Saturday, November 10, 2012

It's Written In The Stars - A Songwriting Circle entry

Most of the songwriting challenges we meet are part of song contests and competitions. In them, every participant receives the same challenge and responds accordingly. This is a little different. Conceived by Edric Haleen, the Songwriting Circle has every participant stand in a virtual circle and pass a challenge of his own devising off to the person on his left. As a result, every participant gets a unique challenge.

That's the basic concept. In practice it's a little bit more involved... everyone actually submits two challenges, so the recipient is less likely to be stumped. Also, for fairness, you don't know in advance who is going to get the challenge. Also...
    •  Your song must be at least one minute and thirty seconds long.
    •  Your song may not be solely instrumental -- a lyric is required.
    •  Your song must meet the requirements of your particular challenge..
There is no winner. The idea here is to meet the challenges, complete the circle, and have fun in a creative and artistic fashion. For more on the competition, see Edric's Happiness Board website.

We submitted two challenges, which wound up going to JoAnn Abbott. These were to either:
  1. write a song with two or more distinct key signatures (Examples: "My Generation" by The Who, "Penny Lane" by the Beatles, and "I Walk The Line" by Johnny Cash).
  2. write a song describing a new County and Western dance. (Examples: "Boot Scootin’ Boogie" by Brooks & Dunn, "Four on the Floor" by Lee Brice, or "Bomshel Stomp" by Bomshel.)
For our part, Ross Durand challenged us to either
  1. eat a fortune cookie and then write a song inspired by the fortune inside, or 
  2. read [either Dave or William’s] horoscope for October 26th, 2012 and then write a song based on it.
Of course, we did both, and put them in one song. We explored these concepts and fortune telling in general, and realized that, simply due to the way probability works, there may be one person, somewhere in the world, for whom every superstitious fortune comes true out of mere chance. Such a person may read the horoscopes for a genuine heads-up on the events of his day. This is a song about that person, inspired by William's horoscope, and my fortune cookie.

For reference, my fortune cookie reads, "If you love, love will follow you." William is a Pisces, and his horoscope as published in The State newspaper on Oct 26th, 2012 read, "A family or community setting feels very claustrophobic now. Your desire to get away and your craving for something different are thwarted by current economic circumstances. Finding the unusual and delightful in your everyday surroundings is the challenge now."

On to the lyrics:

It's Written In The Stars (And Published In The Paper)
by Dr. Lindyke

Mr. Weatherman of Fate
Will you please forecast my future?
All things must come to pass
And there's nothing I can do, sir
I wish to tell you everything you've ever said's come true
So every morning I rely on you

It's written in the stars
And published in the paper
And each turn of the cards
Reveals another caper
And I'm hanging on each word you have to say
I can't wait to see what I will do today!

Dictating my destiny
Is a dangerous game to play
But if I follow your advice
My life could change today
You're a prophet! I believe my life is in your hands
A star to guide me through the shifting sands

It's written in the stars
And published in the paper
And each turn of the cards
Reveals another caper
And I'm hanging on each word you have to say
I can't wait to see what I will do today!

And when family and community are 
Feeling kind of claustrophobic, my 
Getaway is thwarted by some 
Reasons mostly economic, I'll
Count on you to see me through, you
Told me this was gonna happen, there's
No place to hide, so enjoy the ride
No matter how life tries to step on you...

It's written in the stars
And published in the paper
In a Chinese restaurant -- 
A message from the baker, it says 
"If you believe in Love, then Love will follow you", and I say...
I can't wait to see what I will do!

It's written in the stars
And published in the paper
And the lines upon my palms
Evaporate like vapor, and there's
Only so much Time that God has given you, and I say...
I can't wait to see what I will do!

Lyrical Notes
You might notice that we break a few songwriting rules here. It's OK, they were stupid rules in the first place.

Most noticeably, we treat what should properly be our chorus as more of a verse in the last two instances. We change everything beyond the first two lines.  Also, we changed the closing "hook", dropping the word "today", thus changing the meter, emphasis and rhyme of that final line.  In fact, when we say [chorus] we really are talking about the musical accompaniment rather than the lyrical structure. You might expect in a song about predestination that we'd stick with a predictable refrain, but we're going for irony over expectation here. As Doc Emmett Brown would say, your future is what you make of it, even though this character believes otherwise. This change-up is a subliminal message to that effect.

In the bridge, you'll note when you hear it with music that this is the sort of structure that's commonly used in "ukelele ballads", which I hate. But it was a pretty good way of representing horoscopes, which I also hate. So this was my personal way of indicating that the subject matter of this verse is not to be taken seriously. You may not "get it", but we didn't write it for you. It's an in-joke for me.

We're kind of loose in the rhyme, as usual, Rhyme isn't what carries this kind of song anyway... it's content and the tune. I did have to change a line or two that started were "too harsh" according to my kids. So strict rhyme was sacrificed to remove cognitive dissonance.

As for who did what in this song... this one's one of those that's so intertwined that it's hard to say what William did or I did. I had the idea of the title, and then William came back with a bunch of verses singing in first person to the psychic. I added back in the titular lines and made sure we included the horoscope and fortune cookie pretty close to verbatim, varying it as much as "inspired by" would allow.

Musical Notes
I originally had a completely different tune for this, much closer to our usual sound. Then I had a thought that I'd love to see these songs passed back to the challengers so they could cover them. That lead to a re-working of the tune from scratch, and a change of instrumentation from piano to guitar. You might not get it from my delivery, but it's fairly compatible with Ross Durand's Western style. Of course, when I do it -- seeing as how I'm not going to insult Ross with a parody of his style -- it sounds more like Jenny Katz. If either one of them covered it, I'd wriggle like a puppy.

