Grisly Death by Shanghai Cab

Here’s a song about riding bikes and falling in love in Shanghai (right click and “save as…” to download MP3).

Grisly Death by Shanghai Cab

It’s not connected at all with my upcoming exhibition, but last night as I was practicing the piano for my performance at the show opening (Nov. 6!), I finally solved the puzzle of the harmony of the middle section of this song, which has been nagging at me for months. So I ran out and grabbed my H4 Zoom audio recorder and got it down quick, and I love the idea of something being available for download about 12 hours after it’s finished, so here you go. If you want a setting, imagine a dark auditorium (I don’t know how to turn on the lights in there, but I really don’t mind playing piano in the dark, although it wasn’t so practical for recording, but I managed) on the top floor of the True Color Museum, big windows onto the quiet outskirts of Suzhou, about 10:30pm at night.

I started this song about six years ago. It’s becoming an unfortunate pattern for me to work on a song for five or six years. The last one was “Go,” which I posted on NeoCha about a year ago, and the next one is “Cross Ocean,” which is about half recorded, pending completion of an unnecessarily complex algorithmic breakdown section. (Most of my songs, including “Go,” were posted on Chinese social networking site NeoCha, which despite my unflagging support was shut down a few weeks back, which is a bit annoying, so I currently have a lot of broken links on my site. If you need an interim fix, check out my Last.fm page, or NeoCha’s hardier competitor, Douban.)

Anyway, the title and main hook just came to me, as these things do, about six years ago, as I was getting accustomed to life in Shanghai. At the beginning I was simply amused by the incongruity of such a dark lyric with what I imagined to be a bouncy, Burt Bacharach style musical setting (the melody and irregular phrasing certainly have some Bacharachian countours, if it’s not too immodest of me to say so). I always planned, and still do, I guess, to arrange this for chamber orchestra; there’s an intro/outro flugelhorn figure in my head, not represented in this recording.

So for a long time I just had this title/lyric and few other ideas that started to casually conglomerate around it usually while walking or biking around Shanghai. But after I’d been dating Jutta for a while, a more complex narrative started to emerge, associated with this idea that basically the more you start to care for someone, the more you worry about them; the two come hand in hand. And Jutta bikes like a maniac, and there have been times when her phone’s been out of battery or she doesn’t pick up and I’ve found myself rather distraught. It’s a little bit of the idea from the film What About Bob, where if you walk down the street yelling things like “turkey tits!” pretending to have Tourette syndrome, you must not actually have it. By imagining the worst, somehow the worst feels less likely.

I was trying to finish this song as a birthday present to Jutta in 2009, but this has proven to be one of the trickiest songs I’ve ever written. I almost completed it in time for her birthday this year, finishing the last lyrics on the train from Frankfurt to meet her in Cologne last August, but these last tricky chords still eluded me. I was trying to convey the idea of working oneself into a worried frenzy, imagining increasingly implausible scenarios, and I found this difficult to reconcile harmonically with the rest of the song.

Here’s the solution. The bridge pops down a whole step to a new, but closely related key area, signifying a new mental perspective. It starts out with a simple pattern (though also ambiguous, hovering mostly on the subdominant), twice transposed through a little twist up a minor third (F-Ab-B), getting higher and louder, then an irrational leap up another minor third (skipping ahead in the twist) to D, then this alternation of Bb minor 7 (implying melodic minor, raised sixth scale degree) with an octatonic scale also based on Bb (starting Bb-Cb-Db), trying out different scale degrees as a root (D, G, and F, kind of directionless pacing or flailing, not leading to harmonic resolution), before finally using F to slip into a FmM7 as a weird kind of resolution to something that’s still not quite settled, then eventually continuing through a more conventional cadence, gm7, d9, then to a kind of BM7 (which I voice as just an F with a Bb in the bass, although I guess I stuck a D in there, too, so whatever you want to call it). Then slipping into this thinner, ambiguous quartal set of G-A-C-D, which, since A is in the bass, allows us to fall, exhausted, back into our familiar e minor in a kind of plagal fashion. It took me many, many drafts to arrive at this! BTW, the high notes that I’m not quite hitting 3 times in this recording are Ab’s, way out of my range, but hopefully fitting in the context of the song.

OK, interlude over, I’m testing some computer configurations for my installation this morning, then I’m off to Shanghai to tackle printing for my show. I guess if I were more marketing/branding-attuned, I would, you know, stay more on message through Nov. 6, but such is the fickle nature of inspiration. Get it while it’s hot!

Now see you on Nov. 6 in Suzhou!

