December 30, 2009

Pillow Talk, Redux?

Surely you've seen Pillow Talk? Doris Day is Doris Day, Rock Hudson is a songwriter who woos women with a heavily recycled song*. Okay, maybe you haven't. It's a romantic-comedy: they meet, fall in love, etc. The movie is of its time, but so is how they meet. Ma Bell can't lay down phone lines fast enough to meet demand, so the two had to share, thus providing some forced interactions when they want to use the phone at the same time. The romance doesn't proceed in a straight line from there, but it's the start.

The exercise is: give this movie the You've Got Mail treatment. How could it be modernized? What's an in-demand consumer product that could serve as a foil for Romance? Extra credit for updating the careers of the leads (interior decorator, Broadway composer).


* NB: "You're my inspiration, [girl of the moment] / A perfect combination, [girl of the moment]" is neither a good lyric or good English.

November 29, 2009

Tiny Crimes

From Mike Nichols (in bold) interviewing Elaine May:
We’re behaving like hypnotized people, but we’re somnambulant. I hope we can wake each other up. But please, one at a time. There’s so many things, "Your call is important to us"—how do you know who’s calling? It’s the goddamn generalities that make for those tapes on phones and annoying e-mails from a group. The individual—there’s not enough money in the individual. And we have to—person to person—fight for it a little bit.

Let me ask you something. To simply actually stop. I’m just taking this "Your call is important to us" thing as an example because, having visited a large corporation, some executive is getting a $100 million a year and saving money not giving some woman a job for $30,000 a year. And he says we don’t want to take the shareholders’ money. And you say, well, you pay it, deduct it. But there’s no way to enforce that. We all know that that’s true, we all know that that’s bad, and we all know that there’s something about the tiny things in life happening to you that devalues you, that lessens you, that makes you numb. You have to become more and more numb not to get offended. And pretty soon you get pretty sick. And it seems to me—because I’m really a much more negative person than you are, you’re the lightness, I’m the dark—


But it seems to me, at some point what you really want to say is I won’t deal with a company that doesn’t have a real operator. For one day, I’ll make them lose that much money. For one day, I won’t go to a bookstore where the guy says, "Huh, I don’t know." For one day I won’t say, it’s so hard. I won’t run home to a rerun of Cheers, I can’t bother with it. For one day, you’ll take the trouble to make trouble for someone else, because it’s the only thing that keeps you from getting sick, from sort of retreating. I think that’s what dumbing-down kind of is. It’s too much trouble. And there is such a thing as too much trouble.

It’s hard to find the line because if you’re a snob like me, and somebody says, "What is this in regards to?" I’ll say it’s in regards to Broadway. If you want to know what this is in regard to, tell your boss I want to borrow a lot of money. Where do you start, where do you stop, when are you just a pain in the ass?

That’s a very good way to start. You’ve got to start tiny, as Giuliani said, "Don’t go after the big guys, get the pushers off the street." I know he did a lot of bad things, but I remember when you couldn’t walk around New York after 5 o’clock, and now you can. So with all of that, you really do start with tiny crimes. I think they’re like crimes, they’re like little insults that you get all the time.

November 16, 2009

Working Music

I'm accustomed to tapping my desk in various ways while the computer's busy thinking, but thanks to Dan Wolf, my efforts suddenly seem rather slight.

(see original post for a few more)

November 11, 2009

How to Write a Song

Before I dive into this one, I'll let my good friend Gulley Jimson have at it:
But one day when I was sitting in our London office on Bankside, I dropped a blot on an envelope; and having nothing to do just then, I pushed it about with my pen to try and make it look more like a face. And the next thing was I was drawing figures in red and black, on the same envelope. And from that moment I was done for.
It's just that easy! Really. For quite a while, I had a very positive, but not too intimate relationship with songs. I listened to them, sang them, had some opinions, but write them?... no, I could never do that. That's something only other people do. How do you even do that?

Then one day, I had my Gulley Jimson moment. It was a little less dramatic — I was sitting at a piano — but it felt similarly sudden. I was doing what one is supposed to do in a situation, a temptation appeared, I met it, and now my friends are extremely patient with me.

This trip down memory lane was triggered by some recent housekeeping. Despite my background in composition as an exercise in dot-drawing, my song notations have been very informal.* I work in a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook with disposable ballpoint pens. I like this arrangement for its frugality, simplicity, and unpretentiousness. The pages have space enough to work and pre-marked margins. They don't distract from the work at hand. I write lyrics with chord symbols. As ABBA (via SM) said, if I can't remember my own melodies, who else will?

One built-in of this notation scheme is that songs can become a little organic. I find this ultimately benefits the quality of the writing. However, it's been a little over two years since my Gulley Jimson moment and I decided it was time for a little more precise notation. My memory is sure right now... but I wanted to get things down while they're still sure. So, I fired up Sibelius and went at it. It was fun. I saw what improvements I've made at this or that. I found some moments where it seemed like I was really listening. I was proud of those.

