Modalities and Me and You (A Continued Conversation)


This is interesting … a conversation criss-crossing Twitter and Blogs about writing and composing … it reminds me of a conversation that Anna Smith and I conducted a few years back after we both participated in Digital Writing Month … but now it is with Yin Wah.

I am reading her latest post right now. You read it, too. As a backtrack to the story here, this all began with her asking me on Twitter about which modality I most enjoy writing in, and I responded with a blog post about songwriting, and she responded to that post with her own post, alerting me on Twitter.

We’re zigzagging here in an interesting way … You are invited to join the conversation, or just peep in … We’re having a public conversation in a very connected way.

Dear Yin Wah,

Thank you for responding to my post with a post of your own. (Oh, by the way, I teach sixth grade, not music. I’d love to be a music teacher, though. My two favorite teachers when I was a kid were my elementary and high school music teachers. I don’t know what happened in middle school but he did not have much of an impact on me, apparentely) I appreciated your writing about your own views on creativity and composition, and the ways you struggle with the various modalities. Me, too. All of us, right?

You wrote:

Powerful emotions move me a lot to write some (crappy) poetry sometimes, mostly prose. I used to want to write a play and stage it. I like singing too, but haven’t sung in a choir since I arrived in America. Theatre moves me powerfully. I paint sometimes, not enough. I doodle, not enough. I take photos, and sometimes, I can say I feel that the image is almost incredibly perfect at conveying a mood.

You also wonder:

One question you didn’t answer is a related one. In daily life, you aren’t and can’t be composing songs to sort out ideas, right? So do you think often in words without music in everyday life? Or words often appear somehow with music? Or does a tune often go on in your head?

What an interestingly-phrased question you have there, Yin Wah: So do you think in words without music in everyday life? Yes, of course, words are always pushing inside my head.

Most days, it is lesson plans and the ways I am going to engage my students in writing. How will I explain this? How will I reach that particular student? Or it is the family stuff — who is going to drive which kid where and how in the world will we get there on time, and who is making dinner …

But when I am in the midst of writing a song, or a poem, what I find is that the rhythm and melody becomes this force — silent to others but loud as heck to me — that I am unable to shake. It’s as of the piece of writing has taken on a life of its own and is forcing its way out. I have to listen to it. Maybe that is the “losing yourself” flow that you wondered about, too. It’s the demands of the writing itself on the writer. In my head, I tinker with words choices, with inflection points, with how this would sound with that and what if we added this here and that over there. I could be talking to you, in this moment, and still writing that song or poem in my head.

I realize, in writing that, that I sound like a crazy man, hearing voices and words. I suspect this is where one modality (the explanation in writing of the process of writing) fails the other (the writing of music or even poetry from the artistic sense), or perhaps it is my own limitations as a writer to fully explain how completely immersive the experience becomes.

Years ago, when I was a journalist for a regional newspaper, I used to take my breaks by walking the neighborhoods around the office, using the rhythm of the walk to write lyrics in my head. I’d sing silently to myself, trying out words and phrases. I’d quicken or slow down my pace. The sidewalks became the drum machine. Over and over and over again, I’d work it out, until the song was embedded in my brain. I would never bring a notebook. Then, I would rush back to the office and quickly try to write it all out (and if you see my handwriting from the other post, you know this is a tricky endeavor … my hand does not keep up with my mind … perhaps this is another post another day ….)

You talk about taking photographs, Yin Wah, and you wrote, “I take photos, and sometimes, I can say I feel that the image is almost incredibly perfect at conveying a mood.

I wonder, Yin Wah, how do you know when you have reached that point of thinking, this is the image I had in mind? What is your process like when using image to convey meaning? How do lenses and filters and other technology either help or hinder that creative process?

I look forward to your responses. Thank you for taking the time to engage in this discussion with me.

