Genesis of a Song
I recently wrote a new song, though “wrote” doesn’t feel like the best way to describe it. Often, songs seem to more “appear” in my head, generally a bit at a time. This one was no exception.
It was a Tuesday night, probably around 11ish. I had been at an open mic (whether that has anything to do w/ it or not, we’ll likely never know) and was sitting around winding down, and I heard a drumbeat in my head (a lot of my songs start w/ drum beats or rhythmic ideas, which is funny considering I don’t play drums at all). So I sketched it out on whatever paper was handy, figuring maybe I’d do something w/ it someday.
(Here’s an important point: I’m constantly coming up w/ ideas and writing them down. I have a file called “composition ideas” that has close to fifty things in it, none of which has become anything yet, and maybe never will. I figure this consistent creation just keeps me in shape for the things that are worth completing).
But as I was drifting of to sleep hours later) I started hearing a guitar riff to go w/ it (The drum pattern and basic guitar riff I put on SoundCloud). A very punky, Nirvanaish thing. I figured I’d put the two together the next day, but the riff kept playing over and over in my head, and I even heard it go to two other chords (starting in E, it proceeded to A and Ab). Having experienced this before, I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep w/out addressing this song in some way, so I got up and turned on Pro-Tools (I no longer use the Amateur Tools). I programmed in the drum beat, turned on my guitar amp and started playing along w/ it. A curious thing happened here: once I hit the Ab chord, I instinctively knew that there had to be a C chord before returning to the E riff. Where do these things come from? The subconscious? Some divinity?
So I jammed the riff and changes against the drum pattern for a while, and then went to sleep. But at this point I started hearing lyrics. Just a line or two at first (and for some reason, i was hearing them sung w/ Greg Lake’s voice). So I would periodically turn on a light and write what words I was hearing in a notebook I keep handy. This went on for a while, and when I woke the next day, i had two-and-a-half verses complete. (I put one verse up on SoundCloud)
So that day I recorded the guitar against the drum pattern, but I was also hearing a tag by now (when that happened I’m not sure). So I finished the verse lyrics and recorded them, but I needed lyrics for the tag. This was the only part that felt like “work”. I would try and think of what would make sense (lyrically) to conclude w/, and ever recorded two of those ideas. But I knew that neither of them was right (and there have been times when I wanted to finish a song so badly that I went w/ whatever I could come up w/, and regretted it every time, so I’ve learned not to rush these things). But as I was playing around w/ these (dreadful) ideas, they formed into a melody (w/ a harmony part). Words slowly appeared to this melody, and I finally had the tag and the song was complete! (The final version is also on SoundCloud)
This tends to be the way songs appear for me. If it occurred slower I would’ve put up more samples detailing the process, but maybe the next one will happen over a more extended time period.
Why do we like what we do?
My recent comments on the new Black Sabbath (and the replies to it) caused me to wonder about what makes us like certain things and not others. And not just in the sense of why do I like Wolfmother but not Justin Bieber (that one’s pretty obvious). Or even why such a Rush fan as me doesn’t like the “Hold Your Fire” record but really enjoys “Vapor Trails” (whereas I expect for some Rush fans it’s the reverse), but what’s fascinating to me is how at this point I can’t listen to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” anymore (what some call the “Stairway to Heaven effect”) but can still listen to “I Can’t Explain”, even though I’ve likely heard the latter more times. Compound this with the fact the “Won’t Get Fooled” has a variety of sections and harmony and dynamic changes while “Can’t Explain” is mostly three chords pounded into the dirt. One would think if I was going to get sick of a song it would be the simpler one.
(And why do I have so many Bill Frisell albums but only two from Larry Coryell? The first response would be that Frisell is so much better, but are there people who would dispute that?)
Maybe it’s due to where and when I first encountered the song/artist/genre. Like the idea that if you eat a certain food and get violently ill you will find that food less appetizing in the future. But I doubt that’s it. I think we’ve all had the experience of being on a date and this person who we’re really into decides to play us their favourite song and we think it’s crap (of course, you don’t tell the other person that, you smile and tell them how much you like it). We should really appreciate this music if it’s linked with this wonderful event, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.
And to being the idea of food back (as I often like to do): nobody ever discusses these things around that subject, do they? I’ve never heard anyone asking “Why do I hate coffee but like coffee flavoured ice-cream?” or “How come you’ll eat raisins on their own but not in muffins?” Do people have these conversations (just when I’m not around)?