Back to the original question: how do you write a song? My photography teacher in high school offered us a cheeky definition of art: it's whatever artists make. To that, I offer a corollary: you make art by making art. I don't want to underplay the ineffabilities inherent to the process. The sourceless surprises are part of continuing pleasure of it, but there's no denying the dumb earthiness in it. You want to draw a face? Well pick up yer pigment and press it to paper. You want to talk technique and other niceties, that's really a separate conversation. Songwriting became possible for me when I recognized those were separate attitudes.


* What impressionable young experimentalist wouldn't find reading Cage's Notations a radical experience? For all that was in that book, what does it say that my strongest memory of it, what seemed like the most radical notation, was its inclusion of "The Word," lyrics only, attributed to "The Beatles"? (That I was at risk of becoming a songwriter?)

October 22, 2009

Music: What Happened?

I just got caught up on Scott Miller's Music: What Happened? series, which he wrapped up last month. All his pieces are extremely well-written, -observed, -heard, and -worth reading.

October 11, 2009

Why Rhyme?

The wag in me wants to ask the question in a broader existential sense (such as how someone with bipolar disorder would ask "why get out of bed?"), but let's start small. More specifically, beyond the effect of "words that sound like other words," what tools do rhymes provide to a lyricist? A few for your consideration:
The sex you're trading up for what you hope is love
Is just another thing that he'll be careless of1
In the most basic sense, rhymes connect words and give them some kind of larger shape. The rhyme here makes a long thought feel whole. The connection between love and of, however, is essentially utilitarian.
Having her on my brain's like getting hit by a train
She's gonna kill me. Oh Celeste, oh Celeste.2
Here there's a little more meat in the connection. It illuminates something less familiar about the words being rhymed.
I'll pretend I'm jealous of all the fellas
And if that don't do then I'll try something new3
Smokey Robinson makes those connections with the sort of language you'd use in casual conversation. That's why he's a great poet.
On a ferris wheel looking out on Coney Island
There are more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand4
You can't talk about rhymes in songwriting without mentioning funny lyrics. The rhyme sneaks up on you and snaps the joke into place.
I'd go to hell for yuh, even Philadelphia!5
Sometimes the joke's in the rhyme itself.
Although she's none the wiser, although we've barely met
I can recognize her from the treatment that I get6
Rhymes have a kind of gravitational pull that you can align with musical phrases.
Look at the day dressed in copper lamé and it's trying your glass slippers on
I sit in the dark and I listen to Mark asking where has that last firefly gone7
In this way, harmonious combinations of words can become their own kind of music, something interesting to chew on with the melody.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Hopefully, it points to some of the magic in words that can get you to pick up the pen every day.

1Aimee Mann, "You Do"
2Old 97's, "Timebomb"
3Smokey Robinson, "I'll Try Something New"
4Stephin Merritt, "Strange Powers"
5Lorenz Hart, "Any Old Place with You"
6Jon Brion & Aimee Mann, "I Believe She's Lying"
7Franklin Bruno, "In A Sourceless Light"

October 07, 2009

The 101st

The 101st
Franklin Bruno
available on Local Currency: Solo 1992-1998

F# B / / | F# / B / | x4

Why does the front of my new notebook say
"College ruled" when I know it sucked?
Flat-out fucked in the aqueduct as we
Cross the garden to take a look around.

a# / / / | / / / / | C# / / / | / / / / |
d#add9 / / / | / / / / | C# / / / | Badd9 / / / |

Frozen hands couldn't play guitar, so I
Inventoried my penny jar.
Spiral-bound couldn't make a sound, so I
rooted 'round in the mulch and found--

a# g# B
The hundredth song about you said the
a# g# B cdim
Same thing as the very first I
a#/C# a# d# a#
Came across before I opened up my drawer.
a#/C# a#
So excuse me while I burst into the 101st.


a# d#
There's an accordion file and it's wheezing away
D A C#
Sixteen, seventeen hours a day.
F# a#
With your Debordian guile there's nothing left to survey.

The broken glass on the backyard path
You could cut your foot where the TV smashed.
Like copper coils from the polygraph
As you weed the wheat out and save the chaff.

The hundredth song about you said the
Same thing as the very first I
Came across before I opened up my drawer.
Unrevised and unrehearsed, just like the 101st.

Intro (end on a#)


Is this even a song?

I mean that more metaphysically than physically. The song's got some formal irregularities (the form suggests AABA-with-chorus more than it is one, the rhyme scheme in the verses verges on free-associative), but those seem largely irrelevant. Franklin Bruno's written enough by-the-book songs that it should be safe to assume intent here.

