Category Archives: Tuneage

Decomposed

During the year I stopped writing words, I wrote a bit of music instead. Not songs per se, but notes on lined paper, like some sort of powder-wig fancy lad. I used to do this when I was in high school, as I detailed here a long time ago, but hadn’t given much thought to it in 20 years or so. I gave composing up because it was damn near impossible for me to turn paper notes into the kind I could hear with my ears, being neither a talented multi-instrumentalist nor the sort of person who could gather together a small wind ensemble.

The advent of sophisticated composition apps changed that. A few years back, the desktop composition application Notion came out with an iPad version that’s nothing short of stunning. It allows you to not only write music but also hear how it sounds, with a ginormous number of orchestral sound samples to choose from. For someone like me, who has music theory knowledge but can play no more than one-handed piano on a good day, it’s a godsend.

I played with these toys throughout 2015 and wrote a bunch of pieces of varying quality. I enjoyed doing it because it offered me something writing words didn’t at that time—the ability to say multiple things at once. A lot of the pieces I wrote contain some element of independent themes, each set in their own meters and modes, with the “action” occurring based on where they meet and where they diverge.

Music is math plus air. In the things I wrote, sometimes the math and air added up and sometimes they didn’t, but the shades of meaning in the failure seemed more interesting to me at the time than the cut-and-dry world of words.

I didn’t share these pieces widely at the time for a multitude of reasons, the biggest being my extensive knowledge of myself. I know that my standard pattern of feelings about the things I do unfolds thusly:

  1. Unchecked enthusiasm about how good the thing is, bordering dangerously on hubris
  2. Annoyance and deep resentment that no one else likes it
  3. Terrifying realization that the thing I made was not very good after all
  4. Sense of humiliation for sharing it in the first place

So rather than go through all these stages step by embarrassing step, I opted to not share the pieces, at least not widely, save for the occasional Facebook post for friends and family. I may have put some links of Twitter, but I don’t recall doing so and suspect I was too afraid of junior high-level mockery if I did.

Now that some of this stuff is almost a year old, I think I can separate the wheat from the chaff. Most of it is the latter but there’s a few examples of the former. Since it was all originally shared online either sparingly or not at all, I thought this would be a good time/spot to bring the better pieces together so they could be ignored in one place.

For some idiotic reason, the first things I wrote were full-fledged orchestral scores (more on that below). Trying to do this after years of not writing music was like staying out of the pool for several decades before attempting to swim the English Channel. Having learned my lesson,  I mostly stuck to writing stuff for small, manageable ensembles thereafter, such as this first piece. It’s written for an nonet (seven winds and two percussionists) and is based on a trip I took to the Fresh Pond Columbarium in Ridgewood. Years ago I wrote way too many words on that trip and I think this piece captures the experience in a better way, if a more abstract one.

A walk through Mount Olivet Cemetery was the impetus for the following piece. (Picking up on a theme here?) At the crest of a hill where you can see out over Queens and off toward Manhattan, there is a small plot of land that bills itself The Japanese Section. Most of the people interred within it appear to have died prior to World War II. In those days, the part of Queens around Mount Olivet was overwhelmingly German and most of its graves reflect that, stern black slabs that bellow HIER RUHT IN GOTT. Amid all this stands a tiny, incongruous piece of land full of ornate Japanese calligraphy.

The piece I wrote was for piano and tuned percussion. (I really like xylophones, marimbas, and vibes. No, I don’t know why.) I used traditional Japanese modes (or their Western equivalents; you can’t 100% recreate Japanese music using Western tonalities) to create a palindrome, something that would sound the same played backward or forward. It builds to pivot on one note; everything that follows that note is a mirror reflection of what preceded it.

I recently did a new mix of the piece to prove it, reversing some of the instruments and lining them up with the forward movement, and added some chorus and phaser effects because I thought they sounded cool. You can feel these effects more than you can hear them, really, but I promise they’re there.

The third piece is one “movement” of a larger thing, for an octet (six winds, two percussionists) called Dads. It’s all about Dads doing Dad Things, like forcing conversation at a kid’s birthday party or struggling to pick out a pair of shorts at Kohl’s. It was my first attempt at writing 12-tone music.

Budget explanation: 12-tone music treats every note of the chromatic scale equally, as opposed to traditional composed music, which is in a specific key or scale that values certain notes and intervals over others. 12-tone music usually involves a tone series that dictates in what order the tones must be played and all the permutations of those orders. Every series has an initial, a retrograde (backwards), an inversion (mirror image of the initial), and a retrograde inversion.

