Recording a Song, layer by layer

A few weeks ago, I shared out a new song that I was working on. It’s called Ease Your Mind.

Listen to demo

This weekend, I went over to my friend’s house, where he has set up his Mac and Garageband to try his hand at audio recording. Together, we started to record this song. I brought along my flip camera, as I am interested in capturing the creative process. We worked on the acoustic guitar, and then put on some bass and organ, and tried to find a decent synth horn sound, but failed miserably.

I also wanted to use my school Macbook for video editing, and so yesterday, I found some time to move the footage off the flip and into the Mac, and I worked for a spell with iMovie. It is pretty intuitive to use and the flip integrated quite nicely with the Mac. I liked that I could import not as HD but as a regular size video, but the audio quality was still pretty decent.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

Avant-Garde Composing

When I was an undergraduate — majoring in English, minoring in music — I had a professor who seemed very much out of sync with our small state college surroundings. Dr. Peacock seemed to have come from the fabric of New York City’s avante-garde composition scene and what he was doing at our college was never quite clear.

But it was with Dr. Peacock that I first learned about how a composer could push the boundaries of the norm when it came to creating music. He taught me about using synthesizers (we had this old monster of a keyboard that you had to program to make work — it was like hacking into a computer); how to cut “tape” of musical recordings and re-fashion those pieces into something new (the forerunner of remixing); and how to create atonal pieces of music. Oh, yeah, and how to open up the top of a grand piano and tinker with the insides to create strange, beautiful sounds from the percussion elements of the Grand. (This did not go over well with his teaching colleagues and more than once, I watched him argue with another teacher about why his students had their hands in the strings of the Grand and why were placing objects along the percussive hammers.)

He was all about pushing the boundaries of music. And he was all about the “doing” as much as the theory behind what was being done. I felt like an explorer moving into unknown terrain most of the time, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

I was reminded of him yesterday as I followed  a link from Larry Ferlazzo’s blog to a site by Jason Freeman called Piano Etudes, where Freeman has worked to create an interactive site in which the viewer can use fragments of his piano pieces to refashion them into something new. It’s a very visual experience, as Freeman has mapped out how the pieces of a composition might intersection, and you grab elements and pull them together. Then, you can add your piece to the gallery at his site, download the music as an MP3 file and/or get a PDF of the score (see the image above, which comes from the PDF).

Freeman writes:

Inspired by the tradition of open-form musical scores, I composed each of these four piano etudes as a collection of short musical fragments with links to connect them. In performance, the pianist must use those links to jump from fragment to fragment, creating her own unique version of the composition. The pianist, though, should not have all the fun. So I also developed this web site, where you can create your own version of each etude, download it as an audio file or a printable score, and share it with others.

I plunged right in, and created a version of Freeman’s “Reading  Poem,” which I called “Writing a Poem by Starlight.” I downloaded the mp3 file, and then write a poem inspired by the music, which has a lot of space and open air to it. Then, I recorded the poem in Audacity, with the Freeman-derivative score as the background music.

Want to hear it?

Listen to Writing a Poem by Starlight

Here is the poem:

Writing poetry by starlight,
I touch the keys
so that I may coax
the darkness
to play a duet with light,
and shimmer until morning
comes …

Give it try. Write some music. Remix and create.

Peace (in the exploration),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Deep Blue Lines

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

Sometimes, when I get an hour or so alone in the house, I pull out my guitar and try to write a song or least, work on a melody. Yesterday morning, I had this idea of writing a song about writing, but the song veered off in a different direction as I was writing, and I went with it just to see what might happen. This is one of those songs that may not get any farther than this, to be honest, because it sounds a bit too much like some of my other songs. I like it — I like the message of finding hope even the face of pessimism — but the song isn’t quite interesting enough at this point to move it on. That could change, of course.

Still, here it is: a demo song written and recorded yesterday morning, in an empty house, in about an hour.

Deep Blue Lines
(listen to the song)

I look at the paper and I see the deep blue lines
My heart is full but I’m feeling like I’m falling behind
You can take my words –Go on — take ’em – I don’t mind
Just leave me here in silence for a little while

I can hear the songs playing on the radio
The gospel queens are trying to save my soul
The DJ’s talking in a cadence – soft and low
Just leave me here in silence of the shadows

‘Cause everyone has a story
a story they can tell
about the world outside
and how it’s all gone to hell

But I have a vision
a vision I can see
How the world gets saved
by people like you and me

I hear the morning echo in the stars
You voice is like an angel from afar
as I wait down here in darkness with my guitar
just take my hand and lead me to where we are

Peace (in the light),
Kevin

Slice of Life: A New Song on the Mind

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

I spent much of the morning yesterday writing a new song because late today, I am going to be getting together with some colleagues from school to jam and write songs and make music. That prospect always gets me fired up and this will be our first time together, for the most part (a few of us played at our recent benefit concert).

So, I figured I would challenge myself by writing a new song. I had the words and rhythms floating around my head all day and through the night, too, which is how I write. I get sort of obsessive about it. OK, not sort of. Very obsessive. The song becomes the inner soundtrack of my days.

