I was working on constructing a song the other day and I began to imagine and remember riding the underground subway systems (I was thinking of New York, Washington DC, Boston).
As I built the song out of loops, I wanted to purposely create a sonic landscape of the experience of the subway transportation systems in my memory and imagination.
I tried to capture:
The rhythm of the train lines themselves
The walk down the escalator into the underground
The sounds of buskers, playing music
The mingling of the voices
The act of keeping on eye on other people
The echoing and pounding footsteps of the crowd on the move
The slow fade of the subway as you depart and leave the station behind you
This approach — capturing a sense of place through a piece of music — is intriguing because I found myself really approaching each sound, each loop, each beat, with a highly focused ear. Did it help me capture the essence of riding the rails? If not, I didn’t use it.
I’m not really all that sure where this post is going to so … hang on a sec as I meander through it …
My 14-year-old son has been deep into making beats and music with Logic software (the next level up, way up, from Garageband) and in recent weeks, he’s been exporting his work into his Soundtrap account, inviting me to collaborate with him there.
Of course, I have accepted, and I’ve been making some cool jams with him. Here’s one sample of what we are working on …
He’s also a fan of modern hip-hop, listening for hours (maybe too many hours) to artists, humming to himself as he wanders the house, walks the dog, does chores, etc. He’s a close listener, from what I can tell, and I am starting to hear that filter in through the music he is making.
Which leads us to the recent Travis Scott concert. I agreed to take him to Boston Garden the other night (and took him to Kendrick Lamar last year and to Future, the year before that). It’s an interesting experience to be an aging rock and roller/songwriter in an arena of hip hop.
Here is my simplistic deconstruction of a typical hip-hop song, with Travis Scott’s vocoder-ized auto-tuned voice still in my head. I’d take Kendrick over Scott any day (but maybe that’s because Lamar had a kicking live band backing him and a better feel for politically-charged lyrics that connect more with me and my sensibilities.)
Creating a Hip Hop Track: Notes from a Rock And Roll Observer
Start with a simple beat. Maybe kick drum on the beat or on the off beat. Keep it pounding until your feel it in your skull.
Add piano or organ over it. Do this for about four measures. Just enough to establish the melody.
Drop the drum and transform the opening melody part to synth after the first few measures. Come in strong with a big kick drum sound (think: John Bonham from Led Zep. That’s the sound you want. Bigger than your head.).
Make sure the bass is deep enough, rich enough, to reach into your esophagus. Deep in sound, but not too complicated in parts. The bass will become the thread that holds this whole thing together. Modern bass is the river on which the melody floats.
Shout out “yeah” on the offbeat until you create synergy off the beat. Wave your hands in the air if you care. Get hangers-on in the studio to the mic, and have them join in.
Name-check yourself. Maybe a few times. Don’t let the listener forget who you are.
If your lyrics are a mostly meaningless flow about nothing much to talk about, pump up the effects to bury the meaning beneath your voice. Also, do this, too, if you can’t really sing. If your lyrics have meaning, push the voice up over the beat during verses. Make it known.
If your partner(s) are the DJ at the mix machine, have them interject a few odds and ends now and then. Maybe during live performances tell the crowd to make some noise, but with a slew of profanity. Say it at least a dozen times. Keep their microphone volume lower than yours, though.
Have a famous friend? Invite them into the track for some verses or a line of words or two. Guest overdubs are the rage right now. If you are a male rapper, having a female singer take over the chorus seems like a good bet to get heard.
Bury the words of the chorus with layered overdubs of voice and effects. Ideally, you do this in stages, so that by the end of the track, the chorus is bigger than a building. Unless you can’t sing. Then, bring in a guest (see #8) or add more effects (see #6)
End by either reversing the flow — ending back on simple opening beat and keyboards — or by taking the track in another direction, and the come to a full stop. A big boom blast — cannon shots are popular — with tons of reverb will end the track with a slow-fading tail. Add lights and fire during live shows.
Start over again until you find your groove and your audience.
I admire those artists and producers who play with this genre (as seen from my middle-age white man’s world), and the lyricists who understand how internal rhymes and rhythmic play with words and syllables can take songs to a new level. Like any musical genre, there are those who are artists, pushing the limits to make something interesting, and those who leverage the formula to make money.
