1m4s Day 29: Filling in the Gaps

lemmings-boxscanIt’s taken longer than it should have, but I now have four songs which are complete in the most basic sense of the word. They have chords, words, melodies and vague sense of feel. But they are far from finished. If I was writing for a band, now would be a time to introduce them and start shaping up an arrangement. This still needs to happen, but for the time being I’m doing so on my own, so it involves thinking about the fingerstyle arrangement and throwing in those ‘fiddly bits’ between the basic patterns. If this was cake baking, now would be time for the icing.

Bold Little Weasel already feels like the most complete of the new tunes, so was a natural choice to begin this process with. I decided I wanted a main ‘theme’ to represent the weasel, a solo part in the middle of the song, and a fill to link the bridge back to the final verse. Using Guitar Pro, I looped the basic fingerstyle arrangements over which these parts will be played and jammed over them to develop some ideas. The guitar parts to Bold Little Weasel have drifted away from their original inspirations; it now sounds quite ‘folky’, and I want to rectify this by alluding to Egyptian music in parts.

I began jamming on a stereotype: the famous(ly silly) Egyptian riff from the song Streets of Cairo, as quoted by the Beatles in the clip above. Transposing this to fit the key of Bold Little Weasel, I jammed over the verse chords, extending and altering the notes until I hit upon something which sounds different enough and interesting. These Eastern notes were a little unsettling, so I concluded they wouldn’t work as part of the main theme, but would suit the opening stages of the solo, which then blossom into a wider palette of notes. I also explored the ‘Egyptian’ scale to bring the bridge back to the verse chords, on the appropriate line “Egyptian dervish spins.”

The opening theme of the song (which I dubbed ‘the weasel’s theme’) needed something a bit brighter, cheerful, and reflecting the energy of the song’s subject. So here I left the Eastern scales behind and instead experimented with major hammer-ons and pull-offs on the major scale – more familiar territory for my fingertips.

Having come up with these lines, I worked them into my transcription directly. What emerges is rather busy, and realistically, a considerable challenge to play. And so the next step of filling in the gaps is to then shovel off the earth that doesn’t need to be there. A lot of the incidental notes of the basic arrangement become redundant when matched with the themes and solo. Some thought also needs to given to how the arrangement can be simplified. For example, the A section of the verse works with a G shape on the bass strings being slide up to 5th fret, with the relative root being A. When playing the leads, this is much more easily played as the open fifth string, leaving fingers free to tackle other notes – as seen in the transcription below.

bold-little-weasel-riff

Needless to say, I’m still a long way short of physically being able to play these leads. A lot of work needs to go into that step. In the meantime, you can listen to the Midi performance of the theme and solo as they currently stand. Hopefully, when this music is performed on a real instrument it won’t sound so much like the tune to a level of Lemmings!

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1m4s Day 29: Filling in the Gaps

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

Of the songs I’ve been working on, the one that has proved most challenging so far has been When The City Is Home. I believe there are two reasons for this. First of all, it’s the only song which carries a weight of expectation: my wife wants it as piece of music to support a piece of video art she’s making under the same name. This project though is still in its earliest stages, so I’m writing to her idea rather than anything concrete. What exactly the song is supposed to be is largely unknown to both of us. Although I’ve tried to listen to her nebulous suggestions, what she wants and the song that’s emerging are already beginning to diverge, and as the song takes shape in front of me I’m less willing to compromise my own emerging direction for it.

Secondly, the song has proved to be one of the more complicated compositions. Working in DADGAD, although not altogether new territory, makes it far easier to come across new sounds. The downside of this is the need to be more judicious. When The City Is Home has swiftly passed through several iterations – I had lots of different ideas but finding exactly which chords and melody worked best took some experimentation. I’m left with lots of discarded bits and bobs that didn’t really fit with the vocal but still sound nice; I may yet include these in some kind of instrumental coda.

