Photobooth: A Collaborative Song’s Construction

Photobooth Song Arc Collaboration

I am just wrapping up (but not rapping up) a fourth round of a inspiring collaborative song project called A Whale’s Lantern, which has roots in the Mastodon federated networking space. In each round, participants are randomly partnered with others, and all pairings are given an overall theme to work with as a connector thread, and then, the partners have extended periods of time (usually a few months) to get creating something.

I have been fortunate in each of my pairings to connect with collaborators who have been easy to work with (maybe this is an inherent quality of those who volunteer for the project and reach the ending point). Although each partnership has had a distinct and different feel to it, and my role has been different each time, each round has really pushed my abilities as a songwriter and musician. In the latest collaboration — the music tracks will be released in a few weeks after they get mastered and gathered and posted at Bandcamp — the overarching theme was “portraits.”

My partner, Bobbus, is someone who I had interacted sporadically with on Mastodon, and I know he is a talented and thoughtful musician. We hit it right off the bat in our emails, both of us expressing gratitude for the chance to try to make music in a different format than we are used to and both of us expressing an openness to try any idea the other pitched, and both of us open to a starting point.

With this mind, I sent forward a song to him that I had started on acoustic guitar after thinking a bit on the theme of “portraits.” The proposed song — Photobooth — captured a pining by the narrator of an old photo album of a relationship that is long since gone to dust. The “portrait” might be a picture taken in one of those box photo booths, where you put coins in and an image pops out.

Draft Lyrics Photobooth Song

Bobbus thought the song could work for us (although we were both open to starting over if it didn’t), and the chart/map/graphic at the top of the post here shows some of the ways the song was woven over a few months time, particularly as he used his skills as a sound engineer and solo guitarist to create the song’s sonic landscape, adding unexpected (to me) chord changes and suggesting other parts to break up what began as a pretty traditional pop song of verse/chorus.

On a technical note, we used PCloud storage as a way to share many audio files back forth. I would send him raw music that I was making and he would do rough mixing, and share it back, asking for comments and feedback, and so the revisions would flow. We also used a writing app called Turtl for sharing written notes, lyrics, chord changes and more. I was not familiar with either of those platforms, so it was interesting to try to collaborate with different technology tools. Both worked just fine for us.

My challenge with the recording process, as it is always, was with the vocals, and he did as much he could with effects to make my voice work for the song, although there are points where .. well… I’m not sure I hit the notes I wanted to hit. I did like the way he created the ending section, where I recorded three saxophone parts that he mixed under his guitar … there’s a sense of the world kind of coming apart that works well with the song’s theme itself.

I am grateful and appreciative of Bobbus as a musical partner and collaborator, and for the chance to make more interesting collaborative music and art with the Whale’s Lantern community.

Anytime anyone has the opportunity to make something out of nothing — to pluck melody and harmony and rhythm out of thin air and transform it into something that someone else might hear and maybe even appreciate — particularly when this magic is done with someone from somewhere else in the world connected only by a federated space, is a cause for celebration, and experiences like A Whale’s Lantern provide a powerful counterpoint to so much of the failure of other networking spaces to live up to the promise of a world made better by connections.

Peace (inside the booth),
Kevin

 

Making is a Verb: Musicking with The Art of Is

Musicking with The Art of IsThere’s a whole section in the book some of us are reading together in NowComment, with annotation conversations unfolding, where writer Stephen Nachmanovitch (in The Art of Is) explores the division of the world into nouns and verbs, emphasizing the forward motion of doing things (verbs) as opposed to merely observing things by breaking them down into parts (nouns). He uses music as his example, noting that the word “musicking” would be a way to encompass the act of making music, often with others, and being creative.

I wondered how I could use the text itself for a way to inspire a new piece of music, to put Nachmanovitch’s idea into motion. I wanted to be musicking within the words of the text. After mulling it over, I decided to use the book title — The Art of Is — and the book subtitle — Improving as a Way of Life — and the author’s name — Stephen Nachmanovitch — as a means to gather chords.