Some 12-tone music is as boring and math-y as all this explanation would imply. Some, like Anton Webern’s Symphony, is subtle and atmospheric and beautiful. I aimed for the latter and found the inherent problem in 12-tone: Even when you plot out all the series perfectly, using a spreadsheet and everything, it doesn’t necessarily mean the resulting music will sound very good.

However, I think the final part of Dads came out well. It’s subtitled “Driving Through the Night With a Car Full of Sleepers” and aims to capture the terror of a late-night drive home with a car full of kids on an endless highway, knowing you are the only way that any of them will get home safely.

The last piece is another “movement” for a larger thing, the full-blown orchestral thing I alluded to earlier that I called Great Rocks of Our Time. Aside from the logistical headaches inherent in trying to compose something for an entire orchestra, I soon found out that the composition app I was using was never intended to output audio files for something quite so robust. If you limit yourself to a single-digit number of voices, the result sounds okay, but the more midi “instruments” you pile on top of each other, the less real and more midi it sounds.

A lot of the stuff I tried to write for Great Rocks was half-baked, if that. But there was one part of it that I thought was worth listening to, called “And I Must Make You Ready to Leave Me.” You may notice I’ve made no attempt to hide my efforts to rip off both Fania All Stars and Hot Rats at the same time. Also, the fakeness of the “instruments” gives it a sound that gets a little too close to smooth jazz for my comfort. For all that, I like the notes, and I like the part where three themes of varying lengths struggle to line up, and I dunno, I just like it, okay?  It might be because I wrote it about the fundamental problem at the core of every parent’s mission: To raise a kid that one day won’t need you.

Scores Settled

When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?

Continue reading Scores Settled

Ray Manzarek, Bill Walton, and Greg Ginn Walk Into a Studio…

waltonUpon hearing of the passing of Ray Manzarek, my first thoughts were not of The Doors or Jim Morrison, but of the keyboardist’s role in one of the weirder albums ever released. The record was called Men Are Made In The Paint, a spoken word project by Bill Walton in which the former UCLA great and NBA analyst shared his thoughts on the game of basketball at length. At great length, in fact, because Men Are Made In The Paint is a double album, clocking in at almost 2 and a half hours of Bill Walton’s witness protection voice talking about hoops.

This is bit odd, but a Bill Walton spoken word album is not especially strange in and of itself. What puts Men Are Made In The Paint over the top is who Walton made the album with, and who released it.

If you’re a former punk rock kid of a certain age, you no doubt remember the little catalogs that came in every SST release, printed on Bible-weight tissue paper and strategically folded so they could hold listings for every record that label put out yet still fit between the CD and booklet for Damaged or Double Nickels on the Dime. One of my former bandmates swore he would one day own every single item in that catalog, and so he made it a point to learn every last release printed thereon, memorizing the backlist of obscure bygone groups like Tom Troccoli’s Dog and Fatso Jetson.

While studying the catalog with talmudic dedication, he discovered a tiny section for something called ISSUES RECORDS. Its only listing was Men Are Made In The Paint. The existence of a Bill Walton double album should have been crazy enough, but it was made doubly (quadruply?) crazy by the fact that Greg Ginn was somehow responsible for its existence. My friend, who worshiped Ginn, would often point to this as a sign of his quixotic genius and proclaimed this thing must be worth listening to it because Ginn deemed it so.

Continue reading Ray Manzarek, Bill Walton, and Greg Ginn Walk Into a Studio…

Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp

Welcome to Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp. I’m Paul Rodgers, and I’m here to help you live out your dreams. My goal is to make this the best two weeks of your life, so let’s do this! By the end of this camp, you will be transformed from ordinary schmoes into rock and roll fantasy gods!

Before we do anything else, you need to be schooled in the fundamentals of rock and roll fantasy. The key to a successful rock and roll fantasy is knowing the difference between a jester and a dancer. I have two models up here on the stage with me; don’t panic, these are NOT real jesters and dancers. They are are simply here for demonstration purposes.

As you can see, the jester has a floppy hat with bells on it, and a checkered union suit, and he may hold a few items he could use to juggle, such as bowling pins. However, I want to stress this, just because he doesn’t have anything to juggle doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a jester. That’s a common rookie mistake. Now, onto to the dancer. You’ll notice this model is wearing a silver leotard, and the hair…

Why are we doing this? Because differentiating between a jester and a dancer is the most important aspect of the rock and roll fantasy. If you can’t tell them apart, how are you going to arrange them? Back to the dancer…

Why are you asking about instruments? We won’t be playing any instruments. No, not during this demonstration or at any time during the next two weeks. I don’t know who gave you the impression you would be playing music, but they were mistaken. Now, if I could continue with my demonstration…

No, this is not a rock and roll fantasy camp. This is Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp, as in Bad Company’s smash 1979 hit “Rock and Roll Fantasy.” This is where you get to realize your dream of living in the world of the song “Rock and Roll Fantasy.”

