Envisioning 2098

v5A few months back, a friend of mine said he wanted to commission a science-fiction concept album. Many of my albums have a ‘concept feel’ to them, notably Romance of the Spaceways and even moreso, Kid Ghosts. The songs on those albums tell stories on a theme, but this new project is more ambitious in that it’s going to have a real narrative going on in a linear way from start to finish. Since I’m not used to building a story arc or a three-act structure, I called on my friend Jackie to help sketch out characters and plot.

I had a basic idea of how the story begins: It is the year 2098, and a spacecraft from an offworld colony crash lands in the hot ocean next to Reno, Nevada (which due to climate change is now the western seaboard of the United States). The crew of the ship is killed on impact, but under the deck are five babies safe in servo-controlled cribs.

If you’ve been following any of my feeds at all recently, you may have seen some of my work incorporating math from nature into musical form. There I used the Golden Section as the basis for a drum beat, but I’ve also been busy constructing rhythms from the 5 Platonic Solids. Plato associated each solid with a different element (fire, air, water, earth, universe), and the ancient Greeks believed each shape represented a different level of consciousness. I decided that each of the five babies from the offworld would be closely associated with one of the polyhedra.

So, Jackie and I went to work brainstorming names and traits of the 5 baby characters, inspired by each shape’s corresponding element, as well as the cardinal direction associated with each element. I have it in the back of my head that each kid will grow up, face their trials and tribulations, and eventually bring a particular gift to invigorate the tumultuous planet.

This kind of brainstorming is a new process for me. I’m used to writing lyrics and stories, and it’s a bit challenging for me to take a step back and let myself just freestyle and think of ideas that very well may not end up being used. It’s a totally different approach but I appreciate the color and foundation it lends to the story.

We’re meeting again this week to work on the main Earthling character: the man who discovers the crashed ship, and the relationship he has to the offworld babies throughout their lives. I’m looking forward to posting more about our process, as well as how the mathematics from nature will be interweaved into the songs. More to come, so stay tuned, people!

 


Rhythms realized (Gold in Music pt. 2)

In my last post, I began to create a percussion part based on the timing of the Golden Section by dividing an 8 bar phrase into relevant ‘phi points’. I realized that for building a beat it was better to think in terms of 1 bar instead of 4, so I kept my main time ratios, but condensed them from 8 seconds to 2 seconds. I then went a step further by dividing up the large sections into more phi sections to reveal more points for our beat. A/B = 1.618. Likewise, B/C = 1.618 and so on. I worked my way all the way down to an E section. 20160907_084018What you see here in the top of the image is our basic 2 second span divided into A and B with the hit at 1.236 (the main phi point of the span). On the next line, I divided A into its Golden Ratio revealing sections B and C. As mentioned earlier, I continued this process all the way down to an E section. So now, including a beat at 0 secs, we’ve got 8 relevant phi points. This is perfectly suited to a one bar drum pattern. Here’s how the sections break down:

One Bar Beat at 120 bpm = 2 secs.
Section A = 1.236 secs.
Section B = .764 secs.
Section C = .472 secs.
Section D = .292 secs.
Section E = .180 secs.

All sections are 1.618x larger than the previous one.  I think that point dividing the whole 2 second bar into phi should be stressed, as well as the beat at zero. From there, the accents should decrease according to how minor a point gets. I strung together a line of D, E, D, E, D, D, E, D to form the bongos. This would also be ideal for a high-hat or tambourine. I then put different percussion instruments on the C and D sections’ points (a bit louder). Finally, I put major hits (bass part changes) at the start and on the point between A and B.

The final string of hit points look like this:

0.000 secs.
0.292 secs.
0.472 secs.
0.764 secs.
0.944 secs.
1.236 secs.
1.528 secs.
1.708 secs.

Since my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) doesn’t speak in milliseconds, I had to convert these into seconds and frames. I then rendered the beat in a step-sequencer, and looped the bar 8 times, then copied that to make a 16 bar phrase. For extra fun, I added regular quarter notes using a brush snare on the second 8 bar section to hear how a phi beat works against our traditional time system. I must say, it all sounds pretty golden!


Finding Gold in Music.