Or maybe it’s like that old saying (I’ve heard credited to Frank Zappa): “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”
What If? (solo show jitters)
I’m currently preparing for a solo performance, where I will play and sing all by myself, w/out any backing band to lean on. This is of course fairly frightening. But there’s a great technique I know of that works well w/ these kinds of scenarios.
It’s basically to imagine the worst case scenario, and discover that even at the lowest things might not be so bad. For instance, one worst case might be that no one shows up, and I’m performing just for myself and one barista (or whatever the coffee makers at Sip This like to be called). However, the bright side is that there’s really no one to tell the tale of how awfully my performance was attended, and so I can just serenade the counter-person for a few songs and then pack up early and do something else, which isn’t such a bad fate (and they do have some gorgeous women working there).
So what might be a worse predicament? Maybe if a crowd does show up but my performance is terrible. Like my guitar keeps going out of tune, and I have a scratchy throat and sing out-of-tune, and forget a lot of lyrics. Well, first off I’d say this is a worse fate for the people that showed up than it is for me. They have to sit through it, whereas at least I’m doing something. And even though it’d be a shame to have a dreadful show turn off these folk from ever coming to see me again, the next morning my life would be much the same as it had been the previous day, so it’s not all that horrid an outcome. My potential audience will just have become a bit smaller, which though not something I want, wouldn’t be something that would totally disrupt my life. It would just set me back a bit.
So the worst possible thing that can occur at this show isn’t something to be all that concerned about. And it’s highly unlikely that the worst thing will happen, which of course also means that it’s equally unlikely that the best thing will happen (like Katie Sackhoff happens to break down while passing through w/ an A&R friend of hers and they stop in and I do such an amazing performance that she becomes quite taken w/ me and the A&R tool insists on signing me to a mega-deal w/ his label. As I said, highly unlikely). So the actuality will probably be somewhere in between the worst and the best. So I guess the lesson is if one is focused on the best outcome, one will likely be disappointed, but if one is focused on the worst, then one will be pleasantly surprised.
Getting a Great Show
When I did the Landmark Forum (and if you like I can rant about that for a page and a half) there was an exercise we did where one person talks about a topic they’re passionate about, while their partner makes a point of ignoring them. It was amazing how difficult it was to put a complete sentence together in this scenario. When the exercise was repeated only w/ the partner actively listening, speaking became an effortless flow.
I’ve noticed this effect when performing music, with a bit of a twist: the more people that are listening, the easier it is to perform well (and the better my performance is) and the more people that are there but not listening, the more difficult it is to play well (in fact, there have been times where my playing has approached “sucking”). I feel bad when there’s a few people really listening and wanting to enjoy the show but two dozen people actively ignoring the music and that taking it’s toll on the band (btw, it does help to have a band that’s listening to each other. One of the reasons why I enjoy performing w/ the likes of Matt Baranello and Big Time Matt Klein so much).
To drive this home, let’s say you go to see a hypothetical national act, let’s call them “Aerosmith”. Well, if you’re in a stadium w/ thousands of people listening, it enables this fictitious group to do a fantastic show, seemingly effortlessly (which it kind of is, in that a lot of the effort in putting on a great show is dissipated throughout the audience). Now let’s say the next week you go to see a hypothetical local group, let’s call them “John Wilkes Booth” (and they’re performing at a hypothetical venue called “Mr. Beery’s” in an imaginary location we’ll call “Lawn Guyland”). And what if there are only 30 people in attendance, and only ten of them are actually checking out the band. It may appear that this group is not as good as the stadium act, but that would be inaccurate (in my mind) as this second act has to fight through the resistance of most of the audience (though they shouldn’t really be called an audience if they’re not paying attention). I would even argue that if John Wilkes Booth does manage to pull off a good show (which they have done) the effort required to do that puts them in a category above Aerosmith.
But here’s the more important thing: if you go to see the first band, you’ll probably pay at least $50 for a ticket, so you have a high incentive to really listen. If you go to see the second group, it may be a $10 cover at most, and so you may not be as motivated to really pay attention. But from an economical point of view, you’d serve yourself better by skipping the first show, and treating the second one like it was a $50 show. In fact, if you really want to get the most out of local shows, bring a bunch of friends and make sure they understand that you’re there to hear the music. If you can get them to follow your lead (I don’t know what kinds of friends you have and what the dynamic is in your relationship, so you’ll have to determine how possible that is) you will get a $50 show out of a $10 band. Can you turn down a bargain like that?