The image above explains how I went about making my song — I only sought existing chords as I read (so, as Wendy asked elsewhere, I did not convert other letters without chords into something else … I just ignored them) and created three distinct sections: title, subtitle, name. I did keep the sequence of chords intact, however, so that in whatever order they were, that’s what I had to work with. I took the liberty of adding minor chords where it would make sense of the structure and sound.

I then went into the Garageband app on my iPad, and began to compose over the course of the afternoon, improvising and experimenting as I went about it.

First, I created drum tracks and worked with the bass, adding some guitar riffs, and then finally, layering in some of the world music instruments. I was slowly adding pieces, and then removing them at the end, to create a sound version of our annotation efforts (OK, this may be a leap, but not for me). For the most part, I think the song works, unfolding itself against the rhythm beat, and certainly, it is a piece of distinct music connected to and inspired by the book (if only in my mind).

You are welcome to remix or download or do whatever you want with the track from Soundcloud.

Peace (in the muse),
Kevin

 

Dancing with Wendy in the Intermezzo

My CLMOOC friend, Wendy, shared a blog post yesterday about her explorations of Affinity Spaces, networks, poetry and music, and in doing so, she left a piece of music manuscript. I could not resist the urge to see if I could turn her musical notes into something musical (and I suspect she is doing the same).

Read her whole post to see the entire thread of what she was doing and thinking, for it is a fascinating example of how an idea is built with the help of others, creating a conversion about creativity and connection.

I hope my small musical piece — done rather quickly and with less finesse than I would have liked and crafted with some liberties of repeating some musical phrases in her original manuscript — is another angle from which to see/hear how Affinity Networks like CLMOOC can be powerful in how they inspire others to think, to learn, to make.

Read Wendy’s Blog Post: Entr’actes and Other Ways to Fill the Silence

Peace (and thanks),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: A Gift of Peace

(I often write about my teaching life here for Slice of Life, but I wanted to share this musical gift. Slice of Life takes place over Two Writing Teachers.) 

My songwriting friend, John, and I worked on writing and recording this song as a gift for family and friends, and others, for the holiday season. We actually wrote it years ago but then we went into a local recording studio earlier this year to do a more polished version.

Meanwhile, we hired my eldest son to produce a short video to go along with the song, and he did a fine job of crafting a story of the gift that moves along from person to person.

Here, then, is a gift of peace to you, my connected friends in Slice of Life, and CLMOOC, and beyond.

If you just celebrated the Hanukkah season, or if you celebrate some other holiday — or even none at all — I hope you still accept this gift of peace as a token of friendship and that you pass it on to others.

Peace (in song),
Kevin

 

Ridin’ It Underground: Where Music and Sound Take You

I was working on constructing a song the other day and I began to imagine and remember riding the underground subway systems (I was thinking of New York, Washington DC, Boston).

As I built the song out of loops, I wanted to purposely create a sonic landscape of the experience of the subway transportation systems in my memory and imagination.

I tried to capture:

  • The rhythm of the train lines themselves
  • The walk down the escalator into the underground
  • The sounds of buskers, playing music
  • The mingling of the voices
  • The act of keeping on eye on other people
  • The echoing and pounding footsteps of the crowd on the move
  • The slow fade of the subway as you depart and leave the station behind you

This approach — capturing a sense of place through a piece of music — is intriguing because I found myself really approaching each sound, each loop, each beat, with a highly focused ear. Did it help me capture the essence of riding the rails? If not, I didn’t use it.

You can be the judge of whether my attempt was successful or not

Peace (going underground),
Kevin

Deconstructing the Modern Hip-Hop Song

Travis Scott Concert Collage

I’m not really all that sure where this post is going to so … hang on a sec as I meander through it …

My 14-year-old son has been deep into making beats and music with Logic software (the next level up, way up, from Garageband) and in recent weeks, he’s been exporting his work into his Soundtrap account, inviting me to collaborate with him there.

Of course, I have accepted, and I’ve been making some cool jams with him. Here’s one sample of what we are working on …

He’s also a fan of modern hip-hop, listening for hours (maybe too many hours) to artists, humming to himself as he wanders the house, walks the dog, does chores, etc. He’s a close listener, from what I can tell, and I am starting to hear that filter in through the music he is making.