The Golden Section, or Golden Ratio, has been a favorite endeavor of mine for years. The ratio itself is quite simple. B:A = A:(B+A), or “the small stands in relation to the large as the large stands in relation to the whole.” The ratio is represented by the Greek letter ‘phi’ which is correlated to the irrational number 1.6180339…

golden-ratio-equation

I’ve always loved the metaphorical reciprocity of this statement in a spiritual sense. For this reason, and the fact the ratio is abundant in nature, I’ve worked for many years to incorporate this ratio into musical systems of time and pitch.

I went back to my notebooks from the 90’s and they’re filled with scores of different applications of the Golden Section, but in the interest of clarity, I’m going back to the very beginning of my exploration and have decided to include you along the way.

Due to the complexity of integrating new pitch systems (getting my instruments to play notes they’re not built to play), I’ve decided to start with simple phi rhythms. I anticipate some false starts and dead ends, but I’m blogging about each step for a few reasons- not the least of which is keeping everything straight in my own head.

Golden Section Rhythm Elements V1.1

For version 1 of my experiment I decided to divide a 4 bar phrase (at 120 beats per minute) into its Golden Section ratios. Looking forward, I hope to use these points in time as the stressed beats of this rhythm system. Since I’m starting simple, there are only two points on our timeline.

20160906_121746

4 bars at 120bpm takes 8 seconds. Section A needed to be 1.618 times the length of Section B, so I simply had to solve for 1x + 1.618x = 8 to get B, which equals 3.056. Now, if we play a drum at the beginning (0sec), at both phi points (3.056s and 4.945s), we get only 3 hits across an 8 second period, which wonderfully celebrates the Golden Section, but does not make for a very interesting beat. There’s just not enough going on. When I next visit this, I will have broken down B into futher subsections (simply dividing by 1.618 each time) which will provide us with additional ‘phi-relevant’ points in time and also give us fodder for creating a more exciting beat.


Weightless two different ways.

When it came time to cover a Thomas Dolby song, the choices were many. I was very close to doing Airwaves, the lyrics of which Thomas and I had exchanged a few emails about (“I turn my vehicle beneath the river west from south” is not in fact about a submarine, but rather a car driving through the Holland Tunnel). I ultimately chose Weightless because I had a good sonic vision of where I could take things. I brought my A-game production wise because I knew the lot of the Dolby newsgroup, ALLOY, would end up hearing it and they’re no strangers to a good mix.

The original version of Weightless appears on the 1982 classic “The Golden Age of Wireless” and can be heard here:

In contrast to the lush vocal and keyboard intro of Dolby’s version, I decided to place the listener in a Viennese thoroughfare, with buses and footsteps abound. I interpreted the intro melody into a series of church bells off in the distance (which were actually permutations of one sample of a pen hitting an ashtray played at the different pitches).

The body of the song is much more aggressive than Dolby’s, but I like to think still maintains the quirk and desolation. I used a similar analog(esque) synth patch along with piano, but also added a counterpoint of distorted guitar which swirls and wahs its way into the breakdown / bridge:

You- you could be the one (she whispered)
Love is all you’ve ever wanted
All you’ll ever need

Thomas sings the bridge himself, but since he’s quoting a woman here, I decided to have a woman sing the part. Enter Melissa Reasoner, a friend I met on MySpace (yes, that long ago) who I jokingly dubbed ‘The Greyslake Karaoke Diamond’ as this was her main vocal outlet at the time. Melissa sings the part with heart and grace. We team up on some background oohs and aahs that pop up here and there as well.

In the original version the song ends:

End of our summer
Your body weightless
In condensation, my heart learned to swim
Then the feeling was gone again

Instead of ending softly and somewhat sadly, I kicked up the energy for my version and dropped the last line in the interest of a happy ending. The song fades and leaves us back out on the street with cars, footsteps, and a lone dog barking. The church bells in the distance play the opening notes again- but I moved the melody into a major key from its original minor for a final emotional lift.

Enjoy my version below:

 

 


Stagefright? On getting better.

ws_uLounge

photo by Zach Smolinski

I’m going to break a string. My guitar is going to stop making sound. We’re going to get out of sync with the keyboard tracks. Nah. These things have never really happened. Breaking a string? Sometimes, but hey, you play with the remaining five and switch guitars at the end of the song. No big shakes. But I DO have big shakes. Almost every time I play. Why? I’m not so sure.

When I played in my 20’s I was completely comfortable on stage. I would kick out the jams, work the crowd, just have a ball in general. Now every gig to me seems like a big dramatic affair. I sweat so much while I play that it’s almost become my trademark.

