The Most Relaxing Blog Post…Ever!

I visited my favorite massage parlor, 龍之道, yesterday. I’m not sure I want to publicize the address, as I generally prefer to be the only bloated foreigner in the joint, but they provide rigorous Chinese massage, medically sound, with skilled practitioners, and the whole array of treatments (incl. hot cups) available as necessary, none of this froofy Dragonfly shizznit.

The only problem was the music. I think they must hand out a complimentary CD of English language adult contemporary dreck when you pick up your business license in Shanghai. Those who have been here a while can fill in this list on their own, but all the classics were in full effect during our hour and a half visit:

The Eagles, Hotel California
Phil Collins, Another Day in Paradise
Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You
Celine Dion, The Power of Love
Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence [actually, I like this one]
Michael Bolton, When a Man Loves a Woman
Bryan Adams, Everything I Do (I Do It for You)

We made a little game of guessing the next tune, and I was afraid I’d lose until they played Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” as we walked out. (I never heard “My Heart Will Go On,” but I did doze off for a bit.)

I’ve long thought that a massage parlor is an ideal place to implement some of my ideas for indefinitely continuing music (just like in a videogame), totally ambient (no pre-rendered dramatic climaxes), non-looping, real-time deployed. It’s still a back burner project, but I’ve been hoarding ideas for Project Dragonfly for at least a year now. Stay tuned; it’s gonna be absolutely, unequivocally gorgeous.

Compiling this list reminded me that way back when I did that interview with Morgan for SmartShanghai, I shared my Chinese experimental music starter kit, which didn’t make the final edit of the already exhaustively comprehensive interview (I’m still so impressed that Morgan took the time to transcribe all that babbling).

So here ya go, my Chinese underground/experimental music starter kit (which admittedly betrays a marked ambient bent):

Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 + 10, See You New World (2Pi)
718, An (Kwanyin)
Lin Zhiying 林志英, [I actually can’t tell what the title of this thing is; might be “II,” and the label might be “21 Floor;” album art is B&W photo of a lot of people going over a bridge with umbrellas and a TV in a vacant lot]
Wang Changcun 王长存, Parallel Universe (Post-Concrete)
AITAR II, B6 and MHP (Isolation Music)
V.A., Music for Shopping Malls (Kwanyin) [featuring Zafka, Yan Jun 颜峻, and 718, and Eric Satie]
V.A., Landscape 2 (Shanshui)
V.A., The Sound of Silence Project (Reconfiguration)
And one of Torturing Nurse’s 9,382,521 CD’s; I’ve given out the one they did with Tokyo-based Polish noise artist Zbigniew Karkowski and Hong Kong-based Dickson Dee a few times as gifts, “Penetration” (PACrec)

Now the bad news: last time I was at Sugar Jar in Beijing, I wanted to pick a bunch of these up as a gift for a friend of mine (the fine composer Kevin Siegfried), and most of them are now out of print. So if you ever see ‘em, snag ‘em!

BTW, when I read that SmartShanghai interview for the first time, I had a mad impulse to annotate and expand and fill in some of the gaps, but I resisted, seeking to preserve the integrity of the barroom ramble it was. Now that some time has elapsed, in an effort to wring more mileage out of it in the time-honored tradition of the director’s cut, I would offer the following additional comments:

I got distracted by some other idea and totally skirted the question about being proud of my work on EndWar, but yes, I am quite proud of my work on that game. I think it’s a great game, and I think it includes some technological innovations in the sound department that hold great relevance for the industry at large. Hurrah for EndWar!

I started to answer the question about what exactly I was doing at Ubisoft with a long answer about how my previous roles led up to my most recent role, but then I got lost my train of thought. But the short answer would be that I was the lead audio guy on the project, and my job was to convey and support the primary vision for the game in sound. Read all about it here.

I might have clarified that the original lead singer of Petra, Greg Hough, lasted only one and a half albums, soon to be replaced by Greg X. Volz.

Had I considered the question a little more closely, I probably would have said that classical music is the midpoint between Christian rock and Torturing Nurse, rather than INXS, and then I would have blabbed on about extracting the creative impulse from its varying manifestations and achieving some kind of enlightenment that encompasses all sound as music or some such drivel. I also feel bad that I didn’t give Depeche Mode appropriate props as an influence in this interview, and perhaps also Michael W. Smith.

And I flubbed the details of my frustration with those damn Elvis Costello reissues. The first reissues (of all the pre-Warner Bros. stuff, during which time he was handled differently in the UK and the US) were done by Rykodisc, as single disks with bonus tracks appended. Then Rhino did 2 CD remastered editions (which also included his Warner Bros. releases), and now Universal is re-re-re-releasing all the pre-Warners stuff. I have This Year’s Model on cassette, LP, and Rykodisc CD, not to mention the Warner Bros. release of All This Useless Beauty as well as the Rhino reissue. In general all the bonus material consists of rough demos, too, which in most cases only tarnish the final versions. There are not nearly enough rare B-sides, especially from Mighty Like a Rose. And can you even get “A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety” anywhere anymore? Although I would love to get my hands on that short, live, promotional EP he did with the Brodsky Quartet following The Juliet Letters, which had a Beach Boys tune and some Tom Waits, I believe. What was the question again?

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!]

Wound Up and Worn Out

The Subs show last night was p-double-a-acked! I haven’t seen Yu Yin Tang so crammed since, well, since the Rogue Transmission CD release party a week ago, another awesome show.

Opening was Yellow Riot, a Clash tribute band that bore an uncanny resemblance to Rogue Transmission for some reason I just can’t put my finger on.

Every time I see Boys Climbing Ropes, it brings to mind this half-remembered quotation, something Elvis Costello said about the early eighties Attractions, something about how they could sound pent up and strung out at the same time. Or laid back and wound up. Or worn out and hung up. (I’m thinking of songs like “Strict Time.”) For a while, I had a sense that Boys Climbing Ropes were kind of two bands fighting for the same stage, but now it seems they’ve managed to balance their yin and their yang in a most satisfying way. Great show, and we sweaty masses summoned them back for an encore, a triumphant reading of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The Subs were awesome, as you may have anticipated. Monstrous peals of arena-ready guitar riffs rent the fetid air, while lead singer Kang Mao 抗猫 magnetized the crowd with her wild-eyed thrusting and jabbing, convulsing as she squalled. She was doing a really weird thing with her voice, a kind of tremolo that sounded more like two sine waves beating; I have no idea how she did that. It was great, but like I said it, the place was super packed, and having made rather merry the night before, I left halfway through the set. I realized I still had their CD at home that I still hadn’t listened to, with better sight lines and less smoke and no mosh pit to spill beer on me. I know, I’m sorry, I’m lame.

It was fun to see BCR and Subs on the same bill. While BCR’s tunes are bit more foursquare, with steady chord changes, the spice provided by the lean interplay between guitar and base that sidesteps standard voicings, The Subs are more likely to stay put for a while, bluesing around a chosen key area for longer stretches. Whereas BCR were more about edgy riffs, The Subs favored extended solos. Nice contrast.

Oh, and it was Halloween, so people were dressed up funny, but I wasn’t. Since Halloween’s the day after my birthday, I still nurture a childhood grudge against it for stealing my birthday thunder.

Speaking of birthdays, maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe I was just worn out and hung up from the previous evening’s festivities, but I sure wouldn’t mind if these things started a little earlier. With the headliner taking the stage after midnight, I almost always konk out before the DJ afterparty fun starts, much as I would like to stick around. Now get off my lawn.

Update: just saw Andy Best’s review is up, and it’s more thorough than mine, so go read his blog instead! Great finally meeting him in person last night.