When I was in junior high I took an elective class on creative writing which at the time I found fairly disappointing. The class consisted of students bringing in whatever they had written and the teacher and class critiquing it. I was more interested in the question of what the genesis of these writings was. How does a person come up w/ and idea for a poem (or song, or painting, or whatever)? This was never addressed in the class (and the teacher didn’t seem too pleased w/ me for bringing it up).
When I first got into music, the rock and roll bands I admired all wrote their own material, so I figured that was a requirement, and I tried to write songs but quickly found I was terrible at it (very quickly). Later on, I became more interested in jazz and blues, and there are plenty of famous folk in those genres who don’t write their own material, so I decided I would concentrate on my playing and I could always play other people’s songs. Ironically, it was soon after that that I started composing my own music.
But saying “composing” may not be putting it quite right. It brings up the image that I donned a powdered wig and pulled out a quill and some parchment and started the work of “composing” a piece of music. That’s not how I do it at all. Unfortunately, it’s a lot less theatrical. Musical “ideas” kind of just appear in my mind (and I’m still not sure where they come from. Now I’m able to appreciate that teacher’s annoyance w/ my query). In the early days this would very often happen while I was doing something else, like bicycling (which is annoying when you’re trying to pay attention to traffic and such, but are also giving attention to this song in your head, trying to figure it out). A melody would just “happen” in my mind. Or it might be a set of chord changes, or a rhythm (many of my tunes have started w/ a drum beat that I heard, which is considerable amusing as I don’t play drums at all). More recently I might hear a lyric, or some combination of lyric, melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, or whatever (pick any 1-3 of the above). There was one time I had just heard a grad student (at Stony Brook) perform an Elliot Carter piece for percussion, and after it concluded and the audience started applauding, I heard the entire “the Maginot Stomp” (early Piltdown Man number) and had too rush home (missing the remainder of the concert) and stay up until dawn figuring it out.
I’ve even “dreamed” songs, or at least I assume I have. On at least two occasions I have woken up w/ a song fully finished running through my head. So where did it come from? I’m very often concerned when this happens that I’m plagiarizing someone, but so far no one has heard one of these songs and told me “you just copied X”. Could be that I’m stealing from obscure sources, but I would’ve expected someone would have caught me by now.
When I am “composing”, it’s really more like I’m editing, or figuring out a song off a record I heard once. There’ll be this “idea” that appears, and I’ll be playing w/ it and trying to get it right, (or trying to figure out how to make it work for whatever group I’m currently playing w/). Like if you told a group of artists to paint the lawn (a representation of it, not to actually paint over the grass, you silly goose). Each artist would likely approach it differently (and may have even thought about varying options for this particular landscape), but the “idea” of painting the lawn was the given. That initial inspiration is the fleeting thing that I still don’t know where it comes from. And sometimes it’s a very specific and complete idea (these chords w/ this melody w/ this lyric and this bassline), or it might just be a guitar riff that I have to do something w/, and other times it’s just a kind of vague sound (which it’s hard to put an example of, as the sound can’t be put into words. That’s why I have to figure out how to make it into a tune).
When I get these incomplete ideas, sometimes I get so excited that I force myself to complete them straight-away. I’ve discovered over the numerous times I’ve tried this that it always turns out terrible. When I first came up w/ the guitar riff for “Forsaken?” (on the Coincidence Machine Bandcamp page) I dug it so much that I immediately set to putting lyrics to it and recording it. It was truly awful. It was years later that I was just waking up one morning and heard these blues lyrics in my head. But as I thought about them I noticed they were a blues w/ different chords than a blues usually has. Suddenly it hit me that these were the lyrics for that guitar thang I’d written (and ended up hating). So over the years I’ve learned to be patient, and let these songs finish themselves. (This can be rather frustrating. I have this very Rush inspired double-neck thang that I’ve been playing around with since I got the instrument, and I’d really love to perform it, but no lyrics have come yet. I guess I’ll just keep waiting).
When I was in College out in StonyBrook, me and some other folk would trek into Manhattan every month to see Defunkt at the Knitting Factory. This group had a fantastic bassist (Kim Clarke) and I also got to witness her w/ the trio Bigfood, and was even lucky enough to chat w/ her and guitarist Bill Bickford at the bar between shows. I remember feeling like “Wow, I’m actually hangin’ out w/ Kim Clarke and Bill Bickford! How awesome is this”, even though I probably came off as some starstruck kid.