Peace (from here to there, and everywhere),

Which Modality? Making Music

Interesting question … and it feels like the 140 character limit on Twitter just won’t cut it. Or, it will cut it too short to respond with depth. Yin-Wah, if I think of which modality I most like to create in, it has to be songwriting. I do love the other kinds of creating — making comics, writing stories, remixing media. But there’s something about working on a song and music that pulls me in deeper than all of the others that I dabble in.

And I am not ever claiming that I am some professional songwriter, or ever will be, nor do I think that the songs I write will become the soundtrack of the world. It’s a personal thing, this songwriting that I do, although some songs do become used in the band I am in, Duke Rushmore. As I was writing this, I remembered once writing a post (I see, from 2009) entitled Why I Write Songs.

Just this week, I was working on a new song, perhaps for the band, and in a break in the writing (and even in breaks, my brain keeps working on lyrics and rhythm and parts …. when writing songs, I can’t turn it off), I found myself writing a second song. It emerged from an old scrap of a guitar riff, and then the first line came, and I found myself writing very quickly, this song of losing a friend, and in little time at all, I had the structure and the first verse and the chorus.

It’s odd how sometimes the writing flows like that, something coming out of nothing and utterly unexpected, Yin-Wah. So, for a few days, I found myself toggling between two new songs. For me, if I don’t play the song over and over, and over and over, I lose the nuance of it. I have to practice it into the ground (my poor family) to understand what the song is, and what the song is about. My fingers ache, Yin-Wah, from playing guitar so much this week.

But I can look at what I wrote, and hear it as I play it, and know: this is something worth keeping. That might mean just stuffing it away into my guitar case, or it might mean sharing it with my bandmates. I’m still unsure. Last month, I dug out a song that I write five years ago and never shared, and showed it to the band, and now we are working on it. You just never know. Songs are like messages in a bottle. The bobble on the surf of the mind.

Maybe you want to hear the demo of the song I have been writing about?

First, here is my lyric sheet. You probably can’t read much of it, Yin-Wah. I’m a word scratcher. But you can see the general ideas I was developing, the ways I identified rhyming and verses and choruses, and how one word gets changed, erased, changed again, returned to the original, changed again. I revise more with songs than I do with other writing. I admit it: I am terrible reviser. But with songwriting, every word is a rhythm, and every beat is important.

Come in close lyric sheet

Here is a demo I recorded quickly yesterday. I hear the flubs. You may not.

Thank you for asking me about my writing. This is probably more than you expected, but in answering your Tweet, you gave me an excuse to be reflective. That’s a gift in and of itself.

Peace (in the muse you find),

A #Rhizo15 Song Takes Root (And We Find Our Way Through)


For the last few days, I’ve been collaborating on a song with some friends around the world as part of the pre-start of Rhizomatic Learning (the event officially starts to day). This is the messy and interesting story of how the song — We Find Our Way Through — came to be ….

It began, for me, with a tweet and then a blog post by Sarah, who wrote an intriguing piece about being fine with being private and then mentioned playing her ukulele. I know this goes completely against what she wrote about, but I suggested that if she ever wanted to take the plunge into the public, perhaps we could collaborate.

It turns out that Ron was already moving her in that direction, after reading the same blog post. So, I proposed, let’s try to see if we can collaborate on a song. I didn’t have a song at the time, but during the day, I sat down with my guitar and wrote a very simple song about the idea of community and rhizomatic learning, with the song itself being an example of the swirling, unknown nature of learning experiences.

rhizo15 Song Collaboration

I went back to a music site that I have tinkered with, Soundtrap, and recorded the rhythm guitar and vocals (first mistake: not recording separate tracks here. Lesson learned). I then invited Sarah and Ron into Soundtrap (and Ron and I even did a loop collaboration as a test), and sent out the lyrics and chords. I think Ron used his MIDI system to record a few tracks and Sarah may have recorded offline and then uploaded into Soundtrap. There are a few places here and there with the timing is off, but we all worked with what we had to work with.