Sir, have you never heard the song? It clearly says “my rock and roll fantasy,” meaning me, Paul Rodgers, and my rock and roll fantasy involves jesters, dancers, and nothing else. Except for the part where your mama calls you but you don’t go home because you’re having too much fun, but that’s it. What more could you possibly want from a rock and roll fantasy?

Granted, those 13 things you named sounded exciting, in their own way. However, they are not in the scope of our mission here.

And to the guy in the back who yelled “ripoff,” sir, let me just say that compared to other song-specific seminars out there, this a bargain. Trust me, it costs a lot more to attend Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” Fantasy Camp. And that camp is actually two weeks long, so that’s false advertising right there. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp is a steal at $7000 a session.

No, there will be no appearances by any other members of Bad Company, as I am being sued by all of them. Yes, even by the estate of Boz Burrell. Possibly for running this camp, but I am not at liberty to discuss it.

Before I conclude this introductory session, I have to say that I am super excited to teach all of you about “Rock and Roll Fantasy,” and also have to inform you that having attended this camp for 15 full minutes means you are no longer legally entitled to a refund. Now, onto the mess hall for some moderately priced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!

A Sample

My roommate had an odd look on his face. It was an unsettling mixture of trepidation and something close to embarrassment. I thought either someone was dead or I’d won a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.

“You have a voice mail,” he told me, “from Kathleen Hanna.”

Kathleen Hanna had called me because I’d emailed her about doing an interview for the zine I had just started. I named it Jes Grew, after a “disease” in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about race and the influence and spread of black culture into the mainstream. Said novel was one of my many obsessions and a driving influence behind Record Ignite!, the band I’d formed a while ago. But that band was no more, and so this zine was where I thought I should channel my creative energy.

I’d emailed Kathleen at a generic info-type address on her website, so I didn’t have a huge expectation I’d actually hear from her. It felt like asking for a million dollars–this probably won’t work, but it’d be awesome if it did. When I’d formed my now defunct band, there were a select few groups in my pantheon of what I wanted it to be, and Bikini Kill was one of them. I admired their commitment to doing something that was genuinely dangerous, and was also sympathetic to their brand of feminism, though I realize now my understanding of exactly what feminism entailed was rudimentary at best. (Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I understand feminism better than I ever did before, but that’s another post entirely.)

In other words, getting a call from Kathleen Hanna was an enormous deal in my universe. My roommate left the room so I could listen to the voice mail, sensing that this was something he should allow me to enjoy by myself. Hearing a recording of her voice address me was enthralling and terrifying all at once. She sounds just like she did on that Mike Watt album!

I eventually reached her on the phone in person, which was even more terrifying, and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Soho for the interview. The day we met was a gorgeous late fall afternoon, just the faintest chill in the air, summer stubbornly hanging on. At this point in my life, my only interviewing experience came as part of a group affair when Jello Biafra came to speak at NYU. Me and another editor at the school’s humor magazine lobbed questions at him along with 20 other “reporters,” one of whom took a good 10 minutes to ask Jello if he would lend his time to something called the Million Marijuana March.

I did plenty of advance work to prepare for this interview, and yet was still frightened beyond comprehension before it began, afraid that I’d say or do something unspeakably wrong. That feeling faded quickly once I actually met Kathleen, because she was unbelievably warm and engaging, completely putting me at ease about talking to someone I considered a hero. (I imagine she had extensive experience doing this.)

We talked for 2 hours, in large part about her new artistic direction, since her first solo album Julie Ruin had just come out and was quite a musical departure from Bikini Kill. But we also covered the gamut of politics and feminism and music, and I somehow managed to sound coherent on these subjects while cognizant of the fact that I was discussing them with Kathleen Fucking Hanna.

Before we parted, I gave Kathleen a bunch of 7 inches from the label my friends upstate had started, including my old band’s sole release (seen to your left). I can’t say why I did this. Perhaps because I felt I should offer some kind of token of appreciation for taking the time to talk to me, and I had nothing else to offer. I think my rationale was, We all love you, so here’s something you, in essence, helped make. She demonstrated far more thankfulness than she needed to, and left. I hadn’t the slightest idea, really, of what I’d just done.

Continue reading A Sample