Underneath the whole song is a bass line rhythm based upon baladi Egyptian drums. On Guitar Pro I’ve expanded this with some arpeggios on the treble strings, hopefully without drowning the Eastern sound of the rhythm by filling in too much space. I’m not yet able to play these patterns while singing simultaneously, so in the demo below I just play the bass line with block chords. Here I’ve recorded the second verse and chorus, and couldn’t quite get it together enough to include the bridge, which I see as following on from the second chorus, moving up another third and continuing to raise the intensity level  of the song.

I’m still on the Nile, but now on the huge artificial Lake Nasser created by the High Dam, in the southernmost region of Egypt.

lake-nasser-songwriting

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

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!

1m4s Day 10: The Bare Bones

mexican-skeleton-with-guitar-tattoo-design-2

Over the last couple of days I’ve been throwing together different chords and searching for the bones of my songs. My music theory knowledge being almost zilch, this is very much a trial and error approach – simply jumping around the fretboard and seeing what sticks. At this stage, I haven’t been giving any thought to any vocal melody, I’m simply stringing together chords which sound interesting. But they’re really just shots in the dark. It’s only when I start trying to sing over the top of them that I’ll know whether any of these bones will prove capable of supporting a song.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to resist the urge to get too caught up in what the guitar’s doing. My aim has been to just use chords, ignoring picking patterns, riffs and runs, until later in the process of composition. It’s actually proven quite hard to stick to this plan. Finding a set of chords which worked naturally triggers more ideas. In the crude examples below, you’ll hear some flourishes have crept in. And I’ve fallen into the trap of wasting time on these details. I’m in danger of running this metaphor into the ground, but I’ve ended up spending a lot of time putting flesh on the bone, and then stripping it off in frustration.

Another quandary is that the musical styles I’m trying to replicate don’t have a lot of chords in them. The focus is instead on the rhythm. So the question I keep asking myself is whether to be true to the style and keep it simple, or try and find some more dynamic progressions, at the risk of musically ending someplace else? So far, I’ve pitched somewhere in between.

I used two tunings on the guitalele to come up with these ideas. Standard tuning suits the bright feel of the African-flavoured music, while for the Arabic ideas I’ve gone with DADGAD tuning, which has a long history of entertaining ‘Eastern’ music on the guitar. Check out Davey Graham’s DADGAD ragas from the sixties should you have a chance.

I’ve transposed what I’ve written onto the software Guitar Pro, so what you’re hearing in the examples are Midi representations of the guitar parts, rather than my actual playing. Since I got hold of it a year ago, I’ve found Guitar Pro a powerful tool for my songwriting. How I use it is worth getting in to, but we’ll save that for another post. For fun, I synced up the Midi guitar with the LMMS drum loops to see how they’d all sound together.

You can hear the demos beneath. Tomorrow I’ll start trying to sing to them, and see if anything works. It might not, so it could be back to the drawing board!

1m4s Day 10: The Bare Bones

The Sun Slumps Down

 

I’ve written three new songs here in Egypt – this is the latest I’ve finished but the first I want to share. The Sun Slumps Down was filmed in my flat in Zamalek, Cairo, and includes the sounds of the parakeets that live about, the honks of horns and the ever-present low-level hum of the traffic.

Zamalek

It might be rather hard to believe, but the song originated from my attempts to play a song by Tabu Ley Rochereau*. The finished article sits quite a long way from Congolese Rumba – further than I’d like it, but at least my shortcoming resulted in something I could confidently call my own. It’s interesting that regardless of how hard I try, the centre of gravity remains the sound of the English folk tradition. Despite my efforts to emulate the music of Central Africa, I suspect The Sun Slumps Down sounds more like something that might have been played at Les Cousins in Soho during the Sixties folk revival. It’s a perennial conundrum; in my blog about composing A Dance for Sharks I noted a similar and unlikely trajectory from an Afrobeat inspiration to something more familiar.