I am always afraid that I will “lose” the song (which has happened more than once) and so, repetition is key, and also, that repetition (even in the comfortable silence of my own mind) allows me to try out new words and phrases.

For example, I later thought that “ease” should be “change,” as that would be a more powerful story — asking someone to change their mind about a relationship is much different than trying to ease their fears. The narrator here (it’s not me) would be a bit more desperate in their message if they knew they had to change their lover’s mind about the relationship. I’ve kept it as written, for now, but I thought a lot about how that one change would change the entire mood and meaning of the song.

Here is it:

Ease Your Mind
(listen to the demo)

You sound so lonely
I can hear it on the phone
Baby, if only
I were there to hold you
I’d take you in, so let’s begin
to ease your mind

We’re walking on the tightrope
and we might fall
I’m holding out for hope
Hope that we stand tall
inside this place where there’s some space
to ease your mind

Hold out your hand
and watch as the world slips away
We can talk about it later
While we’re living here today
and I need you here

I hear the distance
and silence of the days
I’m lost in the whispers
coming through the haze
I keep you close just like a ghost
and ease your mind

Peace (in the muse),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Little Musicians in Speakers

Slice of Life

(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

Wacky idea alert!

My youngest was in the middle seat of the van as the older son controlled the radio buttons (there was a long squabble over pop music or the Star Wars story tape which we have listened to “at least 200 times!” and the one closest to the radio, the oldest, won.) That was followed by a spell of quiet listening, and then the little one asked, “Where is that music coming from?”

My oldest son and I looked at each other.

“The speakers, ” I said. “There are two in the front and two in the back.”

Quiet.

“But, who’s making the music? Who’s playing the music?”

My oldest son explained about how music is recorded and how we listen to the recorded music. I could tell, though, that the little guy had this vision of little musicians in the back of the van, waiting to be told what song to play (or, in his preference, what story to tell) before cranking it out for our entertainment.

And I had this neat idea that that concept of little musicians would make a cool comic or graphic novel — a bunch of Beatles-like players just hanging around, waiting for a song to be chosen, playing the song and then, like those clowns in Waiting for Godot, just hanging around, waiting and talking. All inside the speaker box.

Can’t you see that? I can. I can hear it, too.

This morning, as the cat (again) woke me up early and I lay in bed, I started imagining some of the musicians in the box.  The name of the band might be The Pop Rocks. There might be:

  • Shellbean — the guitar player, who is sort of paranoid about someone opening up the speaker and finding them there. She thinks they are just fakers and will be found out. She loves hard rock — AC/DC and Pearl Jam rock her world — and groans when someone chooses John Mayer (“Music for wimps,” she calls it). Shellbean handles the lead female vocals, but reluctantly.
  • Jeff — the bass player, is sort of lazy and goes with the flow. He enjoys the world of the speaker, because most of the time, he isn’t doing anything at all. He debates philosophy with the rest and dreams of someday finding a Tuba in the speaker. He thinks the appearance of a Tuba would be a sign from God. It’s all about the Tuba.
  • Timtam — the drummer and the leader of the group. Timtam is all about energy and spends much of his time trying to get the group to practice. “We got to be ready!” is his mantra, and he imagines something bigger – brighter lights — for them because his theory is that they are being auditioned for something. He doesn’t know what yet, but something. He loves all music except … he hates Abba. Timtam is the lead male singer.
  • “Fingers” Phineas — the keyboard/synth player and sometimes, guitar, too. Fingers has a driving ambition — he wants to write and perform original songs.  Sometimes, during long stretches of songs, he will get the group to unexpectedly insert one of their originals into the mix of cover songs. Fingers is a bit disappointed that this is where he ended up, give his background. “I’m classically trained!” he cries from time to time.

Peace (in the little people),
Kevin

Highlights from the Concert for Change

I finally got time to make a highlight video of last week’s Concert for Change at our school, where we had student and staff musicians put on a live concert to raise coins/money for Pennies for Peace and donated books for schools down in New Orleans. I showed the highlights to my students yesterday, and they loved it (particularly my drummer student, who helped come up with the concert idea and helped organize the event with me). If you make it to the very end, you can see the stage full of students singing the Three Cups of Tea song as a finale.

That’s me, by the way, playing guitar in the first few acts and then bass near the end of the night.

Peace (in the music),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Rocking the House for a Cause

Slice of Life(This is part of the Slice of Life project at Two Writing Teachers)

After a delay caused by winter weather and then school vacation, the Concert for Change event took place last night, with more than 25 student and staff musicians and singers (the number is a bit inflated because our finale piece was having a large group of fifth and sixth graders on stage, singing the song “Three Cups of Tea.”) playing their hearts out and in the process, raising money for the Pennies for Peace organization and books for schools in New Orleans.

The crowd size was OK, maybe about 75 people? We’ve had more in the past but then, rescheduling a concert made things difficult, particularly here in sports tournament season. But we filled up about 10 large boxes of donated books and filled a few large jars with coins.