Meanwhile, Jeff had seen a tweet in the #Rhizo15 stream and asked a question. I saw on his profile picture that he is playing a guitar … bingo … consider that an invitation. Jeff came in and added some background guitar and a few tasty licks.

Sarah then wondered, can we do background vocals? She asked me for the notes I was singing. Eh. I have no idea. I’m not that kind of a singer. Barely a singer at all. I sing to write songs. But Sarah kindly worked out a simple harmonic arrangement and Maha responded to a tweet for singers. Soundtrap did not work for Maha, so she recorded herself singing and then emailed me the file, which I loaded up and tried to sync as best as I could into the song (she has a lovely voice). Sarah also suggested that others sing the lead, but the mistake I made in the first track (unable to remove my voice and leave the guitar) made that idea difficult. My track is the glue that everything is built around, for good or bad.

It was while mixing Maha that I noticed my main track had gotten accidentally cut into, so there is now a glitch midway through. Dang. Nothing I can do about it, though. I had saved an earlier version in Soundtrap as a backup but even that one had the glitch. I probably did something at some time. Who knows. But, just as in Wreck-it Ralph, the Glitch is the thing that makes the game unique, I have convinced myself this morning that the glitch gives the song a reminder that anything rhizomatic is messy by nature, and rough around the edges. I almost believe it. Give me time.

I’m pretty proud of how We Find Our Way Through came out and even more proud of how the song emerged as a collaboration, given that we worked remotely from the United States, Scotland and Egypt in just a few days time. We found our way through. We may do a second version, giving other people a chance to sing the lead. I’d like that.

Peace (in the rhizomatic collaboration),

Zeega Music Demo: I Fall Apart

This demo song is one I wrote quite a long time ago, and only recently pulled it back onto my guitar. It was first written in the aftermath of the devastating Haiti Earthquake. I tinkered a bit more with it in the last few days, adding a new section, and then recorded this as a spare song. Don’t worry — it’s thankfully not about me. I am happy. I am fine. The narrator of the song is not. (I always feel the need to write that for these kinds of songs.)

I am still making with Zeega until the doors close …

Peace (in the fall and recovery),

Of Dreams and Songs and Childhood


The theme of the recent Walk My World Learning Event is “dreams.” I don’t often remember my sleep dreams at night. But thinking about the theme of dreams had me remembering this: my very first song that I ever recorded. I was in my teens, and my friend and I had a cheap two-track recorder and a little Casio keyboard, plus a guitar (we used it for bass, too, if I remember correctly). We had to keep combining tracks and layering them over one another. It was very complicated. (Today, Audacity or Garageband offers easier options but you don’t have to think about it as much, either.)

The song’s title and theme? Follow that Dream.

It’s a little embarrassing to hear it now on the Interwebz, and to share it out, but it is a bit of a memory road trip, too. I was just beginning to write songs — this may have been the first or second song that I ever wrote in a complete form and shared with my childhood friend, a drummer. You can tell by the words that I was moving from teenage poetry into songwriting. I had just taught myself how to play guitar, too, as I am a saxophone player. We recorded Follow That Dream as a lark, to see if we could do it, and then realized that we both liked the recording process, tinkering with sounds, and spent the rest of the summer making songs. (Although everything is so tinny in those sessions, because we had these little cheap Radio Shack microphones and the two-track recorder.)

Dreams #walkmyworld

Peace (in the dream),

Annotated Song: Walking (With the Thoughts of You)

I’ve been working on this demo song that meshes nicely with Walk My World and the YouShow project. It is inspired by a friend but also, some distant memories of my hiking days. So here it is:

And this version via Zeega:

Interestingly, Terry “remixed” my Zeega, which means that at the end of mine, his version begins (new song and new media). Be sure to experience both.