Last Thursday, it turned out that Kim Clarke was performing w/ the Agave Quartet not too far from where I live. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity (to see what looked to be a great show for no cover) and of course I was there. Debbie Knapper was the guitarist, and she had been kind enough to allow me to sit in at her jam at the Proper Cafe a while back. In the second set, the group started calling up folk to sit in, and as an upright bassist took the stage, Debbie asked me to come up and play guitar. I got to play some jazz w/ a couple of cats, and then, to my amazement, Kim Clarke came back up and I actually got to jam w/ this person who I’ve been listening to since I was around 17.
Afterward I thanked Debbie profusely for giving me this experience, and then proceeded to annoy Ms. Clarke by telling how much I admired her playing and how many occasions I’d seen her perform. She replied with “How kind” and then went off to do something more important that dealing w/ my praise (I would’ve done the same) and I realized that a couple of decades later, I’m still the same starstruck teenager.
But after a bit I thought: “Well, why not?”. I mean, would it be better if I’d turned out some jaded and bitter adult? And besides the fact that at least I still retain the passion for this music from my youth, I also think it’s good that this music and people like Kim Clarke (who I bet most of you have never heard of) have a champion that really believes that what they do is important and invaluable to this world. So maybe I come off as a bit geeky and annoying at times, but screw all of you. at least I live w/ passion, and can still get over-excited about a brush w/ one of my heroes.
So I’m performing w/ Piltdown Man this evening, and I’m spending a portion of the day warming up (just like if you were a runner you wouldn’t just jump out of bed and onto the starting line. Well, maybe YOU might). This consists of doing some silly sounding voice exercises (which I do while cooking and doing dishes. Of course I have to stop when the cooking is done as it’s difficult to eat and sing simultaneously), and some instrumental practice and maybe singin’ and playing some songs. I usually do stuff that I won’t be doing at the performance, so that when I perform it’s fresh (to me). I always hated when bands I was in would rehearse the set on the day of the show. It’s harder for me to get into playing a song for an audience when I’ve already played that same song 3 times that day. Sometimes it was unavoidable, so I dealt with it, but it’s not preferable.
I also will even try to play different instruments that I’m playing at the show. E.g. prior to a Coincidence Machine show I will probably spend most of the day on the string bass. I figure I’m playing a manual (w/ the hands) string instrument, so even though it’s not exactly the same as what I’m dong at the show it’s still similar motions and muscles, and I’m more excited about playing something else at the show. Some of you may disagree with this, and you’re welcome to leave your comments at the bottom of this post so I can ignore them later.
W/ Piltdown Man, since I predominantly play string bass, and it’s the most difficult instrument I play, this doesn’t always work, so I will probably do a little work on that instrument, but I’ll try to make it something that has little or nothing to do w/ what I’ll be playing later (which can be difficult considering how diverse our sets typically are, so I expect I’ll just read through some classical music). I also try to knock off at least an hour before I leave for the gig, and maybe just do something mindless like watch TV so that my mind is clear(er) when it comes time to hit.
That’s how I do it. How do you prepare for a performance?
Origin of the Beast
At our last two performances a number of people asked me about how it is that I’ve come to play this double-kneck guitar bass contraption ( I call it “the Beast”). I figured I’d blog on it so maybe I won’t have to tell this story so much in the future (though I’m still happy to if someone asks).
When me and Matt decided to put together a group to play more rock & roll material, we put out ads looking for a third member. With me being a bassist and guitarist, we thought maybe an instrument that could also fill multiple roles, like an organ or cello, but we tried to word the ad so that most any musician could respond and be considered. We posted it on a few sites that catered to musicians searching for other musicians, and waited.
We received a response of exactly no one. Not even any tire-kickers just curious about what this project was about. Though this was disappointing, I put forth the idea that there are other groups that are duos, most notably the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Clatter, and Om. And my ability to play either bass or guitar should add more variety than those acts have. I had a small loop pedal that I’d been using in other contexts, and figured I could also use that in this group to also help fill out the sound.
We’d been rehearsing for about a year when one day was talking w/ Josh Berman about what we were doing, explaining that “I play bass and guitar thru a loop pedal, layering loops to play on top of” and he responded: “Oh, like El Ten Eleven”. My reaction was: “Who’s that?” They happened to be playing in NYC that month (or the next month, I can’t remember exactly) so I went to see them and Kristian Dunn was playing a double kneck guitar and bass, layering loops with both instruments. I immediately thought “That’s what I need for Coincidence Machine”.
So I scoured the internet looking for one. They’re not readily available (how many people are in situations where they could use one of these?) but on Ebay I did find a chinese luthier who had some, but with the bass on the wrong side. Since bass guitar is played with a more extended right arm, and plectrum guitar with a bent elbow (at least that’s the way I do it) it doesn’t make sense to have the bass on top. I wrote to him and asked if he could reverse them. He said fine. So then I asked if he could make it w/ separate outputs and humbuckers in the guitar. He again agreed, though I was starting to feel like I was pushing my luck.
