Musical Reset

It’s been twenty months in the gargantuan* bosom of the Mother of the World. I’m far better at dreaming of making music than actually creating it; when I first arrived here I made a naïve post about all I’d achieve in Cairo. Few of those musical ambitions have been realised, but buried beneath the frenetic pace of the city, or work, or simply the insistent dust that weighs down anything or anyone who holds still for a moment. It hasn’t been time wasted, but as the wheel turns towards professional and academic achievements, other matters of import, be they music or love, find themselves on the wrong side of those revolutions.

Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and renewing, and I find myself now at a point of new beginnings; new job, new flat, new routine, a chance to find a better sense of balance. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m hoping to give some things neglected a chance to sing.

Dawn in Zamalek

One of those important things is a renewed sense of purpose in music-making. I want to try and find two hours a day to play, compose and practise. I’ve been thinking a lot about routines lately, and trying to get a better rein of an often treacherous mind. I couldn’t quite say I’m a morning person, but if I can force my eyes awake I love the promise and peace of the dawn, and do good work at this time. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up early, and get two hours of playing music under one’s belt before all the other noise of day has started?

So, turning over a new leaf – but to what end? It’s likely I’ll be in Cairo for at least another year, and I’d like to direct my free time during this period towards writing and recording two new EPs. One of these I hope to make a semi-professional effort (as far as my budget will extend); using a recording studio and with luck a couple of local musicians to provide a taste of Egypt. The other will be a low-fi experiment; to see what I can come up with recording at home with simple equipment.

But first, allow me to subvert and undermine these plans! Before I throw myself into this new project, I want to do a bit of songwriting just for fun. I’ve got a few seeds and semi-complete ideas I’d like to play around with, one or two of which I hope to transform into songs fairly quickly. Let’s see what transpires . . .

 

*Hey, Cairo’s a big city!

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Musical Reset

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

As can be told by the title, my project to write four songs in one month has not been an unqualified success. A month ago, I hoped that come this day I’d be able to perform demos of four new songs to the camera and declare my task complete. The truth is that simply isn’t possible, but conversely I have written four new songs. However, at this point I haven’t inhabited any of them sufficiently to be able to perform them even as rough demos. They are still too fresh, and admittedly I may have relied too heavily on the computer rather than the actual guitar in the composition process.

But nonetheless, the four songs are there. I can hear them in my head, and they will not need to travel too far to enter the real world. Here’s there current state of play.

Bold Little Weasel: the most complete song of the four. Some slight refinement required, ‘uncovering the earth’ as mentioned in the previous post to simplify the complex parts without losing their core. There is also the odd clunky lyric which might be improved upon.

Let’s Make Our Bed Together: it’s been my intention for this song to be quite a simple one, but at the moment it feels substantially less developed than the other four. A lot of holes remain in the lyrics, and even those that have been written haven’t been thoroughly road-tested. I know what the chords are, and there is that rhumba bass line, but those silvery guitar lines which make me love that old Congolese sound are still lacking.

Pass Without Trace: its quick inception led to a very straightforward arrangement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it need more? Maybe not, but I think I need to keep playing through it for a little while before I’m sure.

When The City Is Home: all the parts have arrived, but they’re freshly delivered and I’m not quite sure how they all fit together. I still feel this song could head in different directions, but the correct one isn’t clear. Some songs reach a dangerous moment where you teeter between realising your vision and cocking the whole thing up – and this is the place I fear I’ve got to. Best to give it a firm shove and see which way it tumbles.

So what’s next? My aim now is to continue to spend an hour a day working on these songs until they’re complete. Then some time to master performing them. When I get to the juncture when I can perform one of these songs through in its entirety without making a mistake, I will exercise a little wisdom and not immediately rush to record it. Instead I’ll diligently endeavour to play it through every day for another month until it’s really had a chance to settle in to my muscle memory and vocal chords. Only then will I permit myself to make a video performance to share on this blog, so that finally the fruit of 1m4s can be tasted and judged.

I also want to reflect on the process the songwriting has taken over this last month. I’ll let my thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t solidify over the next few days and write-up my conclusions. In the meantime, thanks for following the project to this point.

nasser-moonset-1m4s

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

1m4s Day 19: Technology Weasel!

The song I’ve made the most progress on so far has been Bold Little Weasel. At the Bare Bones stage, I came up with a section which feels like it’s the bridge. Then a couple of days ago, in the time it took my creaky old lift to transport me up to the sixth floor, a new blast of melody struck and I realised I also had a verse. Happily, it seems that both fit together.

I’ve spent the morning developing these ideas. Lyrics-wise, I don’t have as much as I posted for Confide in Me, but a clear picture of the structure of the song is emerging. I’ve started to tab out an emerging guitar arrangement on Guitar Pro. So far, this is sticking firmly to the basic chords and bass line, but the gaps are there to be filled in, hopefully building a more complex and interesting fingerstyle arrangement, no doubt until it’s overtaken my abilities to play.

little-weasel-score

I’ve found Guitar Pro to be a very helpful songwriting tool. I can transcribe a new piece of music, and wander around the room singing to myself, putting my attention on the vocals without having to think about what your hands are doing. Equally, I can work up a solo, focusing on its melodic qualities, and then align the lead with the bass line until both are combined as a fingerstyle arrangement. For good or ill, it allows me to separate myself from my natural instinct as a guitarist. Muscle memory leads the fingers to fall into familiar patterns, but composing through Guitar Pro can to an extent become an entirely mental exercise. This makes it easier to reach new places in your composition. As I mentioned before, sometimes this leaves you with a piece that is very tricky to play – but as it’s your own song, who’s gonna play it but you? Thus, there’s a good incentive to practice and push yourself.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to replicate the attack, swing, and idiosyncrasies of an individual player on a piece of software, and it’s important to remember that this is the end goal over the automated Midi of Guitar Pro. As the composition process usually goes guitar-computer-guitar, it’s important to ensure that the living element of the first stage survives until the end. Finally, there’s just something a bit inauthentic about it – I don’t imagine my musical icons composing their masterpieces by tapping numbers into a keyboard.

As a 21st century musician I take advantage of the technology available to me. However, it would be an interesting experiment, which I’ll reserve for some point in the future, to return to writing wholly in the organic form – notebook, guitar and mind.

1m4s Day 19: Technology Weasel!