Sunday, 18 January 2009

Gettin' Music Done

Many years ago, I wrote a song about liking girls who didn't know I existed.  It had a Jim Steinman (Meat Loaf) inspired bit where a female voice joins and the male and female voices sing a small almost-conversation.  When I came to do it in the studio, Mindy, a shy little 18 year old, sat crosslegged on the floor with the lights off and sang a cool little wobbly vocal for it.  I worked and worked on the song, importing it to my hard drive several years after that studio went out of business and it had been gathering dust a while in my closet.  I made it heavier and heavier, until I was deeply pleased with it, and then my friend Nathan said "That sounds exactly like Guns N Roses doing Knockin on Heaven's Door."  And it had gotten so it did.

I started rebuilding the song around the existing drums, bass and vocals, and made many different versions.  Eventually, I started from scratch, resigning myself to losing Mindy's call and answer vocal during the quiet bit.  I then started asking other girls to do it and one by one, rather like in the song, they said "Sure!  Cool!" and then didn't.

Eventually, despite having last heard that Mindy was living in Montreal, I looked her up on FaceBook and, not only was she back in town, she was longing to get back into doing music.  Today she came over to do the female vocal part on the completely re-tooled, completely unGuns N Roses, completely unKnockin' on Heaven's Door version, which actually has a different pacing and rhythm and so on.  This version had been intended to sound Motown, and I'd built the rhythm section with this in mind, but as soon as I started adding acoustic and electric guitars, and I sang it, all the Motown went out of it immediately.  Then I got J to come over and do electric.  I let him play with my digital delay pedal, as he'd not tried one much.  He thought he was sounding like Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, but in that song, he was sounding very Bryan Potvin of The Northern Pikes.  Then Tyler dropped in during his Christmas break from school in Toronto and did me a lovely piano bit.  Now it remained to add Mindy to it.

She was having trouble getting the part together, so I recommended doing some easy "doo doo's" and "oo oo's" for the outro at the end of the song.  We got overly analytical of that, but got some good stuff going.  I was trying to help her get more relaxed, as she has a gift for fluid, wandery, soulful stuff that evokes Billie Holliday, Amy Winehouse, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and the like.  It wasn't happening, and I mentioned the Motown roots of the song, and she said "I totally can't hear that."  So I turned off all the parts except the drums and bass.  

She got very excited and said "That's totally Motown!  Could you record me a track of me freestyling to that with some lyrics I've had kicking around for a while?"  I said fine, and she sang some very soulful, groovy vocals that were going all over place in a good way.  I had a suspicion, and said "Can you do a second take of that, and secretly started the recording at the outro part of the "almost all tracks muted so she can make up her own song" piece.  She did it again, and then I did something cool: I turned the rest of my song back on around her little freestyle song she'd just done, and let it function as backing vocals while my voice and the rest of my song played in unison with her song.  And it worked.  Of course she was on beat because we'd been using the same drums, but she'd also been making up stuff to my bass playing, so her stuff fit mine rhythmicly, and also followed the chord changes with the bass.  Very odd.  Very cool.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Drinking the Polar Icecaps

It was a Newfie friend's birthday, so I took an abortive nap after school and headed into the frigid evening to his place. It is roughly -30C, give or take. (That's -22F for those still living in the Bronze Age) Cold enough that footsteps in snow stop going "fwup, fwup" and start going "Squee squee." Cold enough that when it snows, the flakes are so tiny it's like talcum powder is being poured down.

I brought my guitar, as I haven't been playing much since the fall, and my callouses have softened and disappeared. I was given some Screech (a Newfie brand of Jamaican rum) with some ice that was shipped to my buddy from his dad in a block that came from a huge, supposedly 10 000 year old ice berg that is floating near harbour. 10 000 year old ice in my drink. He gave me far too much Screech, so I nursed it relatively cautiously. There was an embarrassingly decadent spread of vol-de-vants, ordeuves and stuff. Nanaimo bars. Coconut pineapple balls. Spiced meatballs. Fancy dip for chips. These things that were like if you put a chewy marshmallow filling inside a chocolate doughnut hole, and then sectioned it into slices. Many other things I ate without knowing what they were.