Which leads us to the recent Travis Scott concert. I agreed to take him to Boston Garden the other night (and took him to Kendrick Lamar last year and to Future, the year before that). It’s an interesting experience to be an aging rock and roller/songwriter in an arena of hip hop.

Here is my simplistic deconstruction of a typical hip-hop song, with Travis Scott’s vocoder-ized auto-tuned voice still in my head. I’d take Kendrick over Scott any day (but maybe that’s because Lamar had a kicking live band backing him and a better feel for politically-charged lyrics that connect more with me and my sensibilities.)

Creating a Hip Hop Track: Notes from a Rock And Roll Observer

  1. Start with a simple beat. Maybe kick drum on the beat or on the off beat. Keep it pounding until your feel it in your skull.
  2. Add piano or organ over it. Do this for about four measures. Just enough to establish the melody.
  3. Drop the drum and transform the opening melody part to synth after the first few measures. Come in strong with a big kick drum sound (think: John Bonham from Led Zep. That’s the sound you want. Bigger than your head.).
  4. Make sure the bass is deep enough, rich enough, to reach into your esophagus. Deep in sound, but not too complicated in parts. The bass will become the thread that holds this whole thing together. Modern bass is the river on which the melody floats.
  5. Shout out “yeah” on the offbeat until you create synergy off the beat. Wave your hands in the air if you care. Get hangers-on in the studio to the mic, and have them join in.
  6. Name-check yourself. Maybe a few times. Don’t let the listener forget who you are.
  7. If your lyrics are a mostly meaningless flow about nothing much to talk about, pump up the effects to bury the meaning beneath your voice. Also, do this, too, if you can’t really sing. If your lyrics have meaning, push the voice up over the beat during verses. Make it known.
  8. If your partner(s) are the DJ at the mix machine, have them interject a few odds and ends now and then. Maybe during live performances tell the crowd to make some noise, but with a slew of profanity. Say it at least a dozen times. Keep their microphone volume lower than yours, though.
  9. Have a famous friend? Invite them into the track for some verses or a line of words or two. Guest overdubs are the rage right now. If you are a male rapper, having a female singer take over the chorus seems like a good bet to get heard.
  10. Bury the words of the chorus with layered overdubs of voice and effects. Ideally, you do this in stages, so that by the end of the track, the chorus is bigger than a building. Unless you can’t sing. Then, bring in a guest (see #8) or add more effects (see #6)
  11. End by either reversing the flow — ending back on simple opening beat and keyboards — or by taking the track in another direction, and the come to a full stop. A big boom blast — cannon shots are popular — with tons of reverb will end the track with a slow-fading tail. Add lights and fire during live shows.
  12. Start over again until you find your groove and your audience.

I admire those artists and producers who play with this genre (as seen from my middle-age white man’s world), and the lyricists who understand how internal rhymes and rhythmic play with words and syllables can take songs to a new level. Like any musical genre, there are those who are artists, pushing the limits to make something interesting, and those who leverage the formula to make money.

Take a guess who gets the more plays and more profit?

I’d be remiss not to say that every genre seems to fall into its own patterns. Rock and pop music is all about verse/chorus/break and Jazz is mostly about head/solo/head (unless you’re Ornette Coleman, and then all bets are off) and so on.

Deconstructing what we love is a form of play, and a way to think about where the limits are and how we might push those limits to transform what we love. Go on and do it.

Peace (old man blues),
Kevin

 

Musical Slice of Life: Hope (Still) Remains

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

After the 2016 elections, in the days of disbelief and anger that followed, I sat down and wrote this song for myself, and for family and some friends who I knew were feeling like I was. The lyrics were a little message to the world, a reminder that politics was and is always about the long-game, of being close to those around us. I dug the song out again this weekend, as this mid-term election is upon us, to remind myself of that.

I still believe in the message. I share it with you, my friends. Make sure you vote.

Listen:

The following is a live version of the song — I like the above audio-only version better because the sound quality off the iPad is not so great — but here is me, performing the song, if that interests you. Notice I have my Peter Reynolds’ Create Bravely shirt on!

