Mid-Autumn Moon

I’ve posted a new song called (I’m pretty sure) “Mid-Autumn Moon” on my Neocha page my last.fm page and my Douban 豆瓣 page for your listening pleasure. Give it a spin!

This song has been 5 years in the making, and I still don’t quite consider it done, but this will do for a demo. I wanted to get it out before this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which is China’s second biggest holiday (after the Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year), occurring annually on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which in 2009 falls on October 3.

Mid-Autumn Festival was the first major Chinese holiday I experienced after moving to China in 2004, and I was curious about the traditions and legends associated with it. Through some informal internet research, I became acquainted with the Jade Rabbit 玉兔, the woodcutter Wu Gang 吴刚, and the Moon Goddess Chang’e 嫦娥, all of whom live on the moon. The stories struck me as well-suited for recounting in the context of a folk song, and as I was starting to contemplate the idea of doing a collection of songs about Shanghai around that time, I added this idea to the list.

I wrote the first verse about the Jade Rabbit back then, as well as the “beheld/felled” couplet for the woodcutter verse, and I have often sung the first verse and the main pseudo-guitar riff to myself in the years since, but I didn’t seriously resume work on the rest of the lyrics until about a month or two ago. As with most ancient tales, there are many variations, so I had to do some picking and choosing to centonize my own version, and in the course of finishing up the lyrics, I was reminded that one of the reasons these old stories are so resilient is that they provide so many opportunities for new expression in retelling, depending on where you place the emphasis, or even which versions of the old tales you use.

Musically, I’ve always thought the song fell into a 7/4 pulse quite naturally. A lot of folk songs fall into irregular rhythms, since they are often built around the declamation of text. I’ve noticed this in field recordings of folk singing, as well as in some of Bob Dylan’s early recordings. It seems to me that it’s only a half-applied classical artifice that forces music into an even meter (for a more rigorously applied classical approach, see Zoltán Kodály or Harry Partch). Of course, there’s still a steady pulse, but the groupings are irregular; I’m basically providing an extra beat for breath (actually, I remember Ned Rorem arguing the opposite point in his diaries, that Shakespearean iambic pentameter is not really in an uneven quintuple meter, but in an even sextuple, since you have to add a beat for breath). It’s pretty much the same rhythm Peter Gabriel uses in “Solsbury Hill,” and I was always annoyed that Erasure added an extra beat to even it out in their cover version, so I also intend this as a demonstration to them that you can indeed have a dance groove in seven.

While recording the vocal track, I was a bit surprised to realize that the melody is pentatonic. The melody’s five years old, and I honestly can’t remember if that was intentional or not. Of course, the pentatonic scale is the traditional Chinese scale to which, for example, a gu zheng is tuned. It’s also an incredibly trite and clichéd way of expressing “Chineseness,” and if I were writing the melody today, I think it would strike me as a bit cheesy to overtly employ it, but what I have written, I have written. Interesting to see how my perspective has evolved after living here for five years.

I’d been hoping to finish up my whole Shanghai Travelogue album by the end of the year (which now seems unlikely), so I really wanted to have this track done by this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. That’s part of the reason the production feels a little rushed. At some point I need to go back and clean up some of the keyboard parts, probably redo some of the percussion with some more interesting sounds (perhaps adding more acoustic stuff), even out some of the orchestration, reconcile the slightly different “picking” patterns in the first and second verses, and add a proper beginning and ending. So if you didn’t already dislike the song, here are some reasons to reconsider. But actually all of the songs I’ve posted for the forthcoming album are demos; once the shape and scope of the album is clearer, I’ve got a lot of stuff to revisit.

Another reason the song feels a bit rushed is that in the past month I’ve faced every technological impediment known to humankind. I was planning to debut this song, along with synth-pop versions of the songs on 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, at my show last night with Resist! Resist! at Not Me, which should have been a simple task for the two and a half weeks I had allotted for it since the opening of my sound installation 路口 at Art+ on September 8. In the end I made it, but, Lord, was it an arduous path.

