Saturday, November 16, 2013

Song festival

My kibbutz will be celebrating its 65th birthday in December. There's quite a heavy programme planned for the first week, but I shall be elsewhere as my two doctoral exams will be held at the end of that first week. 

At the end of the month will be held a song festival; a month or so ago, a call was put out for people to write songs around the theme of the 65th birthday. It was stated that those who only wrote lyrics would have tunes provided for them. I volunteered my services to write tunes.

Yesterday, one of the festival organisers called me and asked whether I was still prepared to write music. I noted that I had the exams at the beginning of the month, but that I would find the time for the music. We agreed that working on songs makes a good distraction from preparing for doctoral exams.

After we spoke, the hint of a tune came to mind. I mentally filed it away for further use, as there was no guarantee that the tune would be at all suitable (in terms of metre) for the lyrics that I would be sent. As it happens, the first set of lyrics which I saw fit almost exactly onto the tune (a nice piece of serendipity), so I was easily able to extend my snippet into something more substantial. I noted that there were some lines which were problematic in that they had too many syllables, but I managed to get around this.

The chord sequence for the verse is a combination of something standard aligned with my harmonic sense: in the key of E minor, there are two repeats of Em | Bm | C | G | Am | B | C | D |
followed by two bars of E minor, which link the verse to the chorus. The instrumentation is basically syncopated Rhodes, bass and drums.

The chorus, though, was something else again. At first, I couldn't see much of a rhythm in the words, but after playing with it for a while, I began to see opportunities. The tune which I created for the opening of the chorus used virtually the same chord sequence as the verse, which was a mild annoyance to me, so the next part veered from the standard into more familiar territory for me. Two repeats of Em | Bm | C | G, followed by Am - so far, standard. But the A minor is followed by G minor: Am | Gm | F | Gm | Am | Bb | Am | Bb. At this point, I was worried that I had dug myself into a hole from which I would not extract myself, so I put in a four bar instrumental which brings us back home - C | D | Em | Em. The end part of the chorus serves as the introduction, and there the E minor chords are major.

Whilst I was working out the tune and the chords, I also developed the arrangement. Actually, there isn't much development, as this song is being written for a song festival: the most important part is the words, followed by the tune, followed by the chords and ended by the arrangement. So I settled on a fairly simple arrangement with only small amounts of instrumental fairy dust.

Feeling that the chorus wasn't packing much power - to be honest, the line structure didn't help here - I decided to cut the second chorus short and then repeat it from the beginning, this time in a different key. The first attempt as this was ok, but after thinking about it, I decided to make the cut earlier, then transpose to F#m.

I'll record vocals this afternoon and then we'll see what happens to this song. The fascinating point about this process is that I received the lyrics at about 1:30pm and had a finished song (without vocals) at around 6pm. I would have completed the song that evening had it not been a Friday night, when my daughter comes for a cooked (and formal) meal. 

Do I wish I could normally work this fast? It certainly makes life much easier having a completed set of lyrics. Normally I would work and work on the arrangement, thinning it out at the beginning and adding instrumental dexterity later on, but as I wrote at the beginning, this time the music is not the focal point.

I have also been sent the lyrics to another song. At first glance, these are going to require a completely different approach, but I won't start with them until I finish this first song.

We last had a song competition about fifteen years ago: I took one of my songs and had the lyrics translated into Hebrew. My wife and I sang the song with live backing, and I thought that we did very well. In fact, everyone who had heard the song during rehearsal was impressed. But as the kibbutz as a whole voted on the songs, extraneous factors came into play, and I don't think that the voting reflected the musical quality. We came third, but this left a sour taste in my mouth.

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