A Whale’s Lantern: The Oral History of a Musical Collaboration (part one)

 

How best to harness a federated networked space like Mastodon for creativity? Many of us are still figuring out what it means to have our toes in an emerging platform spread out across many “instances” and homes. A Whale’s Lantern, a collaborative music-making venture that unfolded over the final months of 2017, emerged, as so many interesting ideas do, from inquisitive inquiry and open invitation.

What would happen if relative strangers in an openly networked space made music together, virtually and collaboratively, and then published the album togetheron Bandcamp?

Mascha put out that call on Mastodon in late September 2017, and the collective writers of this article responded. A few others were also involved in the early days of collaboration, but for a variety of reasons, including life itself, made deadlines difficult for some collaborators. So eight potential pairings, aiming for eight songs, ended up as four collaborations with four songs (with hopes that those who could not collaborate for this venture might join in future projects).

We are now nearing the end of the second iteration, with a new album due sometime this spring. I’ve been teamed up with an amazing musician and producer, Luka, who is finishing up our track, which he created music for and I wrote lyrics for, and did the main singing on. He may be adding other cool flourishes as well. I get a listen every now and then, and it’s so neat to hear how he is building our song.

This particular oral history, documented through a shared file (and slightly edited for length) of A Whale’s Lantern is an aim to celebrate how it all first came together in the initial gathering, and how it might be a model for other creative collaborations in the federated Mastodon network. You might even call it a jam session of reflections and memory.

In this first part, we share ideas about Invitations and Connections. Tomorrow, in part two, we share ideas about Collaboration and Considerations. Embedded songs are connected to the participants who wrote/performed on them.

Invitations

Mascha Bartsch:  I posted the toot, so I was just very excited to see whether anyone would actually sign up.

Kevin Hodgson: I’ve done plenty of collaboration projects, including music, but those always stemmed from projects where I mostly knew and interacted regularly with participants. Here, I figured it would be relative strangers, and I felt a little uneasy but excited.

Veronica: The first time I saw it in September, I thought: “Cool idea! But I’m kinda away from the music right now.” Then I thought: “Hey! I can do that! I’m not particularly skilled but I can do that!”.

Robert Vavra: I saw the potential to contribute … Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity.

Michael Silverstone: I didn’t actually see it, but I heard about it from Kevin.

Wendy Taleo: I didn’t see Mascha first toot. I saw Hugh’s toot that had #musiccollab in it. I checked out that thread and saw Kevin and Laura there who I knew from my open study over the last couple of years.

Matheus Violante: Well, I was new to Mastodon and I am still very inexperienced when it comes to music, so I was like “You know what? It’s time to try something new!”.

Laura Ritchie: I thought: yes, this (Mastodon) is a nice place to be, and why not?

Matheus: I saw the post as an opportunity to integrate with the community and learn how to compose a song with a partner.

Michael:  I’m always delighted to see what happens when working with other motivated people who can do things that complement or go beyond what I can do, so naturally, I was excited to be part of a project like this.

Connections

Mascha: I think that it’s important to be aware that collaboration does not always work and that you might be paired up with someone you don’t click with or someone who is unresponsive … I had a pretty relaxed attitude towards the entire project (and my collaborations).

Kevin: I knew that Laura as an amazing musician. So I felt sort of intimidated. Not by her personally. She’s not like that. But by her chops. She’s in another league. So my worry was that I would not be able to contribute in the ways she could contribute.

Laura: I knew Kevin, but we have never met.

Wendy: No concerns really, it would either work out or not. When I looked at Hugh and Lukas profiles it was a bit daunting….they did this for a living.

Mascha: If it works out, great, if it doesn’t, not much would have been lost (except a little bit of my time, but that’s a bearable risk).

Michael: I thought it would be easy to generate ideas and hold a musical conversation. That part proved true.

Veronica: I filled the form and got terrified instantly: “I’ll be paired with a REAL musician and I might let them down.” But I submitted the form anyway and I’m really glad I did.

Robert: My only concern was finding out how to fulfill an artist’s vision that I’ve never met and hadn’t felt the mood of in person!

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two of the Oral History of A Whale’s Lantern project.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Song Share: Things I Couldn’t Keep


Rusty Bolts flickr photo by junkyardpatinafan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

A song, for and inspired by Terry Elliott, as well as some other swirling things in my mind I couldn’t keep in the box.

Things I Couldn’t Keep
(for Terry)

(you know) A life goes by in the blink of an eye
and the stories that we tell
Remind us of days — they slip away
I’ll hold on … as tight as hell

(he said) Son, here’s a box of things you’ll need
to navigate the stars
A collection of bolts, sprockets and tools
to remind you … of who you are

A cardboard box — Things unnamed
A quiet voice — An act of faith
His story’s running deep
All these things I couldn’t keep

His treasures, what others throw away
what he knew was still good
the coin of man with steady hands
It’s a life … never understood

For forty years, I watched him walk
watched him pack it all away
Odds and ends into coffee cans
And memories … tucked far away

‘Don’t ever say I gave you nothing,’
my grandaddy speaks through him
I hold on tight to hand me downs
It’s my turn now … to begin again

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

 

Six Word Slice of Life: Songs in the Head

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: The last few days, I’ve had three different musical projects in my mind, all different yet all interesting. The first is a collaborative song I am working on with someone I don’t know, through a partnership via the Mastodon social network as part of a second round of a music project known as The Whale’s Lantern. Participants get paired up with others and the task is to write and record a song. My partner is Luka,  a professional musical engineer and musician from the other side of the world (from me). We’re getting to a nearing point with our song, which we are writing and recording remotely. The second is a Christmas song that a friend and I wrote many years ago, but he has always wanted to have it produced rather professionally, so he has been working with a local music producer, and a demo that the producer created of our song (I wrote the lyrics) is stunning. We’re going to see if the two of us can do the main singing on it, but I am skeptical about that. The third is a personal tribute to a CLMOOC friend (who may even read this) who lost someone close, and shared some writing, and I felt inspired to write a song for him, with his words but also expanding the theme of the song a bit. I obsessed over it yesterday for hours, finally getting a demo down. Three songs, tumbling in my head.

Six Word Slice of Life Songs

Peace (sounds like),
Kevin

A Whale’s Lantern: Musical Collaboration Across a Network

Whales Lantern

For the last six months or so, I have been writing in and exploring around Mastodon, a federated social networking space that is free from corporate structure. Federated means there is no one central server or space where people are located. Instead, there are “instances” where people connect to and write from (instances are hosted by individuals and most instances have a theme). All instances can share across the larger Mastodon network. I know that will sound confusing. Upshot for me: it’s becoming a neat, creative, connected space that is more than just an alternative to Twitter.

In late September, someone in the Mastodon timeline put out a call for musicians to collaborate together for an album project.  They hoped to leverage the connected element of common interests into a music project. I took the plunge, and became part of what is now known as A Whale’s Lantern project — a collaboration of musicians who have made music through the Mastodon network.

While I didn’t know who I would be partnered with, as names were drawn randomly, it turns out I was paired with a friend from other connected spaces: Laura Ritchie. She’s a cellist and music teacher and wide-range thinker.

 

Yesterday, our “album” was released on Bandcamp. Laura and I worked on a song that I wrote called I Fall Apart (Like Stars in the Night) and the whole group of us, including some of who didn’t get time to finish their collaboration, are in the midst of writing up our reflections. Collaboratively, of course, and hopefully, it will be published in a Mastodon open journal called Kintsugi in the future.

Check out A Whale’s Lantern: Flight into the Nebula.

Peace (listening to the muse),
Kevin

Making Music: Street Feet Beat

I’ve been listening to LCD Soundsystem and paying attention to how James Murphy builds songs off hooks and synths. The other week, I jumped into one of my favorite music programs (Soundtrap) and began building a song, imagining people walking down a city street with all the hustle and bustle, and destinations in mind. The pauses are moments of waiting for the street lights to change for crossing.

I called it Move Your Feet to the Beat of the Street.

Peace (in the groove),
Kevin

Making Music: Worlds Fall Apart

Worlds Fall Apart

I was following a number of threaded discussions over the weekend on Twitter, about Twitter. Concerns about its negative elements (trolls, privacy, etc.) versus its positive elements (connections, discussions, etc.) continue to play out in all sorts of ways.

My friend, Sherri S., wrote a blog post response to George S.’s observations that criticized Twitter as a narrowing space of echo bubbles we create for ourselves (I’m summarizing my reading of his points), and I found her deep dive interesting. So I took her words for a walk in a remix version (which sparked its own discussion on Saturday about the value and rationale of remix).

And that conversations lingered in my mind, as I sat down to do some songwriting yesterday. I can hear it in the lyrics of this new song — Worlds Fall Apart — about the idea of starting over, and building something new.

The song is also on Soundcloud.

Maybe I had Mastodon, and its federated ideas of freedom from corporate control of social media spaces, on my mind as I was writing. Or maybe it was the watching of the first Mad Max with my son the other night.

This is the second Making Music post this week. I have at least one more coming. I’m suddenly finding myself back to some songwriting and thinking about music making, at least for a bit.

Peace (arrives in rubble),
Kevin

Making Music: Compass Pointed North

Lyrics from Compass Demo

I challenged myself yesterday. I had about one hour alone with an empty house. Could I write and record a new song in that time?

I grabbed my guitar and sheet of paper, sat on the floor, and started writing. What came out was this song: My Compass Pointed North. It may nor may not be inspired by the images of the mass evacuation going on down south right now. I quickly set up my microphone and recorded a demo. It came out OK, I think.

You can also listen on Soundcloud.