One thing that survived the change in tune was the key change in the bridge. I knew from the start that we were going to have this, as it was one of the challenges we passed on, and I wanted to meet that as well as the challenge Ross gave us. (There was no way I was going to try to make a Country/Western dance out of it.)

A late addition was the whistling. As of this writing, I'm 50 years old, and didn't learn to whistle until just a few months ago. Now, the song that I first learned to whistle was Steve Durand's "A Beautiful Voice"... the well-deserved winning entry for Spintunes #4. So when I saw that this challenge came from Steve's brother Ross, the whistling had to go in. There originally weren't going to be any trills in it, but I sort of over-rehearsed, and found them impossible to get out. So, deadline looming, I did my best to use them on purpose and it went in as you hear them.

Other Notes
This third edition of the Songwriting Circle went off without a hitch. All 12 participant (hmm... Zodiac signs? If so, I claim Aries) delivered on their challenges, and the results can be found at

Thursday, August 16, 2012

SpinTunes 5 Round 4 Reviews

Here's the album!  I'd like to call your attention to the marvelous cover art by Matt Schubbe. As with all the cover art, this is inspired by the challenge. With all eyes turned heavenward to the Curiosity mission to Mars, this couldn't be more timely. Matt imagines the discovery of the first sign of extraterrestrial life by a future astronaut; a footprint in the sand of an alien world. But wait! Is that one footprint...?

The Official Entries (ranked in order of  my preference)

Governing Dynamics - Houses. 
I nice little rock waltz. There's a really nice moral here... I like it when a song does more than make you tap your toes. Of all the entries this one sticks in my head, and it has a very high "replay value". "Stop leaving footprints... start building houses" is memetic. The only quibble I have is with the the last word of "Waiting for the sand in the glass to run out."  Pick a note for that one that's actually on the scale. Despite that, this is my top pick.

Edric Haleen - My Friend. 
It's Waltz Night here at Spintunes. Oh, wait, no waltzing here... the rubato's in the way. Edric's big voice is put to good use here. As usual, the tune is spot-on, and the lyrics are very extremely well crafted, with little winks and digs in all the right places. Also as usual, Edric's effort is technically peerless. It makes me very happy that I rejected a similar idea, as it's no fun staring that far upstage. The song's novelty nature keeps it from being my top pick, though... I just find GD's entry holds up better for me on repeat listens.

Ross Durand - When the Tide Comes In.
Very solid work here; exactly what you'd expect from Ross Durand. And that's really the problem I have with it... it's exactly what you'd expect from Ross Durand. In Round 4, I was looking for "Ross Plus", and I got Ross. That's nice, I like Ross, but it's not what he could have delivered for a final round knockout. The inspiration is certainly clear, but there's nothing really surprising here. It's well-trodden ground, if you'll pardon the expression.

Mariah Mercedes - Footprints. 
Mariah wuz robbed at the listening party due to the horrible quality of the feed. I hope that those whose votes count give a listen to the song on Bandcamp first. That said, the mix on Bandcamp needs a little work. Everything's very low except the drum. It's much better in a headset than on speakers, but could stand some compression. So much for the production. The song itself is quite good. There are some lines that I would never get without the lyric sheet because they're masked by their delivery. I'm also having a little cognitive difficulty with it, which is probably my fault. You're leaving, but why? Left what behind you? What is a test? What is the "something more" you believe in? The music certainly sets a mood, but the lyrics don't do much to give that mood any direction other than "away", when it seems to me the tone of this song begs for the movement to be "toward"; which is why it's not scoring higher for me.
UPDATE: I wish I'd read your song bio first. It's clear there that you're moving toward a new life. Unfortuanately it didn't come across to me in the song itself.

SHADOWS (in album order... well, mostly)

RC - Orange Beach
What a shame you didn't make it to this round, RC. I love this song. Just a really nice easy listening piece, even if it is a breakup song. You have the same "wash it all away" theme used by Ross, but here you apply it as a metaphor for something very specific: this relationship. Nice melody, nice beat. Well done.

Dr Lindyke - Carbon Footprint. 
No, I'm not going to review my own entry. That would be cheap and tawdry... and I prefer to save my yearly allotment of cheap and tawdry for the buying of Christmas gifts and the reviewing of BYD songs.

JoAnn Abbot - The Mermaid's Waltz
A nice telling of "The Little Mermaid", and I give it props for sticking to the original story and not "Disneyfying" it. It seems a little rushed, though, and the lyrics a little awkward in places. Slowing it down a little bit would do wonders. Nice guitar work by RC.

Brian Gray - Onward to the West.
Samwise Gamgee, the last ringbearer, leaves Middle Earth for the Undying Lands. VERY nicely done duet between Brian and his daughter Zoe. This entry is chock-full of literary references to delight even the most hardcore Lord of the Rings fan, and I'm speaking from experience here. Identifying all of the allusions requires the skills of a championship-level Jeopardy player. I love it. The obviousness of the MIDI is the only distraction here, and I think that could be fixed immediately by re-rendering it with a good SoundFont. Brian and Zoe, it's a good thing for the official entries that you weren't competing this time 'round.

Boffo Yux Dudes w/Osmium - Wash Away
The more I hear of the BYD, the more I think there must be a particular BYD musical mode, of the same level as the Aeolian, Ionian, and others. That's the only way I can explain their peculiar harmonies. It's an intriguing subject for analysis, and I spent so much time analyzing it that I completely forgot what this song was about.

