Saturday, January 28, 2012

Falling, a Nightmare in Three Acts

So as I mentioned earlier, my SpinTunes 4 round 1 song is a bit... unusual. It's almost five minutes long, in 3 "acts," with no chorus, with piano, fretless bass, environmental sounds, no percussion whatsoever. It's sort of artsy... like "Natural Science" on the album _Permanent Waves_, or something from a Pink Floyd album, or Thomas Dolby's "Mulu the Rain Forest," or an extended Kate Bush track from Aerial. Not exactly what I set out to make, but this is the song that asked me to make it...

Here's the track on Bandcamp.

This is the first time I've had someone else master one of my tracks. I sent Rich Wielgosz a .WAV file at 24-bit, 96KHz and he dripped it through some nice analog vacuum tubes and iron transformers (I think; I'm not entirely sure what he did) and sent it back mastered. Mastering involves compression, EQ, and maybe other tweaks to bring the file up to snuff as far as hearing as much musical detail as clearly as possible -- basically, it makes it sound louder, and clearer, and when it is done right it should do this without ruining what nuance is present in the dynamic range. He did a great job -- the remaining deficiencies in the audio are mine, not his. More info about Rich can be found here

My notes, the "song bio" if you will:

So, the SpinTunes 4 Round 1 challenge was to write a song about "a childhood nightmare." I think some people might just be able to pick a nightmare and write about it, but I don't really remember any details about my childhood nightmares. I remember one very vaguely - I was being chased, and at the end I was falling, and when I landed I woke up with a violent muscle spasm, my heart pounding, soaked in sweat.

I did experience a real-life nightmare, though. My parents divorced when I was three years old. My father left, and my mother moved my one-year-old brother and me from Seattle, Washtington, to Pennsylvania. I saw him rarely over the next ten years; for most of that time, he was only an occasional letter or voice on the phone. My mother's father became a sort of surrogate father for me, and role model, but he died of cancer when I was ten years old.

So, that's the material I've got to work with. With the original dream so vague, I'll need to "take it and turn it." What if I misunderstood the nightmare? What if I wasn't being chased at all, but I was chasing my father, and the nightmare is that I can't ever reach him, and fall? So this song is about that nightmare of separation, and waking up and realizing that it is not actually a dream.

Maybe that's a lot to try and convey in a song, although there is probably a single word for it in German. But I hope it works in some sense.

These lyric concept started with one very long and extremely fast first draft, although I have trimmed and revised it. I realized as I wrote it that it was actually a bit like _Green Eggs and Ham_ -- Dr. Seuss wrote that book with only fifty words, on a bet. Similarly, as I wrote this I realized that there seemed to be a special power in repeating a few words and phrases and varying them, almost as if it was the vocabulary of a child chanting a rhyme. In that context a truly consistent rhyme scheme also seemed somewhat unimportant.

I had imagined a very dramatic song with a heavy metal-style guitar accompaniment, and I messed around with a grinding heavy-metal guitar sound, but when I tried singing it, the song started to come out much, much differently. So it's been a process of heavy revision. I've never tried a serious multi-track project that didn't have a fixed beats-per-minute count, or recorded instruments without a click track. To employ "rubato," part of the challenge, I had to be able to vary the tempo freely over the course of the song.

To get pieces lined up I would play a piano sound with a guitar synthesizer, to produce a MIDI piano part, and then record bass and vocals to accompany that, part-by-part, in a very painstaking and time-consuming way, recording take after take, looping parts over and over in my headphones while recording in order to get a precise feel for the timing. There is very little use of the "flex" feature in Logic because I felt that it would be too tempting to spend hours and hours of my limited time tweaking parts rather than recording better takes.

Some of the audio directly from the guitar synthesizer can be heard as a horn part. There's a MIDI piano, and a MIDI Turkish oud lute, and then my unusual Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretless bass. The guitar I use to trigger the guitar synth has a piezo and humbucking pickups as well, so it is possible to record the audio from the guitar synth, MIDI notes, and two different audio signals from the guitar all at the same time. Then of course these can go into different amp models and effects. In practice I only ever used two or three of these at once. For vocals I got out my ribbon microphone, which I haven't used in quite some time. The environmental sounds I recorded in 2008 in Grand Marais, Michigan.

This challenge had its own challenges. I actually took three full days off of work, in order to give myself some time without distractions, and went into the studio like I usually go into my home office. But the extra time just seemed to encourage me to do something more ambitious, and there were plenty of distractions: our hot-water heater failed, and the subwoofer for my studio monitors failed (it was replaced before due to a design defect). Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, I used Logic heavily for days and days without any of the usual crashes, and bizarre behavior was minimal. Apple seems to have Logic reasonably well debugged by now, at least the features I rely on. As I write this I'm winding up day 3, and I still need more time. There's never enough time! And so everthing winds up a compromise, full of flaws that make me grit my teeth, but hopefully good enough to make someone else like it; and maybe I'll even like it, once I can get some distance from it, and come back and listen with fresh ears.

