Salvage Suite

I spent January at the piano, dealing with unfinished business. Let me explain:

When I was studying music at University, I spent a lot of time trying to be a composer. And I mean “trying.” I finished the occasional piece and some of them were OK. A couple were more than OK. But for every completed piece of music, I started about eight others that just disintegrated on the page.

I can see now that there were two main problems. Firstly, I was an insane perfectionist with an almost total lack of technical skill. I was trying to get everything just right when I didn’t even know how to get it kinda-sorta right.

Secondly, I was forever trying to reconcile my own rather 19th-century taste in mellow tunefulness with the prickly, atonal modernism favoured by most other student composers and by our lecturers. And again, this challenge was way beyond my skill level.

All this turned composing into a source of misery and depression instead of pride and joy. Since then, I’ve given up on composing for years at a time. Every so often I’d come back to it and write a couple of short piano pieces solely for my own enjoyment, which took a lot of the pressure off. I also found a slim textbook by a certain P. I. Tchaikovsky, which remains the only comprehensible book on strict classical harmony I’ve ever seen.

Meanwhile, I became a singer-songwriter and found the joy of getting music to do what I want it to do. Learning the guitar was a godsend. It does a lot of the grunt work for you, allowing you to concentrate on the bigger picture.

For February Album Writing Month last year, I decided to write some tiny piano pieces. My rules: Don’t worry about whether the style is “acceptable.” Don’t worry about whether the notes are “right.” Just write, as fast as you can. I wrote seven preludes that month, and added five more to the set in March. For the first time, I felt like I was “back” as a composer.

I felt like giving my horribly frustrated 20-year-old self some closure at last. So last month I dug out some of my manuscript books from nearly two decades ago. I took six of the better ideas and turned them into six tiny, tiny piano pieces. (It’s early days yet: that’s about all I’m good for!) The third one is something I wrestled with for months back then. Now, it took me under an hour to solve all the problems with it. I call the result “Salvage Suite.”

There’s also a song, which I haven’t figured out how to record yet as my “piano” is actually a Yamaha keyboard that’s old enough to vote. It rattles loudly, so I have to record it through headphone splitters! Come March, I’ll start looking for a proper electric piano.

I’ve finally earned it.

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The Melancholy Wail of the Ukulele

When recording my songs at home, I have to face facts and make lemonade.

I live in a small council flat, underneath a young and rather loud family. If I wait until I won’t disturb or be disturbed, I’ll wait a long time. So from now on I’ll be more blasée about firing up the ol’ Zoom recorder. So long as there’s not a full-blown tantrum in progress overhead, I can tolerate the odd footstep or muted wail. Plus, if anything, my singing seems to calm the sproglets down. Or bore them. Not sure I care which, to be honest.

I’ve spent a lot of time nursing a foot wound this year, which means a lot of time sat at a strange angle feeling bored. That’s the lemons. The lemonade? Ukuleles are great for playing in awkward postures! So I’ve got a whole lot of uke practice in lately, while neglecting my guitar and not even touching the poor old bass.

Here’s some of the sparkly stuff:

 

Think “ukulele,” and you think “cheerful.” Happy songs, major chords, manic speed or up-tempo swing. Possibly Manic Pixie Dream Girls wearing berets. I have different ideas. My friend Deb is probably to blame- she got me into ukulele playing by showing me (amoung other things) a uke cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” on YouTube. But it’s also the sounds I discover while exploring that tiny, tiny fretboard.

Many chords are much easier to play on ukulele than on guitar. So a wild and melancholy E-flat minor or a G-minor-with-major-7th can easily sneak into a simple C major song. This has made me more adventurous harmonically as I can try out all kinds of odd juxtapositions with very little effort.

I’m also very keen on fingerpicking. This is where, instead of strumming all the strings, you pluck them individually with your fingertips. It’s not that commonly used on the ukulele, because it takes more thought than on a guitar. The uke only has four strings, and they’re pitched in an odd way: high, low, medium, high*. With those restrictions it isn’t easy to find a good fingerpicking pattern for a song, but when you do the results are often striking and rather haunting.

