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!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

About "About"

"Old horses never die. They just lie there quietly while you beat them." -- Dr Lindyke.
I have to congratulate Edric Haleen on the most thought-provoking song entry of the competition, bar none. The song is, of course. "The Death of a Meme". It sparked a review! It sparked judge's comments! It sparked more commentary! It sparked a debate!  In fact, it sparked so many things I shall adopt it as the theme song for next year's celebration of Nikola Tesla's birthday as well!

As much as I dread using this song as an example again, I am. I totally am. Because there's a completely different horse under that horse!

Among the many, many, many comments were a few that might bear closer examination. The best kind of comments are those that get you thinking about new things. For instance, a comment from Mark S. Merritt got me thinking about what we mean when we say that a song is "about" something. So this post is dedicated to the concept of "about".
"... I don't feel it the strongest metaphor for the situation." -- Mark S. Merritt
It really doesn't matter what the metaphor is... this post isn't about that. I just wanted you to see exactly started this chain of reasoning in my head.  I infer from the statement an assumption -- unspoken, unwritten -- that the strongest metaphor is the best one to use in response to a challenge. And indeed, it may seem so on the surface. But looks can be deceiving, and a surface has no depth.

When you do encounter a work with depth, you can bet that what you thought the work was about isn't really what it was about at all! For instance, let's take a movie... "Old Yeller"... the 1957 Walt Disney film. What's it about? Ask most people and they'll tell you it's about a boy and his dog. And so it is... it's the very best boy and his dog film ever made. And at the end of the movie, when Old Yeller develops rabies after having defended the family from a rabid wolf, and Travis has to shoot him, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- cries. They don't cry because it's a great boy and his dog film. They cry because they're hit below the surface by the story of a boy becoming a man, and learning to love, and to sacrifice, and to take responsibility. When Travis shoots Old Yeller, he shoots his own innocence. He's no longer a boy. And we all cry.

And consider this.  The vast bulk of this film is dedicated to being a "boy and his dog" film. But if you ask anybody what they remember of "Old Yeller", it's that gunshot. The Coming of Age is the strongest part of the film. Because that's what it's really about.

I've often said that I prefer it when people hit songwriting challenges squarely. And that's true, to a point. It's what I consider to be very solid craftsmanship. But I think I've done people a disservice by not saying before now that there is an exception, which is when craftsmanship gives way to artistry. In other words, hitting the challenge squarely is best.... unless you've got something better to say. In which case, you should meet the challenge, and stress the better thing.

Because I started with Edric's song, I'm going to complete that thought. Now, the challenge here was to "write a song about the last day of work." Edric did that. Weak or strong, his metaphor fit the letter of the challenge. The thing about Edric, though, is that the letter of the challenge is exactly what you can expect to get out of him. By that I mean that the spirit of the challenge is completely up for interpretation. Edric plays at the boundaries of a challenge, always within easy reach of disqualification. If he has a message, you can bet that it's not the one you're expecting. And though he may not always achieve artistry, he often strives for more than mere craftsmanship.

In this case, Edric's song is about the last day of work... just enough so to qualify. But it's really about our conception of God; our relationship with Him, and what form He may take. It's about considering alternatives, thinking in a new way, challenging our beliefs. So for Edric's purpose, is the strongest metaphor of "work" the best? I don't think so... he just needs to meet the letter of the challenge so that he can say what he really came to say. (He says more than usual in the comments. Sadly, this is buried way down.)

But keep in mind that this really isn't about Edric's song. That's only an example to get us thinking about how we approach our own craft. It's about what is meant by "about", and about how stories and songs that seem to be about one thing may actually contain other, deeper, sometimes even contradictory meanings. You have to decide for yourself whether it's more important to you for your audience to focus on the surface or see beyond it with clarity to the depths. Do you limit yourself to the challenge simply because it is the challenge, or do you go for something more?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Tune For You (The SpinTunes Montage)

OK, so this title sucks. But it's for the second round of SpinTunes #5. Here's the challenge:
Pump You Up:  Write a song that is motivational to workout to. Something that is meant to pump up the listener. Think music from just about any Rocky movie, Hulk Hogan's theme song "Real American" or "You're The Best" from The Karate Kid.  (2 minute minimum) (your submission is due July 15th 11:59PM (Sun)

After the lyrics, you'll find composers' notes about both the lyric and the music.