If I had to cite some specific influences for the style of the song, I'd pick out Peter Gabriel's song "Family Snapshot," as well as some Kate Bush sounds from her album _Aerial_. I've always loved the sound of fretless bass; for some of what I was trying to achieve, take a listen to "Mulu the Rain Forest" by Thomas Dolby.

I've never written, or really spoken much, about my parents' divorce, or talked about it with a therapist. As I worked on this song I found myself going through an emotional tunnel, and feeling far more tense and upset than just the song deadline could account for. I see this process as somehow therapeutic, although I'm not sure the result will be very pleasant to listen to, and I don't think as some sort of great breakthrough. My father and I are on good terms now; he is still alive and living in California. But my understanding, and my lived experience, is that it just isn't possible to ever truly "heal" this sort of early loss, or replace those years of parenting; the experience reshapes a child's whole being. There's a great lyric by the band Everclear, from their song "Father of Mine" that really captures this:

I will never be safe 
I will never be sane 
I will always be weird inside 
I will always be lame

If you don't know the lyrics, look them up; they are terrific. That song, though, is angry, and for me the feeling has never really been anger, although I've had a lot of people express anger on my behalf. It's more a sort of mourning.

Paul R. Potts, aka Common Lisp
Saginaw, Michigan
25 January 2012

Act One: The Dream 

Ambient nature sounds (wind) 


"Sleep that knits up 
the ravelled sleeve of care 
The death of each day's life 
Sore labour's bath; 
Balm of hurt minds, 
Great nature's second course, 
Chief nourisher in life's feast." 
- Shakespeare 

Note: guitar is down-tuned 2 half-steps, so I play these 
chords on guitar as Dm, Gm, Dsus4, Gm, Am7, C and Bbmaj7. As heard it is in the key of C minor (relative minor to Eb)... I think. I'm not so great with the music theory. 

I've been here before 
Fm Csus4 
I can't see where I'm going 
Cm Fm 
There's darkness behind me 
Gm7 Bb Cm 
Darkness ahead 

Cm Fm 
There's a man in the shadows 
Gm7 Fm 
I can't see his face 
Cm Fm 
I thought he was chasing 
Gm7 Bb 
But it turns out I'm running 

Cm Fm 
It turns out I'm chasing 
Gm7 Bb 
The man in the shadows 
Cm Fm 
But my legs are so tired 
Gm7 Bb Cm 
I know I'm not strong 

Csus4 Cm 
Why won't he wait? 
Bb Gm7 Abmaj7 
Did I do something wrong? 
Cm Fm 
I can't catch my breath. 
Gm7 Bb Cm 
Don't leave me alone. 


To sleep, 
perchance to Dream; 
Ay, there's the rub, 
For in that sleep of death, 
what dreams may come, 
When we have shuffled 
off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause. 
- Shakespeare 

Act Two: The Nightmare 

I will not cry 
I'm running, not crying 
I can't catch my breath 
My lungs, they are aching 

The man in the shadows 
Is gone and I'm calling 
Not crying but screaming 
Screaming and trying to 

Run and I'm slipping 
The path it is crumbling 
I'm screaming and gasping 
Falling forever 

I scream in the silence 
Too frightened for crying 
Falling for ever and 
Ever and falling 

I'm sitting bolt upright 
And sweating and shaking 
Down the hall mom is crying 
Her heart must be breaking 

The man in the shadows is 
Gone and I'll always be 
Missing his love, I'll 
always be aching 

Act Two: The Waking Dream 

Ambient nature sounds (beach) 

Instrumental break: shifts key to C major, I think. 

Cm Fm Csus4 Gm7 
Abmaj Gm F7 
Cm Fm Csus4 Gm7 
Abmaj7 Gm F7 
G7 Am7 E F 

F C 
When I was small, so small 
C G 
I rode on your shoulders 
F G 
My hands felt your beard 
C F 
It was scratchy and warm 
When I was small 

(Ambient sound: wind sounds return) 

F C 
Now you are gone, gone, gone 
F G 
In the sun on the beach 
F G 
We were laughing and playing 
F G 
In the grass on the dunes 
F G 
You ran and I chased you 
G F 
On a day long ago 
And then you were gone 

C G 
Gone from your children 
F G 
Gone from your wife 
C G 
Gone from my brother 
F G 
Gone from our lives 

And though I've awakened 
And though I've awakened 
I'll always be aching 
I'll always be aching 
I'll always be runing 
I'll always be runing 
I'll always be chasing 
I'll always be chasing 
I'll always be falling 
I'll always be falling 


All men whilst they are awake 
are in one common world: 
but each of them, when he is 
asleep, is in a world of his own. 
- Plutarch

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Spintunes 4

I'm participating in the SpinTunes 4 songwriting challenge. My round 1 song is due January 29th. My intent is to post "song bio" material here as I'm able. Last time, I had to drop, because real life was just too crazy to allow me any free time at all to work on a sing. I'm trying to make things happen differently this time, but whether I'll really be able to do this or not remains a bit unclear. Stay tuned. Song Fu is also running again, but in a very different form than it did before. I was considering trying to get a song done for Song Fu's "bioluminescence" challenge as well, but I just don't think I can get both done.