Yearly Archives: 2005

Building blocks

I’m trying something slightly different.
I’ve got a bunch of songs that are little more than melody and harmonic rhythm, and some of them are years old, never having been set to MIDI, let alone recorded.
I don’t have a feel for what they may turn out to be — I don’t quite hear them in my head.
So I’m going to just program them all with as they are — chords and melody and hooks if there are any. I figure once I have a general architecture laid down for each song, I can start piling stuff on top of them.
It’s a method I stumbled across while working on “Choices”, and while I can’t say I’m married to the mix I created for that song, I like the surprise from seeing how it turned out.
Plus, it’s a good way not to be bogged down by a stopped dam. I was trying to create yet another mix of an old song — one I could never get right the first two tries — and I’m still stumped. This way, I feel like I’m making progress on work even if I’m nowhere close to finishing anything.

At first, I thought I was going to work a little less traditionally, focusing on a particular project and finishing it before moving on to something else.
For Imprint, that felt like the absolutely correct working method.
I don’t think I can do the same for whatever comes next.
I’ve got a backlog of material sketched out, and a number of different ways to group them. I assumed I was going to dismantle A Ghost in My Shadow completely, but now that I’ve reconstructed the rest of it, I’m not so certain.
So now, I’m just working on everything to sort out later — which is how projects as these are usually done.
I’ll come back later when I have something ready to show. I hope to have something new done before the semester starts.

Early music

I have binders and notebooks full of old completed songs, and ideas for new songs. A lot of these binders and notebooks are a decade old, and while I’m open-minded enough to see the potential in some of those ideas, I actually cringe when I attempt to sift through all this material.
I was playing some of the songs I wrote back in high school this evening. I shuddered when I encountered a chord progression that doesn’t conform with my formal training. No, no! It should go to this chord, not that one.
But I forced myself to deal with it, and I have to say, I did find a few rough nuggets in all that derivative material. One of the first songs I wrote I was titled, “Ragged Edge”, and oh, are the lyrics juvenile. So was the chord progression. But then, I started messing around with what was there, doing things with the bass line I wouldn’t have known to do back in high school, using chords I hadn’t yet learned at the time.
And before I knew it, I was onto something I liked.
Same goes for this other song that was directly inspired by Arcadia’s “El Diablo”. I edited the harmonic rhythm a bit and liked what I heard.
I even unearthed this requiem I wrote in high school, which has Andrew Lloyd Webber and Enya written all over it. I hadn’t learned the correct cadences for the Latin text, so now the music strikes me as clumsy. But there’s an ambition to the work that makes me want to go back and mold it some more.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I have a lot of material, and I could conceivably keep myself busy editing, rewriting and recording this stuff from now till the end of the year. That, in addition to creating new songs to keep up with all this old material.
It should be a fun distraction.

Fables of the Reconstruction

Well, it looks like the next project I’m working on is a reconstruction of my old demo, A Ghost in My Shadow. I spent this past weekend reconstructing “Strivers for a Better Tomorrow” and “No Exit”.
In the past eight months, I’ve managed to reconstruct 11 of the 13 tracks I originally put online. There are many more tracks that I’ve left off from the original cassette tape (A Loss for Words), one or two I have no intention of re-recording. (I won’t rule out pillaging them for spare chord progressions, melodic phrases or lyrics.)
Six of those tracks are being redistributed to other projects. The remaining seven will probably end up elsewhere as well. Some may just remain outtakes.
Still, the momentum started when I considered putting “Faith in Religion” — the lyrics of which I seriously need to update — on Imprint. After that, I figured I may as well work on the old stuff while I take a break from trying to hash out new material.
I’ve noticed a few impulses that keep creeping up on me while I work on these songs …

  • I need either to get serious about improving my guitar-playing or to find a guitarist. “No Exit” is driving me mad because it’s a guitar song, and I can’t fucking play guitar! No matter how much I tinker with it, it will never sound the way it should. I also think “Faith in Religion” would sound much better driven by ethereal guitar effects than ethereal synthesizer effects.
  • I’m really tired of putting temporary melody tracks on these songs. I need either to get serious about singing or to find a singer. But I have a bad habit of writing melodies way out of my range, so I may have to go with the latter.
  • The Korg N364 has 500 sounds, and very few of them ever really do anything for me. I guess that dissatisfaction is how gear creep happens. Can’t find the timbre you’re looking for? Buy more gear. I so want to use Propellerhead Reason, but I need to buy an entirely separate computer. (Preferably a laptop.)
  • I dropped $260 on a used Kawai K4, and I keep resisting the urge to use it. The K4 has these odd habits that I won’t bore you with in detail. Suffice to say, it’s not the most user-friendly environment to work with the rest of my workstation, and it curbs my enthusiasm for employing it. No wonder I eventually stopped working on it.
  • I think some of these songs would really sound better if they were performed by live musicians.

