Stealing/Borrowing/Remixing Music

I spent part of the other morning re-reading a comic book from Duke University that resonates with my own interests around music, composition and remix.

Entitled Theft: A History of Music, the book explores copyright law and music composition through the ages. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. The book weaves in lots of humor and visual creativity as it shows the path of “borrowing” other people’s music for remix over time.

What’s great is the book is free for download, or for reading online. You can also purchase a copy, but the intent of the university’s Center for the Study of Public Domain is to educate the public, so the book is free for educational purposes.

What becomes clear pretty quickly is how much we always have borrowed from each other, and how legal codes over time have moved to protect the original artists even as those codes tried to balance the possibilities of moving art in new directions. This is the conundrum of the current musical scene, where hip hop artists build new songs out of samples of old songs. Or used to. Now, it costs a lot of money to do that, with lawyers jumping all over the samples.

This is not necessarily a bad thing — it is forcing rappers and others to hire musicians who can play instruments (listen to Kendrick Lamar) or learning themselves how to play (listen to D’Angelo) so that they are making all of the music. But that has changed the nature of hip-hop, too. It’s all very intriguing, I think.

I appreciated this history lessons here and I need to come back to Theft for a second, deeper read. I think I need to get it into my Kindle for a better reading experience, though.

The book may not be good for my classroom — the vocabulary and concepts are beyond the sixth grade — but I can see pulling out some pages for times when we talk about digital writing and remix in the classroom, and how the current music scene is just a glimpse of the debate that has been raging since Plato’s time (he argued against remix).

Peace (in frames),
Kevin

 

Making Music: Heaven (Where I Want To Be)

Song lyrics (Heaven)

Sometimes, I get obsessed with a song I am writing. It follows me everywhere. At night, I’ll wake up, hearing the chord changes and then I’ll be tweaking the lyrics as I try to fall back asleep. Someone will be talking to me during the day, and I’ll realize I was somewhere else in my head, lost in the song’s architecture. I’ll juggle words, phrases, verses. Add a bridge, then remove it.

I can’t quite explain it, except when I go through periods where it doesn’t happen, when I don’t write a song for a long stretch (sometimes months), I forget about how intense the artistic process can be. And then it happens again (I have faith during those fallow periods that I will write songs again.)

I’m not suggesting I am writing musical classics, or that anyone other than me will like the music I am engaged in. I know my limits and limitations. But there is something in the creative endeavor of merging music and words and message together in a song that exerts an awfully powerful pull on me. If you listen and get something out of it, I am happy.

The other day, I started to write this new song — Heaven (Where I Want To Be) — and I could not shake it loose. In fact, I had the chorus nearly immediately, almost as soon as I started strumming, yet the lyrics to the verses were frustrating me. I worked and reworked them, over and over. I almost tossed the whole thing out a few times. It kept pulling me back to the guitar.

The song is inspired by two things. First, an elderly couple in our neighborhood suffered a recent loss when one of them passed away. Another elderly couple nearby might be nearing that situation, too. An ambulance was at the door this week. These are neighbors who were married for decades. I started thinking of what happens when you lose someone after so long.

Second, I’ve been listening a lot to this Jason Isbell song — If We Were Vampires —  which is about that same theme, about the realization that one of the two of lovers in life will someday leave this place first, and the other lover will have to find a way to forge ahead, alone.

The narrator in my Heaven song is in that situation, too, remembering the traces of a lifetime together and skirting the boundaries between reality and remembering, of ghosts and love. What is real, anyway?

Peace (rest),
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

Getting the Groove On: Loops and Composition

It’s been some time since I created new songs with Garageband, but I had a stretch of time yesterday with no car and no family in the house, and I had recently re-loaded GB into my iPad (I had removed it for space reasons at one point). I was immersed myself for about an hour, using loops and other techniques to try to create a groove.

I only used a small bit of filtered voice — saying the title of the song: What they Want Is Not What They Need — and kept tinkering with the lead guitar, the world instruments and that driving drumbox beat until I had something I liked.

A good summer day of making music …

Peace (sounds like),
Kevin

Slice of Life: We’re All All Right

(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.)

I took my 12-year-old son to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 for the second time (we first went on opening weekend) because his friend had not gone yet. That seemed a shame. We had a blast in the cold theater on a hot day and my son’s friend loved the movie.

Once again, the scene where Cheap Trick’s Surrender plays hit me the heart of memory, reminding me of playing that song in my college-days rock band, Rough Draft.

So, I dug our cover of Surrender out. It was part of an audio track to a cable television recording we did, and then the studio lost the video tape so we don’t have that, only the audio. Maybe that’s a good thing …

That’s me singing and playing rhythm guitar. We used to have so much fun with that song. It was not a band of finesse. It was a band of loud energy. Rough Draft, indeed. Three of us from that band are still very close, and we get together once a year. In fact, that reunion is coming in two weeks.

We’re all all right!
We’re all all right!
We just seem a little weird …

Peace (no cheap tricks),
Kevin

PS — bonus song? Only if your ears can take it. This was early song of mine for Rough Draft. I was just starting to do some writing.

Passing the Song Along (A little Dylan in the Day)

Dylan Words

A few weeks ago, my friend Laura put out a call for a project that she was doing that would feature the Bob Dylan song The Times Are a-Changing. When I first taught myself guitar, that was one of the songs I wanted to learn, and did. Laura was hoping to build a musical quilt of songs and voices and words, as part of a public performance.

I grabbed my guitar, re-learned the song a bit, and then choose the verse that I think has the most resonance for the times that we are in right now – the one where Dylan calls out politicians and writers to embrace change for a better world and be ready to defend the choices you make in the moments before you. I recorded the verse and sent it forth to Laura, to use as she saw fit.

A few weeks later, Laura shared out a video of the live performance of her Affirmation Quilt. As I watched and listened via YouTube, I was pleased to hear her cello layered in on top of my guitar and voice. She is a talented musician, and I was honored to hear her strings on top of my ragged singing voice. It was wonderful, particularly as she wove the music in with spoken words contributors by others, and other music pieces, too. She also performed the song, live. That was the quilt affect she was going after.

But this story doesn’t stop there.

Ron, another musician friend from another part of the world, watched Laura’s video, too, and he asked if she could share it on Soundcloud. He wanted a copy of the song. I figured he was up to something, and of course, he was. Ron, a talented keyboardist, took the duet of Laura and I, and made it into a trio (or more) by adding keyboards and other elements in Garageband, and then shared it back out again.

If you’re counting, that would be Song Iteration Three: me, then me and Laura, then me and Laura and Ron. (Well, Four, if you count Dylan, and you probably should.)

None of us (including Dylan, as far as I know) have ever met in person to jam. We only know each other through our networks, coming together for a shared purpose with shared interests. When collaboration comes together like that, it’s magical and powerful.

Thank you, Laura. Thank you, Ron.

Peace (sounds like),
Kevin

Musical Slice of Life: Sing for the Trees

sol16(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write about the small moments. You are invited. Come write with us.)

It snowed. And from a small window in our studio area, I was watching this one tree get snowed upon, its branches grabbing the heavy wet snow like a blanket. Then, as the day grew warmer with sunshine, I watched the snow drop off, almost in slow motion, as if the tree branches were reluctant to let go.

During the first Snow Day of the year, I started to write this song, with that tree in mind. It’s a musical Slice of Life today, constructed from loops and imagination.

Peace (hearing it everywhere),
Kevin