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!