When I got it, the jacks and wiring were a mess, but it made more sense to just have the Guitar Museum rewire it and replace the jacks rather than ship it back to china, and I’ve had no other issues w/ it since.
Well, one other issue: learning to fully use it within the context of Coincidence Machine.
Who was that guy?
I was listening to “Upside Out” (mostly to try and get to the point where I won’t forget lyrics in the middle of singin’ a tune) and I was struck by something: listening to some of the playing and writing on the recording, I have no idea who that guy was.
In an attempt to explain, I’ll use one example. There are these aggressive bass solos (on “the Price”, “She’s So Heavy”, “Wish You Were Here”) that seem so far removed from the way I play that to my ear it sounds like a different person. I mean, I know it was me, I have memories of playing those tracks, but listening back to them, I don’t feel that I could play like that guy (the previous me is the guy I’m referring to).
I started to wonder if other musicians go through this, and I recall an Allan Holdsworth interview where he claimed he can’t listen to his older recordings because of how bad he plays on them. To me, when I listen to any of his recordings, he always sounds like Allan Holdsworth. I wonder if other folks listening to me, whether from this most recent Coincidence Machine CD, or an old Piltdown Man recording, just hear me as sounding like me (Jimi Durso), even though to me these various eras sound like very different people.
On one hand, I know that I’m not that person. Shunryu Suzuki once said something to the effect that the person you were a year ago is dead, the person you were yesterday is dead. To believe that the person you are now is the same person who was in your skin yesterday is a fallacy. But at the same time, there is a consistency that we hear in others (like I was saying about Holdsworth).
I can’t say i have any explanation of this effect, but it does present me with a conundrum: do I try to play these songs like that guy on the record? Or do I just play them like the guy I am now? I expect that I’ll have to do the latter, since I am the guy I am right now (well, not anymore by the time you read this), but will that be a disappointment for those in the audience who are expecting the guy on the record, and instead get me? Or, if this discrepancy between that guy (the one who did the record for me) and the me of the now is only something I’m aware of, and the audience just hears some semi-permanent “me”, no matter what stage of my evolution that I’m in, then I’m making a big post out of nothing.
jimidurso ♦ February 11, 2013 ♦ Leave a comment
I heard an old interview w/ Adrian Belew where he was fretting about knowing whether anyone was interested in his music. This is a feeling I believe most of us artists share (at least I know I do); wondering as you’re creating something whether anyone will even hear it, much less enjoy it.
In the old days you had to wait for record sales and concert attendance to determine if your art was appreciated, but nowadays, with statistics available on many websites, you can find out immediately. But somehow this doesn’t fix the issue.
To demonstrate: YouTube will tell me how many views a video gets, and when. And when I first put up videos, every single view was cause for celebration. But after a while that joy starts to wane, and I started looking at other stats: “like”s, for instance. And even though I was happy about the views, there were videos w/ over one hundred views but only a few “likes”. So were these videos valuable to people or not? There weren’t many (or any) “dislikes”, so it’s hard to say.
Another stat that YouTube provides is “estimated minutes watched”. But this is a perplexing statistic for me, as sometimes a 5-minute video that has 10 views for a certain time period shows only 2 estimated minutes watched. So is this minutes per view or total minutes? If it’s 2-per, does that mean that two people watched it all the way through and the others skipped it immediately or did everyone only make it about 2-minutes into it before they ceased watching? (These same issues occur w/ sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, who give similar statistics). These things can all contribute to the erosion of an artist’s self-esteem.
So I’ve decided two things: 1. People in our culture (meaning our era) tend to be both lazy and easily distracted. It’s hard to hold people’s attention not because your (or my) work doesn’t have value, but everyone is so bombarded w/ stimuli demanding their attention that human beings may be losing the capacity to pay attention to anything for a reasonable length of time (or to listen deeply). This may not be true, but it’s a way for me to not feel like everyone’s skipping over my tracks ‘cos they all think my stuff sucks.
Also, I make a point of watching other videos all the way through, and listening to their tracks in their entirety. I don’t know if statistics affect other folk the way they do me (I’ve got a degree in psychology) but in case they do, I can at least do my part to let them know their expression landed w/ someone. Also, I try to put a comment whenever I can, since I know personally how much this means to any creative person. A positive comment is far more cause for celebration than any statistic.