Sunday, September 30, 2007

More folktronik

I wrote last time about working on a folktronik version of "Lark in the morning". I worked on the tune the other day and completed it to my satisfaction. Of the first half (in 9/8), I kept about 80% of what I had originally done, only renewing the 'solos', verses 4 and 5. This latter verse sports a spectacular blue note, C over an F#m chord (ie a diminished fifth); it would sound even better if I did a little note bending, but that's not something with which I've had much experience. I also played around with the final chord in each verse: originally this would have been A major, but due to my warped sense of harmony, such an obvious resolution could not stand, so sometimes the tune ends on FMaj7 and sometimes on D7, leading to G7 (and as the note in the tune is A, this becomes a G9 chord).

The 4/4 section, however, had an almost complete rewrite. From one of my computer science books (probably "The Mythical Man-Month" by Frederick Brooks), I read the sage advice "write one's first system in order to throw it away". This doesn't happen much to me when I write programs, but it's certainly true about music. I kept only the tune with its new rhythmic basis and added a completely new accompaniment. After two verses of the tune, I thought it time for some variation, and as the chords were now approaching a semi-doo wop form, I looked for a suitable tune. I settled on a quote from 'Blue Moon', which sort of fits - it turns out that the changes in BM are twice as fast as they are in LITM. Once more around the tune, and then I found a new wrinkle for the coda - playing the final lick a few times, first ending on D7, then on F7 and finally on A7 - with a heavenly synth playing the opening phrase of the tune. The inspiration for this probably came from 'Adiemus' - the final notes of the final track are the opening theme from the opening track.

At the back of my mind, I had the idea to arrange Fairport's seminal "A sailor's life": a somewhat different kettle of fish to LITM or any of the skip jig material. I remembered that I had in fact sequenced this several years ago for a disc of Fairport covers. I dragged this out of the archive and listened; the music (both in its concepts and conceits) is fine, but the vocals are somewhat lacking. The only part of ASL which caught my attention was ironically the coda; I took this and played the tune over it. It sort of fitted, but wasn't very good. As Frederick Brooks says, write the first version in order to throw it away, so I wasn't too bothered.

At the same time ... I had downloaded a MIDI arrangement of a song by Canadian group Rush; I've never heard any of their material but I remember reading somewhere quoting the drummer to the effect that "7/8 is our favourite meter". I often download MIDI files just to see how someone implemented such and such a musical effect, in the same way that I look at computer source files. This tune had an interesting section of 7/8 and 5/8 bars leading into a 4/4 section with an odd chord (who knows, this might have been inspired in turn by King Crimson's "Red"). I borrowed this part, but it didn't work as an intro to ASL, although the odd chord at the beginning of the 4/4 part sounded promising.

Once I transposed it into approximately the correct key (I don't remember the exact notes, but it's not a classic triad, more like D6/7/9/no 3rd, so it could work in many keys) and slotted the tune in over it, the chord worked very well. Of course, I had to modify it to accompany the miniscule chord changes in the tune (D/C/D/C/D/G/D/C), but now it sounded even better. The beginning reminds me of "Walking on the moon" by The Police: a sort of out of time, crashing multichord.

Sequencing the tune became fairly straightforward, although a few of my ideas became discarded when the MIDI was imported into Reason. Here a certain amount of serendipity played its part and I was able to get a very 'hip' sounding file. The fact that the tune is in 4/4 helped no end as I could finally use a Dr Rex drum loop, which always adds to the seeming sophistication of the arrangement.

I'll probably upload the two new tunes in SoundClick in a few days, when it becomes apparent that the plays for the current tunes are decreasing.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Soundclick pages

At the end of last month, I thought that it was time that I created a new SoundClick page in order to separate different types of music which I create. If someone likes the 'folktronik' sound enough to check my music page, then that person won't be too happy to encounter all the singer/songwriter material stored there. I don't know whether the opposite is necessarily true.

After casting around for names, I decided on YMMV - an Internet acronym for 'Your Mileage May Vary', which is exactly the response that I have been receiving. SoundClick enables one to create several 'band' pages which can be administered via the same user, so creating the page was easy. I transferred over to the page 'all' the folktronik files which I had created: all of two! Unfortunately, the chart history didn't get transferred; as far as SoundClick was concerned, the instrumental called "Killarney Boys of Pleasure" by No'am Newman which had got to position 22 (or thereabouts) in the Irish traditional charts is a different recording to the instrumental called "Killarney Boys of Pleasure" by YMMV.