Take a guess who gets the more plays and more profit?
I’d be remiss not to say that every genre seems to fall into its own patterns. Rock and pop music is all about verse/chorus/break and Jazz is mostly about head/solo/head (unless you’re Ornette Coleman, and then all bets are off) and so on.
Deconstructing what we love is a form of play, and a way to think about where the limits are and how we might push those limits to transform what we love. Go on and do it.
(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.)
After the 2016 elections, in the days of disbelief and anger that followed, I sat down and wrote this song for myself, and for family and some friends who I knew were feeling like I was. The lyrics were a little message to the world, a reminder that politics was and is always about the long-game, of being close to those around us. I dug the song out again this weekend, as this mid-term election is upon us, to remind myself of that.
I still believe in the message. I share it with you, my friends. Make sure you vote.
The following is a live version of the song — I like the above audio-only version better because the sound quality off the iPad is not so great — but here is me, performing the song, if that interests you. Notice I have my Peter Reynolds’ Create Bravely shirt on!
Like you, perhaps, the images and sounds of children being taken away and separated by the United States government under this heartless president has struck a nerve of humanity in me. As a writer, I often try to deal with those things through words, and as a songwriting, sometimes through music.
This song tells the story of two fathers — one who is coming to the US to escape the violence of home and one who is taking to the streets in protest over the treatment of such immigrant families.
A friendly email arrived, with a request. Might I be willing to write a poem?
A musical collaborator, Luka, was working on another project and he was looking for a poem that could become part of the cover of the CD project. He sent along a few tracks, asked me to listen, and get inspired. (Luka and I wrote and recorded Alchemist Dream for A Whale’s Lantern music project, a remote collaboration taking place off the Mastodon social network. We’re now into the third iteration of the music-making partnerships.)
Oh, and there was a fast turn-around deadline. I’d have to get the poem out the door within just a few days. The theme of the project was Entropy, and so as I put on headphones and listened to the tracks that Luka provided (interesting stuff, as always from him), I read up on Entropy, trying to wrap my head around the concept and how it might translate into poetry, and music.
Then, I wrote … just letting the words flow as I listened to the beats and musical landscape of the tracks. It was one of those times when I only thought about what I was writing later, in revision. First, I let the music guide me into discovering the possibilities of a poem.
Fast forward a few months, and I saw Luka promoting the CD, with a limited series artistic cover available, so I ordered it, and the resulting project (airmailed from Luka from Slovenia, with a very kind note from him) is just beautiful. My poem is splayed out in the center, but the way the cover folds in and around itself, and the use of art to explore music (and vice versa), and … well … the whole dang thing is just pretty cool to have in my hands.
I’m glad I had some words to contribute. (And Luka, in return, has lent me some of his original music to use in a video project I am working on for a summer learning experience.)
This Pulitzer-prize winning writer gets loud and indignant with his words, and pushes the envelope on what it means to be a young black artist in the world of Trump, and Black Lives Matter, and frustration over inequities. This writer uses black history as cultural reference points, and brings in the urban experience as a narrative frame. His words resonate with a large, and growing, audience.
I was thinking of this whole Pulitzer Prize last night as my son and I, and thousands of other fans, rapped along with Kendrick during a concert in Connecticut. (Let me revise: I danced my white man’s dance to the beat, but I didn’t know the lyrics well enough to rap along with him with any coherence … I was surprised how many times the audience took the ‘mic’ from Kendrick during songs, on his invitation, and easily knew the words, the whole stadium in tandem, one voice.)
I remembered, and agreed, with something that commentator Clay Cane wrote in CNN when Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize for Music award was announced:
So true, and it was clear, this audience was with him.
Kendrick even poked fun at the award itself at one point last night, using a “Pulitzer Kenny” sign on the backdrop as he showed off his verbal dexterity with words, creating rhythms that, even if difficult to hear the lyrics in this live setting, impressed the ears. He can spin rhymes, and those rhymes tell stories, and those stories resonate with his audience.
That’s what writers do.
One more note: The last time I took my 13 year old son to a hip hop show (it was Future as the main act), I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the entire music element was tracked songs. No live musicians.