And we played music of all kinds (including some Guns N Roses, Bob Marley and Jason Mraz). I performed two original songs — one about Hurricane Katrina and the other, about the Haiti earthquake, and I was joined by one colleague on his accordian and another on vocals.

What I liked best was that I was able to get a lot of my current and former students up on stage. Every time I looked up, there was another student on stage, doing something. I know that is how I planned it but still … it was such a great experience to see them up there, taking charge.

I had one my most dramatic former students (in a good way) come back to be master of ceremonies (he took a break from his role as the Wicked Witch in the high school production of Wizard of Oz coming up), and a few other former students were playing guitar and singing on various songs. We had others helping with the door, collecting books and coins, and doing the lights and running the video camera.

And my current students were with me, too, including one boy whose question “Can we collect books for New Orleans?” led to the entire event. He played drums and I was so proud of him. Another student sang a solo version of “I’ll be There” with me on guitar. And another group of boys just learning guitar wrote a song for the event and we played it together.

Fifth grade students came on stage to talk about Haiti (they are doing a read-a-thon), and about reading Three Cups of Tea, and they did a fantastic job speaking on a stage, with the lights, in front of a good sized audience.

I am glad it happened, and now, I am glad it is over, too. There’s a lot of planning that goes into pulling off a 90-minute benefit concert and snow didn’t help.

Peace (in the notes),
Kevin

PS — Here is some video of one of the bands (with me on bass). http://atticnoise.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/what-about-carlie/#comment-1767

Ebb and Flow: the evolution of a song

I write a lot songs but most end up in the recycling bin (not the trash, because sometimes an idea from one song makes its way into another song .. you never know). Yesterday, I found a note that I had to myself while in Ohio last weekend and it sparked the start of a new song. I also found a neat riff that I liked and from there, the ideas unfolded. I scribble my ideas all over the place, but I thought it might be neat to show the evolution of this song, from those first lines put down in Ohio to recording a quick demo over at Youtube.

So, first, the song I am calling Ebb and Flow began with these lines:

From there, I thought I had some concept of a love song, which is tricky because it can easily get sappy with the words. But my notes evolved into these scribbled thoughts:

Now that I had an inkling of what I was doing, I shifted over to Google Docs (where I keep my lyrics) and printed out what I have (so I can read what I have written — yep, even I have trouble with my handwriting sometimes). You can see that I am still trying to shape the song, adding in a break and a new verse.

Finally, the words are mostly done.

And I went onto YouTube with my webcam to capture a rough version of the song, so that later, I can remember it.  And also, at this point, I knew that I wanted to share my writing process here.

Peace (in the song),
Kevin

I Fall Apart: a song for Haiti

I had a friend ask me if I was going to write a song about the devastation and crisis in Haiti. He knows that this is the way I often find myself addressing my emotions on these issues through songwriting.

Yes. I wrote a song and quickly recorded it just after writing it. I wish it were more upbeat but the situation is not, is it?

I Fall Apart
Listen to the song

When the ground is shaking
and the buildings fall
It’s you I hold in my arms

I’ll tell you stories
I’ll sing you songs
I’ll keep you protected from harm

But in truth
I fall apart

We’ll wait for the sun
and I’ll hold your hand
We’ll talk of the distant stars

I’ll listen for voices
I’ll hope for the best
and pray they know where we are

But in truth
I fall apart

If there’s a heaven above
then take us in
‘Cause we need some shelter and love

I sit by your side
I’ll stay here all night
Let my tears be the last thing you touch

in truth
I fall apart

Peace (please),
Kevin

Kaossilator plus M-Audio equals … music?

For the holidays, I bought myself a gift: a new M-Audio Fast Track converter box that will allow me to finally plug a guitar, or keyboard, or a microphone (for my saxophone), directly into my computer. From there, I can use Audacity to do some editing.

It seems odd, since I remember the days of using my Fostex Four-track cassette machine to lay down tracks, bouncing things all around on this tiny machine that became like a member of the family for years. Now, I have my PC and the convenience factor is nice, but the experience seems different.

Anyway, yesterday, I wanted to try the MAudio out (it’s nothing more than a small box with input and output holes) but most of my gear is over at my friend’s house (note to self: get over there this week).

I decided to try out my Kaossilator, which is a handheld modulator device that I play with from time to time, but not all that often. It’s difficult to explain, but you move your fingers along the screen and it shifts the tone. It’s kind of like a 1970’s Moog Synthesizer, but in your hand. It’s fun but difficult to get exact notes.

I plugged the Kaossilator into the MAudio (and used my old Dr. Rhythm drum machine), and created this little song. It almost sounds like something that Mile Davis would have thrown away after a night of partying. I missed a lot of notes with my fingers. But still, I like the groove.

And the MAudio box worked like a charm (the real reason for the musical experiment).

Listen to the Kaos Groove

Here is a video I did a long time ago when I got the device:

Peace (in the groove),
Kevin