Boffo Yux Dudes w/Denise Hudson and Mick Bordet - Sand In My Toes
Grover the Muppet has to explain his sandy monster feet to his wife by reading an apology penned by Dr. Seuss.  I didn't even know Grover was married. From the vaguely creepy backing music I'm betting he's married to the two-headed monster, and it's very, very hungry. I think that, in his shoes, I'd've forgotten to sing, too.

Boffo Yux Dudes - Footprints
Here's another one in the trademarked BYD mode. Perhaps inspired by the Garanimals line of clothing, The Dudes have hit on an intriguing formula by which they can mix an match lyrics, rhythm, and melody lines at will. In this number, Cockroach archaeologists try to decipher a fossilized human footprint. Now, you might hear their guesses and conclude that they're pretty stupid; but I think it pretty cool that they managed to organize a society. What the roaches don't know is that while their intelligentsia ponder this clearly fake footprint, their homes are being systematically looted by the colony of soldier ants from just over the hill.
Well, that's what I heard.

Boffo Yux Dudes - Foot in the Sand
Exquisite! Having been given the least possible amount of photograph for this challenge, the BYD respond with the least possible amount of song. Eschewing their usual mode, the Dudes have bravely executed this number in the Punk Rock genre. Stripped to it's bare lyrical essentials, "Foot ... in the SAND!" concisely calls our attention to what is NOT in the photograph... the Foot, representing Man, leaving his mark upon this Earth; the coarse grain of the sand reflected in the coarse power chords within which the lyrics are embedded; the staccato violence of the verse admirably depicting the violence of the Foot stamping its print. Cutting off sharply at 2:01, the brevity of the entry reminds us of the transience of our own existence. Like the print in the sand, we are to be washed away, the void of our absence soon to replaced with other music, from other artists. Of all the songs ever entered in any competition, anywhere on this globe, THIS is the most true reflection of the challenge given. Clearly a work of genius! Bravo!

That's it for the reviews.  One last thing... a reminder that it is the COMPETITORS, both current and past, who are doing the rankings this round. But the popular vote is still important! It breaks any ties.  So be sure go to the Spintunes blog and vote for your favorite song.  Remember, even the people who are ranking entries can also participate in the popular vote!

Now, as Tracey Ullman says: "Go home! Go home!"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lady By The Water

These lyrics came a little late to get the song in by the Spintunes 5 round 4 deadline. However, the song is written. The orchestration is incomplete.

This is a case of "be careful what you ask for". The judges asked for a song "inspired by" a photo of a footprint in wet sand. Well, "inspired by" leads to a train of thought. Foot print... in sand... wet sand... by the water... what water...? sea...? lake...? Lady of the Lake...? not Nimue... someone we know... Lady by the Water. It is nearly impossible to miss a challenge like this. "Inspired by" is in no sense "about".

Due to some work obligations I probably won't get this recorded before the listening party.

Lady By The Water

I believe
For I have seen
A lady by the water
I can grow
While I know
This lady by the water
I knew her well, but not at all
The lady by the water
Against a field of blue so blue so small
The lady by the water

On her own

But not alone
Surrounded by the water
Over done
The living sun
Shining by the water
In countless ways she loves me
From the yellow house by the water
It doesn't matter how she sees me
While watching from the water

I never said I loved her

Well, not where she could hear
Sometimes I think I ought to
But I'm overcome by fear

[melodic interlude]

I do

I love you
Lady by the water
But our times
Have been so few
Oh, my lady by the water
Will she come and stay with me?
Be my lady by the water
I'd make it up, can't she see?
For all the years I lost her.

Lady -- Lady by the water

There's nothing quite so dear
As my -- Lady by the water
I've begun to lose my fear
Oh my -- Lady by the water
Won't you please hear my plea
Take me -- Take me by the water
Yes, it's there I long to be
With my lady --
By the water -- 

Lyrical Notes

I don't have much to say here. As implied above, it's about someone very specific.

These are pretty much as received, with only two very minor changes: one for meter and one because the line was a little weak, and I wanted it to be more decisive. There's a lot of repetition of the phrase "Lady by the Water", which I'll try to leverage in the music.

Musical Notes

The "sound" I'm hearing here is sort of a cross between Phil Collins and Gordon Lightfoot. It probably won't sound much like that when I'm done with it, but that's my stylistic starting point. 

I can tell you now that this won't be everybody's cup of tea. A lot of sustained notes; a lot of melody. And some mixture of major and minor chords. Most likely I'll be dropping the third (using "power chords") so it's ambiguous, and then I'll do both melodically at various points.

I think this is going to wind up being two pianos in duet. With that and the drums (with a bit more tom than you might expect) a melodic bass line and synth strings, as well as some processed vocals. There are some specific things I want to try out here, so it's perfectly OK if you don't like it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Carbon Footprint

Once again, here's the challenge.

Photo Finish - Write a song inspired by the photo below:

(2 minute minimum) (your submission is due August 12th 11:59PM)

We had a lot of ideas for this round, ranging from Bigfoot vacationing at the beach to Robinson Crusoe. The reason I'm calling this one a "safety song" is because it was just really easy and I suspect a few people will have similar ideas.

What we see in the photo is the last footprint of the last human as he returns to the ocean... beginning an evolutionary "do-over". We imagine this to take place in the future, when the greenhouse effect and global warming have caused all the icecaps to melt and the only land remaining is the very tip of Mount (now island) Everest. Never mind that there's not enough water on the entire Earth to make that happen. And don't ask how humans voluntarily grow gills and fins. This is a  song. It's all symbolic, man... you dig?

(P.S. this might have been influenced ever-so-slightly by the movie Prometheus)

More after the lyrics.