The Return of Synth-pop

Allow me to share a few words concerning my synth-pop debut at the sold-out Antidote Electronic Music Festival in the Shanghai water town suburb of Zhujiajiao last Saturday.

This was the first time I’ve done a solo set like this since a three-song open mic night performance at the Art Bar in Seattle on July 17, 1997. And by “set like this” I mean full-on synth-pop, with me singing and playing some keyboard parts live on top of bright, intricate, rhythmic backing tracks (essentially the Depeche Mode recipe).

First step was to properly record all of the songs, and the last one, “Prebound,” was finished just over a week before the festival. I’ve started doing three mixes of each new song I record: one full version, one karaoke version (you never know), and one “music minus one” version, in which I mute the main keyboard tracks that I want to play live.

Once all five songs in my short set were written and recorded, I wrote three patches in Max/MSP to help me pull them off live.

The first patch behaves very similarly to Windows Media Player or Winamp or whatever: simple transport controls (play, stop, pause, resume), with a big slider at the bottom to instantly access any part of the song (primarily for rehearsing). I use this to play back the “music minus one” mix.

Then I wrote a simple sample-playback synth in Max. I wasn’t about to haul all of my synthesizers out and set them up on stage, so I sampled the eight or so sounds I required. When MIDI note information comes in from my five octave M-Audio Axiom keyboard controller (connected via USB), my program maps the sampled notes across the full keyboard range, with a simple attack/decay envelope applied. The result is generally not quite as dynamic or vibrant as the original sound, but close enough.

Last I wrote a patch that would track my current position in each song and load different sounds into my sampler at the necessary times. (My playback patch outputs the current song position in milliseconds, making this pretty easy to do.) If you start playing in the middle of a song, it’s smart enough to look back and see what the current patch should be and load that. I didn’t use any of Max’s sequencing objects for this, just a simple collection.

None of this sounds super impressive, I guess. Altogether it probably took me about four days to do. I suppose a lot of people would have done this in a sequencer like Cubase, and I imagine that could work well enough (although I find Cubase a terrible patch librarian). The main advantage for me was that everything could be completely automated, so that on stage I just had to type 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to load one of my five songs, the hit the space bar to start, and all of my patch changes happened automatically, so I could focus instead on singing in tune.

The show went alright, not bad for a matinee. I was up first, so folks were still trickling in, but those who were there seemed to dig it well enough. There were a few flubs that I need to iron out with more practice. It was a terrible idea to follow “口口口口口口口口” with “Prebound;” after shouting at the top of my voice, it was very hard to keep that low falsetto in tune. Also, I borrowed a keyboard stand (from the friendly folks over at Resist! Resist!, resplendent in their fine debut performance!), and it was a little short for me, so my whole posture felt out of whack (though I tried to pass it off as an intentionally splayed and petulant rock stance); it was really silly of me not to practice and perform with my own keyboard stand.

Next steps: practice, buy my own keyboard stand, add more songs to the set, and update my sampler to handle keyboard splits! Then when all that’s solid, I’m going to work on real-time algorithmically generated visuals, but that’s a ways off, I think.

Big thanks to Michael and the Antidote crew for inviting me to participate, a super swell time!

口口口口口口口口

Hey, check out my new song, “口口口口口口口口.”

Perhaps some explanation is in order, especially for those readers living outside China (such as the Russian spambots that frequent my blog—hi, fellas!). The Chinese character 口 is written “kou” in Chinese pinyin, and it’s pronounced like “comb” without the “mb.” It’s pronounced with a falling-rising tone, classified as the third of Mandarin’s four tones. Especially when first learning Chinese, I would sometimes involuntarily bob my head while speaking to help me reproduce the proper inflection.

I’m no professional etymologist, but basically 口 represents a kind of archetype mouth. It’s not used to refer to the mouth of a person (that would be 嘴, or zui, also third tone), but it’s used for doors (门口), entrances and exits (进口 and 入口, respectively), mouths of rivers, and such. It also functions as a component (or “radical”) of more complicated characters, usually indicating that the character has something to do with the mouth (as in the aforementioned 嘴), or that it’s an interjection of some kind.

Most foreigners living China will be familiar with the phenomenon of receiving a Chinese text message on a phone that doesn’t recognize Chinese characters. The text is therefore displayed as a series of boxes, which, as the astute reader will have noted, closely resembles the character 口. So I used to make a little joke of feigning ignorance on the subject, delighting myself and friends with the apparent ability to read a text message comprised entirely of 口’s. And that, pretty much, is the idea behind this song.

