that.
  • In the third they're re-joined in unity, so perfect rhymes. 

Edric also asked what's up with syllables being added or dropped. We don't care, is the basic answer here. The tune is subordinate to the message, and also... pop. I've been known to write a completely different tune for each verse when William's driving. But honestly, I put those extra syllables in on purpose to relax the meter. So what came to me as "far away" became "long long way away". I think perfect meter is too robotic for our style. I think of certain "imperfections" as "beauty marks"


MUSICAL NOTES

I conceived it as having a sort of Jimmy Buffett sound, to go with the beach theme. Also, with the style of it, it throws back to the style of some of our earlier work, represented by Summer Rain.

The recording isn't terribly close to what I'd like it to be. With a damaged rotator cuff, it's not comfortable to hold a guitar, and there was one chord I simply couldn't do. So it quickly to the piano. The entirety of the instrumentation is the piano, drum loop, and the strings. I resurrected the dolphins that I'd previously used in Carbon Footprint because... beach. Given more time (and I may go back and "fix" it) I would have guitars, steel drums, and a decent instrumental solo in the spot reserved for same.

When recording, I have no idea it would wind up at five and a half minutes, but that's what it is, and I don't really care. For competition purposes it's long, but it's intended to be a song for slow dancing, it's nice when those last a bit.

PS: At the listening party I was asked if the drums were slightly behind to give it a "lazy feel". Considering that the drums are pretty much where I intended them to be (i.e. I don't see them as being "behind" at all, and it took a bit of fiddling to get them where I wanted them), I'd say YES. This is a Carolina beach, where life is easy. It ain't Beach Blanket Bingo.


Friday, June 26, 2015

We Haven't Got A Clue

This is a fun one, written for this year's (2015) Summer play by Boogaloo Folklife Productions. Most of Boogaloo's past productions have been musicals, but in this case the story is an old-fashioned murder mystery called "Murder on Apple Road", written by Daniel O'Shields. I suppose we could have given this play the "Sweeney Todd" treatment, but that's not how it was written.

Nevertheless, I did feel as though we really needed an opening song to kick things off, and Dan's script provided just the hook. It opens with a radio news broadcast reporting a suspicious death. So in a creepy opening, we planned have the radio turn itself on, broadcast the report, and follow it up with an appropriate song, which I'd write (production notes follow the lyrics). However, I was so late delivering the song that every rehearsal started with someone simply saying, "And here's where the song goes". So here's the song:


We Haven't Got A Clue
by Dr. Lindyke
Say goodbye to dear Aunt Gladys
She’s joining dear old Fred
She’s gone to meet her Maker! 
Raised to Glory! 
(I mean she’s dead) 
Someone here is guilty 
And we’ll find him ‘fore we’re through 
All we need’s a little evidence 
But we haven’t got a clue 
I heard that it was poison 
or possibly a knife 
I heard he used a pickaxe 
in the bedroom 
On his wife 
Someone here is guilty 
And we’ll find him ‘fore we’re through 
All we need’s a little evidence 
But we haven’t got a clue 
I heard she was stabbed with an awl through the heart! 
I heard she was found dead sitting in a car 
With a hose stretched to the window from the exhaust! 
It was a car, alright, but it veered off the road 
With the brake lines cut (or so I was told) 
On a cliffside highway sheathed with winter frost! 
She was pushed to her doom from a balcony! 
It was a poisoned page, ‘cause she loved to read! 
No, it was candy-coated mothballs for the kill! 
I heard she was shot with a .45! 
No, No! She ran off and is still alive 
And she hides out in a casa in Brazil! 
If he’s on the policy 
Or mentioned in the will 
There’s a chance that the murd’rer 
Could be waiting 
Among us still 
Someone here is guilty 
And we’ll find him ‘fore we’re through 
All we need’s a little evidence 
But we haven’t got a clue
Lyrical Notes

The challenge for me here was to write a song that was about the play that gave away nothing in the play. After all, it is a mystery! Once I had the title, "We Haven't Got A Clue", the rest of it came rather quickly. I simply engaged my well-developed sense of black humor and imagined a bunch of nosy townsfolk gossiping about all the possible ways in which they imagined the murder to take place, and tied it together with myself as the newly arrived detective who hasn't yet formed an opinion.

Musical Notes

Though I had the lyrics very early, there were some issues, both personal and work-related, that prevented me from actually arranging and recording the song until very late. In fact it was the night before dress rehearsal, and only two days before opening night before I actually started the work of arranging. By that time, I realized that I couldn't remember the quirky chord progression I'd originally planned for it!

And quirky it was, too... I wanted this to be reminiscent of all of the old "Miss Marple" and "Poirot" mysteries I remembered as a boy, with a little humor thrown in, a la Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, or Clue. I knew from the start that it should be a sort of slow, lurching Tango, featuring a French accordion, so I started from there, adding some variations in other instruments. The featured oboe was first, with various organs, piano, a electric piano and harpsichord ganged to stand in for the bass, and bits and pieces of percussion from a kick drum, muted hi-hat, wood block, sticks, and a struck wine glass. It might not sound like it, but all together there are about 20 separate tracks, and some of those are occupied by more than one instrument. The percussion track carries maybe half a dozen various doo-dads I struck, scraped, or shook for an accent here or there.

I had hoped for perhaps some violin, but couldn't pull it off quickly enough to meet my deadline. Instead, in the "gossip sections" I went with plain piano, and added a soft organ to hint at a melody that's not sung. Rather, the characters simply gossip in speech, as in a musical.

Tom Giarrosso and I provided voices for the male gossips, and the female gossips were JoAnn Abbott and Denise Hudson.

I had planned from the start to involve Denise, because she's an amazing vocalist and generally knows exactly what it is I'm looking for... in this case, she needed to put on her very best "Helena Bonham Carter" to provide some harmony and lead vocals in the verses. I'm very glad she was able to help out (and on the day of the deadline, too!), as this is a very boring song without her.

The last thing added was the shouted "GUILTY!!" in the last verse. This came from my son Timothy, and was then filtered a bit as if shouted from the bench in a courtroom. I can't imagine the song as "finished" without it... and it's there because it reminds me of a scene in Pink Floyd's The Wall.