Carbon Footprint
by Dr. Lindyke

Uncle Darwin, can you see
What is happening to me?
We're starting over

Things have been heating up for years
The rampant greenhouse of our fears
And though the Third World said they didn't start the fires
They fueled them with their sweat and tears

Now on the shore
We say goodbye
To withered hills
And dust-laden sky
And it's getting hard to breathe
We're going to the sea

In the ocean depths we'll dwell
Fins and gills will do just swell
And whether we'll return to see the light of day
Only Time can truly tell

[musical interlude]

Here on Everest Island
I write our wisdom in the sand
So you may know of us, and the measure of our worth
Before the tide reclaims the land

Now on the shore
We say goodbye
To withered hills
And dust-laden sky
And it's getting hard to breathe
We're going to the sea

Lyrical Notes

The "Uncle Darwin" in the first verse is due to the preference of my oldest son. I tried a few things here, and am perfectly aware that if he were my uncle, he'd be "Charles". I didn't want the audience to miss the reference, though. I wanted to plant the idea that this was de-evolution, not merely a migration to underwater habitats. Nobody says "evolution" better than Darwin. Of course, I then go on to explicitly say "evolutionarily". Suspenders and a belt.

The line about the Third World alludes to a future in which, even if the First World countries were to immediately reduce their carbon footprint to negligibility, increasing industrialization of the rest of the world continues to escalate the problem.

I like the idea of pairing the obviously comedic lyrics with completely serious music and delivery, so that's what's going on here. We're going for a very melancholy feel, bolstered by lyrics about writing our "wisdom in the sand"... where, of course, the wind and tide will obliterate all traces of it. Such is our impact on the Universe. If you think about it, were the greenhouse effect to truly take hold, as it did on Venus, then all of the waters would evaporate into eternal cloud cover, meaning that even this last-ditch evolutionary tactic would be doomed. Pleasant thought, isn't it?

Update: I was just asked a question about the rhyme scheme.  "Why AAAB in the first verse and AABA in the rest?" Well, the first verse is an introduction. There's not a lot of space between it an the next verse, and I wanted that bit of silence. It doesn't sound right to me to have the same rhyme scheme there. I also wanted to use that one word, "Evolutionarily" as an entire line, and that was the nicest way to get it in there. You have to remember that I usually get the lyrics first and write to them. I enjoy adjusting the music to the words and don't feel any particular need to keep it all consistent. Sometimes it's semi-through-composed... similar but varied.

Musical Notes

Yes, that is a touch of "production" in the choral vocals. Mainly it's just EQ to get rid of any bass, and a buttload of reverb.  The vocals in the verses have a bit of reverb added as well, to get it a bit closer to the piano. I did have the vocals lower in the mix, but my wife always complains about that, so if they're a little hot, blame her.

I think I confused her a bit with what I did with the drums. I did a bit of meticulous programming of the drums this time. Problem is, it sounded like a drum machine. So I chopped up the measures and shoved them around a little bit. Not much... just the tiniest fractional bit. But it's enough to get it out of the "uncanny valley" and sound like a human did it.  So yeah, the drums sound shitty on purpose. I went to a lot of trouble to make them sound imperfect.

In the intro we start with an implied Fm+9 (the F is mute in the treble clef) and we move immediately to the F-minor and then progress to C-major. That, coupled with the heavy snare, is a little auditory indicator that you should expect something just a little odd.

I alternate the use of an Eb and an Em+11w5 in the chorus. It's an attempt to get that melancholy feel I talked about earlier. The first time through it's in the major. It doesn't stay there, though, because I want you to question whether this is serious or not, or at least toy with the idea that even though it's comedic it may also be deep (in more ways than one).

I ran out of both time and ideas for the "instrumental" (labeled "musical interlude" in this song). So I left it alone and simply added the sounds of surf, gulls, and dolphins. I reprised that (in revised form) under the second chorus/outro. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Photo Finish (Spintunes 5 Round 4 Challenge)

Here's the latest SpinTunes challenge:

Photo Finish - Write a song inspired by the photo below:

(2 minute minimum) (your submission is due August 12th 11:59PM)

Let me say first that I am 100% in favor of the "Photo Finish" concept for SpinTunes. It's a great promotional "hook"; and there is no end to the number of challenges that can be made. Point your camera anywhere in the Known Universe and you are bound to find something fascinating. Best of all, it gets the best of the competitors the opportunity to exercise their creativity to a much greater extent than a limited textual challenge. You can bring all of your musical tools to bear, and use them as you choose.

That said, I was initially a little non-plussed by the (pardon the pun) pedestrian nature of this photo. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that having less in the photo makes it more difficult to bring a unique approach to the task. I can appreciate the judges making the final challenge as daunting as possible.

I will note this: the challenge says "...inspired by the photo...". To me, this is a clear indication that you're not limited to this image. We'll be asking ourselves questions like these:
  • Where are we? Are you sure?
  • What's going on outside the photograph?
  • Who left the footprint?  Where is (s)he going?  Where did (s)he come from?
  • Is the footprint really the most important thing in the photo? What else do we see? (The photo is larger than what's displayed on the web page... clicking on it enlarges it.)
  • Is this really a footprint? Or is it a symbol for something else?
  • What will happen to the footprint?
It's tempting to say, "well, inspired by is a wide-open court", and just do what you want and rationalize it after the fact. Indeed that would work well for some judges... the ones for whom the challenge is just a checkmarked formality prior to judging you on everything except how well you did what you were asked.  But you're not getting judged by judges this round. You're getting judged by all the people you've beat to get here, and you're going to have to impress them.