Director’s Notes

The guitar part for the song is an echo of a very old song of mine, one I wrote about my grandmother when I was first starting to write songs (oh so long ago). I didn’t want to lose the chord progression after rediscovering it and I kicked around with it for a bit before the lyrics started to take hold here. The words are sort of a gift to a friend who is going through some difficult times right now and who spends many days hiking in isolation as a way to think and understand the world (truly, walking the world). I put the final lyrics into the app Notegraphy, which makes words look fancy, and then downloaded the lyrics as an image file. I uploaded the file into Flickr, and then used Thinglink to “borrow” the image for annotation. The song was recorded very simply (live take, no dubs) in Soundtrap and then exported into Soundcloud for embedding here, there and everywhere, including Zeega (which borrows audio from Soundcloud).

Peace (in the muse),

Annotating a Connected Song

The other day, I shared out my tribute song to my various communities, in the form of an animated music video of sorts. It is my way of saying thanks to people who inspire me all year in various online homes.

I decided to show a bit of where the song writing came from, and used my comic app to annotate the original piece of paper. My songwriting process is very messy, musically and physically. I am constantly scratching on and scratching out words, drawing lines to show movement of phrases and verse/chorus, and yet, I often take photos of the paper later, to keep a trail of the song.

Annotating a Connected Song

So, if you are interested, I tried to reconstruct the writing of the song with annotated notes before I forget it all (which I am bound to do). Thanks for being part of my network as a visitor here. This song is for you.

Here is the audio-only version, too. Feel free to remix.

Peace (in the script),

Words Upon the Wall: A Gift of Song

For everyone who is in all of my various online networks and communities and adventures, I thank you. Here is a song, with some animated words, as my humble thanks for all the inspiration and support you give me throughout the year as I write and explore and learn.

Peace (with words on the wall),

Writing a Protest Song (of sorts)

We had an ice/snow day yesterday. Or, rather, I did but my kids did not, so I had some time at home to catch up on work and play. During the day, I noticed a tweet about Questlove calling for artists of all stripes to be the “voice of the times” when it comes to Ferguson and Staten Island, and race. I’d be dishonest if I say I wasn’t living the privileged life, as a white male in suburbia in a tolerant part of the United States.

But there was a time when I wrote only protest songs for my first bands, so I grabbed my guitar yesterday and worked for a short stretch on a song that might reflect some of my thinking, as I read the news and wonder where our country is heading. We’ve had large protests here where I live — we are in an area with five colleges, including UMass and Smith College — so I began with that scene, and moved forward from there. I wanted to end on a hopeful note. I think I did.

Here, then, is my rough song: Cities Rise Up


I am not naive to think I am in Questlove’s sphere or talent. But every artist has a chance to call for change, right?

Peace (in the muse),

Song Demo: Baby, I Found You

Writing a song ... Baby I Found You

I spent part of the day yesterday with my guitar, writing a song. The picture above shows the map of my ideas. I do a whole lot of scratching out, revising, moving words, adding chords when I write songs. I try to wrangle sense out of the ideas, and then hope that the words will be partners to the chords. Sometimes, it works. Often, not.

Anyway, this song came together over the course of the day, so I did a small demo recording with the Garageband app. If you are interested, you can give it a listen. This is another song that is not really all that in line with my rock band’s sound, so it may just sit on the burner for some time. It may be part of a longer project I have been working on for years that mixes songs and poetry to tell a story. It might just get forgotten. Who knows.

Listen to Baby, I Found You.


Peace (and thanks for listening),

PS — want the words?

Baby, I Found You

Everybody says, the world is spinning ’round
I can’t catch my breath – I can barely make a sound
Still, I hear you out there on the wind
A voice calling me out, drawing me back in

Baby, I found you
Baby, I found you
Or maybe, you found me

I’ve been out wandering – this long, lonesome year
Holding on to memories I thought might disappear
It’s never been easy to let go of the past
You got it all covered — then along comes the crash


I keep my eyes open to the ways of the world
Even when it’s broken, we find a way to heal
And I hear you out there on the wind
A voice calling me out, drawing me back in