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

Why I write songs …

Coming on the heels of my posts of Why I Blog and Why I Read, I thought I would look at why I write songs. I began writing songs decades ago when I first moved from the saxophone (my main instrument) to the guitar and began to use some of my poetry as lyrics. I wrote for myself, and played for myself, and it was only after doing some experimental recording with a friend that I realized just how much I loved the experience of creating something original and moving it beyond my own field of vision.

Songwriting allows me to push in different directions than other forms of writing, and I lose myself in the process. Literally. Time passes without me knowing it when I am full in the moment of birthing a song. Writing a song is so unlike writing a story or a poem to me. The music does something to the angle of the words, and sometimes, I write with one meaning that others may hear as a song, but they don’t fully understand because they don’t have my lens to hear through. I love how undercurrents of meaning can float through a song.

I am not suggesting that I create hidden masterpieces when I write. I don’t. I write a lot of junk. But I often find a keeper here and there among that musical flotsam and jetsam and when I do, it’s as if I hit a home run and won the game.

How I write is by letting myself go and I stumble more than fly when I am songwriting, but it is the mistakes that lead to something interesting, I find, and so I let myself make those mistakes. I wait for that note, that chord, that progression that speaks to me.

I am often asked if I write the words or the music first, and the answer is: I don’t have a set method. Sometimes, I come to the guitar with a phrase of words or some direction; Other times, I find a chord I like and build a song around that. When I was in a band, one of the most amazing things was when I would bring in a song and watch it become something else in the hands of others. It didn’t always work — I canned more songs than I kept — but it was always a fascinating experience. You have to learn to let go of your creation if you expect it to be transformed.

A few years ago, I was right at the start of writing a song and I turned on my Flip video to capture the experience. It’s a bit long (about 18 minutes) so feel free to scan through. I did it more to capture the experience for me (and my kids, perhaps?). But it does give you a glimpse into my process.

And here is the song in a sort-of final version (the song never went anywhere, but I like the melody):

Man of Contemplation

I wish music and songwriting were part of more writing classes because I think the act of learning about rhythm and rhyme, and texture of words in relation to the theme, and repetition and development of ideas, all have great value to young writers.

For me, songwriting was always a way to release emotions and feelings in ways that I could not express otherwise. I found my voice as a writer when I found my voice as a writer of songs, and that has spilled out into my stories and my poetry and more.

I write songs because they give me a path to inner exploration. I write songs because I am a writer (this is my refrain for the three posts so far, so I figure, keep it up, right?)

Peace (in the melody),
Kevin

Sharings Songs: Achilles’ Heel

This is the third and final song that my friend and I recorded the other night (see Katrina Blows in and Beacon in the Night) as a sort of demo. This one is called Achilles’ Heel and I wrote it after reading a bit about the Trojan War and wondering how this concept of story took hold — how one beautiful woman could set the world aflame.


Peace (in beauty),
Kevin

Sharing Songs: Beacon in the Night

This is the second song I am sharing here (see Katrina Blows In) from a home video session my friend and I did the other night as we prep for possible open mic nights.

This song is called Beacon in the Night and we wrote it together for our old band, The Sofa Kings. John wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. The song is about someone seeking out their loved on in the midst of uncertainty and how even as the world puts up barriers, you need to keep looking and keep the light on for them. You need to become their beacon in the night.


Peace (with a light),
Kevin

Sharing Songs: Katrina Blows In

Here is the first of three songs that my friend, John, and I have been practicing for a local open mic night. This one — called Katrina Blows In — was written in the aftermath of the hurricane and I performed it at huge fundraising concert that my school put on to support survivors. I was trying to get at a first-person narrative of someone stuck up on the roof.

I’ll share the other two videos in the coming days.

Peace (in songs),
Kevin