For me personally, hiding behind "inspired by" would be a cop-out, and a really poor excuse for an entry.  I hope to have something you can hear and say, "Yeah, I see how you got there!" or better yet, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Believe me there are a lot of possibilities here. For our part, the necessary discussions have been made, emails exchanged, and the ball's in William's court. Let's see what happens.

Monday, July 30, 2012

SpinTunes 5 Round 3 - a Non-Review

For SpinTunes 5 Round 3, the challenge was as follows:
What's Opera, Doc? - Write a Mini-Opera: A dramatic story told through dialogue sung by two or more characters.  A couple suggested examples I got are "Come Talk To Me" by Peter Gabriel or "Written In The Stars" by Elton John.  (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due July 29th 11:59PM (Sun)
Defined Opera as: A theatrical presentation in which a dramatic performance is set to music.

That is...
  1. A dramatic story: of or pertaining to drama: a story involving conflict or contrast of character, especially one intended to be acted on the stage.
  2. Told through dialogue: a conversation between two or more persons. That is, person #1 says something to person #2, and person #2 responds to person #1. 
Even allowing that the challenge has nothing to do with musical style; for those of you who were in the competition, look at your lyrics then ask yourselves whether your song did those two things.  Did it?  Really?  Really?  Were you singing to somebody, or about somebody? Did you consider how it would play out as a theatrical presentation? Did you write an opera or just a song?

OK, I lied. There are reviews, but they're mini-reviews:

My Picks

If I had to pick a favorite for the round it would be Menage a Tune's "Poison, Or, All Of Hamlet in 4:04". To my thinking this is the only entry that really captured the feel of a staged production. It may not be the slickest production, but it has exactly the feel of a high school or community theatre production. I've done enough of those to be charmed by it.

Ross Durand's "Apart", featuring Bryanna Acosta, is a lot of fun. I "hear" it exclusively as a film production. As I hear it, he's a soldier away at war, leaving her at home. They figuratively sing "to" each other through the distance. Actual conflict and face-to-face dialogue is provided by "the Bad Guy", who is making moves on the hero's girl while he's away. The Bad Guy is a dead ringer for Snidely Whiplash. It's an interesting folk-rock take on the challenge.

I can see Governing Dynamics' "Dark Places" as a rock opera either on stage or film. I "see" scenes when I hear it. We've got story, we've got conflict, and we've got a dialogue. Travis has found a superb singing partner in Rebecca Brickley; their voices are nicely complementary, and the easy listening style is like warm mink on your ears.

Not all drama is conflict. Sometimes it's just heightened emotion, as Edric Haleen demonstrates in "Vows". It's a love song between two people, and I can just barely stretch the definition we were given enough to include a wedding as a "theatrical presentation". It's a well done realization of a very simple message, so there's not much more I can say about it. Edric has loads, though... read his song bio.

The Rest (in order of listening):

(update: reading this again, it sounds way too harsh. It's not intended that way. I sort of focused on the things that kept them from being in my four picks. It's intended to be constructive criticism, not assholery. Sorry if it comes across as the latter.)

The Chocolate Chips - The Pathfinder. I found much of this to be next to impossible to understand without the lyrics in front of me. There's dialog, but not much in the way of drama. "Come with me, I'll make you a god." "Yeah, sure, ok." So they drink the Kool-aid, but it's very pat.

RC - He's Dead, Jim. Not even the Trekkie in me will accept this as opera. As a song, it's cute, and I like it a lot. But it looks like alien females aren't the only thing Jim screws... sometimes it's challenges. (OK, that's harsh. I really do like the song. A lot. I just think it missed the challenge.)

Mariah Mercedes - Dear Jeremy. Sorry, Mariah... Ross pulled off the "dialogue at a distance" trick better and took one of the top four spots in your place. I'm not sure you did yourself a favor by having Jeremy speak some of his lines. BTW, you took "I love my dog" to a new level... I'm not sure that's intentional, but it made me smile.

Felix Frost - Lyman Boone And The Moonshine Scoundrel. You're just writing for a themed album, aren't you? There are places where you're singing narration rather than dialogue. The quirky musical changes would come across much better, I think, if there was some discernable structure to them, such as having each character sing in an identifiable style consistent with his personality. This just sounds disjointed. Maybe the town just isn't ready for Felix Frost.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mr. Nobody

For SpinTunes 5 Round 3, the challenge was as follows:
What's Opera, Doc? - Write a Mini-Opera: A dramatic story told through dialogue sung by two or more characters.  A couple suggested examples I got are "Come Talk To Me" by Peter Gabriel or "Written In The Stars" by Elton John.  (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due July 29th 11:59PM (Sun)
Defined Opera as: A theatrical presentation in which a dramatic performance is set to music.

We did note that we're tasked to write a mini-opera, opera being defined as a theatrical presentation. We're therefore being asked to write a mini-theatrical presentation. We also note that we're not tasked to stage it, but merely write it. So we did, complete with stage directions.

Lyrical Notes:

The vignette is a dialog between William Hoover and myself, in which he laments the fact that he is the "invisible" member of the team. Now, what's not addressed in the lyrics, but only available in the context of the opera-as-stage-production, is that within this song we're in the process of writing this song for this round of SpinTunes. And yes, I know that last round we wrote a song about writing a song for the current round of SpinTunes, but we decided to do it over as an opera, making sure that only as an opera could this aspect of the song be discovered. I imagine the previous song being played while seating the audience. In another sense, this isn't meta at all... rather it's solidly autobiographical, being necessarily about songwriting because that's what we do.