Not for Kendrick (who has worked with some pretty impressive musicians on his albums). Lamar had an amazing backing band — bass, guitar, drums, keys — that kept the groove kicking it all night long. The drummer, in particular, was incredible, powering the songs with a beat you could feel in your chest.
The second iteration of Networked Narratives has been over for at least a few weeks now, and I’ve had a version of this reflection sort of sitting here in my blog draft bin.
I’ve watched Alan Levine, one of the instructors, post his reflection yesterday from a teacher perspective (which was insightful to peruse). I’ve read through and enjoyed Wendy Taleo‘s reflection and presentation she gave about a project in Networked Narratives that we launched. I’ve skimmed through some of the final posts by the university students who took NetNarr for credit at their university.
What I continue to find intriguing is the open invitation by Alan and Mia Zamora for anyone to follow NetNarr and participate, and so I and some others (like Wendy and Sarah Honeychurch) have done so. We’ve come and gone, as we pleased. Added to conversations. Commented on blogs. Disappeared from time to time. Re-appeared suddenly. Engaged. Created. Made. Remixed.
Being out here in the Wild Open, as I often refer to it, has its advantages (we can engage where our curiosity is piqued and ignore the rest) and disadvantages (we aren’t always part of the larger conversation that comes from being in the class at the university, and seem to be invisible at times).
Here, in this NetNarr reflection, I want to share out a few projects that I took on that formed my framework of interaction, or at least, the hope for interaction. One of the three was more successful in this than the other two, but the other two were meaningful to me anyway.
First, when Mia and Alan announced this second round of Networked Narratives with the theme of Digital Life, I was interested. I had had fun with the first round of NetNarr a year ago, and figured, I’ll just see what they’re up to this time. I decided to bring a comic strip character out of hiding, and wanted to weave a story about Arganee –the fictional world of the first NetNarr — and digital alchemy, a theme of inquiry for NetNarr.
So, I wrote a story about Horse, the companion to The Internet Kid, and left the Kid at home. I remember being obsessed with telling this story in comics, and working very diligently on the storyline. I released the comic story, one comic at time, into the NetNarr hashtag, and then bundled the entire thing up into a graphic story adventure.
I really enjoyed this Horse with No Name comic project, but I got almost no response from the NetNarr students or participants (Wendy and I did a little exchange now and then), and I wonder if those students even knew that the Horse story was always part of NetNarr. Or if they just thought some weirdo was releasing comics into their midst.
Again, there was very little reaction to any of the poems, although I did them mostly for myself, and the challenge of writing small pieces on an angle from a prompt.
Third, there is the Digital Alchemy Lab project, an adventure that began with a desire to weave the concept of transmedia storytelling (which didn’t really take root the way I envisioned, mainly because I could not envision how it would take root), collaboration with other Wild Open participants (and university students), and the theme of “every object tells a story.”
Over the course of weeks, a group of us planned out how to invite collaborators to use media to tell stories of assigned objects, which were then woven into the Alchemy Lab — an immersive 360 degree art project using ThingLink. This project took the most time and coordination, and the result is something magical — a collaborative art piece that weaves story and media together in a fun way, showcasing how people can come together to create and make and learn. I wrote three long reflective pieces just about the Alchemy Lab endeavor.
This project continues, in a way, as we share out individual pieces each, with an invite into the lab. Yes, you are invited, too. Come on in. The narrative is networked.
Finally, I want to share a project that had on the surface seemingly nothing to do with Networked Narratives, and yet … it did, in my mind at least. It is a music collaboration project called A Whale’s Lantern, in which online music collaborators from all over the world work on writing and producing a song, which then becomes part of a larger “album” of music.
The reason I include this here in the NetNarr reflection is that I saw/see A Whale’s Lantern project as part of the larger aims of Networked Narratives — of finding ways to connect people from around the world with media creation (in this case, music) as connector points for collaboration, using the Internet as a way to publish and interact in a meaningful, authentic way. It didn’t matter that this took place off Mastodon as opposed to Twitter, or that I was the only one making the NetNarr connections (although Wendy may have seen that connection, too, as she dipped her toes into the music collaboration).
