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.

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