This was fun to write. As we were short on time, a lot of the lyrics are basically just stuff we said while actually writing the song. These include lines like "Whatever you decide is fine," and "Counterpoint and other shit / don't bother me I'm workin' on it," and "They only hear my voice."

The "they only hear my voice" line is appropriate, too, since I actually perform both parts. (see the production notes about that, below).

"Last seen in a Photoshopped frame" is a reference to the only photo we've published of William, that of our Song Fu profile. Fun fact: I didn't have ink for my print cartridge, so I held up a blank piece of paper and Photoshopped William's picture into it. The reason a photo was used was the snow behind me in that picture. It fell the morning I was to drive the 60 miles to go get a photo together for our Song Fu profile.

"I often wonder / was it you or was it me" refers to the fact that both William and I lose track of who wrote which lines in a song. In this song, to a certain extent (though it's not absolute) we each wrote our own lines of dialog. Willy brought Claude Rains to the party, and I brought Lon Chaney.

So it's an actual mini-opera that documents the real conversation we had while writing a song about writing a song about writing an opera for the current round of SpinTunes in which William is lamenting his invisibility, and in which I point out the irony that while it's his words that are sung, it's my voice that people hear, which therefore does not solve his problem in the present case, though that's the obvious purpose of airing the lament.

It's supposed to sound a bit like marriage counselling. In real life, we don't have disagreements such as in the song... but it's opera, and a little conflict is called for. It's known as drama. In real life, William doesn't sit around moaning either.

We got to reference a lot of other songs we've written. These include, "The Mission", "Rats in the Kitchen", "Far Away", "Lake of the Flowers", "Summer Rain", "Yesterday Hero / Someday", and "Harvey Ray". I also had a little bit of fun with the play, giving William (a noted technophobe) a parchment and quill pen as his writing tools. He gets his own, though, slamming my fingers in the piano.

Musical Notes:

I made sure we used chord progressions and figures that are familiar if you've heard these or other of our other songs. As a result I don't have much to say about the music. It was pretty much driven by the chord progressions, and I was pretty much on automatic as far as that goes. Let's face it, it's supposed to be representative of the style that we've used for the last 30 years. 

The one thing that bothers me is that I added the bass line at the last minute, and it's probably lifted from somewhere, but I don't know where and didn't have time to vet it. I'm always paranoid about such things, since all of our music naturally sounds familiar to me. Apologies in arrears if it's too similar to something else.

This has more changes of tempo in it than any song I've ever written, excepting Liberty, written with Denise Hudson. It starts out at 135 bpm (beats per minute), then goes to 160, then 170 (or 85, depending on how you count it), then drops tempo entirely, then picks up at 120 bpm, then 125, and ends up back at 135 bpm by the end of the song. The reason I'm taking notice is that I planned drums for this from the start, so kept track. I'm pretty sure that all the changes would make it a drummer's nightmare. As it stands, in order to record to a click track, I had to necessarily record it in bits and pieces, then assemble them, then record over that reference track. My hoarse throat didn't give me the desired result, so I'll be doing it again when I'm better.

Production Notes:
  • I hate producing. So as usual, it's minimal. Two characters, piano, and drums.
  • Today is a really bad allergy day. My throat is torn up, and I had to work around it. I was pretty hoarse by the end of it. To make matters worse, I was hoping to do this as a duet, but my singing partner's microphone broke (and he's on the other side of the world). Everyone else I know is out of town. *sigh*. So at the moment the singing is pitchy and coarse. I'll replace it if I get around to it.
  • I did get my Hydrogen drum sequencer working, though, and decided to try it out here. This represents my first try with it. Each sequence was done separately, then exported to WAV, pulled into Reaper and mixed there. I learned the lesson, "always use the same time reference, and next time record the damned drums first. Apparently, 160 bpm on my physical drum machine is slightly  different than the same thing as rendered by my computer. There's was some drift, requiring some re-recording. There are two places where I really wasn't satisfied with the drums and left them off entirely.
Other Notes:

If you read my previous blog post, "What's Opera, Doc?" you'll have read that there were a few things I wasn't terribly concerned with. The piece being self contained, for one; and it being "operatic" for another. Nevertheless, this is a fairly self-contained vignette. Just because I said I wasn't concerned with it doesn't mean that the piece isn't going to naturally turn out that way, or that William wasn't going to hand me lyrics that went in that direction. As for it being "operatic" in the sense of bel canto... no chance of that, really, not with this throat. And even less chance, given that it is intended to be a mini-opera produced in Dr Lindyke's style of music, appropriate to the autobiography that it is.

Keep in mind that the hitting the challenge is always a priority. So in this case, we needed to produce a dramatic number that told a story in dialog, set to music.

  • Dialog: William and myself, in conversation
  • Drama: William's despair over being "Mr. Nobody"; my attempts to console him
  • Story: The process of writing the song. We receive the challenge, I ask for lyrics, then mangle them, then explain them and we negotiate the final results. Remember a story can be about more than one thing: so we have the drama and the story, plot and sub-plot.
  • Music: Opera is distinguished from a musical by a matter of degree. In opera almost all of the lines are sung. So I intentionally included sung dialog that can't really be considered verse.

That's all I have to say about that.


OK, maybe that's not all...

There are a few little things that I did mention over in the SpinTunes blog comments that I'm going to put here as well.

