Sunday, March 29, 2009

The big chill

"The big chill", one of my favourite films, was broadcast last night on television. My family dismissed the film, saying that it consisted solely of a bunch of people sitting around a house and talking. I pointed out that occasionally they leave the house, in order to attend a funeral, to play football, to go shopping and to throw out the trash, but the family were unimpressed. As it happens, I hear the same criticism about Woody Allen's films, "a bunch of people sitting around and talking". Nothing ever happens.

So what? Surely these films are more like our lives than "Kill Bill", for example, or any adventure film. Obviously our lives don't make very compulsive viewing.

It's fairly obvious why I feel so emotionally attached to TBC: I could be one of those people. I spent my university years living in a communal house, as did the seven stars of TBC, and felt very close to most of the people there. I was a member (and later, leader) of a group that we established in order to emigrate to Israel, and at the time, this group (and its purpose) was one of the most important things in my life.

As far as I know, no member of that group has committed suicide nor died, but then I wouldn't really know as I am not in contact with any of the members any more. Most upped and left Israel after a year or two, and without that connecting thread, our lives had nothing in common any more.

I didn't feel betrayed by these people's return to Britain, but I did feel sad that several beautiful friendships were now over. Had those people been deceiving themselves all the years in thinking that their future home was in a kibbutz? I am sure that everyone had suitable reasons for leaving.

Anyway, TBC reminds me of what might have been: a group of friends, 15 years on from the crux of their friendship, trying to come to terms with why one of them committed suicide. "I would have helped had I known", says someone towards the end (I may not have the exact wording), but another character casts doubt on that statement, and I tend to agree. What could we have done? We might have known each other reasonably well (or so we thought) a long time ago, but people change over the years.

After complaining loudly, my wife agreed to watch TBC from the beginning, and so maybe understand the film, instead of watching bits taken out of context.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Left/right hemisperes of the brain

I've been traveling fairly frequently in the past few weeks, and my companion in these trips has been the book "A whole new mind" by Daniel Pink. After explaining what the left and right hemispheres of the brain "do", the book argues that most people can "do" left directed activities, and that in order to get ahead and be employable in this day and age, people must now embrace the functions that the right hemisphere runs. According to Pink, we are no longer in the Age of Information, but rather the Age of Conception.

I am a typical left-directed person, and in the past few weeks I have been required more and more to exercise those left directed characteristics which make me very important to my company. Even though there is an economic squeeze and people are being made redundant all across the board, I can't see my position being outsourced, neither to someone in Israel and certainly not to someone in the Far East, with whom contact is electronic. My industry is still based firmly in the mid-20th century, where a knowledge worker such as myself needs to interact face to face with people (especially managers).

I try to work on right-directed functions in my non-work time; music and literature are good examples of this, but I notice that when I create music, I tend to do it in a left-directed manner (stylised, computerised, very structured) and not in a right-directed manner (free flowing, live playing, improvisation). I have never been comfortable playing over one never-ending chord and much prefer an interesting chord sequence to stimulate my brain. There is much connection between mathematics and music, and the structured type of music which I play is much more 'mathematical' than free jazz, for example.

Most of the non-fiction books which I have been reading in the past six months are connected with the brain, in some way or another. Examples include Martin Seligman's "Learned Optimism", Daniel Goleman's "Social Intelligence" and John Medina's "Brain Rules". Am I becoming a better human being after reading these? Unfortunately, the answer is no. I am too entrenched in my ways, and the needs placed upon me (at work) don't allow (or require) me to change. Couching my response in Darwinistic terms, there's no need for me to develop extra capabilities because I don't need them in order to survive.

I believe that the current economic crisis is going to reverse several of the advanced trends which have been occurring in the past few years (not so much so in Israel), and that workplaces are going to revert to more traditional forms. Social intelligence is always required, but I don't need it that much (although I would like to have it!), as I don't manage people and generally work alone. I would like to be more optimistic, but Seligman contends that workers in the financial and computing areas have to be more pessimistic than salespeople (who are the biggest optimists). Pessimists see things more clearly, and my job demands that I see things as clearly as possible.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Share with you (continued)

After a few more days of cogitation, the new "Share with you" has been uploaded to Soundclick.

Over three days, I recorded vocal tracks which were ok, but not wonderful. The problem, I realised today, was that the close harmony in the second verse was cluttering up the sound of the song and so I decided only to sing harmony on the "share with you" hook (not that's it's much of a hook).

As there is also a mini-modulation in the second verse causing me to sing very high notes, I decided to take the song down a key. At the same time, I decided to speed it up a little (104 bpm instead of 100).

Whilst in the mood for changes, I changed the introduction and also a few lines in the 7/4 solo.

The song still sounds basically the same as it did a week ago, but now I hope that it's better.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Jackson Browne - a reappraisal

I first heard of Jackson Browne in the autumn of 1976. Until then (and in fact, since then) I had listened almost entirely to British music, but the music magazines of the day suddenly gushed enthusiastically about Browne, which persuaded me to give him a chance. I distinctly remember an excellent piece about him in Rolling Stone, but there were other articles as well.

