Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Weird Instruments 6: The Dord and the Carnyx

Today we have two ancient Celtic horns. First up is the Dord.

The Dord is is a curved tubular horn with a very large mouthpiece, native to Ireland. It hails from the Bronze Age, and examples have been uncovered dating from as early as 1000 BCE. Experts believe it may have been played like a Digeridoo, and you can hear this in the video below:

The second example (the Carnyx) is an awesome fusion of Iron Age engineering and art. It consists of a long straight tube culminating in a dragon's head. Depending on the style it could be played horizontally or upright, and the sound could either come straight out of the mouth like a trumpet or could resonate in the head. Some advanced examples had wings or ears that resonated like bells, adding to the sound.

I ran into references of it in Suetonius' histories of the Roman Empire. When the Celts sacked Rome, prior to entering the city, they played these outside of the city walls first to soften up the resistance. I don't know about you, but if I heard an angry barbarian mob playing these freaky things I'd piss my pants.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Far Away

For SpinTunes #14, Round 3, the challenge was to write a contemporary song based on a classical music selection. Since this is a shadow, we re-worked a set of older lyrics of William's. Technically it would be disqualified, I think... or arguably not, as the end result is a new work written for the contest. He'd been dissatisfied with the original tune I'd given them, as it was a bit somber. He'd been bugging me about "fixing" it anyway, and it just so happened that they precisely fit the tune I was aching to do for this challenge... The Beautiful Blue Danube by Johann Strauss.

I originally envisioned this with a vaguely Caribe rhythm, but sometimes the song gets the last say. This one really wanted to be Mack the Knife. I finally threw up my hands and decided to go with a swing beat, choosing the style of Count Basie with Bobby Darrin style vocals. The end result was a bit goofy, but suddenly turned charming when I added harmony backing vocals from Heather Zink, who has this delightful Doris Day quality to her voice. In my view, she saved it from being buried in cheese.

The rhythm, guitars and horns are just auto-generated by an algorithm. I didn't spend much time on that. The only thing I was careful about was the piano and vocals. I wanted to make sure that at least in the opening verses I got the little piano hits that confirm for us that this is based on the Blue Danube waltz. I dropped them in the later verses in favor of some more jazzy riffs, because style. I didn't write any of this down, preferring to play directly from Strauss' notation, converting it to 4/4 time on the fly and using the chord progression as my framework. Very little of that sheet music winds up in the finished product. Early verses have the tune based on Strauss, again abandoned later to just work around the chords because the point had already been made. I figure I'll just let the listener make the connections from that point forward. The chorus is original, with only the first two notes being taken from the second movement of Strauss' piece.

Lyrically, the song decided to do its own thing, too. Originally the lovers don't wind up together, but are pining. But with the change in atmosphere, that changed, too. So we get a sweet little ending.

lyrics by William Hoover

Everyday lately
I see you smiling
But every day's gray
When you are gone
Love's in the way
When I try to find you
It's so easy to say
When alone
And you seem far away.

A kiss was so pleasing
Early this morning
It changes the season
From cloudy to sun
Whatever the reason
I've never stopped soaring
And I'll never be leaving
As one
To lose you far away.

Far away
You've taken me
So far away
And if I had the chance today
I'd still choose reality
Far away
You've taken me
So far away
And I'll always be
With you
So far away.

All of my time
Is spent trying to tell you
All that these rhymes
Just can't convey
The place isn't mine
You say to surround you
Still I can't find the line
That will say
Don't be too far away.

You try to believe
There's something about this
That will not deceive
Our open hearts
I've tried to relieve
All of your doubts with
A soft touch and ease
But there are scars
On our hearts from far away.

Empty Room

The challenge for Spintunes #14, Round 2 was to write a prequel to a Billboard Top 100 song. We chose to prequel I'm Still Standing by Elton John.

As you read the lyrics (below) you can see that we're writing about a break-up. In our song, the singer is distressed... distraught... as the the break up is ongoing ("...we divvy up the props...", etc.). In I'm Still Standing he's recovered and is issuing a musical F.U. Life goes on, and he's still standing. Jerkatorium, in their review of the round, made an insightful comment on the first verse about the stars in the eyes standing in for the over-the-top glasses often worn by Elton during this period. Unfortunately, I can't confirm it, because Hoover's in charge of the lyrics, and he's not saying.