I just got a new laptop (a snazzy new Sony Vaio Z, which is incredibly light, although not as powerful in the end as I had been hoping, and really stingy with the USB ports) about 3 months ago, and my trusty, five-year-old HP started flaking out almost immediately, as if out of jealousy. It would suddenly just decide to shut itself off, and often wouldn’t even boot up. In trying to set up my new laptop for my show at Not Me on August 27, I tried to install an archaic program called GigaPiano, so that I could do the quasi-acoustic portion of the set, but it installed some super low level audio thing that caused my computer to blue screen every other time I booted up, and in the end I had to completely reinstall the operating system. The newer MOTU sound card I bought to run Breaking New Ground and this new installation for a brief period could not be turned on, but then miraculously healed itself. Then of the 4 speakers I ordered for my 路口 installation, 2 had problems and had to be send back two days before I was supposed to install the piece. In the meantime, I thought I had solved my other laptop’s problem by swapping out the power supply, and I considered myself set to have one laptop/sound card rig to run the installation in the gallery, and another to keep at home for work. But within 24 hours of the 无为 opening at Art+, the old laptop, my old sound card, and my iPhone all stopped working. So for the first week and a half that the installation was up, I had to bring my home laptop in to the gallery everyday to run the piece, and then take it home at night to do my own work while the gallery was closed, until we could finally find a replacement laptop. I got my old laptop repaired for about 500 kuai, but it still would occasionally shut itself off (though never when the repairmen were looking); I took it back to them, but they said it must be a software/system problem, and said they couldn’t do anything else. Then I wanted to get back to some MIDI production to prepare for last night’s Not Me show and to finish this song, and I discovered that there are no 64-bit Vista drivers for my MIDISport MIDI interface, so I had to work on the old laptop, which was still arbitrarily shutting itself down. And when I powered up all my MIDI gear, my trusty Yamaha FS1R synth module displayed the “Low Battery” warning and replaced all of my user presets with garbage, so I’ll have to ship that off to have its internal lithium battery replaced. (And my Roland JP-8000 synthesizer is still not working properly after having been in and out of the shop for three years, since the company Ubisoft hired to run sound at their company party in 2006, at which I performed, fried my synth with their wonky equipment.) Since my old sound card had been shipped to Beijing for repairs, and my new sound card was running the installation at Art+, I resorted to using my new Zoom H4 portable recorder as an audio interface, which was ok for inputs, but the only output is a 1/8” headphone jack, which was ridiculously prone to interference, so the tracks I made for the show last night had a ton of digital noise on them that I had to try to minimize with a noise reduction plug-in. Then at the last minute my old computer, which had lately been staying on for hours at a time, decided not to boot up, and I spent an anxious afternoon trying to get it to stay on long enough for me to copy the last 2 weeks’ work off so that I’d have something to play at last night’s show. Things got to the point that to record vocals for this new song, I was reduced to making a MIDI mix, copying it to my iPhone (now working again, 900 kuai later), listening to the backing tracks on headphones while recording into my laptop, then later trying to sync everything up in Sound Forge, since I currently don’t even have a multitrack audio editor on my new computer, having seemingly lost the serial number for Cubase (and being utterly talentless at using pirated versions of anything). I had to go to the gallery last night to grab my sound card from the installation, so that I’d be able to use it for the show, and, in a final coup, today when I was hooking it back up at the gallery, the borrowed laptop seemed to have its keyboard frozen in Function mode, so I couldn’t even create a simple Max patch to test the speaker configuration. I have been in technology hell, and it’s made me an irritable wreck of a man.

Anyway, now that you exactly what I went through to bring you this song, I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Go eat a mooncake!

Nominations for the Post of Retroactive Inaugural Composer

More or less off the top of my head, here’s a list of composers from whom I would have rather heard a new composition at the Presidential Inauguration than from John Williams.

 

Top 3: Joseph Schwantner (see in particular New Morning for the World), Ned Rorem, and William Bolcolm.  Venerable American composers you’ve probably never heard of, Pulitzer Prize winners all, living in the present while linked to history, undisputed masters of their art.

 

Extended free association list: Bernard Rands, John Adams, Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Steve Mackey, Bright Sheng, Steven Hartke, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke, Wynton Marsalis, David Del Tredici, Tod Machover, Dan Trueman, John Harbison, Augusta Reed Thomas, Dominick Argento…

 

You might consider even pulling in some of the more minimalist or experimental folks like Ingram Marshall, maybe even Steve Reich (though his more recent stuff is kind of stuffy, dull, and dogmatic, so maybe not).  Or even some of the more prickly modernists, folks like George Perle (who died last Friday, perhaps the most romantic of the American modernists), Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Leon Kirchner, or Ellen Taaffe Zwillich.  I think any of these composers would have the perspective and sensibility in their work to provide something suitably celebratory.

 

Basically, anyone other than John Williams.  If inclusion of a classical piece on the inaugural program was meant to signify an advocacy of the fine arts,  well, I can’t think of a composer less in need of advocacy than John Williams.  The NY Times reported that classical musicians were pleased that their field was represented at the inauguration, but it really wasn’t.  Not that John Williams can’t write a classical piece if he wants to, and not to denigrate his formidable mastery of the orchestral medium in any way, but he represents, is in fact virtually synonymous with, a very different practice, one that is more geared towards providing a rollicking good time than probing the depths and extremities of human experience, which is basically what classical music is for (not by some divine mandate or whatever, but just because this is how the tradition has evolved, or rather this is the name given to the musical tradition that does this…erm, I’m putting too fine a point on it…anyway…).

 

John Williams has written some great stuff, but that piece was an embarrassment.  I can’t imagine why any composer would attempt to appropriate the same Shaker tune that Aaron Copland had already treated so masterfully and definitively in “Appalachian Spring.”  This felt like a tossed off, Cliff’s Notes summary of Copland’s piece, especially silly when there are so many other good Shaker tunes on which to draw, if a composer feels so compelled.  (Actually, upon further reflection, I will also nominate a pal of mine for the Retroactive Inaugural Composer post: Kevin Siegfried.  If you need a Shaker tune manipulated, he is your go-to man, much more so than John Williams.)

 

A good friend of mine suggested that the event surely had to be toned down for the masses, leading to this most populist choice of composer.  But I would counter that a presidential inauguration is the ideal forum for a rigorous, sensitive, celebratory work, something that embodies the ideals of a nation, rather than the feel-good, escapist bonbon we heard on the broadcast.  A piece that doesn’t ignore contemporary woes with a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, but that stands strong in the present moment on the firm foundation of history, resolute without being pompous or jingoistic.  Art that actually earns the right to feel good.  If such a historic presidential inauguration isn’t the occasion for such serious classical music, I don’t know what is.

 

BTW, the same list above, more or less, also holds for my Retroactive Commission for the NY Philharmonic’s first concert in North Korea last year.  Dvorak’s New World Symphony was an obvious choice, having been commissioned by the NY Philharmonic, but what an embarassment to show up with no living composers on the program, to suggest that Gershwin’s American in Paris was the best our country had to offer, and honor Bernstein with nothing but the Candide overture as an encore.