I still remember walking to the Golders Green branch of "Our Price Records" (which was near enough my "local") and asking to hear Browne's latest (and fourth) recording, "The pretender". This album starts with "The fuse"; I heard the opening E minor chord and immediately knew which chord would follow (C). "The fuse" is actually a very powerful track, and on the basis of that alone, I bought the album. Although there were a few tunes which were a bit naff, I very much liked the album as a whole and so started a Jackson Browne binge which lasted several years.

I listened to "The pretender" again the other day and I have to admit that my opinion has changed somewhat. This is the most produced and arranged of the early Browne albums, qualities which can be both a good thing and a bad thing, especially as I gave up on his albums due to a serious lack of harmonic language. It's certainly much more varied than the obsessively monotonic "Late for the sky", which was its direct predecessor (I would like to think that Browne realised that he needed a little more variety in his music after LFTS and so turned to Jon Landau as his first external producer).

"The fuse" is certainly powerful in its execution, features several interesting chord changes and also some intriguing vocal stylings as well as a real instrumental performance. Unfortunately, it stands almost alone in the Browne discography. Both of the following two tracks come from different musical backgrounds, ones which I admit I do not like, and neither displays much in terms of harmony. "Here come those tears again" is a well-executed pop song, but not much more. "The only child" is another standout, as is "Sleep's dark and silent gate". At the time, the schizophrenic nature of "Daddy's tune" didn't bother me, but now it does. Again, an inventive arrangement, but Browne is forced to sing loud and this exposes the weakness of his voice. The eponymous title track which closes the album is almost a tour de force: on the one hand, it does have a lot going for it, but it too suffers from that generic LA sound which I dislike.

On reflection, the major culprit of my dislike would be Waddy Wachtel's guitar sound: a thin, anaemic, LA sound, far away from the bite of David Lindley's slide guitar (as featured on "The fuse"). Unsurprisingly, Lindley had been a major contributor to Browne's earlier albums, and would return for the following "Running on easy" album, recorded on the road (but not really a live album).

As monotonic as it is, Browne's third album "Late for the sky", with its Magritte inspired cover, has a run of three songs which are amongst the best he has ever recorded: "Fountain of sorrow", 'Farther on' and "The late show". But it is his 'sophomore effort' (as the Americans breezily term it), "For everyman", ironically composed mainly of songs written prior to the release of his first album, which is, in my humble opinion, the peak of Browne's achievements.

It's acoustic (except for a raucous (and disposable) "Red neck friend", featuring Elton John), it's lyrically inventive, it's highly melodic and it's also intimate ... which leads me to believe that that's how I like Jackson Browne: quiet, acoustic, melodic and bearing good lyrics. Some of the arrangements tend to the homogenous (the title track is an example), but some are outstanding ("Colors of the sun", "These days") and some are like meeting an old friend ("Sing my songs to me").

The fact that I have eight Browne albums on vinyl and only three on cd (of which only one gets played fairly regularly) speaks for itself.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Share with you (story of a complex arrangement)

I am working at the moment on sequencing a song which I wrote 31 years ago, called "Share with you". I had sequenced this about ten years ago, but thought it worthwhile to update the arrangement. As usual, I discovered that 50% of the notes should be discarded before importing into Reason.

This new version is more laid-back, as a result of slowing the tempo from 120 bpm to 100 bpm and by virtue of having less 'busy' parts. It is debatable whether this version is better than its predecessor, but it's certainly more contemporary.

There are sixteen bars in the middle which form an instrumental section. Previously, these bars had four different instruments playing different lines, and it sounded a mess in Reason. Use of 'Warfarin', the blood thinning compound and rat poison, was needed! My first attempt at sequencing this section kept two of the four solo lines, but I felt that something was lacking. A day or two later, I remembered an attempt I had made a few weeks previously to sequence something in 7/4 time. Whilst that attempt wasn't particularly successful, I felt that moving the instrumental sequence to this time signature would certainly make things interesting.

So change I did. This was technically awkward to do in the MIDI sequencer, so I ended up making a copy and discarding everything from the time signature change onwards. I then copied back and edited the rhythm guitar and bass parts, and when this was done, I imported back in the original ending. Then I had the pleasure of playing two solos in 7/4 time ... one I managed, but the other was elusive. I had another go at it last night, and for certain bars, the second solo is simply harmonising with the first, albeit a sixth lower. As the final bar features almost only triplets, this is quite awesome (triplets in 7/4 time, yeah!).

I had also produced a drum pattern by taking the opening two bars (of 4/4) and surgically removing the final beat, whilst adding an extra snare hit on the seventh beat. This was pasted in to its correct position.

This sounded ok in Reason, but still seemed to be lacking something. After trying a few unsuccessful ideas, I hit on using a drum loop for those bars. Now, all the drum loops which I have are either one or two bars of 4/4 time (I am still looking for loops in other time signatures), which theoretically are of no use whatsoever. If one, however, looks at the problem mathematically, then eight bars of 7/4 time are equivalent to fourteen bars of 4/4 - both have the same number (56) of beats/crotchets. So I pasted in seven copies of a two bar loop, and surprisingly the result sounds good. This is, in fact, an example of polyrhythms - seven against four.

An amusing coincidence: the bar number of the switch to 7/4 time is 74. What does this mean? Actually, nothing, as I always leave a spare bar at the beginning of every tune, and I could vary the length of the introduction. But the coincidence is too good to pass up!

I hope to record vocals at the end of the week and then post the resulting song at SoundClick.