Reconstructing these songs, though, has a quicker pay-off than working on new material. It took two days to lay down the basic tracks for “Strivers” and “No Exit”. I took a week before “Choices” resembled something usable.
So I’m just going for the short-term thrill for now and leave the more challenging work for later. What a lazy ass am I.

Not done

I started working on the third track for 「風の歌を聴け」 when I realized I didn’t know what this song sounds like.
When I start fleshing out a song, I try to have some sense of a few elements — the kind of drum beat and tempo, what kind of guitar to use (if any), a sense for whether it’s busy or sparse.
This new song is kind of tricky — it uses only two chords, D and E major, with a rising bass line, D-E-F#-G#. And the melody is the kind that slowly rises close to an octave where it starts. In terms of raw materials, there isn’t much there.
Which means the focal point for the song is how it develops. And I haven’t yet visualized (auralized?) what that is. The only thing I know is I want to use Craig Armstrong as a source. I think I’ll have to study The Space Between Us more.
All that to say, I don’t think I should concentrate so heavily on finishing 「風の歌を聴け」.
Nothing derails momentum more than forcing out work that doesn’t want to be mishandled. And after looking at that list, I realize I can keep myself busy while I process this new song in the background of my subsconscious. The section of unrecorded and unfinished songs alone has a nagging quality to it.
So I hammered a quick rebuild of “No Exit” over the last two days. I put a mix of it online, but after hearing it this morning, I realize there are a lot of parts I can’t hear.
However much I like to think of these demos as near-finished products, the truth couldn’t be any further. There’s a lot of work that goes into making a mix sound just right, and I know just about all of the MP3s I’ve put online need lots of tweaks in those devilish details.
(I really hate how weak these mixes sound.)
So there’s still a lot of work to do. I am, however, impressed with the amount of work done.

A list

I have no idea if anyone reads this sliver of the Internets, but I’m finding it helpful. I could have conceivably kept all these notes in on paper, but it’s so much easier plugging this URL into a browser and reminding myself, “Hmm. I really ought to finish that, shouldn’t I?”
I made a list. Yeah, I can sense you rolling your eyes through the monitor there.
It’s a chronological list of songs, divided into ones for which I’ve recorded in some fashion or other, ones I have yet to record and others which have yet to be finished.
This output covers about 15 years. Don’t be fooled — career musicians probably have lists far longer than this one. The dates are when they were first sketched out, not when they were recorded. “Speechless”, for instance, was written in 1998, but I never recorded it until this year.
I also have a binder full of songs I wrote in the first years of high school. None of those are really worth acknowledging. (Although one of these days, I’ll have to thumb through them to see if any are worth pillaging.)
I think I’m going to make this page somewhat dynamic — if I record something or finish something, I’ll edit this page to reflect that status.
[Edited to add: I think I’ll also link to any demos recorded and available online.]
[UPDATE 06/25/06: I reformatted this page to include a lot more information than the original post. I added revision dates, since a number of songs were changed extensively, and I added recording dates. The list is still organzied chronigically by original composition date. Or what I remember to be the original composition date.]
[UPDATE 06/20/07: Added a few more revisions since last year.]

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After deciding “Faith in Religion” wasn’t going to be the right fit for Imprint, I felt I had to fill the slot for which I made room. I don’t know if anyone still thinks in terms of side A and side B, because when I listen to CDs, I sure don’t make the distinction any more.
(Well, except for music dating back to a time when there were sides A and B.)
But for some reason, I’m perceiving Imprint as having two sides, and side A ends with “Take It Apart“, which means the track following it has a difficult task — to feel like the beginning of a side B but still flowing seamlessly from the track before.
“Faith in Religion” at first seemed like it could do that, until the temperament of the song got in the way. So I had to start from scratch.
And I was at a loss.
I’m not sure what brought Sade’s “Paradise” to mind, but that song struck me for being incredibly minimalistic. The bass line doesn’t change at all throughout the song, and there are barely three chords to it. What’s remarkable about the song is how unremarkably it develops. It kind of starts, goes along, then fades.
I took away from that song the idea of a pedal tone. Two chords, one bass note — it’s been done before. Heck, I’ve done it before.
The “Funky Drummer” beat I used in “Fatih in Religion” was still in my head, so I cut and paste it into a new file and changed a few notes to make it slightly more hip-hop.
I slowed the tempo to 90 bps, and I started playing. In about an hour, I had the harmonic rhythm for a new song. I’ve spent the last two days fleshing it out with a bass line.
Now I’m stuck.
The chord structure and the melody of the song came out on their own. I’ve got a drum beat. And I don’t hear anything else.
With other songs, I could intuit a guitar riff or a melodic embellishment. This new song is all infrastructure and no detail.
Not yet at least.
But this is where it gets dangerous. I’ll throw the first bits and pieces together and get attached to them somehow, and soon enough, I’ll have arranged myself in a corner.
Still, I mixed down what I have so far to an MP3, stuck it in with the rest of the mix and felt it was doable — it didn’t feel too awkward sitting between “Take It Apart” and “Your Gaze“.
So the new sequence of Imprint looks like this:

  1. Promises
  2. Never Turn Back
  3. Silver Sting
  4. Our Best Wasn’t Enough
  5. TBD (jazz trio)
  6. Take It Apart
  7. TBD (paradise)
  8. Your Gaze
  9. Imprint
  10. Undone
  11. A Chance to Get It Right
  12. Love and Pride

And with those additions, the total time of the album is approximately 44 minutes. Now that feels like a proper album.

We need a question to the answer

I spent this past weekend piecing together one of my old songs called “Faith in Religion”, thinking I may include it as part of Imprint.
I decided against it.
It’s a bizarre tune, very precociously written back in the late ’80s when I lusted after Sting — his music and his body. I’ll post a mix of the new version on the Eponymous 4 web site later, but for a work by a beginning songwriter, it sure has ambition.
It starts off very ominously, then half way through, it breaks into a dance beat till a classical chorale interrupts it, then it goes back to being ominous. I changed the end in my new mix and made the dance beat a bit funkier. But it’s still an incredibly strange tune.
And it doesn’t fit the tone of Imprint.
So I’m filing it back in the catch-all A Ghost in My Shadow project, where it originated.
It’s strange — the song has this grand ambition, but every time I try to approximate what I want from the song in my demos, I’m disappointed.
The very first time I recorded the song, I wasn’t technically schooled enough to get the feel I wanted. It didn’t help the technology I was working with was sorely limited.
And this past weekend, I had to make substitutions for crucial parts in the song. Since I’m not a guitar player with an e-bow, I couldn’t get the ominous sound I really wanted. I also wanted power chords sustained for long stretches of time, but I’m not properly equipped to handle that either.
But most importantly, I don’t have the classical chorus to deliver the break toward the end of the song. I think I could really get a kick out of this song if I could hear an actual four-part chorus disrupt it.
Maybe down the line, I can blow the money to make this song a reality.
But right now, I’m not sure what I feel for this song. The lyrics are terribly dated, written in the language of a high school student, but after all these years, I can’t think of the music without thinking “Faith in Religion”. So the song is pretty much locked thematically if I were to rewrite the lyrics.
But that’s not the issue — I’m questioning whether I actually like this song.
I can admire the grandiosity of it, and the bravery to throw in all the weird stuff in it. And I think on some level it works. But I’m reaching a style of writing where I’m trying to grab a lot more material from a lot less source.
If I can write an interesting song using only two chords, I feel like I’ve done something really impressive. I really like “Imprint”, the song, because the melody evolves over the same four chords.
That’s why I couldn’t include “Faith in Religion” with Imprint — it’s not simple enough.

Speaking of simplicity, I finished the music for a new song this weekend as well. It repeats the same four chords and requires only voice, piano and bass. No drums. I even removed a string part I put in at the start.
I won’t post it till I get the lyrics done.
It’s a bit of a filler, but a demonstration of that new style I mentioned a few paragraphs ago — getting a lot of mileage from a small amount of fuel.
Maybe I’m becoming a minimalist.