I tend to neglect my ukulele stuff, so I’ve started that new Soundcloud playlist for them. The first four, “Different Moon,” “Who Knows,” “Blue Dwarf Star” and “Scarborough Sunday,” are all songs I’ve finished in the last 4-5 weeks. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Some of my geeky obsessions are on display here. Blue dwarfs are a kind of star that doesn’t exist yet. They’re what red dwarf stars grow up to be once they stop fusing hydrogen. But the Universe is nowhere near old enough for even the very first red dwarfs to go through that change. And “Scarborough Sunday” comes from memories of Fantasycon by the Sea in 2016: sitting on the patio outside the bar in the Grand Hotel in Scarborough, looking over the windswept North Sea.

*That’s the standard, “re-entrant” tuning, G C E A.

A Natural Wombat

Many words in songs are, quite simply, wrong.

Some mistakes are errors of reproduction. Someone at the publishers mistyped a word, which is copied by later songbooks, and we’re stuck with the result. Perhaps a song becomes famous after being covered by an artist who learnt it by ear- badly. All subsequent recordings carry the resulting misheard words.

In folk music, this is part of how songs evolve. There’s a common version of “Barbara Allen” where the word “Scotland” got replaced by the mysterious “Scarlet Town”. And, thanks to all those user-supplied lyrics on song wikis, even the music of last week is being messily processed by the oral tradition.

Some wrong words are derivative: artistry lead astray by the mistakes of the past. A new generation of songwriters hears the common errors in old songs, and they say to themselves: “This is special song language. This is how to write.” As listeners, we get used to this strange, stilted language. We never question it. But we should.

Here are some of the most widespread errors found in song lyrics, and how to correct them.

For “Woman”, read “Wombat.” Many songs appear to be about men loving women. A man loving a woman is so common as to be completely unremarkable. No-one would bother writing a song about something so boring. Ergo, wombat. Some good examples are “I’m Every Wombat”, “Bess, You Is My Wombat Now” and of course “When a Man Loves a Wombat.”

For “America”, read “Armenia”. As any pedant will happily tell you, America is not a country. Examples: “Armenia the Beautiful,” “Armenian Wombat,” and “Armenia” from West Side Story, which evokes the ambition of many Puerto Ricans to start a new life in the Caucasus.

For “in love”, read “in Lvov.” Love is not a place. Lvov is. It is a famously romantic city in Ukraine, with a long and tangled history. While modern Ukranians call the city “Lviv,” the older Polish name (pronounced “luh-VOFV”) survives in song. Examples: “Like Someone in Lvov”, “I’m Not in Lvov” and “When You’re in Lvov with a Beautiful Wombat.”

Songwriters have a reputation for being self-obsessed. This is based on a misunderstanding. In the mid-to-late 20th century, musicians were at the forefront of the Carnitarian movement, whose followers don’t eat vegetables on ethical grounds. Though Carnitarianism has largely died out, its rhetoric survives in such songs as “Love Meat Tender,” “Army of Meat” and “From Meat to Ewe.”*

It is hard not to be creeped out by how many songs of romantic / sexual love use the endearment “baby.” Much to my relief, I have uncovered evidence that this actually started as a act of self-censorship, by early gay rock-and-roll stars seeking a wider audience in a homophobic world. In addition to switching round gendered pronouns, they needed a stand-in for the word “beardie,” which, then as now, was a term of endearment for a hirsute man.† Examples: “My Melancholy Beardie,” “Beardie Got Back” and “My Beardie Just Cares for Meat.”

There are many more common errors in songs. I’m sure you can think of some. Whether we choose to perform the correct versions or to go with the widely-accepted corrupted texts, it is important that we understand what our favourite songs are really about.

*This opens up a line of enquiry I prefer not to follow here. Still, it would be remiss of me not to mention Aretha Franklin’s Dadaist hit “Ewe, Make Meat Feel Like a Natural Wombat.”
†We do get objectified a lot. When I walk through Leeds on a Saturday night, I provoke lustful cries of “hey, beardie!” from younger men.
©Copyright David Breslin 2016