Sometimes you write a song and it has more than one meaning... the public meaning and the private one. Such is the case here, where some personal events informed my writing of the music.

lyrics by William Hoover

The moon like a tear-drop
Is falling from the sky
And the stars become detached
Then settle in my eyes.

And the words they've no idea
That they're still supposed to rhyme
So now I'm finally thinking
That this may be the time...

To get out...
Of this empty room...
Already too long abandoned
This empty room
Spinning me at random
Now a flavorless expression
In a world we cannot question
Just a song without a tune
This dark and empty room.

So we divvy up the props
Which made this stage a home
And the laughter from the wings
Still echoes but it's gone...

From this empty room...
This empty room...
Already too long abandoned
This empty room
Spinning me at random
Now a flavorless expression
In a world we cannot question
Just a song without a tune
This dark and empty room.

This dark and empty room.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

SpinTunes and such...

It's been a while since I posted, but that's not because I haven't written anything. I actually have written a couple of blog posts here, but they never got past draft, for reasons that will become apparent.

Travis Langworthy, aka "SpinTown", ran the SpinTunes competition for a number of years, picking up where the Masters of Song Fu contest on FRED entertainment left off. After 12 contests, Travis decided to retire, and needed a successor. That turned out to be me.

I've had some mixed feelings about that. On the plus side, I love the contest and am privileged to keep it going. On the other hand, this means that I don't get to actually compete. That's not as terrible as it sounds, because I do get to work with the judges to draft interesting rules and challenges.

One of the things I brought back to the contest was eliminations. Early SpinTunes contests, like Song Fu, were games of attrition, and by simplifying scoring I was able to bring that back.

Even without eliminations, we've always had some attrition due to missed deadlines. But we've also allowed contestants (and even non-contestants) to "shadow"... that is, play along as if they were in the contest. Shadows get played at the listening parties and are placed on the albums, but are not scored and cannot win.

Well, I've changed that a little bit, too. When regular contestants miss their deadlines, the empty slots can now be filled by eliminated contestants who chose to enter a qualifying shadow. What that means is that if you were entered into the contest and weren't actually disqualified, but were simply eliminated due to a low score; and if your shadow would not be disqualified due to not meeting the challenge or late entry; then you could get promoted back into the fray, filling those empty slots and continuing on as if you weren't eliminated. My goal for that rule is to keep people interested and shadowing, and to put a little more uncertainty into the contest. In game design, some uncertainty = excitement.

It's can be frustrating that in an elimination contest someone can be removed due to a single bad round. It was a bad fit for their talents, etc. Now, you could conceivably get eliminated in Round 1, shadow the contest, and be promoted in Round 4 to blow away the judges and actually win. It's a reward for perseverance and for submitting every round. With this rule, it's better to submit a weak entry and be eliminated than it is to miss the deadline. Perseverance keeps hope alive.

Of course, the rule changes make SpinTunes feel more like a game than a contest, and that's by design. I think you have to remember that music is meant to be played, and that word isn't used by accident. If it's not fun, you should be doing something else. So I would rather see people having fun creating music than be in cutthroat competition. SpinTunes has always been a "kinder, gentler contest", and I like it that way. There are other competitions that are wonderful and great, and some SpinTuners participate there and vice versa. It's a big, big world, and it's meant to be shared.


So I've been herding cats (judges) and doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the contest. It also means that I won't be writing as many reviews and songs as I had previously done, but that's mostly due to time and a desire as the "showrunner" not to be too influential in the outcome. I still break ties when they occur, and currently limit my explanations to when that makes a difference as to the outcome (as in, when someone is eliminated).

SpinTunes #13, Round 2 just ended, and as I write this the Round 3 challenge will be posted in an about a half hour. You can view the new albums at, and follow the contest at On the blogspot site you (anybody!) can also click a link to the Suggestion Box and suggest challenges for upcoming competitions. And should you want to join in, instructions are there as well. Check out the links in the left sidebar.

Also, you can peruse the older albums at their original home,

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

SpinTunes 12 Finale (and an inside look at songwriting)

The final round of SpinTunes 12 is complete. The competitors were charged with this task:

Peter & The Wolf - Tell a story in song involving at least 3 people & have each person represented by a different instrument.  (2 minute minimum length) 

Here are their responses:

They did a great job, no?  Three of these songs were written by people who were on Jonathan Coulton's cruise and only had Sunday to produce their entries. I won't tell you which. You try to guess. I'm also not reviewing quite yet.