I’m not really even that afraid of bombing. Small screwups people probably aren’t going to notice. Big screwups? Well, again, we haven’t really had one yet. We practice enough to avoid mishaps like that. But if one did happen? So fucking what. Have a laugh and move on.

I am getting better about this with every gig we play. I focus on having a good time in the moment on stage. Not worry so much about how we’re sounding. I know it’s much more fun for you in the audience if I’m having a good time up there. Unless you hate me and would like to see me squirm, of course. But that’s probably not the case.

See Boolean Knife at Glenwood Arts Festival on Sunday August 21st at 3pm. It’s going to be a good time.

 

 


Success Versus Gravy

I’m a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan. Last night I was rewatching his film Magnolia and ended up reading some quotes on Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s IMDB page. It really helped to codify some feelings about my own artwork.

“Success isn’t what makes you happy. It really isn’t. Success is doing what makes you happy and doing good work and hopefully having a fruitful life. If I’ve felt like I’ve done good work, that makes me happy. The success part of it is all gravy.” -PSH

You have to be happy with your output and the quality of that work. It’s dangerous to rely on external factors for validation. External factors are totally out of your control. Trying to measure success based on listenership, follows, and likes is a rabbit-hole anyhow. How much is enough? 1000 fans? 10,000 fans? A million? Airplay on 5 radio stations? 500? 5000?

I was having drinks with a musician in one of the world’s largest bands at the time, and she was actually embarrassed about their success. She felt their music was less genuine because it was so popular and longed for the time she could record her own music that was “less-accessible”. It was an invaluable lesson to me. Happiness and satisfaction is not tied to popularity. In her case, they seemed to be inversely related.

A long time ago, a prominent A&R figure (and now friend) told me that he loved my work but that it was impossible to mass-market. My songs don’t fit into a neatly packaged genre. That’s just the way I write, and although it may have bothered me at the time, I can appreciate that now.

I’ve said it before that success to me is finishing a final mix, turning off the lights, and listening to the new song in a nice pair of headphones. The sales, the press reviews, and the airplay is- just as Phillip Hoffman says- gravy.

8Tmasters.jpg

 

 


Two Wheels Good: A Cassanova’s Survival Guide

twg

You surely are a truly gifted kid
But you’re only good as
The last great thing you did
And where’ve you been since then
Did the schedule get you down?
I hear you’ve got a new girlfriend
How’s the wife taking it?

(from the song Moving The River)

With this one gorgeous verse, slipping out of some tall speakers at a late-night party in an Iowa City apartment in 1989 I was hooked. Prefab Sprout’s album Two Wheels Good has since been cemented in my psyche as the perfect album.

Known as Steve McQueen in the UK, Two Wheels Good features 14 songs that offer soul-plundering lyrics against a swath of teasing guitars settled into otherworldly sonics courtesy of producer/keyboardist Thomas Dolby. The genius behind the songs is frontman Paddy McAloon who one critic raised to the stratum of “Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim for the Morrissey years”.

When love breaks down the things you do to stop the truth from hurtin’ you.
When love breaks down we join the wrecks who leave their hearts for easy sex.

(from When Love Breaks Down)

At the time I identified strongly with the ethos of the impossible relationship around which Paddy is constantly casting outlines. During a post-adolescence of intense loves and infidelities of my own, songs like “Appetite” and “Goodbye Lucille #1” hummed right along with my own earnest drives and subsequent struggles through poignant and clever highways.

Picking out the best lyrics to highlight is an exercise in folly. Every line counts with McAloon, and there are gems everywhere. But again, lyrics are only the half the story. The music is smooth and the melodies stir the deeper regions of the soul. The soundscapes are gently seasoned by lush and heavenly harmonies by Prefab chanteuse Wendy Smith, who to the ear represents either the lost ideal love, or the soft victim of the protagonist’s philandering, depending on the track. These songs are filled with wondrous ghosts:

And all I ever want to be is far from the eyes that ask me
In whose bed you’re gonna be and is it true you only see
Desire as a sylph figured creature who changes her mind?

(from Desire As)

Released in 1985, Two Wheels Good does shine with some of the aural earmarks of the age, but the timelessness of the messages and Thomas Dolby’s haunting production ensures the album too is timeless.

Life’s not complete till your heart’s missed a beat
And you’ll never make it up or turn back the clock
No you won’t, no you won’t
No you won’t, no you won’t

(from Goodbye Lucille #1)

 

Listen to or purchase Two Wheels Good by Prefab Sprout.