That’s Torturing Nurse’s Xu Cheng 徐程 on guitar. I wanted to do a noise solo, thinking about garbled communications and such, and while pondering how to accomplish this, I decided, well, why not just turn to the pros? I had gone to Xu Cheng’s house for a Torturing Nurse rehearsal in 2006 (Torturing Nurse being Shanghai’s seminal noise band, who just celebrated their 5th birthday 2 weeks ago) and recorded some of his guitar playing for the piece Mobile 3 that I performed at that year’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou. I asked Xu Cheng if I could reappropriate some of this material for this song, and he graciously agreed. I think it fits the song super well (in fact, I think the end result is probably more successful than Mobile 3).

I had a bit of an agenda for harmony in this song. A lot of pop music I hear seems to rely on volume, distortion, and aggressive delivery to convey, you know, angst or tension or whatever. But to me, harmony is the real source of angst in, for example, Nirvana’s best songs, distinguishing them from, you know, Warrant, or so many punk bands that posture angst on top of common practice era chord progressions that could have been lifted right from the pages of Mozart. So especially given that my sound palette mostly revolves around shiny synthesizer tones, I wanted to try to get the frustration and uncertainty of the song across harmonically.

The song is basically built around a whole tone scale, though I switch whole tone scales a few times. This shifting between whole tone scales (there are only two) happens with increasing frequency in the longer, louder second verse section, trying to settle into something that won’t be pinned down, but at the very end approximating enough of a major scale to suggest a half cadence. There’s usually a constant drone in the background, and tension derives from these two musical ideas trying to fit together somehow, to forge some meaningful relationship. I think this is the neat thing about harmony; it’s not just a metaphor for something not fitting in; it is literally the same thing.

At the same time there’s only one chord type in the whole song, a major triad, and it’s always presented in root position. I did something similar in “Hack Coo!” from Stranger Personals, a setting of personal ads from The Stranger for voice and piano, where almost defiantly optimistic major chords are lost in a cascade of other notes, depriving them of their tonal moorings. Since the roots of the chords conform to alternating whole tone scales, but the chord type is major, the hegemony of the whole-tone scale is constantly being thwarted by the fifth of the chord. At the same time, the constant transposition of this immutable voicing causes harmony to move towards the realm of timbre (like a pipe organ, or Ravel’s doubling of horn with piccolos on the upper partials in Bolero), so that the chord starts to fuse into a single musical entity.

The bridge breakdown is the only part of the song that exists entirely in a whole tone scale, with no perfect fifths to get in the way. While this keeps it from resolving in a traditional tonal way, the fact that it belongs all to one scale provides a kind of respite from the conflicts of the rest of the song, creating this brief cocoon of tentative intimacy before exploding again.

Around the time of his death earlier this year, I was rereading George Perle’s The Listening Composer, in which he points out the prominent role that symmetrical structures play in the music of Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Bartok, and other giants of the early 20th century (an aspect that unifies these rather diverse composers). [A symmetrical structure is basically an interval sequence that eventually gets you back where you started. If you move by half-steps or fourths or fifths, you get the whole 12-tone chromatic scale; but if you move by whole steps, you get the 6-tone whole tone scale; a half-step plus a whole-step will get you the octatonic scale, etc.] So I still had these ideas on the brain, although I’m sure this song wouldn’t have earned much more than an eye roll from Mr. Perle. While the verses are mostly wandering adrift in whole tone land, the chorus and breakdown shout-out sections are working through different cyclical structures; for example the breakdown repeats the same material at (negative) minor third transpositions until arriving back on the initial pitch. The chorus pattern basically short-circuits a circle of fifths progression by the introduction of a minor third, so that the figure leads straight to the tritone transposition and back again. (For another, prime example of symmetrical partitioning in a pop lick, check out Prince’s “P Control” from 1995’s The Gold Experience.)

My original concept for the vocal delivery of the song was to have it kind of shouted, kinda rap or sprechtstimme, to keep things floating and unresolved, and at several points during production, I fought the urge to turn it into a conventional melody. There kind of is a bit of a hidden melody, a simple, slow-moving ascending figure in the fuzzy drone part during the verses, but I only vaguely follow the contour of it, not matching any pitches. As is probably quite apparent, I was thinking very much of Elvis Costello, in particular “Pump It Up” and “Playboy to a Man.” That squawking sound is something I’d heard Prince do (and Elvis, on rare occasion), but never figured out how to do it (by inhaling) until going back to the source, some old James Brown recordings. Of course the shout-out stuff is very Prince inspired.

Can we have that 800 number again?

口口口口口口口口

Excellent.

[Addendum 9/22/2010: I forgot to mention there’s also an oblique reference to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors.” Extra points if you can find it!]