I didn't write a shadow entry this round... I didn't go on a cruise, but I did have a bunch of legit real-world impediments. But have thought about it, and here's the song I would have written for this round. Rather than wait to write and record it, I'm going to write it here on-line as I have time. So you're going to see a little of our process, which begins with the story...

The song would be called "Old MacDonald's Band". The town is holding an epic battle of the bands, so Farmer McDonald puts together an ensemble using his animals as musicians. The verses would be him recruiting the animals, each one represented by a different instrument. There would be only one chorus, at the end, and it would be their performance.

Simple, right? So we flesh it in a little:

The lyrics would describe it as an "a cappella band" even though the actual song would not be (since the instruments are their voices). The animals don't have lyrics... they respond to MacDonald's verbal requests with musical motifs. MacDonald himself doesn't sing until the performance, so the verses would be rhythmic spoken-word (not quite rap).

Now, to nail the challenge we're going to have to use some very distinct instruments, so brainstorming a few...
  • A lowing cow (a tuba)
  • A quacking duck (a harmonica)
  • Clucking chickens (a banjo)
  • A whinnying horse (electric guitar or trumpet)
That'll do for a start. So that's enough story to hang lyrics on, and enough framework to start thinking about music.

And just like that, the idea is scrapped, as a quick Google search reveals that it's been done before. See how that works?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

On My Way

This is for SpinTunes 12 round 2. The challenge was “Write a quintessential road trip song”. Well, that could mean just about anything. It’s entirely dependent on what the listener thinks is a classic road trip song. One of the contestants has already opined that the perfect road trip song has already been written, and it's Weird Al's "The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota". Personally, I don't know about that. A lot of it depends on whether you think a "road trip song" is a song ABOUT a road trip, or it's a song to be PLAYED ON a road trip.

It's a huge difference. A song played on a road trip can be played over and over and over again. For us in our youth it would be something like Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty”, which was literally stuck in the cassette deck of Mike Hoover’s car. Seriously. We either listened to Jackson Browne in that car or nothing at all.

And while Weird Al's song is fine novelty song about a road trip, as far as road trip songs go it's also the auditory equivalent of a porcupine pillow. You'd go insane. That goes for just about any novelty song, even the Muppet's "Moving Right Along" (though it has far more replay value).

So what do we think is a fine road trip song? "Running on Empty", for one, and Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again". Also, Eddie Rabbitt's "Drivin' My Life Away" hits pretty close to perfect for me. It's got a really great two-step beat and clever story and lyrics, and it could be played on a continuous loop. Just about any Country driving song would do the trick.

So we're not doing novelty this round. And we're pulling it down to grass roots. This song isn't a story song. It’s simply a long-haul trucker keeping time and pining on his way home. I'm not going to explain anything after the song, because that's all there is to it. When I pondered over the lyrics and told William it would be Bluegrass, he told me, "Yeah, that's what I had in mind, but I wasn't going to say."

On My Way
William Hoover 

There's a grassy knoll I've been dreaming to
And a fountain not too far away
I dream I’m lyin’ there with you
Cause I'm leaving today
I'm on my way.

There's a cool water summer on my mind
And a breeze blowing over the bay
I’ve always got you on my mind
Now I’m rollin’ your way
I'm on my way.

There's a moon in the river staring at me
From the eye in the glare of a wave
And I don't even know where that river is going
And I don't really care anyway
I'm on my way.

There's a shady tree I've been thinking of
And a sunset to follow that day
I’ll always think of you, my love
I'm leaving today
I'm on my way.

[Instrumental pre-chorus]

[Reprise Chorus]
On my way
And soon I'll be home to stay
Ain't gonna stray
Forever on my way.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Doom's Day

We're fundraising to correct Spintown's color-blindness

For SpinTunes 12, round one, the challenge is:
Party Mix - Write a song from the point of view of someone who just won or lost an election.  It could be a recent election, one from the past, or even a fictional one.  It doesn't even have to be political.  (2 minute minimum length) (your submission is due by Sunday, January 29th 11:59PM)
Well. Who didn't see that coming?