The lyrics help us out a little more, specifically the chorus. We find out the speaker has written 100 love songs about the same person. He launches into the next section by proclaiming he's about to start into #101, i.e., the 101st of the title. So really, this isn't a song, this is a song coming into being. That seems to justify the verses' free associations.

Isn't that weird?


I would like to develop a format for presenting tabs I've done with some commentary on what got me excited about the song, i.e., something that's mixes the practical and academic. I'll be playing with the proportions between the two, but please leave any comments for improvement below.

October 04, 2009

Re: The New Math

I had a request for explication on this post, so here goes. Software's a more familiar concept:
  • It usually can't be had for less than $15, usually a bit more.
  • You probably wouldn't qualify it as an impulse purchase.
  • It has a reputation that transcends whatever platform it's on. People happily use MS Office on the Mac and get cranky when the feature set doesn't line up with the PC version.
  • It is the product that the company wants to sell.
  • It's often a tool that can be used for work: office suite, photo editor, etc.
  • You may use it as part of collaborative work, but your regular use probably doesn't involve someone else sitting at the same terminal with you.
Apps, on the other hand:
  • Are often free, typically no more than $5.
  • They're cheap enough to buy on a whim.
  • The brand they help is usually that of the host platform. Apple will run an ad to show you some of the more interesting apps you can get for the iPhone, but the ad is ultimately for the iPhone.
  • A large company will often offer something for free so their brand has a presence on the device. It can be a gimme to get people to draw people to their core product.
  • It's often an object for play. People get excited about the app that tells them what's playing over the bar's PA, less so about the tip calculator.
  • It's often used as an object for social play and status, with people you're physically near: "check out this neat app that I got!"
This last distinction is where things get interesting. Software has historically been an extension for office appliances. The ubiquity of powerful, portable devices, low cost of their add-on software, and intended use of that software has produced different from the original vision behind desktop computing. "Social" is an overused buzzword nowadays, but here's one place where a little more exploration is in order.

September 21, 2009

Ethics & Aesthetics, or "I can't believe my brother watches reality TV!"

I've been watching this show called Kitchen Nightmares. Each episode features a different restaurant that has hit the skids. Gordon Ramsey swoops in (via SUV, sports car, motorcycle, or Amtrak, depending on the location) to set them back on the righteous path.

Viewers familiar with his other shows will recognize his foul-mouthed persona. He never misses an opportunity to scream and castigate. He's a ready-made Guy Who Makes a Scene, an archetype that our culture has a lurid fascination with these days.

At least, that's how he comes off initially. He's never short on bile, but he lacks the selfishness that usually comes with GWMSs. He doesn't have the imperial aim of leaving little Londons in his wake. Instead, he lines up the restaurant's existing strengths with any untapped market niches he spots around town. One restaurant was advised to step away from fine dining, because what the neighborhood really needed was a place to get a decent burger. So what's his problem?

He's not angry that they can't cook fish his way. He's angry that they can't cook fish the right way. He has a set of aesthetics, a set of values that he feels to be universal and inviolable (so much for the death of the monoculture). Ramsey's more astonished that those chefs aren't offended by themselves than he's offended by them (his display of that happens to allow him to benefit from this cultural moment).

Plenty of people on the show get in a huff over Ramsey's behavior, but he has every authority to act as he does. His personality is well-documented and he is asked by the restaurant owners help them out. They should know what they're in for. But what about day-to-day stuff with us plebes? Is it okay for me yell at a performing musician if he's out of tune? How about a hissy fit if a co-worker named a variable poorly? Is there accounting for taste? In short, do aesthetics have moral force?

This is where things get hazy fast. It can be tempting to confront people (there's that cultural moment again!), but your right to do so ultimately depends on which cultural communities the parties involved belong to. These communities affect quite a bit of life, from how much you owe in taxes to whether your roommate thinks you actually cleaned the bathroom. The chefs in that clip belonged to a community that didn't mind over-cooked fish. When Ramsey came into the picture, they implicitly asked to join his and were turned away at the gate. They end up choosing to leave the restaurant over changing their behaviors. Struggles between communities go on every day in big and little ways. And as it turns out, they make for good television.

September 18, 2009

The New Math

Apps != Software

(that took too long to realize)

Year in Reviews

I may've been off the blogging circuit for a little while, but I haven't stopped writing about music online:


So, it's time to give this blogging thing another go. It's been a while, but I've got some new ideas on what to do with this space. There'll be fewer multi-page musico-analytical sprawl-jobs, more breadth and variety.

FWIW, sometime in the past two years, blogs stopped being the it format online. Blogs are everywhere. Every content-spewing website has their formal writings and each writer has at least one blog for letting their hair down. Can you really be cool as a blogger in this kind of environment? The edgy stuff has shifted to Twitter and other so-called social sites, but I'll leave those media to the prospectors for now. Staidness, predictability, and boredom have their distinct delights.

As they say, more to come.