First up, judge Mark Merritt asked if my having more dialog than William, and burying his identification with Claude Rains in the choral response was on purpose.  My answer:
Thanks for the review, Mark. Great stuff.
As for your questions; yes, it was on purpose: not only the fact that I have more dialogue than William, but also his buried identification with Claude Rains and the fact that my identification with Lon Chaney stands boldly alone. 
Regardless of my pre-announced priorities, I DID read your blog, so I had a pretty clear idea what you were looking for, including the stage directions, which you did telegraph on Facebook ("The definition of opera given there has to be taken with a grain of salt, otherwise we'd have to DQ everyone who fails to mount a theatrical production."). In a fit of whimsy we chose to sail "over the top". We made a point of hitting every interpretation of opera we could EXCEPT "bel canto", because we truly think musical genre is unimportant to this art form. I'm please to say you got nearly all of the references and meaning we intended to put into it, with only minor loose ends:
1. William is supposed to come across as the character the audience should empathize with, whereas my lines should come across as sympathetic platitudes delivered from a position of privilege. I don't feel his pain. The platitudes don't keep me from ripping the hell out of his lyrics, and I don't offer to put them back after he slams my fingers in the piano and complains.
2. The song is long by design. You felt exactly what we wanted you to feel about that, and I'm glad you chose to comment about it. After all the song is a behemoth: 20 seconds longer than "Bohemian Rhapsody". There are several reasons, which you were "this close" to getting:
a. The first is to provide some room for the "duet". I wanted that as well as the dialog.
b. The second is to pad my part and to depict, rather than talk about, William's complaint. I know I already do that when editing lyrics, but he then needs time to respond... and get walked on again. In the "duet" he's singing past the proscenium because I'm rattling on without really listening. (All I can say is it works on stage ;) While I'm singing to him, he's very close to breaking the Fourth Wall.)
But the primary reason is this:
c. Every opera I've ever attended has always, without a single exception, felt repetitious and too long at some point. And there is always, without exception, one number usually somewhere in the late middle, that is a really good time to take a trip to the loo. They always lose me, then get me back before the finale. So that's what we tried to provide here. We never expected anyone else to like that, because it basically is an "in-joke" for William and myself. We do a lot of in-jokes: for instance, those song titles were very carefully chosen.
And now that I've said it, I guess I'll reveal why the song titles were chosen, though you probably still won't see it as much of a joke. All of the titles in the first chorus have lyrics entirely by William and I set music to them without alteration. All of the titles in the second chorus are of songs where I horribly chopped up William's lyrics and re-arranged them. "Summer Rain" was our first Song Fu piece, and while it was originally Carolina beach music, I changed the rhythm after early feedback from Russ Rogers of Godz Poodlz. The only thing that survived the editing process intact was the chorus. "Yesterday Hero" was a piece by him that I extended with an entire second movement of my own after having cut two entire verses from the original.  But the worst offender is "Harvey Ray", which (except for the titular name) consists entirely of three letter acronyms. He had them arranged according to rhyme. I completely took them apart and ordered them by subject, then by rhyme, so the listener could assign pseudo-meaning to the piece.

The point is that I'm trying to console "William" by offering further examples of the behavior that has him depressed in the first place. I'm ignorantly making it worse, which is why the character of "William" is singing past the proscenium to the audience during this second chorus. I'm cluelessly rattling on, not listening, while he broadcasts his lament.

Next up, I'm going to reproduce a portion a comment I left there concerning whether or not this song is "meta", understanding that I use the programmer's notion of "meta" in which the prefix is applied only to an item that talks about itself.
With careful reading you'll find that there's nothing in this song that refers to THIS song. But the OPERA is clearly about THIS song. That's the distinguishing factor. The SONG is about William's insecurities, and merely uses the songwriting process to show the audience why they're justified. The OPERA gives you additional information that makes it clear through stage direction that we're talking about not JUST his insecurities and not JUST songwriting, but the process of meeting THIS challenge itself.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Synthesia is Awesome

This is THE BEST idea I've seen for learning to play piano for absolute beginners. Think of Synthesia as Guitar Hero for piano... only better. You hook up a real MIDI keyboard and the "piano roll" drops notes. You play the game and make real music. The better your score, the better you are, and it's as simple as that.

Synthesia is free, but when you're ready to learn to read sheet music, you can buy a "learning pack" to have Synthesia display sheet music to scroll it over the piano roll. Any MIDI file works as input.

This doesn't teach you music theory. It won't replace music lessons, if you're inclined to write your own music or want to understand musicians when they talk among themselves. What it DOES do is allow you to learn on your own to be comfortable playing specific songs. You then apply that experience to new songs, and -- given a little talent -- eventually you're a pianist.

Synthesia is available for Windows XP, Windows 7, or Mac. The Windows version works flawlessly in Linux under WINE. As a matter of fact it's got the best multi-monitor screen handling of any program I've tried in WINE. There is practically no lag on my cheap laptop. My piano and Synthesia sound the notes in unison. You don't HAVE to have a MIDI piano -- the game will map your computer keyboard -- but it's much better if you have the real thing. Just put your laptop or monitor over your piano, plug in the MIDI cable, and you're ready to go!

I use an M-Audio 1-in/1-Out USB-powered adapter cable to connect my piano keyboard to my USB port. It's about $50 from the manufacturer, but search for it on Google Shopping and you can find them as cheap as $31.

I should point out, though, that the Synthesia website reports that this adapter doesn't work for everybody. They recommend the EMU XMIDI 1X1 USB MIDI Interface instead, available at for $29.95.

What's Opera, Doc?

The Spintunes 5 Round 3 challenge is:
What's Opera, Doc? - Write a Mini-Opera: A dramatic story told through dialogue sung by two or more characters.  A couple suggested examples I got are "Come Talk To Me" by Peter Gabriel or "Written In The Stars" by Elton John.  (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due July 29th 11:59PM (Sun)
Defined Opera as: A theatrical presentation in which a dramatic performance is set to music.