Extended mix

So remember how I said I wouldn’t write any more songs for Imprint? Well, I’m thinking of writing a few more songs for Imprint.
However much I like the mix of 10 songs I have already, there are times after I listen to the entire album when I think, “That’s it?” Right now, it clocks in at 38 minutes, which is a good length for an album written before 1987. Most albums nowadays offer an hour’s worth of music, a decent one at least 45 minutes.
I know I need at least two more songs, three if I can possibly find a place to squeeze them. There’s a song I wrote originally titled “Faith in Religion”. It’s a weird little number — the verses are quiet, the choruses loud and smack dab in the middle is a classical chorale. I never much liked the original demo I made on my first workstation, and I forgot why.
Then I remembered — no guitars. “Faith in Religion” was the kind of song that needed a lot of long power chords, and now that I think of it, an e-bow would really do the trick.
So I may comandeer that song. It was originally supposed to be in the same set as “Promises” and “Silver Sting” anyway.
I’ve spent a few hours over the last two days hammering out some chord progressions, but one of them sounds too much like “Imprint” (the song) and the other takes after “Initializations”, which is another new song I’m polishing.
And I may just revisit the idea for a dub song, but I think this time, I’ll leave out the “Secret Oktober” drum beat.
Thing is, I feel like I’ve tapped out the particular sound I’m aiming for these songs. Since I started working on 「風の歌を聴け」, my playing tends to be a lot more dissonant. The chords I’m playing would fit better with that project than with Imprint.
I’ve been listening to Yorico’s Cocoon album quite a bit, and it’s pulling me to write a quiet piano ballad in the vein of Onitsuka Chihiro (or Carole King, for you Western types.)
We’ll see what develops.

I’m feeling lucky

I’m making no progress on anything. Of course, I’m not actually working on anything to result in progress …
But ideas about everything have been floating around in my head. It would probably be good to jot them down.

  • I think I have the fourth track of 「風の歌を聴け」. I’m giving it the working title “Initializations”. The bass line consists of two famous musical initials — “D-S-C-H” from Dmitri Shostakovich, and “B-A-C-H” from Johann Sebastian Bach. And for contrast, I’m throwing in my initials, “G-E-B”, which I could consider something of a Duran Duran quote. (“The Chauffeur”, anyone?) It just might fit with the general harmonic complexity of the rest of the songs.
  • I’ve chipping away at the first Crux novel. I added a couple of more pages to Chapter 5. I’m not reading anything into that progress.
  • There’s a short story I’m picturing for Gary Huang and Mitch Warren. Gary’s abusive ex-, Sam, returns to New York City for a business trip and runs into Gary. Sam, now sober, seeks Gary’s forgiveness, but Gary is having none of it. Thing is, Gary suspects Mitch is having an affair. It turns out Mitch, at various times, has hooked up with Kevin, the man Mitch slept while his late-partner was gravely ill. Gary finds out and seeks Sam out, and he and Sam spend the night together. Gary still very much desires Sam physically, considering him the best man he’s ever had sex with. Kevin serves the same role for Mitch, especially since Mitch and Kevin have little else in common. It’s an interesting story, but I don’t want to use it if I’m going to have Mitch and Gary fall into becoming a family with an orphaned nephew later.
  • I’m getting a better sense of who Adam Fulton is. Adam Fulton is a drug dealer who dates Crash for a while. Adam is found murdered, and his death spurs Crash to dust off his legal training to find the killer. Adam is, by nature, a bright guy, a survivor with sharp mind and a desire to rise above the criminal world he finds himself in. He never uses any of the product he sells, and his modest living allows him to save up for tuition. But after having first sold his body on the street, then dealing ecstacy in clubs, Adam’s sense of vengence and bitterness also became honed. He was thrown out of his home in a small town after his parents find him having sex with a male classmate, and he ran straight to New York City. He’s drawn to Crash because Crash obviously had a good education and strong work ethic but defies other people’s expectations by choosing to live a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. They could have fallen in love, but they didn’t.
  • I want to resurrect the Shoyu Bunnies. I think it’s because I’ve been listening to too much TLC and Kylie Minogue.
  • I really ought to get back to reading The Elegant Universe.
  • I unearthed a bunch of old paper journals I kept between 1992 and 1997. There are some song lyrics in those journals that I’d like to try to set to music.

「光速」 (June 2005)

When I first started writing songs, I would begin with the lyrics. I didn’t know the melody usually came first, but I had thumbed through Duran Duran: The Book of Words so much at the time, I thought the way Simon Le Bon wrote lyrics was how all songwriters approached lyrics.
Thing is, I had an easier time setting melody to lyrics than the other way around. In fact, it wasn’t till earlier this year that I managed to write lyrics last.
So this vague notion of writing about string theory that I’ve mentioned in the journal? I think I’m going to go back to that old process.
I’m making my way very slowly through The Elegant Universe, and when something clicks, I’ll write around the ideas in the book. However much inspired by Stephen Sondheim I may be, I’m not fooling myself into thinking The Elegant Universe would make good musical theatre. (Actually, it might — but I’m not the person to write it.)
All this expository to say, I wrote a lyric tonight.
It’s something to do because truthfully, I’m at a block where melody is concerned.

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