Once that administrative task had been done, I started looking around for new material. I had been toying around with the idea of arranging Steeleye Span's "When I was on horseback", but hadn't got very far past transcribing the tune. The 'trouble' with many of these instrumental tunes is that there is only a 'verse' tune with no contrasting section, and that there are many notes within a bar, whereas the spaced out electronic sound is better served by long notes.

The first piece which I successfully arranged was "Mist Covered Mountain"; my arrangement was based on the tune as played by Mark Knopfler in the film "Local Hero". I didn't reference the soundtrack but instead played the tune and chords as my mind remembered them. I know that in one place I slightly changed the notes in order to fit in with what I thought should be the harmony. This arrangement closes with what might be termed a 'petite reprise' in order to add some interest.

Next up was a piece which I had started sequencing years ago, called "Sheriff's ride", which I learnt from the Albion Country Band's "Battle of the field" record. As the tune is fairly limited, I could only repeat it a few times before getting bored, so I decided to follow it with "Princess Royal", the first and only Morris tune which I ever learnt to dance. SR is in a minor key and PR is a major, so the transition sounds pretty good. The original MIDI file had been titled "Heavy Morris" (in fact, I had to look up the Albion disc in order to discover what the tune was actually called), and in honour of this, I put a heavy drumbeat and throbbing bass into the arrangement. Instead of having the ending peter out, I used a fairly typical finale sequence F ->  G -> A.

After listening to these two tunes and my other dreamy stuff, I was aware that the folktronik arrangements were missing the mark: they tended to start with the tune, follow the tune throughout the piece and end with the tune. Apart from second, harmony voices, they were too closely based on the original tune.

So for my final (so far) published piece, "Flowers of the Forest", I thought that a change was in order. This one starts with my heavily altered chords of the verse played on a pad, before the tune enters (played on a synthesizer unconsciously imitating bagpipes). After going once round the tune, I then played improvisations on the chord sequence, ignoring the tune and its structure, before playing a closing verse or two.

One extra complication is that many of these traditional tunes are in 9/8 time, making them slip jigs. One probably hears the waltz time, but also each beat is broken down into triplets (although only two notes are actually played per beat, the first is twice as long as the second, specifically a crotchet followed by a quaver, as opposed to two notes each the same length in 'normal' rhythm). There aren't many drum patterns that I'm aware of which have this time signature, so I frequently omit the drums.

I'm working now on Steeleye's "Lark in the morning" (Please to see the king), as opposed to Fairport's "Lark in the morning" (Liege and Lief medley). This too is in 9/8 and has a very short melody. After playing it a few times along with different harmonies, the tune moves into 4/4 time and the tune is played again, although of course now its internal structure and accents have been changed. As things stand at the moment, the tune gets played maybe eight times over the course of only two minutes; the track is too short as it stands but I can't keep on repeating the tune, even though I have changed the rhythm.

So I'm at a dead end at the moment and don't know how to lengthen the track. I may tack on another tune to make a medley (I have been considering Fairport's tune of the same name, but they don't seem to fit together, even though the track is now in 4/4 and Fairport's version is 12/8) or do some weird restructuring to any combination of tune/harmony/rhythm.

Response in terms of page hits, listens and downloads has been very encouraging but there's been no written feedback. Someone did write (via private mail, the comment isn't on SoundClick) that my music was fantastic, electronic with soul, which goes to show that the music is finally reaching its audience.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Welcome back

I see it's been a month since I last blogged, my last message being that we're off on holiday to Santorini. In case anyone wondered, nothing happened to me there; we had a wonderful time. Unfortunately, a few days after coming home, I contracted the flu which left me physically weak for a few days and mentally weak for a few weeks. It's only been in the past week that I feel that "I" have returned.

Santorini is a great place, and a week is exactly the right length of time to spend there. The only bad bits about the holiday were getting there and back; the local airport is geared for European passengers, and those coming from outside the EU have to put up with long waits: one policeman checking the passports of 180 Israelis.

But enough griping! Santorini is small enough to be covered with a motorbike in a few days, yet large enough to find something new to do each day. We stayed in a small hotel near the beach in Perissa so we had the best of both worlds: both the laid back beach ambience of Perissa and the icing cake ambience and beauty of the caldera side of Santorini only 15 minutes away by bike. It might well be that those who stay in Fira or Oia never see the other side.