Actually, we've previously written something that nails this challenge. It's called "In My Memory", and is found elsewhere on my blog (click on the title). Now we have to write another.

One thing I'm not going to be concerned with is whether the song is "self-contained". I know some past judges have preferred that there be nothing unresolved, and that the listener need not bring any prior knowledge into the song. However, I'm assuming that this is a piece that's part of  a larger work, or that at least you know something about the characters involved. With a shadow I get to bend the rules a little more than usual.

I'll be updating this page as we work on it.

Friday Update: Alright, it's Friday, and we hadn't really done any work on this since talking about it briefly last Sunday. Work got in the way, which is why I didn't sign up. However, William is working on lyrics today, and I have some of them, and have done some of the music.

Another thing I'm not going to be concerned with is whether the song is "operatic".  Here's the dirty secret about opera. It's basically a play set to music. Other than that, THERE ARE NO OFFICIAL RULES. There are historical precedents, which are continually challenged. "Rock Opera" is just opera that happens to be written in the rock genre. You could as easily write a "Country Opera" or a "Reggae Opera" or a "Rap Opera" ("rapera"?). The "operatic" qualities of classical opera stem from two things: 1. orchestral music is what they listened to when opera was born; and 2. the voices had to be of that quality and timbre to overcome the lack of acoustic enhancement (meaning there were no microphones, so the singers had to project over the orchestra). Today the boundaries between a musical and an opera are incredibly blurred, with a musical being distinguished by more-or-less equal emphasis on dialog, music, and dance; and opera being almost all music. But there are "musicals" that would easily qualify as opera (such as Cats), and "rock operas" that are more like musicals. An arbitrary distinction isn't worth keeping a stick in your butt, so the best thing to do is not worry about it.

"A theatrical presentation set to music" makes this "mini-opera" challenge fairly open. While there are judges who may desire certain things out of it (like multiple movements), that's a personal desire that has nothing to do with the actual challenge as posted. A one-act play is as much a play as a five act play. A vignette is as much a theatrical presentation as any other... in fact, it's a pretty damned solid example of a "mini-play" of which a "mini-opera" is an exact analogue. This is why I don't give much weight to Mark's "Dr. Evil" comment below. Now, he's a judge, and will be scoring people according to his preconceptions, so it's nice that he let everyone know what they were up front. So if YOU'RE competing in Spintunes, I'd put some weight to his advice, because that's how this game is played. When you play the game that way, though, keep in mind that there are several other judges whose opinions you'll have to factor in. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Monastic Workout

"In Faux Parts"

The challenge was to write a motivational workout song that would "pump up the listener". While I know the judges are thinking of songs like "Eye of the Tiger", I couldn't help but notice that in a shocking oversight, they forgot to define who the listener was! Everybody writes songs for the judges... most people write songs for themselves. I decided to write a song for an audience that's mostly overlooked these days.

So here I imagine a bunch of monks working out, singing. The rhythm is intended to be produced by the working tools of the monks, or by your feet... which is why I don't perform it... the silent rhythm is on purpose. This started out as a monophonic Gregorian chant, then I found I needed to step up the rhythm a bit because this is what I wanted to hear. So I re-worked it and added a counterpoint. This is therefore not  intended to follow any actual monastic tradition. Rather, these are "Hollywood monks" of my imagination.

The Latin, however, is real, and is an original composition. It's been a while since I've used Latin, so this probably stinks grammatically, but I think it's passable. I got it to rhyme where it matters and to get the meter where I wanted it. I have made NO attempt to put the English translation into similar shape. It's in Latin, and that's that.

Now, some folks might say this isn't properly motivational. The monks in this song sing of how crappy their lives are. They're tired, their robes itch, and they want a decent meal. But they exercise and push on because they love God. What else would motivate a monk? I hope you don't think I'm trying to motivate you, you selfish thing! No, my target audience consists of just 15 guys.

Musically, this is clocking in at a tempo of 106 beats per minute. For comparison, Monastic Workout is a little faster than Smash Mouth's So Insane (104bpm). It's ideal for running. According to,  this pace will get you through a one-mile run in 14:24. Not too shabby. Other recommended exercises are weeding, hoeing, raking, plowing, and milking the cows.

There's an English translation after the Latin.

Excercere Monasticae  
Dolor et corporis infirmitate.
Ego sum ​​imperfecti.
Deo me vires exercere
Deo me vires perseverare
Lorem me perfectioris in conspectu tuo.

Ubi tempus erit mihi
Panem quotidianum.
Lorem fame pereant,
Ego comedent
Sum defessus satis mori.
Ego accubare hic moriar.

Vos me levare.
Et me currere.
Et me natare.
Et me salire.

Tunc me gerunt haec stolis maledictus.
Volo ad gerunt
Ego trucidare cibum

Vos me levare.
Et me currere.
Et me natare.
Et me salire.

Gloria Patri
Gloria Fili
Et Spiritu Sancti
Gloria Maria
Gloria Deo
Gloria Deo

English Translation 
(Wracked with) pain and weakness of the body.
I am an imperfect being.
God give me strength to exercise
God give me strength to persevere
Please make me more perfect in thy sight.

Soon it will be time for lunch.
I'm hungry enough to eat a horse!
I'm tired enough to die.
I'm going to lie down here and die!

You lift me up.
And make me run.
And make me swim.
And make me leap.

Then I wear these damned robes.
And wish I had
I would kill for meat
on Friday!

You lift me up.
And make me run.
And make me swim.
And make me leap.

The counterpoint:
Glory to the Father
Glory to the Son,
And the Holy Spirit
Glory to Mary
Glory to God
Glory to God!