And finally, after two shadows [one] [two] and a completely unrelated song [here] we finished an official entry. As I mentioned before, we weren't going to touch the recent Presidential election. So we went the fictional route. In this case, the conceit is that the tiny Balkan country of Latveria is having an election, and the only name on the ballot is Doctor Doom.

As usual, notes appear after the song.

Doom's Day

I am Latveria’s protector 
I can soothe or correct her 
And the UN inspectors 
Are so many fools 

All the armchair debators 
And the Internet haters 
Try to call me dictator 
And label me cruel 

But it's plain to see 
All the people love me 
And they call me a charmer 
As they polish my armor 

[musical break] 

Fatigued of useless opining 
All my enemies whining 
I began redefining 
A political tool 

I appointed electors 
To discredit defectors 
And all the objectors 
Who question my rule 

And on election day 
I've declared it a holiday 
Unlike the U.S. in disarray 
They all vote or there's hell to pay 
And by Royal decree... 
Every vote is for me! 
So the whole world can see 
My legitimacy 

Lob zu Latveria (Praise to Latveria!) 
Lob zu Latveria (Praise to Latveria!) 
Und unser K├Ânig (and our king) 
Victor von Doom (Victor von Doom)

Lyrical Notes

As I said, we decided to go the fictional route and write of a Balkan election where the only name on the ballot is that of Doctor Doom (nemesis of the Fantastic Four). The neat bit about this is that there IS a "Doom's Day" holiday in the FF comics, and it's whenever Doom decides.

There was discussion on the Spintunes FaceBook group as to what constitutes an "election". While it's up to the judges, Spin's view was that it's a choice between two candidates. However, as there are "elections" just like this in the Real World, we feel it's safe.

I subscribe to the principle that all the best villains believe themselves to be heroes. That's certainly the case for Doom. So he rules with an iron fist because he has to. And his deceptions are due to the fact that everyone else is an idiot who must be fed lies because they cannot process the truth. This "election" is the lie he tells to convey the deeper truth that he (and he alone) is Latveria's "legitimate" government.

I was originally going to have more German in here. I was told it was confusing, so I scaled it back to the last verse here... the anthem. The result is a lot more narrative than I originally expected.

I don't think writing those verses was wasted effort, though. One thing that struck me was that, when surrounded by German words, "Doktor Doom" sounds a lot like "Doctor Stupid" to me. I had to ask some friends if the character's name was translated in Germanic countries. It is not. Apparently they're just really good at compartmentalizing German vs. foreign sounds and meaning.

Speaking of which, Doom himself speaks with an odd accent here. According to Marvel Wikia, the official languages of Latveria are German, Hungarian, Latverian (a local dialect that is a derivative of Hungarian) and Romany. So it's a mixed bag. However, Doom himself studied abroad, so I threw in a touch of American and Russian attitude as well. I think it unlikely that he sounds like any of his subjects any more than Queen Elizabeth II sounds like your average Brit.

Musical Notes

It's a tango. My son asked why I set it to a Spanish dance, and I replied that it's not... I'm using a European tango (but the dance itself is from Argentina). Basically, if you want something quirky and... off... the tango is the go-to musical form. It's what you'll find Gomez and Morticia Addams dancing. It's what I used in an earlier number, "We Haven't Got a Clue". It's delicious. The style I'm using here is much more fluid than in 'Clue';

William Hoover seemed disappointed that I hadn't used much piano lately, so piano it is. And again, it's a little bit off. The feeling I'm going for here isn't really the comic books; and it certainly isn't from the recent movies. It's from the 1994 Fantastic Four film directed by Roger Corman. Watch it [it's on DailyMotion] to see if I nailed that.

I added a bit of reverb to the vocal because Doctor Doom wears a mask. It's not much, but if you're averse to echo, know that it's there for a purpose. ;)

We end with a piece of my version of the Latverian National Anthem.  Praise to Latveria, and our King, Victor von Doom. That's all an anthem has to say, right?  It's intended to remind us of a Russian heroic song. I was going to shift away from the tango here and bring in the "big instruments" since the anthem has a much more regimented tempo, but then I thought, no... I'm just going to have them stomp all over that tango. I also used it, toned down and without vocals, for the intro and musical bridge.