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!

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!