The guitars came out and much music was played. Three acoustics and an electric bass. Also, an ugly stick. An ugly stick, in Newf parlance, was in this case an upside-down hockey stick stuck securely and permanently into a boot/moccasin full of stuffing, with a tambourine nailed to the other end, and nails all over it strung with beer caps to add further percussive tambourine jingle to it while the boot end of it is "stomped" on the floor while the musician, in the case of my newfie buddy, also beats it with a drum stick all the while dancing a reel and singing lively Newfie-not-Irish songs about ships, pretty girls, pubs and sailors who don't come home from the sea.

I sang a lot. I sang my voice a bit rough, and my feelings got pretty nicely purged out. Some intimidatingly large women bustled out into the middle of the living room periodically, "woo!-ed" and shook their bellies to music we did that met their approval, and a cute woman kissed me on both cheeks and praised my voice.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The Interconnectedness of All Things

Way too tired to be typing this (well, thinking about it, certainly) but want to get it down before taking a huge nap.

At school, J presented me with a typically excited rave about a book he's reading, as he tends to do from time to time.  He likes fictional books in which apparently magical things are demystified to be scientifically explained (so, books in which Merlin is a chemist, and Excalibur is forged from ore taken from a meteorite) and "non-fictional" books in which 'science' is mysticized.  For me, that ruins both types of books.  I want magic in my fantasy, and none in my science.  This latest one pretty much, he said, scientifically proves that The Force from Star Wars exists. Time travel, telekinesis and telepathy are all real.  Science says so.

What I took to be the latest manifestation of an achingly obvious frantic searching after the mysterious and "spiritual" without wanting to feel gullible or superstitious, and failing utterly on both counts (so far anyway, one must admit) annoyed me a bit. This troubled me.  I always feel annoyed when science, the nerdy kid with the headgear and coke-bottles, steps onto the football field of spirituality mid-game and decides to point out something about angles and inverse square law, all the while bemoaning "the need for all of this running around and sweating."  It's like, "Go home!"

He lectured his English class on it as well, very excited, and admitting he'd tried some telekinesis last evening.  This made me question why I was temped to be mean and shut down his seeking after spirituality.  Why?  Because I know it all?  Because his nonsense is stupider than mine?

So, when I went into the local bookstore to pick up books, and started to tell the guy about this book, and its facile, obvious "spiritual" points about "everything affects everything to varying degrees" (duh) the door opened and two women swept in.  One looked to be about 50, and the other about 20, and they were dressed identically in matching long, dark wool coats (like mine, but buttoned to the chin and down to the ankle), and big clunky shoes.  They were very thin and angular, which made the 20 year old look unnaturally octogenarian.  Their hair was identical as well. They had elaborate 19th Century "up hair" held in place with many pins.  The sort of hair one sees in pictures like this one, only more "old lady," less stylin', and with way more hairpins.  All on the back of the head, in a way that screams "PRIMNESS PERSONIFIED!"  I knew immediately that they were Christians of a particular vintage, shall we say.  They muddled around a bit, and then the younger one, with a fixed smile, held up a piece of yellow paper with small, plain text on it and no images or wanton use of things like italics, bold or underline, and said "Can we put this notice on your notice board?  It's for meetings.  Bible meetings."  Chris said "Of course!"  And I thought, "I know you.  I know your soul.  I know where you keep your heart, and what it is allowed."

Mission accomplished, they swept out, and I started up again about the book, and mentioned The Celestine Prophecy, The Shack, The Way and other books like that, and how I felt that they were packaging spirituality in a way that the irreligious wouldn't get hives from, but also, providing any remaining insights in the form of watery pablum.  Immediately, another late-afternoon-before-my-nap apparition appeared (that means "apparated," J.K. Rowling) as if from out of the floor, before my bleary eyes.  It was a Wiccan.  One whose husband was from my home town, and had hung out with a Plymouth Brethren casualty of the most violently 'crashlanding and taking the whole world down with him' type.  The one who was praised for taking in troubled teenaged boys, and then damned for giving them drugs in exchange for sexual favours.  

Where the 1820s Twins had been primly, smilingly closed to anything but their own agenda, blinkered like horses pulling an Amish buggy through downtown Ogdensburg, the Wiccan was so open it hurt.  It was like she was one hundred perCENT reactive, and badly needed things to respond to moment by moment so she could keep from turning into a standing stone in a field by a hill.  She was just standing there wanting me to fill the air with references to people, ideologies, religions, books and geographical locations for her to grasp vainly after (like an alchemist with ADD, or a Jack Russell terrier at a religious revival during the healing and snake handing).  She dropped drug references, as well as the names of places, poets and authors like a steady hail of esoteric frou frah and kept saying she would leave, and then not leaving.  She was determined to leave right before me, but couldn't seem to bring herself to leave if I was talking.  So I took my leave of the shop keeper and she managed to get out the store ahead of me, and was visible wandering up the street casting about for someone else who might do or say something interesting so she could smile vaguely at their left ear for slightly too long, make a kind of oddly-inhibited stage magician's gesture or two now and then, and ask if they'd read some book or other that she'd enjoyed the lifeforce Gaia beauty in when she was teaching English as a second language to disadvantaged children in unspecified third world countries.

Earlier, in the middle of the discussion with the shop keeper (while the extras from Little House on the Prairie were gathering courage to ask to place the ad) I had kind of started to tell what I felt the function of a human being, and purpose of our creation, actually is: to be created in the image of God, and then be expected to walk around daily, hourly, decidedly un-omnipotently encountering things, people and situations that aren't quite what they should be, and being as gracious, kind, loving, truthful and so on as possible.  Not descending into pride, dismissive arrogance, meanspirited  superiority, or judgmental impatience, and all the while not being quite what one should be one's self and dealing well with that.

Then I went to the butcher's.  The woman in front of me asked if they had any salmon which was caught free-range, rather than from a fish farm.  When the lady behind the counter !'ed slightly, the customer started into a pitch about what happens to fish in these awful fish farms, and how unhealthy and just plain unsightly it all is and what her doctor said about her absolutely needing to eat free-range salmon.  There was religion in her eye and in her voice.  She was parroting a sermon she's sat under the sound of recently and she badly needed to share it with all who would listen.  (I'd heard the same thing in J's voice this afternoon.)  She was aglow with the very prospect of being more clean and powerful, body and soul, less adulterated and associated with the besmirched, tawdry trash of this present, evil world.  Her god was organic, and she didn't even know it.  To purity!

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Christmas Vacation is now Wrapped

I wasted my Christmas vacation for the most part, and I'm not entirely disappointed with that, though I feel like maybe I should be.  Ate a lot of chocolate, logged too many hours on the futon and in the video-editing/sound-mixing/Internet surfing captain's chair, and generally didn't see anyone at all.  Many of my colleagues will be coming back with tans, gleaming darkly against the backdrop of alternately freezing and melting snow we've been treated to lately.  No doubt I've caught a bit of Diablo "trying being white trash purely as a hobby is fun, kids" Cody's KEW-UL writing! style! by proxy, and will have that work its way out over the next few sentences until I am a wandery, imageless and verbose pedant again.  No surprise that I'm tempted to write a tiny bit like her, as I got sucked into her blog and spent some of Saturday evening and much of today reading a couple of years' worth of entries.

Here's how that happened: Friday I picked up a discount bin deal on Juno, a movie I really like, and listened to the commentary on it.  The screenplay was listed as having been written by "Diablo Cody" and I had before wondered at the audacity of someone to name themselves something like that and then want to be taken seriously.  I have trouble taking it with a straight face when people make up their own names, genders and/or accents.  Why not, though, right?  One time I had to write a cheque for a girl, only to have her tell me she needed me to write it out to a completely different name (Amanda) from the one she'd introduced herself to me with (Riley) when I hired her to help me edit my European vacation footage back in 1999.  You can tell it was some time ago due to the fact that I was writing her a cheque, and that I wasn't just doing my own video editing, which I never seem to stop doing nowadays.

Anyway, I was certain Diablo Cody must have written Juno because she got pregnant in high school.  It seemed too heartfelt and personal for it to be otherwise.  Apparently, she didn't, and just made the whole story up.  Of course, I also expected her to be bookish and obese, as she IS a writer with a tiny actress playing her alter ego.  When I looked her up, I found that she wasn't trying to hide her real name (Brooke Busey) and that she'd been raised overly religiously, and responded to this by walking out of a perfectly good office job to work as a stripper.  How typical. She proved to have spirit, and it needed to finally, one day, escape SOMEhow.  She wanted to explore her "inner whore," and wanted to do it the whole nine yards.  A few years of that, then she wrote a book about it, then was asked to write a screenplay, and Juno was born.  I think it's cool that, after a book purposely exploring and revelling ironically and viscerally in the squalor of that life, her screenplay is about teenage innocence, and how to preserve it in the face of very adult realities.  The "heartfelt" quality I guess came from the fact that the innocent baby daddy character in Juno is based on her high school male best friend, whom she teased mercilessly.

Her blog made me think about what kind of girls I like.  I like "firecrackers" with wit and wisdom, whereas I attract huge, oafish mannish things who tend to be foolish, loud and vulgar.  (Or crazies.  Pretty much anyone married, too.  Not you.  I don't mean you, I mean other people.) A girl with a rapier wit, who exercised it amusingly, but wasn't loud and crass all the time?  There would be a treasure indeed.  It also made me think about people who grow up so steeped in religion, and how they seem to need such extreme measures to become real people, rather than cogs in the McGod Machine.  I suppose I'm lucky I'm not selling crack in Vegas.  Of course, my spirit isn't exactly flourishing, and figuratively running naked through the fields, either.  It never is.

On the subject of beliefs, someone recently expressed discomfort at how to exactly characterize my beliefs.  He said "You're not a Satanist, but you're very anti-religious."  He's a lapsed Catholic, so he's handicapped about such things.  What I am, confusing as it is for people, is someone who is trying futiley to overcome a "Christian" upbringing so I can exemplify the virtues, spirit and methods of Jesus Christ, something I found completely impossible to do while trotting down the Bible Camp Trail, or setting my sights on some kind of "Christian Ministry" instead of actually being a guy who lives a life, and it shows signs of getting Jesus in some ways.  Mostly I only really do a good job of "Angry, railing against religious assholes and how they screw up everyone else's day and feel better than everyone and want to be treated as more pious" Jesus.

I got extremely hyper (for me) after spending most of the day online, and couldn't raise anyone on the phone again.  Getting used to that.  No doubt I will not sleep tonight.  It's freezing rain outside, but I think that will stop long before morning, so chances of school being cancelled (for students) are slim for tomorrow.  The very idea of going in to school and planning the impending end of the three courses I am teaching for another couple of weeks is intoxicating, but, sadly, probably only a dream.

Maybe I'll give a couple of late-night friends a call again. Is there anybody...out-there (out there, out there, out there)

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Musical Powerup

As last year wore on, I found myself someplace I remember being about a decade ago: firmly entrenched in a job, and not doing any "me" stuff, apart from passing the time with time-wasting books and TV whenever I wasn't actually at work.  I wasn't creating anything, and I wasn't really spending any time thinking, and I certainly wasn't talking to anyone or reading anything which made me think.  You see, that's a problem with approaching middle age: you've seen and heard and done more and more of the stuff that's around where you live, and nothing and no one does or says anything which makes you think anymore, because you don't have to.  If you parachuted me into any classroom in the province, I feel like I could wing it without much effort, whether the teacher had prepared anything for me or not.  You see?  Thinking not required, going through the motions some days.  Boring.

I don't enjoy that.  I want to try new things.  I want to switch it up. I certainly don't want to do what everyone says is the typical way.

So the year changed, and this somehow gave me permission to start out on a whole new year, doing stuff differently.  I was getting pretty bored with how last year had been going.  I started reading this old paperback I picked up in an armload of "getting myself through the month" used books.  It's called "Teaching Thinking" by Edward De Bono, and just reading the first bit got me thinking a whole lot.  He made the rather obvious point that we don't require students to think much at all.  In fact, I find they instantly detect and usually resent the first sign of being asked to think.  De Bono doesn't even think critical thinking, analysis or response is the be all and end all of thinking, though.  He thinks there is reactive/responsive/appreciative/analytical/critical thinking, and then the opposite, which is pro-active/reaction causing/creating/original agenda pursuing thinking.  How do we get that into the classroom?  Dunno.

So that got me thinking.  No one has been around to talk to about stuff, as everyone is off with their wives and girlfriends and kids and so on, but I've done OK.  I did spend five days of my Christmas vacation in a row in my apartment like a recluse without seeing a single human soul before I stopped waiting for my various friends to show back up once they were done with family obligations, and visited my own relatives and started starting the new year.  

The holidays had started out very well with me getting a guy who's going to school in Toronto to come over while in town for Christmas and lay down a carefully thought-out piano part.  He also slapped down some stuff I can use in my video game documentary, which I decided to call Get Ready Player 1: A History of Video Game Consoles.  After this, though, the silent days started to slide in under the door one by one and obviously weren't going to stop coming. I reached a bit of a crisis about music: I was out of inspiration, confidence and motivation, but was troubled by the lack of band practicing for a month, the guitar sitting on its stand with a broken, unreplaced string emblematic of something deeper.  So I thought about music a bit.

I started out, years ago, recording on a cassette four-track recorder.  After this I had an abortive, expensive, extremely educational experience with a studio which had inferior equipment and which eventually went out of business, leaving me with a stack of ADAT tapes of unfinished stuff.  This propelled me back to my four-track with new knowledge and agendas and visions, and eventually computers I could afford caught up with the four track as a viable means of recording stuff.  Latency (stuff randomly sliding in and out of time) was a big problem for a long time.  I tried Cakewalk, gave up on Cubase, due to its complicatedness, and eventually for some reason (I guess I liked Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge) started using Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro and Vegas programs.  I got my studio stuff into my computer with a great deal of bother, and have been replacing or re-recording much of it anyway, the more clearer my idea of what I think would be a good idea gets.

I'd been using Vegas 4.0 as my main recording software for years, and was feeling that this was a bit odd, though I loved using it to edit video.  Well, after spending the first part of my Christmas holidays doing lots of editing video with it, I experimented with upgrading it rather than changing to a new program entirely.  I went from Vegas 4 straight to Vegas 8 today (Sony bought Sonic Foundry), and was amazed to see that, not only did it work with all the old files, presets and plugins and so on, but it was actually LESS system hungry than the old one, which translates into me having a much easier time previewing and mixing stuff before rendering it.  This is great.

Back in my studio experiment days, I got a skinny little teenaged girl to sing on two of my songs.  Her voice was really unique, and when I re-recorded the songs, I missed it and have been having real trouble getting girl singers to sing.  Ten years later, I looked her up on facebook, and she seems overjoyed at the chance to get recorded, so she says she'll sing on the new versions for me.  Hooray!

Also, after going through two opened packs of guitar strings and finding that I'd broken the same string twice, which meant that each pack was missing that string and I'd need to go the music store, I set out.  I decided to give the local guy a try.  He complains when I meet him on the street that I don't use his store, but he didn't carry the strings I used and seemed to be closed a lot.  I drove in a snowstorm across town, and he was closed.  At 4 on Friday.  He saw me cruise by in my car, and waved out the window behind his closed sign.  Eff him, I decided and went to the next town over, where the store I like better is.

That store has a guy who loves to talk for hours about anything you might like to know about music.  I whiled away two hours doing this, and getting advice, tried to buy a guitar stand, and when I described the one I wanted, he set about ordering it, as I didn't want what he had in his store, and then he ended up giving me two G strings without charging me a cent, to put in my two packs of G stringless guitar string sets.  Then I picked up some DVDs from the rental store.  I seldom rent DVDs, usually buying or downloading them, so this was me renting mainly to get to hear DVD commentary on DVDs which I haven't seen a good price on yet.

So, this evening, correctly not counting on hearing a whisper from any of my in-town or visiting-from-out-of-town-for-Christmas friends, I had a beer, listened to commentaries on Prince Caspian and the final episode of Six Feet Under, restrung my guitar and tried out Sony Vegas 8.0 on a song of mine.  Cool in all directions.

Having a vision of what you want to do and the tools you need and can get your hands on to do it really brightens up a greying life.