 

Peace (sounds like hope),
Kevin

How Headlines Inspire Songwriting (A Song for Two Fathers)

Like you, perhaps, the images and sounds of children being taken away and separated by the United States government under this heartless president has struck a nerve of humanity in me. As a writer, I often try to deal with those things through words, and as a songwriting, sometimes through music.

This song tells the story of two fathers — one who is coming to the US to escape the violence of home and one who is taking to the streets in protest over the treatment of such immigrant families.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

 

The Body, Entropic (A Poem Sprawled On In a CD Cover)

The Body, Entropic

A friendly email arrived, with a request. Might I be willing to write a poem?

A musical collaborator, Luka, was working on another project and he was looking for a poem that could become part of the cover of the CD project. He sent along a few tracks, asked me to listen, and get inspired. (Luka and I wrote and recorded Alchemist Dream for A Whale’s Lantern music project, a remote collaboration taking place off the Mastodon social network. We’re now into the third iteration of the music-making partnerships.)

Oh, and there was a fast turn-around deadline. I’d have to get the poem out the door within just a few days. The theme of the project was Entropy, and so as I put on headphones and listened to the tracks that Luka provided (interesting stuff, as always from him), I read up on Entropy, trying to wrap my head around the concept and how it might translate into poetry, and music.

Then, I wrote … just letting the words flow as I listened to the beats and musical landscape of the tracks. It was one of those times when I only thought about what I was writing later, in revision. First, I let the music guide me into discovering the possibilities of a poem.

Fast forward a few months, and I saw Luka promoting the CD, with a limited series artistic cover available, so I ordered it, and the resulting project (airmailed from Luka from Slovenia, with a very kind note from him) is just beautiful. My poem is splayed out in the center, but the way the cover folds in and around itself, and the use of art to explore music (and vice versa), and … well … the whole dang thing is just pretty cool to have in my hands.

I’m glad I had some words to contribute. (And Luka, in return, has lent me some of his original music to use in a video project I am working on for a summer learning experience.)

Peace (across the world),
Kevin

 

In the House With a Pulitzer-Prize Winner

Kendrick Lamar live

This Pulitzer-prize winning writer gets loud and indignant with his words, and pushes the envelope on what it means to be a young black artist in the world of Trump, and Black Lives Matter, and frustration over inequities. This writer uses black history as cultural reference points, and brings in the urban experience as a narrative frame. His words resonate with a large, and growing, audience.

This is Kendrick Lamar.

I was thinking of this whole Pulitzer Prize last night as my son and I, and thousands of other fans, rapped along with Kendrick during a concert in Connecticut. (Let me revise: I danced my white man’s dance to the beat, but I didn’t know the lyrics well enough to rap along with him with any coherence … I was surprised how many times the audience took the ‘mic’ from Kendrick during songs, on his invitation, and easily knew the words, the whole stadium in tandem, one voice.)

I remembered, and agreed, with something that commentator Clay Cane wrote in CNN when Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize for Music award was announced:

Like Nina Simone, Lamar isn’t a passive, woe-is-me voice; he is equally outraged and inspired, unapologetically angry but ready to create change. — https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/16/opinions/kendrick-lamar-pulitzer-cane/index.html

So true, and it was clear, this audience was with him.

Kendrick even poked fun at the award itself at one point last night, using a “Pulitzer Kenny” sign on the backdrop as he showed off his verbal dexterity with words, creating rhythms that, even if difficult to hear the lyrics in this live setting, impressed the ears. He can spin rhymes, and those rhymes tell stories, and those stories resonate with his audience.

That’s what writers do.

One more note: The last time I took my 13 year old son to a hip hop show (it was Future as the main act), I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the entire music element was tracked songs. No live musicians.

Not for Kendrick (who has worked with some pretty impressive musicians on his albums). Lamar had an amazing backing band — bass, guitar, drums, keys — that kept the groove kicking it all night long. The drummer, in particular, was incredible, powering the songs with a beat you could feel in your chest.

Peace (inside the beat),
Kevin