Peace (sounds in the air),
Kevin

#CLMOOC: Where Color and Music and Collaboration Mix

Color collaboration

In an email this week to Karon, Wendy and Ron, I noted that if this project I am describing here were all that came out of CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) for me this summer, I would be quite content and satisfied. (Happily, there is much much more coming out of CLMOOC this summer). These three friends of mine all collaborated with me on a musical piece called Coloring the Muse that arose from the theme of art and coloring during the first Make Cycle, and then was transformed by our collaboration.

Let me explain .. but first, let me share the project itself ..

This project all began with our explorations of color in the first Make Cycle of CLMOOC. Much of that Make Cycle centered on the Collaborative Coloring Book project. At one point, though, Karon and others, in our Google Community, shared some links that connected the color spectrum to the music spectrum, linking how we hear sounds to how we perceive colors. I found that fascinating, and began to think about how one might “paint” with colors to make music.

I tinkered a little bit with a melody line, based on some color patterns, and shared it back. Karon, whose CLMOOC connection I appreciate each summer, took that melody and used a music compositional software program called Noteflight to begin the process of composing a song, with harmonies and variations. The software program does kick out an audio file, so we could hear the parts in progress.

But I wondered if we might take the song into Soundtrap for some live collaborative recording. So I did, and I invited Karon and Ron (whose many talents include art and music via keyboards and programming) and Wendy (also a talented artist and musician). Soundtrap allows for distant, and global, collaboration on musical tracks. Ron is from the Netherlands, Wendy is from Australia and Karon and I are in the US. Perfect.

Color Muse, in Soundtrap

As I began laying the first tracks, though, I kept the main melody line and some of the harmony ideas, but didn’t exactly follow Karon’s compositional ideas. Instead, we played with the song, using Karon’s ideas of variations as a springboard, weaving percussion and counter-melodies throughout. I added some alto sax after Karon wrote out the parts, riffing off the main line at times, and using some sound effects to create a layered variation. There’s even a bit of planned dissonance, creating tension. The ending of the song is a piano part that Karon composed, but the track is actually the compositional software’s version of the piano, with Wendy’s clarinet as melodic accompaniment.

I also knew that I wanted to use the song as the soundtrack to a video with color, and I spent some time trying to find a way to do that. I could have done something more original myself, with iMovie or something, but I had this vision for an idea that I could not create myself, with colors dancing in time to the music. I ended up at a site called RenderForest, which has some neat templates but it is rather expensive to use if you want a video without their intrusive watermarks. I did find a coupon to discount it, and plunged to pay, since I really felt driven to have this color visualization be the visual for the music inspired by color spectrums.

That’s not all … Wendy has now taken the song, pushed it through another remix program, and then created her own video version of the song and its colors. And Ron wrote about an earlier project of his, connecting music to color, and shapes.

This is what CLMOOC is all about — emergent ideas that become the source for collaboration and creativity, following our passions through connections.

Peace (sounds like),
Kevin

Book Review: Anatomy of a Song

Here’s a book that hit a number of buttons for me. It’s about music. It’s about songwriting. It’s an oral history project. It’s an inside look at how creative people are creative. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits by Marc Meyers is apparently a riff off a Wall Street Journal column he wrote, diving deep into songwriting by interviewing the writers, producers, engineers and musicians behind some iconic music. (I didn’t know WSJ had a music column, did you?)

I really enjoyed Meyer’s approach here, as he brings the voices behind the scenes up in the mix, so to speak. I knew most of the songs, but not all, and he stops at REM’s Losing My Religion, arguing that 25 years have to go by before one really knows if a song reaches iconic status. I’m fine with that.

It’s intriguing to hear the stories behind the songs, of where the inspirational lines may have come from or where the melody or harmony originated, and the process that goes into the writing, recording and engineering of songs that become the soundtrack of our lives.

Anatomy of a Song covers quite a bit of ground — there are 45 chapters, sort of like a 45 spinning on your old record player — from Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price to You Really Got Me by the Kinks to The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff to Heart of Glass by Blondie to Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and more. You might quibble with his selection, but I didn’t mind.

Peace (inside the songs of our lives),
Kevin

Slice of Life (Day Six): Recording in the Home Studio

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

We have a relatively new bass player in our band. His name is Brian and we are all impressed by his chops, and focus, and kind personality. Turns out, he loves music, just like us, and he is dedicated himself this year to doing even more music. When I learned that he has a home recording studio set-up at his apartment, we connected with a plan to try a little recording of some songs outside of the band setting (but let the band know).

Hanging with Brian2

Yesterday, I drove over to Brian’s pad, and for about two hours, we talked about music and did some recording of scratch (rough) tracks with my guitar and my (still-sick) voice and two songs from a collection of songs that I have been writing for a few years as part of a much larger narrative project with poems and stories and …. oh, who knows anymore.

Hanging with Brian1

It was fun, though, recording again, and I am curious to hear what Brian does with the tracks. I explicitly gave him full permission to do what he wants with the guitar and vocal tracks, so he can feel free to experiment and add layers. We’re hoping this partnership extends into more formal recording down the road.

For now, for yesterday, it was just for fun. Sometimes, that’s the best kind of music to be made.

Peace (in the studio),
Kevin