 

Here I took a different approach than normal to the vocal melody, rather than writing a set of lyrics and fitting them to the chords I was playing (which is the usual method). I didn’t want the words to dictate the melody too far, so I recorded several demos just singing gibberish or la-la-la-ing over the guitar track. Thus the vocal was about 70% mapped out when I started writing proper lyrics, and I tried my best to write to the existing melody. It meant I had to drop a few choice lines, but I think it helped me craft a better song overall. It’s a technique that has worked for me before – I did a similar thing for an old Lazy Lizards song called You Are The Sky and the results sounded good to my ears.

One of the holy grails of fingerstyle playing is being able to keep the basic propulsion of a song (usually through its bass line) going whilst simultaneously playing a solo. I give myself a little instrumental break in the middle of The Sun Slumps Down. It’s well short of the ‘one guitar sounding like two’ wizardry of the best fingerpickers, but I am trying to push my further with what I can do. Originally I composed a longer sequence, carefully tabbed out using Guitar Pro, and resolved to learn it note for note. Inevitably though, when practising I couldn’t always be bothered to fire up the computer and go back to look in detail at what I’d figured out. As a result, the ‘solo’ part shrunk to four bars of the licks I could remember. This natural paring down was probably for the best, I imagine I remembered those licks because they were superior. Or maybe they were just the easiest.

Originally called The Well, I decided The Sun Slumps Down was a more evocative title. As the song developed, more and more of the imagery reflected the sunset – the time of day became more significant than the place. One technique I used in composing the lyrics was harvesting words that struck me as being interesting, or perhaps just sounding pleasing. In this case I used as my source articles and reviews from online music journal the Quietus. The writing in the Quietus, as the best music writing should be, is usually a little over the top and at times verging on the ridiculous. As a result, they tend to spew out some curious vocabulary. As I browsed through pages that took my fancy, I jotted down words I liked in my notebook. Then I tried to build sentences around the words and shoehorn them into the narrative of the song. At times it worked – often it didn’t. ‘Slump’ was one word I took that stuck. The sun slumping down felt to me a neat way of emphasizing the languid scene being captured in the lyrics.

I approached this song as vignette, a description of a scene inspired by two moments living in South East Asia. In Borneo there was a water pump I often used to pass on the way to school that was used by the villagers in the kampong to bathe and wash clothes. In the countryside in Laos, rivers are often used for the same purpose, and I recall disturbing (completely innocently) some young women at their ablutions on an evening’s walk. Early drafts of the song also included young men hiding in the bushes, spying on the women as they bathed. I was trying to draw allusions towards awakening sexuality, but ultimately it just sounded too pervy. Instead I looked at the angle of the cultural divide, with the foreign narrator the only one bearing witness to the scene. Without a shared language it can seem so difficult to make a meaningful connection beyond the look described in the song. At times people in other cultures can see impossibly far away. It surprises me that I still have moments of feeling like this, even though my own experience has shown given time you can forge a connection with just about anyone on our little planet.

Here are the full lyrics

The Sun Slumps Down

Verse 1

There’s a well beyond the village

And at a certain sunset hour of the day the maidens come to bathe

Where the old wives shuffle

Away they go with their buckets and pails, bowing heads to gossip

The hypnosis in how the water behaves in its leaping splashes and cascades

I swear it sings a serenade

As the sun slumps down

As the sun slumps down

But a single girl holds my gaze

 And she does not look away

But there are no words that we can speak

At least none that we can say

Verse 2

When the butterflies flutter

And make their certain zigzag way to take sleep beneath a leaf

When the fireflies stutter

Starting up their lamps just for the night ahead

There’s a dozen steps between me and her

But no matter what the fantasies stir, this moment won’t go any further

So the sun slumps down

So the sun slumps down

Yet the barbed branches hold me tight

At the dying of the day

And there are no words that we can speak

At least none that we can say

 

*Somewhat improbably, Wikipedia tells me that Tabu Ley Rochereau wrote somewhere in the region of 3,000 songs. I need to write something like 2,950 more songs to catch up. No problem, surely . . .

The Sun Slumps Down