A Tune For You (The SpinTunes Montage)
by Dr. Lindyke

Saturday night,
More anxious than annoyed
Sitting on pins and needles,
Staring at my Droid
Waiting for the tweet
To tell me when and where
To find where the place where songsters meet
And face my challenge there.

I read the post, it's W.T.F.
My comfort zone is a burden, not a gift
Rocky Balboa and the Karate Kid...
I've gotta pump up like they did!

Now it's my time to go
Spin vinyl into gold
I've got just eight short days
And the real world in the way
But it's my time to shine
And give you something new
I'm gonna spin a tune for you!

I've gotta get through...

Gotta be in Spintown by the time the clock strikes zero...
Or all that's left of me is gonna be my shadow...

I read the post, it's W.T.F.
My comfort zone is a burden, not a gift
Eye of the Tiger, and Real American...
I've gotta do the best I can!

Now it's my time to go
Spin vinyl into gold
I've got just eight short days
And the real world in the way
But it's my time to shine
And give you something new
I'm gonna spin a tune for you!

Lyrical Notes:

Very simply, we're going "meta" on this one. We've never done it before, and I've actually been contemplating it for a while. In a recent conversation with Edric, I mentioned a vague intention to write a musical about writing a musical. Then this challenge came up and I decided to re-purpose the idea.

Now the thing about going meta is I don't much like it when it's done gratuitously. But in THIS case I think it's appropriate to the challenge. We need to write something that's motivational, and what is a SpinTunes challenge if not motivation? I wouldn't submit something like this as a competitor, but since I'm shadowing I feel fine with enduring a few disapproving looks in order to give a little wink and nod to the folks who are competing for real.

So... here we have...
  • receiving the challenge, 
  • the usual "wtf" reaction to receiving any new challenge, 
  • some of the actual verbiage from the challenge itself, 
  • the actual timeline for this round, 
  • the phrase "spin a tune" and the name Spintown,
  • The Countdown Clock (the official Spintunes timekeeper),
  • A nod to the fact that missing a deadline relegates your entry to "shadow" status, officially removed from competition,
The "spin vinyl into gold" line started as a reference to Rumplestiltskin, who spun straw into gold (straw being a metaphor for ideas, in this case; and the gold standing for success, whether it be measured in money, acclaim, or a "Spintunes trophy"), but then we thought better of it and changed the straw into vinyl, as in vinyl records becoming gold records... which is something that will never happen to our music.

 It's intentionally short, 'cause novelty songs are best given in small doses.

Musical Notes

So, what makes a song "motivational", or a "workout" song other than the lyrics? What exactly should we be shooting for here? Before breaking conventions, it's nice to know what they are, so let's look at the examples given: 

And let's add a few others:
All of them rely on a 4/4 time signature with a heavy beat on the quarter notes. There's a little variation from that, notably with the orchestra hits in "Eye of the Tiger", but while it's distinctive when they do it, it still sounds "off", and doesn't happen when the song gets going. 

Oddly enough, it seems that a motivational song has quite a lot in common with a march! It has a strong, regular rhythm, which is just what you need in repetitive exercise. They also tend to have a strong bass line which is often nearly monotonous.  There are few surprises among the chord changes. This seems consistent with the idea of a song that supports physical, not mental, exertion. Orchestra hits are common. In the melody you'll typically find sustained notes in the chorus, and verses that mainly serve to get you to that chorus quickly. And they play the hell out of that chorus.

So that's where we're going with it, mostly because that's what's expected, and I want to stick to genre this time. HOWEVER, the examples are pretty dated. If you ignore the given examples and stick to the LETTER of the challenge, then you're best served by examining THIS TOP 100 LIST of motivational workout songs compiled by Fitness magazine and patterning your song after something you find there. I think you'll find a number of the principles remain the same. Drive that beat, produce a mind-numbing bass and stretch the notes in that chorus.

Last Notes on Round 1, I Swear

The Album. The final rankings are here.

My "semi-review" of Spintunes #5 Round 1 was posted before the judges postings. Now, I've written some weird reviews before, including a review of songs that weren't written. Reaching waaay back into SpinTunes 1 Round 1, I wrote a review of the judging. I was tempted to do it again this round, keeping in mind that everything I say here is opinion and shouldn't be taken critically. Honestly, almost everything I said in the previous post still holds true today, particularly my comments about the "love it or hate it (LIorHI) aspect of scoring in this contest. I'll start any comments here by quoting from myself. I'll call this RULE ZERO:
Despite anything I've said here, I disagree with none of the judges' opinions. They're opinions, and final, and not arguable. I also have no problem with the final rankings. I'm jazzed to be hearing a lot of great new music from friends old and new, and hope it goes on like this for the remaining rounds, and for future competitions.
Most of the judges compartmentalized their reviews this time; that's a Good Thing(tm). But LIorHI is applicable even to the most rigorous "scientific" scoring. It's just unavoidable. In the final wash, judges will score down or up based on preference, and then rationalize it in their scoring. The more "objective" the scoring, the more elaborate the rationalization, that's all. That's largely because they themselves choose the "objective" criteria, which therefore simply reinforce the preferences they use subconsciously. Often they're the last ones to recognize that this is what they're doing. Furthermore, I don't think there's anything wrong with doing that (see Rule Zero); but it's a helluvalot easier on everybody if you just recognize it and accept it.

And sometimes judges just miss the point. For instance, in a previous "historical" challenge,  Inverse T. Clown wrote a song involving a Quantum Leap in the events surrounding the first assassination attempt on Martin Luther King. Ignorant of that bit of history, I missed the point of the song, and this may have affected rankings. What's done is done. Let Sam Beckett put it right later.

(in this discussion, it may seem that I'm picking on certain judges, but actually, I'm simply referencing those who expressed enough of a concept to make discussion possible.)

In this round I think we had a few instances of "missing it". For instance, in Edric Haleen's "The Death of a Meme", Edric anthropomorphizes the concept of God. Not God Himself, mind you... but the concept of God. Someday in the past, the last earnest, sincere, devout follower of Zeus died. Who that was and when it happened are lost to history. Edric imagines a day when this happens to the monotheistic God, whether you call him Yahweh, Jehovah, Adonai, or Allah (there is no mention of any specific religion here). And yet, some of the audience hear what they are mentally prepared to hear, and think that it's an attack on a specific religion. It's not. Concerning the premise of the song, Mark Merrit ponders, "But memes are just information, inactive in themselves even though they cause other things to act, so how can they have a last day of work?" I believe the meme in question is the concept of a monotheistic God... this concept existing as a Platonic Ideal independent of any actualization of that Ideal through Belief. As such, there's no ambiguity here whatsoever... simply a bit of subtlety that was missed. Whether you agree with the ancient metaphysics or not is unimportant, in that this is used as a literary device. You remember a similar device from childhood, used in Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just A Bill". A Bill is neither a scroll, nor the words written on it, but the concept expressed in those words. It doesn't sing and dance, either; and that doesn't stop the song from being both enjoyable and thought-provoking.  Steve Durand admits to struggling with this, but is willing to accept it for the purpose of art.

Likewise with Zoe Gray's shadow, "Say Goodbye". It doesn't matter why the Sun is concerned that it has never seen a flake of snow. If you want to be purely materialistic about it, the Sun is a gaseous nuclear furnace: it has no concerns. What's missed here (and I missed it myself, to start), is the proper understanding of who the song is for. The song isn't written for the benefit of the Sun. Nor is it written to represent or further our understanding of the Sun's point of view. It's written for the benefit of the humans listening to it. Not all humans, either, but those who share to a large degree the demographics of the composer. These are the people who hear the Sun's lament, internalize it, understand what it would mean to them, and say "awwww." So to pick it apart and ask if it makes logical sense or not is to completely lose sight of the fact that Logic isn't the final measure of a song. Song is art, and therefore intended to evoke emotion, not expound scientific truths. I suggested in an update to my original review that Zoe may want to ignore much of my criticism. I stand by that advice.

In any event, I'd no longer advise someone like Zoe to go back and fix a song. Rather, learn from the criticism, keep in mind that other people think of these things when listening to a song, and apply them to the next creative effort. Even then, don't ever feel remorse about "breaking Logic". Go ahead, break Logic all you like, Just don't do it accidentally. Do it deliberately, because you have something that is more important to say with Emotion than with Logic.

Menage a Tune's "Crowning Glory" was a study in contrasts, earning anywhere from 6 to 29 points from the various judges. What a spread! Some details were lost even in the good reviews. For instance, Mark seems unaware of the theory that the Great Pyramid originally had a golden capstone, sometimes called a "pyramidium", lost to Time and symbolically referenced in these lyrics as a "crown"... a good choice, metaphorically, as it allows Menage a Tune to use the shorthand theme of "crowning glory".  It is this same capstone that is referenced by all three characters in the song: the Architect, the Pharoah, and the Archaeologist. Hazen Nestor thinks the guitar intro is too long (I personally don't disagree), but for Charlie McCarron it was the best part of the song! For Mick Bordet the rhythm was "tribal", to Hazen the song sounded "Sunday school" and for Charlie it evoked the Renaissance... despite the fact that JoAnn researched authentic Egyptian rhythms, there isn't a single Christian theme in the song, and the instrumentation had to be approximated using common modern conventions for practical reasons. For John Dahl the chorus was "repetitive", but Mark pointed out that the song could benefit from more repetitive forms. 

How can a composer possibly respond to all of these observations, which conflict both with each other and historicity? Simply by asking yourself if the judges seemed to understand where you were going, and if not, then why not? Then ask yourself if, in the face of the observations, do you still like what you did, and chuck out the observations that don't matter. I think most of the critical statements referenced here deserve the boot.

Sometimes, "missing it" is comical. Buckethat Bobby's "On the Pogey" is sung by an East-coast Canadian national in his native accent. But in the "Unofficial Spintunes Discussion Forum" Caravan Ray questions "an American singing Scottish slang with a fake Irish accent." Sometimes we "know" too much for our own good.

These examples aren't exhaustive. I had also thought to go through some counterbalancing examples of where the judges DO get it, but this just takes too long and I don't have the time, even though I'm dictating most of it into an Android phone. Just assume that most of the time, the judges get it right, even when their rankings indicate that they completely disagree. The old saying, "there's no accounting for taste" isn't 100% accurate: a diverse pool of judges DOES account for taste. That diversity averages out, leaving the songs most touched by the LIorHI effect somewhere in the middle of the rankings, as they should be. You can pretty much figure that where the judges widely disagree, it's because of taste; but where they mostly agree, it's because what they're agreeing upon is as close to objectively true as you're going to get, be it positive OR negative.

The comments are open. Feel free to have at it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

SpinTunes #5, Round 1 Semi-Review

Since I have limited time this week, what you're getting here is pretty much initial impressions of the songs I felt like reviewing. Since there are 30 official entries and I'm writing about 11 of them, you're probably not in here. Shoot me.

I expected a lot of "last day at the office, you suck" kind of songs here, and got them. A lot of them. I really doubt that all these songwriters work in boring clerical jobs, but that's most of what we got. What's up with that?  It can't be just a case of attempting to squarely meet the challenge, in that the challenge doesn't say whose last day of work, nor what kind of work. As challenges go, it's pretty open-ended. 

Several artists stand out for me by virtue of creativity and originality. They're not necessarily the best in the round, but they kept my attention. Here they are, listed in order of presentation on the album. With 9 eliminations, there are a lot of spots in the next round. Some artists I haven't reviewed will get through on decent production or excellence of execution. I'm not reviewing every song this round... I don't have the time. So if you aren't in this list it doesn't mean I hated what you did; it just means you probably wrote about your last day at the office.

The Album. Vote for your five favorites >HERE<

Francis Wms. - Redundant Redunit
I was hoping to keep this list to only the songs I like the best, but I just couldn't. This stands out for sheer horribleness. It's pure sampled babble and noise. You can literally move the slider of the audio player anywhere in the song and you'll be unaware that you've jumped to a different location. There are "lyrics", for all the good they are to you. They're as jumbled on the page as they are in the song. They all carry messages of hope; which makes this (in my mind at least) an artsy piece that juxtaposes the numb shock and despair of losing a job with the eulogizing of a social worker. But art only works when it's possible to interpret the message, and this noisy mess keeps that from happening. I'd just as soon never hear it again. Also, I'm pretty sure everything here is sampled, and there are no original lyrics, which might earn it a disqualification. So why am I so cruel as to mention it here? Because it does stand out as unique... and because Francis Wms. stuck his neck out and took a huge chance with this production. As this number shows, that doesn't always work. But people deserve credit for acts of courage.

Mariah Mercedes - Ending(eternal)
Mariah interprets the last day of work as personal death. Not a bad interpretation of the challenge, but this is a bit tedious to get through. Should Mariah make it though to the next round I hope she finds a hook for that one.

Edric Haleen - The Death of a Meme
With his usual Broadway flair, Edric manages to pull this off his unique concept with some sections that are soaring and inspirational in their way. I'm pretty sure that some people listening to it are going to hear the soaring parts and want to re-write the rest. That thought depresses me.

Felix Frost - Leaving Lyman's Liquor Store (update)
Musically, it's a 16-bit videogame soundtrack. That's a strength and a weakness, as the harsh synthetic sound is a "love it or hate it" affair. If this review sounds like a "hate it", it's only because I'm focused on the things that detracted from my enjoyment. By this time I know that Felix's disjointed style is a matter of choice and preference, so even though it's not for me, I appreciate the intricate technical effort and talent that went into it. Overall, it's OK, but didn't make it into my first pass at these reviews because it didn't affect me strongly in either a positive or negative way. The repeated orchestra hits get a bit tedious... my ear wanted a break, and thankfully got one. But with that break comes the major problem I have with it... it's a videogame soundtrack right down to hearing the different levels and cut scenes. And that's fine for separate songs, but it seems too much for a single piece. The transitions are jarring, to say the least. It also seems too much for "the last day of work". Obviously it's his last day at the liquor store; but it's also his last day as a bandit. And he throws a lot into that last day: selling the store, blowing a safe, escaping the sheriff, having dinner, going to another town, committing another stick-up, engaging in a shootout "in the dark", then robbing a miner, noting that a reward had been posted, botching his escape, and winding up in jail. Clearly this isn't a one-day affair, and the song isn't about "the last day of work", regardless of which day you take to be the "last". To me, it meets the challenge very tenuously, if at all; and that's as a result of over-reaching. I think it would have met the challenge squarely and frankly been a better song if it were limited to selling the store and announcing his intentions to become a bandit. (I'd prefer it as a short story rather than a novel)

Menage a Tune - Crowning Glory
Menage a Tune pulls off one of the best songs of the round, in my opinion. When JoAnn first told me what she had in mind, I anticipated 10 minutes of tedium, but she and her crew managed to put a story spanning 6,000 years into a concise and compelling format that's unique within this competition. Breaking out from the grey uniformity of the crowd, Menage a Tune tells instead a story of the completion of the building of the Pyramids from three different points of view: the Architect, the Pharoah, and the Archaeologist. The music is culturally appropriate, well produced, and the harmonies are spot on. JoAnn's part would probably sound better in a higher range, as in the outro, but that's a quibble.

Ross Durand - I'm Lying
Ross' take on the last day at the office stands out for the emotion. This is the story of a man who, instead of quitting or retiring, is fired, and can't bring himself to tell his wife and kids. Really poignant.

Buckethat Bobby - On the Pogey
I learned a new word today... "pogey". Apparently it's what they call the dole -- employment insurance -- in Bobby's faraway corner of our spherical world. This is a lighthearted sea shanty. The thing about a shanty is that it's supposed to be familiar, keeping within set bounds to be instantly teachable. While this is very successful at that, the formulaic nature would keep it from leading my list of songs were I judging. Still, this song is to my mind the most fun in the round. It sounds to me like something Popeye's relatives would all sing at a family reunion. 

Orion Sound - Praying
Wow, I'm so used to the Orion Sound writing songs I hate that I'm completely unprepared to deal with one I actually like. This ranks among the best songs in the round. It explores a variety of ways that people react to losing their jobs, from despair to anger. I'd love to hear it re-recorded minus the unnecessarily stilted pronunciations of words like "DIE-eh-ty" and "in-DUS-try", and fixing the harmonies on the first line of the last chorus. The backing vocals could be pulled back so they don't obscure the diction of words that are worth hearing clearly. That my only quibbles are with these picky production issues is telling, because otherwise I think it's a great song. Whether The Orion Sound actually intended to write a great song or wrote one accidentally while endeavoring to shock is completely unimportant to me.

Emperor Gum - Pygmalion (update)
OK, I'd like to review this on the basis of the song alone -- but this isn't Song Fight, so I'm looking at it with an eye toward the challenge. My first impression was that this didn't meet the challenge. Then I read the lyrics and I'm still having a hard time with it. It doesn't seem to be about that last day of work; it's about 'Galatea'. The only way it squeaks by is through implication based on the use of past tense in the lyrics... the work of creating 'Galatea' is done. Beyond that, it seems to lack a hook. I can appreciate through-composition, but it's a tough thing to accomplish without sounding like a ramble.

David Ritter - Graveyard
This song about a gravedigger's last day on the job combines an excellent concept with uneven execution. Zombies. The abrupt start could use an intro. The phone call makes me smile.

Boffo Yux Dudes - The Ballad of JJR
Political satire! Boy, that Chris Cogott makes everything sound better, doesn't he? I kid. One lyrical quibble: "No man I call my enemy" scans better as "I call no man my enemy". As it stands, you miss the next line while you're trying to unravel this tortured grammar.

Godz Poodlz - It's a Great Day at BigMart Today
More satire! GP manage to do the "screw you" take on the last day challenge with some more depth than you'll get from your middle finger alone. Yet one more thing that's impressive about the divine canines!

Greg Hosack - I'm Gonna Go
Greg gets mention here for excellent execution, and for an introspective take missing from a lot of the competition.

Dr Lindyke - Mayan Holiday (Shadow)
Normally I wouldn't comment on my own song, but I will anyway. Since the challenge doesn't say whose last day of work it is, we imagined it to be everybody's. The question was how to do that. The answer... destroy the world! And this being 2012, it was obvious to us how that should happen. Also, this being 2012, I felt sure we'd get a few "Mayan disaster" entries. This is the only one, so yay self! Uniqueness! As is usual for me, production sucks, especially when played next to these other entries; but I don't care about production. You knew that. By the way, this is really fun to play live. (And really... if you can't admit to liking your own entry there's something seriously wrong with you.)

Zoe Gray - Say Goodbye (Shadow)
Oh, wait! Zoe comes in with a just-under-the-wire entry about the Sun's last day of work! Original! In an unusual twist, I like the verses here better than the chorus. The verses are introspective and witty. The Sun's attitude in the chorus diminishes the sympathy gained in the verses, and this line bothers me: "I'm going away till the day I die". Where does a sun go? It would be a stronger and better song, I think, if the sun simply died. It could dwindle, it could explode, it could be snuffed out like a candle flame... whatever. But, check this out... Zoe is 11 years old! And the reason I'm giving her more critical feedback than some "that was great!" platitude is that she put out a better song than quite a few of the adult competitors. If she can do that at 11, then she'll be astounding in short order. And I know that her dad will keep her straight about which advice to keep and which to ignore.
Update: this is very likely advice that should be ignored. I played the song without commenting on it for some other people, and it gets smiles and laughs in the right places, and "Awwwww"s in the right places. Some things transcend logic.