There was one day where we decided not to "do our own thing", but rather join an organised tour. There are many of these tours which take in the volcano islands, hot springs, lunch in Therassia and sunset in Oia. Unfortunately this day resembled an olympic triathlon and was the physically hardest and least enjoyable of all our days. A bus picked us up in Perissa, a few minutes walk from our hotel; by the time we reached the outskirts of Perissa, the bus was already overcrowded. This took us to the port at Athenios, where no one was there to meet us or explain anything. Somehow someone from our bus found the pirates' boat on which we were to sail.

The overcrowding of the bus was nothing compared to the sardine-like nature of the boat. It was almost impossible to find a place to sit and impossible to move around. It was also very hot. Eventually we set sail from Athenios, only to arrive at the small jetty at Fira; here even more people got on the boat. After another long wait, we set sail from Fira to the large volcanic island, and finally we were treated to a voice-over explanation from the tannoy, in Spanish, German and barely understandable English.

Little did we know when we arrived at Nea Kameni, the largest volcanic island, what was to await us. First of all, we had to pay 2E to even enter the island; my wife wisely decided to stay on the boat. Then we had to walk ... and walk ... and walk ... and walk .... Maybe a few kilometres over rocky terrain (very much like Iceland, no surprise there) and under a ferocious sun. Every time I thought that I was getting near the end, it turned out that there was more to walk. Eventually I decided that I had seen enough and turned back; as always, the walk back was easier. The most interesting thing which I learnt about the island (from the little brochure which my 2E bought me) was that the island grows every time there is an eruption, the last one (albeit minor) being in 1950.

Once everybody had returned to the boat - and how did they know that everyone had returned? - we sailed around the corner to the second island, Palia Kameni, where there are hot springs. One, two, three and people were jumping off the boat and swimming in the sea. After having changed into my swimming costume, I too took a deep breath and launched myself into the unknown. The sea was very cold and very salty, but the nearer I got to the island, the warmer the water became. I found it very tiring to swim against the waves and decided to conserve my strength for the swim back, so I never got to set foot on land. This was the second event in the triathlon, swimming in the sea.

Then we headed off to the island of Therassia which has a very small population, whose main job seems to be feeding the tourists who come to pay a visit. Apart from the food, there wasn't much else to do there. We arrived just before 3 pm and were told to be back on board at 3:40; my stomach isn't used to eating lunch at this hour. From Therassia we went across the bay to the small beach/port/jetty at Oia; the guides didn't really tell us anything about what was to happen. The only thing which I understood was that we could either stay in Oia and a bus would take us back to Perissa, or we could sail back to Fira and from there get to Oia (the 'how' was not explained). By default, we decided to stay in Oia, along with maybe a third of the people on the boat. What we weren't ready for was the fact that there are only two ways to get from where we to Oia: either walk up six hundred steps (Oia is about 1200 feet above sea level) ... or ride a donkey. Santorini is probably as famous for its donkeys as it is for its views. As there were so many of us and so few donkeys (maybe 12), we had to wait a long time in the sweltering sun.

Eventually our turn came and we rode donkeys up the narrow steps. The donkeys must have thought that they were in a race because they were always trying to overtake each other. Mine was doing quite well at this until one misguided attempt to pass on the outside caused me to crash into an electricity pole. It's true that the donkeys have to go up as quickly as possible in order to minimise the waiting time (which we appreciated), but they could have been better behaved.... To add insult to injury, the donkeys dropped us off before the final rise to Oia, and we had to climb maybe 50 steep stairs. By the time we got to the top, we were completely exhausted.

Fortunately there was a cafe waiting at the top where we could rest our weary bodies and laugh about the experience. We collected our breath, drank cold orange juice and washed up. We then strolled around Oia, which is exceedingly pretty, making sure to be at the northern tip before sunset. Everyone else in the village had the same idea, and the narrow alleys were packed with people. We found quite a good vantage point where we could watch the crowds and the sunset.

I don't know exactly what was supposed to happen, but I was very disappointed with the sunset - we get better ones here. True, the sun disappears behind a hill instead of into the Aegean sea, but it looks much better. This sunset sort of fizzled out, greeted by desultory clapping. We then wound our way along with everyone else back into the centre of Oia and found the bus station and bus which would take us back to Perissa.

By this time I was feeling exceedingly unwell, as a result of the late lunch and the unexpected physical activity. As I don't carry my stomach pills around with me, I had to wait until we got back to Perissa for relief.

I can only hope that other people have a better experience on this "See Santorini and die" tour because otherwise I can't understand why such tours continue to exist. Still, it was "fun" (as much fun as basic training in the army, where we were alternately crying and laughing), we saw sights which we hadn't seen, and it was "worth it for the experience", not that you'll get me on a donkey (in reality, a mule) again.