The point is that the very things that we all looked at in NetNarr around the positive elements of our Digital Lives — of following your passions and engaging in virtual strangers with similar passions to create something unique, together, with technology and media — played out beautifully here, overlapping at the same time I was engaged in NetNarr.
We weave the threads.
And, to make the connection even clearer, the lyrics I wrote for my collaboration with my partner, Luka, was inspired by Networked Narratives itself and the idea of digital alchemy. The song is called Alchemist Dream, and you can find the lyrics here. How’s that for synergy?
Thank you, Mia and Alan, for at least trying to find way to fuse classroom experiences at the university level with the open learning networks beyond the classroom walls. I still wish there were more ways to interact among the two groups — the Wild Open and the classroom — but realize the logistics would be difficult to navigate and the demands of running a university course are different from facilitating an open learning adventure.
My friend, John, and I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon inside a music recording studio of a local musician. Years ago, John and I wrote a song together (we’ve written many), and it has been his long ambition to record and release this particular song. Yesterday, we worked on laying down the vocals, saxophone and guitar tracks. The goal is release the song later this year, in time for the winter holidays, as the song is a holiday-themed song, with peace and love at its center.
I am always intrigued by music engineers and their studios, and the set-up in a third-floor loft overlooking our city’s downtown area was pretty cool. Actually, it’s right above the downtown music store, where Jim (the engineer) used to work. The scene was laid back, comfortable, and the engineer/producer is an amazing musician himself, so his feedback was helpful.
John and I also remembered some other studio sessions with past bands (he and I have been playing music for years) and I went and dug up a video I had made from long ago for a band we were in called The Sofa Kings. This video was created during a time when I was experimenting with a Flip video camera (the little white ones) was something completely new, and phones weren’t made for video quite yet (unless you had money to burn). The sound quality is terrible, but the moment in time captured (for us) is priceless.
Luka and I created a song called Alchemist Dream, based on some earlier interactions with Networked Narratives on the theme of “digital alchemy.” The theme of A Whale’s Lantern was “the elements,” so I worked those two strands — alchemy and elements — together in the initial demo I sent Luka, who then transformed the music with his own magical abilities.
Here are the lyrics to the song, in case you are curious:
The Alchemist Dream (Sleep Deep)
If I could take this fire
stoke these embers of desire for you
I’d burn it up higher
Won’t you catch me, I’m a flier for you
I can catch the water
turn the buckets into bottles of wine
Let it run us on over
let the water flow deep inside
Hold your hands together
let the sand be the trace of time
Let the earth shape and move us
the universe is tuned to rhyme
But only when we sleep, deep,
in Alchemist Dreams
They can only find us there –
digging in the world
I’m breathing in poems
the words as light as air
Telling all the stories
‘cause the songs are everywhere
But only when we sleep, deep,
in Alchemist Dreams
They can only find us there –
breathing in the world
The second round of music by collaboration — known by the project title A Whale’s Lantern — has now been released, and the theme of the musical pieces was The Elements. The album is located for listening, and for downloading, at Bandcamp. The whole project is built on collaboration — from the songwriting, to the recording, to the production. Each song represents a different collaborative partnership.
I was paired up with Luka, an amazing engineer and musician from Eastern Europe, and we worked together on a song called Alchemist Dream.
I wrote the lyrics, inspired in part by the Alchemy theme of Networked Narratives, and Luka wrote the music, and then we worked via email and other means to merge the two pieces together. I sing the song, and added some sax at the end, but Luka has done everything else. The back and forth we had was intriguing in many ways, and I am pretty happy with how our track ended up. Luka deserves much of the credit for the production value, as he spent hours working on it.
If you are wondering how this all works, a call went out from our friend Mascha in the Mastodon networking space (this is the second round; the first round is entitled Flight into the Nebula, and I worked with Laura on a song I wrote called I Fall Apart).
Participants are given rather random partners, and an extended period of time to work together. Some partnerships don’t get the finish line for all sorts of reasons. This second round had more completed tracks than the first.
The songs are then pulled together (by Mascha, who is the heart and soul of this project) on Bandcamp for sharing, and for purchase, with some proceeds going back into supporting the Mastodon network.
Read the oral history project from the first Whale’s Lantern album: