Game of Clue

Quack Song 2
The second song I’m working on for Sing Duck Sing, I am tentatively calling Game of Clue. Some parents who have children with Autism Spectrum Disorder report that—in retrospect—there were signs along the way. I guess this may be the case for many things—hindsight may be remarkably and uncomfortably accurate. There is a rather famous poem entitled, Welcome to Holland, in which the protagonist (a parent) must learn to accept a trip to Holland rather than Italy (see http://dsnetworkaz.org/holland/).

It is a letting go of expectations that one may have had, and embracing the realities of what is—of having a child with ASD. Further, it is a call for a celebration of what is—not just acceptance.  In this song, the idea is to try to capture some of the typical second thoughts, or brief entertainments of possible ASD diagnosis that Burke may have had about her child. I considered especially the scene on p. 56 of the pay, Ducks on the Moon (2010).

Here is the Soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/scottanthonyandrews/game-of-clue
…and here are the lyrics, so far

GAME OF CLUE
Words & Music: Scott Anthony Andrews (with nods to Kelley Jo Burke see p. 56 of Ducks on the Moon)

VERSE
Asleep in my arms
He looked like any other child
With his eyes closed
He looked like anyone’s son
But when he opened his eyes
He wasn’t looking for my face
A man overboard
Clawing through stormy seas
Looking for something, anything to hold to
Not necessarily me

CHORUS
Was that a clue?
On Sunday morning?
Was that a clue?
Deep in the heart.
Was that a clue?
On Sunday morning?
Was that a clue?
Deep in the heart.

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Guess I Missed Those Cumulonimbus Clouds

Quack Song 1
Wendy the Weather Girl (Guess I Missed Those Cumulonimbus Clouds)
OK. I have my Song Plot for the musical I am co-writing with Burke, Sing Ducks Sing, an adaptation of her one-person play “Ducks on the Moon” (2010).  I thought I might start with the I Want Song/Metaphor Song; I did. Tentatively, and I use that word most decidedly, it is entitled, “Wendy the Weather Girl”.  The idea that Kelley Jo Burke and I had was to represent the presence of autism (ASD) through something like the weather network.  Typically think concretely and visually; perhaps that accounts for why I have come across so many students with ASD that enjoy the weather network. Further, we can expand on weather systems as allegories for ASD. Here’s my first attempt, although I have misgivings about an allegorical song for the “I Want Song.” As it stands the verse is in F major and is the voice of Wendy; the Chorus is based upon the F blues scale for contrast. It is hopefully obvious that this latter section is indicative of various nomenclatures one associates with weather.  The crux of the song is that Wendy misses the obvious in her forecast, her invisible gorilla, is cumulonimbus clouds–

Nevertheless, see the lyrics below as well as a sound cloud link to a very rough draft…stay tuned…

https://soundcloud.com/scottanthonyandrews/wendy-the-weather-girl

VERSE
I’m Wendy the weather girl
A forecast of smiles for you (oh, oh, oh oh)
Wendy the weather girl
Calling for a shower or two (oh, oh, oh oh)
Gusty with a little sprinkle
Just enough to fluff your hair
I’m Wendy the weather girl
Tune in for temperatures true

CHORUS
Guess I missed those cumulonimbus clouds
Seen at 2 pm,  5 kms Northwest,
Tracking east, digging in like a thunder clap
Gaining speed, spinning fast, anemometers snap
Skies of grey, 80K , what you say ‘bout that?
Guess I missed those cumulonimbus clouds

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My First Quack at It

An Initial Song Plot: Sing Ducks Sing
I re-read Burke’s play, Ducks on the Moon (2010) last night; I will likely continue to do so, as I continue to work on our Art-Based Educational Research project. Ducks is a one-woman 90 minute play; it seems reasonable to keep it a one-woman show, so I am looking at possibly 4-5 songs. Mandelbaum’ s caution resonates: avoid a “ ‘chop and drop’ job, with the original play cut down to make way for the [songs] (1991 p. 178). And at the same time, Frankel (2000, p. 22) reminds me that “songs take over most of the main points of the plot.” So I must ask myself:

What is the central struggle in this drama, the central I Want?, and is there anything missing from this struggle that songs might add? And still in this context, what is missing particularly in the high points.

Burke’s struggles with how to cope with a child that is decidedly different than her other children. She is an experienced and knowledgeable parent:

“I’m not ecstatic and I’m not scared. He’s my third child, and I know how to feed him, and I know how to wash him, and I know exactly where to put him in the crook of my arm. I am an old mum, and I am up to anything he’s got” (Burke, 2010, p. 28).

What needs to come across I think in terms of the musical is the struggle to accept the autism diagnosis, and to accept  certainly, but more importantly, is the struggle for the protagonist to accept help in raising her son; the protagonist comes to understand that she cannot do it all—that there are reasonable limits (even) to her parenting. This lesson is a hard-fought high-point:

“Down on the floor. Curled into the fetal position, keening like to an Amazonian monkey, in a shrill counterpoint to the bass thrum of the rental car outside chugging through its tank of very expensive America gas—just shriek and shriek and shrieking that I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t plan this, I couldn’t make it right, I need help, I need help, I need help, I need help, I need help…” (Burke, 2010, p. 50)

Acceptance then are is the big I Want and I Am messages of this musical. In terms of the layers of educational import; obviously this play is particularly useful for understating parent/professional relationships in the context of students with ASD—not the least of which may be how parental self-efficacy may be impacted, perhaps particularly if the child is not first-born. Given these contingencies, here is my initial song plot:

A Rubber Duck Chorus Linerubber-duck-chorus line
Initial Song Plot

1. A breathing calming song; a blowing out the birthday cake candles song. An implied duet. A breathy, small and simple song.

2. I Want Song/Metaphor Song. What may be missing from the current play is a portrayal of how ASD may present, of what ASD is, in real time, not a recollection—more specifically here, a depiction of the real-time struggle, of a parent wrestling with a son with (for most of the play undiagnosed) ASD in an attempt to plan for and control the un/known.  This may be going out on a limb, but Kelley Jo Burke and I have discussed using something akin to the Weather Network as a metaphor for ASD; in ways this is apt since many people with ASD appreciate all the numbers inherent in today’s weather forecasts; including temperature, degrees, wind chill values, wind speed and direction, precipitation accumulations and kinds, UV index, 5-day forecasts, historical daily high and low temperatures, etc.

However, I must remember that this is a play about Burke’s struggle. So, if using a weather network kind of metaphor, perhaps casting the protagonist as a live meteorologist who makes forecasts that are completely inaccurate. She could be reporting form the field…something like “called for a 1.5 cms of snow and I am here in 60km/h blizzard”. “Wendy the weather girl” Possibly.

3. Diagnosis Dance ~or~ Diagnosis on Ice. This could introduce movement into the piece; for some reason I am leaning to the concept of ice-dancing or figure-skating as opposed to ballroom dancing. In my brain I think of ice-dancing as being weather-related, though I have no reason why to make such an association.  This could be an upbeat song, like a tent pole song, although it comes early in the play.

4. Clue: The Song of Clue. Burke discusses throughout her play the many clues that became obvious in retrospect, as may often be the case in situations such as these.  This could be another comment/metaphor song. It may be possible to keep a similar form as the one many are familiar with, as…. “Colonel Mustard did it in the Conservatory with the revolver.” I am thinking that this may be quite similar to the Diagnosis Dance; however, unless I take steps to prevent this.

5. Finally, several times in the play, Burke (2010) says “This is the last time I will feel this way for the rest of my life…” (p. 28). There is a lament there; at the same time, there is possibility; there is future. My feeling is that this could be an effective song; if done correctly, it could capture the myriad emotions that thread through the play. It would be conceivable to draw upon images of things that Burke did as a parent with her other children—things that were not as successful for Noah.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen is my first go round of a Song Plot for “Sing Ducks Sing” ….stay tuned for the first song draft….

References

Burke, K.J. (2010). Ducks on the Moon: A Parent Meets Autism. Hagios Press: Regina, SK.

Frankel, Aaron (2000). Writing the Broadway Musical (Revised and Updated). USA: Da Capo Press.

Mandelbaum, Ken (1991). Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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A Quacking Song Plot

Sing Ducks Sing: Quacker-Three
Welcome friends to my online blog about my Arts-Based Educational Research (ABER) project, where I am adapting Burke’s play, Ducks on the Moon (2010) into a musical. Some may call this ABER project quackery, but I am already on my third posting, so I am calling this posting quacker-three. In the second posting, I highlighted the different kinds/ways of incorporating music into plays (play-with-music and musical drama) and the different types of musical theatre songs (I Am Song, I Want Song, Comment Song, Metaphor Song, Opening Number, Reprise and Segue, and finally Tent Pole Song). Today, I consider a few guidelines about lyric writing, musical theatre songwriting more generally, and the placement of songs within the musical, or what is sometimes referred to as the Song Plot.
rubber-ducks-1408285__480

About lyrics…
Writing musical theatre lyrics may be different than writing for smooth jazz or pop songs, but they are some similarities.  One truism salient to both genres seems to be: show, don’t tell; or, stated differently “Calling next on the senses will translate abstractions into concreteness. Metaphors, neologisms—whatever hits the fancy, no pondering or editing. Seize.”  (Frankel 2000; p. 30). In other words, good lyrics must taste as such; as opposed to be understood as such.

 

About musical theatre songwriting…
The biggest lesson for me about musical theatre and smooth jazz/pop songwriting is probably THE crucial difference between them:  in the theatre songs must have narrative motion; they journey; they ambulate; they arrive. Certainly pop songs may do as well, though it does not appear to be imperative. Indeed, Viertel (2016) recalls “perhaps the greatest example of Hammerstein’s dictum that a song should be a miniature play, with its own movement, conflict and resolution” (p. 64).

About the Song Plot…
From my understanding, a song plot is all the songs in a musical without any dialogue. A songs-only chart allows the writers to examine how the musical narrative flows through music; ideally, one strives for variety and placement:  “Musical synopsis shows whether the number is the right one, and in the right place. This includes the alteration of numbers—among the different characters, between solo and group numbers, and among kinds of numbers (ballads, rhythm tunes, special material and production numbers” (Frankel 2000; p. 65). So, the writer should manage dramatic tension through the songs; and one way to do so is to “var[y] rhythmic impulses or charges. High or low, the rhythmic contrast between these charges is what makes them effective” (Frankel 2000; p. 32).

And, of course there are not only rhythmic contrasts, since “the complement of rhythmic contrasts is visual variety. Musical theatre moves figures through mere signals of place, on an open platform of space, and keeps the space free for change; this makes all musicals spectacles” (Frankel 2000; p. 33). And, again the Viertel (2016) suggests that variety is the goal, for “as soon as the audience understood a visual idea and taken pleasure from it, another idea has to be presented. As soon as the sound of a trio has been enjoyed, the quartet has to enter, then the octet, then the entire company” (p. 110).

Conclusions…
So, my next task is to re-read Ducks on the Moon, look for those dramatic high points and create a tentative song plot

References

Burke, K.J. (2010). Ducks on the Moon: A Parent Meets Autism. Hagios Press: Regina, SK.

Frankel, Aaron (2000). Writing the Broadway Musical (Revised and Updated). USA: Da Capo Press.

Viertel, Jack. (2016). The Secret Life of the America Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. New York: Sarah Crighton Books.

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A Musical Needs to Quack Like One

Sing Ducks Sing: Quack 2
So, I began with a great idea of conducting Arts-Based Educational Research (ABER) by adapting Burke’s play, Ducks on the Moon (2010) into a musical. What I find daunting is that arts-based research is ARTS-based, and in our project, it is the musical form that is at stake. Although I have released two CDs of original music, Faith is a Bicycle (2013), Courage Walks with Us (2014), and am soon to release a third CD later this year, tentatively titled, I Don’t Do Lazy Like That; these are smooth jazz/pop songs. These are not musical theatre songs. Although ABER is form(s) of educational research, it operates within particular artistic forms with their own traditions. My first task then is to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of the breadth of the musical theatre landscape, and how to write one. To that end I read six books (Atkey, 2006; Frankel, 2000; Kniffel, 2013; Mandelbaum, 1991; Mordden, 2013; Viertel, 2016), and consulted two online resources (Brown, 2007; Miles, 2014).

atkey_pic1From these readings, there appear two over-arching (and inter-related) distinctions that appear useful as I begin the composition phase:

  1. What are the kinds of musical plays? …Or, asked differently, how might music be incorporated into and/or transform a play?
  2. What are the kinds of songs within musical theatre?

The following section will wrestle with these questions.  At the end of each section, I focus my thinking in light of Sing Duck Sing.

Play-with-Music or Musical Drama?
There is significant variation in the musical form(s) itself, including: play-with-music, musical comedy, musical drama, revue, Broadway opera, musical revue, operetta (Frankel 2000; p. 16). There are some effective and popular plays-with-music, such as “George Ryga and Ann Mortifee’s… The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in 1973” (Atkey, 2006, p. 16), though currently there seems to be more musical comedies and musical dramas that are successful. Music operates differently within these formats—particularly so between plays-with-music and musical dramas:

“Between a show song and a pop song, however there is a basic difference. The former is a dramatic action, the latter is not. A show song is a heightened action springing from a dramatic context, and as a results reveals character, develops situation, forwards plot. It lands somewhere else from where it started, it makes a difference” (Frankel 2000; p. 90).

A play-with-music may have songs tangentially related to the dramatic action—almost evocative of the theme; whereas, musical dramas tend to have songs that are ideally constitutive of the plot. Characters sing their lines. Indeed, Frankel (2000, p. 22) claims that “songs take over most of the main points of the plot, and makes them the high points.”  In fact, he suggests that “songs heighten action more than dialogue” (p. 22). Ideally, then one must choose a book/play to be musicalized in which “something is at stake” (Viertel 2016, p. 18), and contains “actions high enough to break into songs” (Frankel 2000; p. 22).

My Duck asks: Look for the high points in the play…see how they may be enhanced, while being mindful of the “ ‘chop and drop’ job, with the original play cut down to make way for [the songs]” (Mandelbaum, 1991, p. 178). This, if Sing Ducks Sing will be a musical drama; otherwise consider a play-with-music.


Musical Theatre Song Types
Songs for the theatre may be written within many different genres or styles, but there are some specific song types for the musical theatre—some of which seem to be defined by character and plot development; others, seem defined by placement within the musical. Having said that however; it appears that these categorical types are used out of routine, since action/plot reveals character. As in pop songwriting it is better to show not tell; and in musical theatre, it is better to show character through deeds, trials or activities rather than description.


Opening Number

Obviously one of the first songs, it can “introduce a hero or heroine whose burning passion would drive the plot” (Viertel 2016, p. 22). How to start a musical seems not an easy question; Frankel, 2000 (p. 111), ponders that “to open with dialogue, not sing, may be even harder. More than courage it takes skill. The energy level is in question. Does a musical feel like a musical until its first song?”  The subtle idea here may be that a musical needs to quack like one—from the get-go; whereas a play-with-music may feel more like a play.  Opening numbers are critical: they create that all-important first impression. “One thing is certain, however: opening numbers can make or break a show. They have turned flops into hits” (Viertel 2016, p. 31). This may be one of the reasons that “the opening usually keeps undergoing the most revision” (Frankel 2000; p.  111).

My Duck asks: What will the first song be like? How to introduce?
I Am Song
The role of this song seems to be to introduce and establish character(s) and significant plot details:

“In the I Am song the character’s need is to confront…to claim or to discover” (Frankel 2000; p. 103).
“Establishing numbers are the I Am song writ large. To ‘establish’ or set situations is their action—in the times, the place and most if all the relationships out of which the musical stems, or to which it may need to shift.” (Frankel 2000; p. 109).

My Duck asks: Who does the protagonist in Ducks on the Moon think she is? How does she see herself? How does she see herself in relation to others, and in relation to being a parent? Probably important, how does she see herself in relation to disability and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

I Want Song
While the I Am song serves to introduce, the I Want song is sets up or describes the dramatic conflict, the reason, the motivation. It has been described in the following ways:

“I Want song is to strive for or to demand something more or something different in its essence” (Frankel 2000; p. 104).

“‘I Want’ song—a solo number in which the protagonist tells the audience what’s driving her or him. That spot is usually the second in the show.” (Viertel 2016, p. 59).

“The hero has to want something that’s hard to get, and go after it come what may. The sooner the audience understands this, the better” (Viertel 2016, p. 61).

“In a musical, after the protagonist has told us of his or her hopes and dreams and the accompanying determination to achieve them, in the I Want moment, there is usually an encounter with a love interest. And there’s usually a song, which I is called generically, a “conditional” love song” (Viertel 2016, p. 81).

If the I Want song is a soliloquy, there are come cautions: “‘Musical soliloquies’ have been so overused that some experienced writers avoid them now on principle.” (Frankel 2000; p. 44)… “They fail because of attacking the problem in which the character is caught, they lament it, which stops the action and puts off the audience. A good soliloquy seeks something for the character to do about the problem, which advances the action and enlists the audience.” (Frankel 2000; p. 45)

My Duck asks: What is it exactly the central character of Ducks on the Moon wants? Is it that she wants her son to be just like her other children? Or, does she want her son to respond to the parenting lessons that she has so well-learned?

Metaphor Songs
“Musical metaphors take advantage of the unique qualities of musical theatre to portray a situation in presentational non-literal fashion” (Brown, 2007 paragraph 6).

My Duck asks: Although not a terribly common kind of song, I think it may be useful in this case. I need to think about this in light of ASD.

 Comment Songs
Comment songs may be thought of as teachable and/or informative and/or comedic; they have been described as “intended for instruction, for example one character giving advice to either another character or the audience itself.” (Miles, 2014). “Relief and comment [songs]…may appear to exceed or contradict the direct-action use of music…relief songs may be divided into three categories: respites, novelty numbers, and interludes. (Frankel 2000; p. 117).

My Duck asks: My feeling is that this entire play is quite instructive in the most poignant of ways. My feeling at this point is that to add one of these kinds of songs would be counter-productive. I think that the songs need to exemplify autism.

 To Reprise…and to segue
“The reprise is the return of a song later in the plot—but a return to add, not to repeat.” (Frankel 2000; p. 113). “The simpler the reprise is employed, the better…. [and] there is a danger of over-use” (Frankel 2000; p. 114). “The music of the segue stems from somewhere in the score, either literally or stylistically. Though an audience hears segues only subliminally, they aid in story-telling sharply.” (Frankel 2000; p. 116).

My Duck asks: It seems that to reprise in a small musical like I am going to co-write, I need to really think about the central metaphor of the musical, so that the reprise will emphasise it.

Tent Poles Songs
“Tent poles [songs] are usually fun. They’re usually up tempo” (Viertel 2016, p. 147).  “As is true with Hamilton, tent poles usually involve lots of people, too, but not always.” (Viertel 2016, p. 147).

My Duck asks: It seems that to reprise in a small musical like I am going to co-write, I need to really think about the central metaphor of the musical, so that the reprise will emphasise it.

Conclusions
It seems some musical theatre song types will just naturally resonate better with Ducks on the Moon than others; for example the metaphor song will be useful I am guessing at this point.  Also, I need to think about the I Am and I Want songs. Although there is definitely more latitude, musically speaking, with a play-with-music rather than a musical, at this point I am thinking about a musical……

Stay tuned little ducklings….

References
Atkey, Mel (2006). Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre. Toronto, ON: Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc.

Brown, Larry (2007). The Dramatic Function of Songs in Musical Theatre. Available online at: http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/theater_topics/Musical_Theater.htm

Burke, K.J. (2010). Ducks on the Moon: A Parent Meets Autism. Hagios Press: Regina, SK.

Frankel, Aaron (2000). Writing the Broadway Musical (Revised and Updated). USA: Da Capo Press.

Kniffel, Leonard (2013). Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Movie Musicals. Chicago: Huron Street Press.

Mandelbaum, Ken (1991). Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Miles, Alison (2014). Types of songs in musicals. Available online at: https://prezi.com/m/6ofe13bejsfd/types-of-songs-in-musicals

Mordden, Ethan (2013). Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press.

Viertel, Jack. (2016). The Secret Life of the America Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. New York: Sarah Crighton Books.

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Sing Ducks Sing!

As a singer-songwriter, I am always looking for new and interesting projects.  As an educational researcher, I am always looking for new an interesting projects. It had never occurred to me to bring those worlds together. But, I have recently discovered a whole new world, called Arts-Based Educational Research (ABER); see Mitchell, O’Reilly-Scanlon and Weber (2013), Rolling (2010), and Sanders (2006) for example. ABER is indeed a world with various sub-worlds, such as performance-based ABER.  Such an amalgam should not be surprising; auto-ethnography, self-study and self-reflexive case study methodologies make room for educational researchers that include ARTifacts as substantial data sources. ABER is that. And more.

ARTifacts may comprise data, but more than that, ABER includes ARTful processes that help guide data analysis. Further still, an ARTful approach may structure the very nature and creation of the entire research enterprise. Carless and Douglas (2011, p. 441), for instance, use songs as ARTifacts “while writing and performing songs is at present an unusual approach to doing social science research, it has for some time been an integral and important aspect of our research endeavours, grounded within recently espoused epistemologies of arts-based and performative work.” And, like a good song that reaches beyond its immediacy, a good ABER article speaks beyond its rationality. Indeed, Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) and Feldman (2003) argue that a provoked/evoked affective aesthetic is at least one significant criteria through which self-study educational research is to be evaluated.

kelleyjo_pic1…which brings me to the present project, Sing Ducks Sing. I am partnering with Kelley Jo Burke, (see http://bigocean.ca) a playwright, who has written and performed a play that may most legitimately be called an autoethnography, entitled Ducks on the Moon (2014/2010). Kelley Jo Burke performatively memoirs supposing, understanding and accepting that her son has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is a powerful piece; it is a powerful experience. I am/we are transforming/adding songs to this play. As noted above, I have called this endeavour Sing Ducks Sing, purposefully—just as the phantom fervently commanded Christine Daae to sing!, I feel overwhelmed and doubtful, but at the same time compelled  and accountable to follow the of wonder of ABER Ducks. Stay tuned here for our progress…

References

Bullough, R.V., and Pinnegar, S. (2001). Guidelines for quality in autobiographical forms of self-study research. Educational Researcher (30), 3, 13-21.

Burke, K.J. (2010). Ducks on the Moon: A Parent Meets Autism. Hagios Press: Regina, SK.

Burke, K.J. (2014). Nights with Ducks: Why I Memoir-Ted Talk (Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNTKKBYHfFk)

Carless, David & Douglas, Kitrina (2011). What’s in a song? How songs contribute to the communication of social science research, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 39:5, 439-454.

Feldman, A. (2003). Validity and quality in self-study. Educational Researcher, 32 (3), 26-28.

Mitchell, C., O’Reilly-Scanlon, K., & Weber, S. (Eds.). (2013). Just who do we think we are? Methodologies for autobiography and self-study in education. Routledge.

Rolling Jr, J. H. (2010). A paradigm analysis of arts-based research and implications for education. Studies in Art Education, 51(2), 102-114.

Sanders, James (2006). Performing arts-based education research: An epic drama of practice, precursors problems and possibilities. Studies in Art Education, 48(1), 89-107.

 

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Ladies and Gentlemen, George Michael…Let Us Say Goodbye Before You Go-Go

Ladies and Gentlemen, George Michael…Let Us Say Goodbye Before You Go-Go
by
Scott Anthony Andrews

There are songs that every songwriter wishes they had written. There are singers that every vocalist wishes they could sound like. There are singer-songwriters that every singer wishes they could write songs like, every songwriter wishes they could sing like, and every singer-songwriter wishes they could be. And then, ladies and gentleman, there was George Michael.

His voice was superb. George Michael could sing. Watching him perform live on one of his Wembley stadium concerts, one cannot but admire his vocal control—how his voice seemed so suitably matched, whether at the top of his range or in the lower register. His vibrato always just enough for shimmer. His style was expressive and masculine, yet, he could also be breathy and light of tone. George Michael could really sing pop songs, but equally as impressive, he had the ‘pipes’ to authentically emote standards such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” “You’ve Changed” and “Secret Love” (all from 1999’s “Songs from the Last Century.”) In my view this kind of project might only be undertaken by those with superior vocal abilities and/or creative sensibilities. Like many of us, I so admired his masterful technique, but more than that, I appreciated his heart-felt and caring delivery.

Par1387728

from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/george-michael-dead-53-1.3912641

His songwriting was superb.   George Michael could write songs. He infused many of his songs with layers of catchy riffs. He could create energy and momentum with hits like “Freedom ’90,” “Faith,” “I Want Your Sex,” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”  The club floors of the 80’s and 90’s would not have been the same without him; the era and its dancers ‘whamming’ loudly upon impact.  And he could write soulful ballads like “Careless Whisper” with its haunting sax line.  But one of my most favorite songs is his “My Mother Had a Brother” from his “Patience” album (2004). In that song George Michael described his mother’s almost indescribable combination of loss and joy—of giving birth on the day her brother died. Michael wrote it as though he is having a conversation with his mother, many years later; who, like his uncle, is in heaven: “but mama will you tell him from your boy, the times have changed, I guess the world was getting warmer while we got stronger, mama will you tell him about my joy.” In all this darkness, he wrote in some hope.

George Michael was not a singer-songwriter. To me, singer-songwriter is a separate genre not necessarily connoting its components; true, it is a songwriter who sings and/or a singer who writes. But George Michael was decidedly more than an amalgam of these two; like any gestalt, his art was more than that. In times of loss it is natural to search for meaning, and sometimes this searching may be over-reaching. George Michael has given us much, so let us not look for meaning per se in his death, rather as singer-songwriters, let us consider. Let us bear in mind that we are singers, that we are songwriters—and that the art and craft of being a singer-songwriter may be more than our genre. Ladies and gentleman, let us truly appreciate George Michael… and let us say goodbye before you go-go.
RIP George Michael

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This is Your Brain on Songwriting

Lessons Learned from Levitin’s
“This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession”
by
Scott Anthony Andrews

I will admit it. I am late to the party, once again. I just read Levitin’s (2006) “This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession,” and loved it.  As a cognitive psychologist, Levitin makes many interesting points about how we as human process music.  For me, what is of use is to think about how some of the issues raised may be taken up in songwriting.

Repetition
Levitin presents as well-researched both in depth and breadth of topics—some of which speak to, and strongly reinforce, some of the familiar tenets of songwriting.  The first point is repetition. “Repetition, when done skillfully by a master composer, is emotionally satisfying to our brains, and makes the listening experience as pleasurable as it is (Levitin, 2006, p. 153).” This is interesting; repetition is actually perceived as enjoyable; perhaps that is why many of us almost unconsciously write songs with reiterative choruses, or background vocals that effectively repeat the melody, or song forms that demand recurrences. It can be a double-edged sword; however. I well remember how immediately I took to Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue (Da ba dee da ba daa / Da ba dee da ba daa,”) etc. The opening hook imprints almost instantly, though upon successive listens, the song lost a little something for me—perhaps too much repetition.  And that is the conundrum all us songwriters face: how to strike an effective balance of new and old within a song—new melodies, new rhymes, new lyrics, etc. (Even when, and perhaps especially when, the “old” has only recently been introduced; after all, we are talking about 3-minute songs for the most part).

Music as (Repetitive) Memory
Many of us are fond of the music we listened to during adolescence. (If we only knew….choose wisely). Turns out that our musical partialities begin to form way before that, as “The fetus hears music, as was recently discovered by Alexandra Lamont of Keele University in the UK. She found that, a year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb. The auditory system of the fetus is fully functional about twenty weeks after conception (Levitin, 2006, p. 202).” Wow. This points to how formative music may be to the whole human experience. As songwriters, we best heed this lesson; familiarity, memory and repetition are all related. “Memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music…. Music is based on repetition (Levitin, 2006, p. 153).”

Twice as Long as Short: Rhythmic Ratios
This concept is such an instinctual pull as a songwriter that I was unaware of its unconscious shaping of my music.  The idea is that we tend to use twice as many short rhythmic fragments or motifs as long ones “short-short-long.” Perhaps not unrelated, one of the most recognizable Morse Code signals is, SOS, which is three dots, three dashes and three dots. “ ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ ” uses short and long syllables, too, in this case six equal duration notes (Ma-ry had a lit-tle) followed by a long one (lamb) roughly twice as long as the short ones. The rhythmic ratio of 2:1, like the octave in pitch ratios, appears to be a musical universal (Levitin, 2006, p. 60).”  Knowing this rhythmic ratio may be of use; we may chose to interrupt it, at times, for particular effects.  Perhaps, a character in a song may be slightly off-putting, or unbalanced, the music may speak that.   Further, Levitin cites research that “indicates that there is a quantization process—equalizing durations—occurring during our neural processing of musical time. Our brains treat durations that are similar as being equal, rounding some up and some down in order to treat them as simple integer ratios such as 2:1, 3:1 and 4:1 (Levitin, 2006, p. 67).”  As precise as we may want to be with rhythmic differentiations, it is useful to understand that our brain tends to understand such differentiations within these simple ratios. Maybe this at least partially accounts for the difficulty many of us have in translating visual rhythmic symbols into their referent actions. Rhythm may be largely felt, and felt in simple rhythmic rations/patterns.

Dance is not a Kind of Music, It IS Music
Speaking of feeling the rhythm, I have met, and I certainly count myself as, a songwriter that is concerned with lyric and the overall song “concept”— sometimes more than rhythmic components.  For example, I wrote the song “The Chronoscope Trips” after reading Greene’s (2011) “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.” I thought it clever and interesting to write a song about time travel as informed by a theoretical physicist. I may be well-reminded about the interconnection, always and already there, for  “When we ask about the evolutionary basis for music, it does no good to think about Britney or Bach. We have to think about what music was like around fifty thousand years ago. …One striking find is that in every society of which we’re aware, music and dance are inseparable (Levitin, 2006, p. 233).”  Perhaps even separating the words Dance and Music is problematic; perhaps we also need a word that (always and already) speaks to their simultaneity….more than the word DanceMusic.

It’s All About the Timbre, the Timbre, the Timbre—No Treble
I have to admit, this last point really surprised me, initially at least.  It seems that timbre is a deeply significant musical element. Consider the following:

People were given a list of song names and had to match them up with the [musical] snippet they heard. With such a short excerpt, they could not rely on melody or rhythm to identify the songs—in every case, the excerpt was less than one or two notes. The subjects could only rely on timbre, the overall sound of the song.  In the introduction, I mentioned the importance that timbre holds for composers, songwriters, and producers. Paul Simon thinks in terms of timbre; it is the first thing he listens for in his music and the music of others. Timbre also appears to hold this privileged position for the rest of us; the non-musicians in Shellenberg’s study were able to identify songs using only timbral cues a significant percentage of the time. Even when the excerpts were presented backward, so that anything overtly familiar was disrupted, they still recognized the songs (Levitin, 2006, p. 143).

So, maybe it is all about the bass, and the treble and the….
This point makes sense, if you are a singer-songwriter, consider your auditory brand. Listeners and fans are coming to appreciate not only your voice, but your voice within an overall treatment within a song—within an album—within your musical oeuvre. Think of all the things that contribute to that. I thought about Freddie Mercury’s first solo album, “Mr. Bad Guy,” released in 1985.  Mercury penned all songs, it was his voice, his choices; but he embraced different musical influences, such as disco—a significant departure from Queen’s musical roots. The album did respectfully well, but nothing like Queen’s hits. Freddie’s treatment was not Queen’s treatment; the timbre differed. Further, certain musical genres demand a kind of timbre. For example, some people may claim that country music demands such a particular timbre that being creative within it is truly a challenge.  There may be other musical genres that have a slightly larger timbre pallet; some suggest AC (Adult Contemporary) music may be. Regardless, for me, timbre really is an overlooked as aspect of writing songs. Of all the pieces that I took away from Levitin, this was the most salient. I spend a great deal of time thinking about chords, chord structure, lyrics, rhyming schemes, etc., when an overall musical timbre is most often at stake.

To conclude, I think that Levitin (2006) has much to offer us as songwriters, in the following ways:

  • Repetition
  • Music as (Repetitive) Memory
  • Twice as Long as Short: Rhythmic Ratios
  • Dance is not a Kind of Music, It IS Music
  • It’s All About the Timbre, the Timbre, the Timbre—No Treble

But, don’t take my word for it, read his book , and tell me what you get out of it. And remember, it all starts with a song…and the song started before we even knew it 😉

References

Greene, Brian (2011).  The hidden reality: Parallel universes and the deep laws of the cosmos. New York: Knopf.

Levitin, D.J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Dutton.

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BreakOut…& relax

Mr. Peter Champagne, Artistic Director of the Regina Jazz Festival, called me yesterday and invited me to gig on Friday Oct 14 at 8pm at 20Ten City Eatery (2010 12 Ave, Regina). The 20Ten is a superb up-scale restaurant with quite an innovative menu; there is free valet parking. Together , McCallum Towers I and II make the famous V in the Regina skyline; the 20Ten Eatery is just steps away in the new McCallum Towers III (actually named, the Mosaic Tower at Hill Centre III). In summer, we played on the rooftop, on the 24th story, truly dining under the stars!

I will be joined by my usual partner-in-crime, Mr Carter Powley, on his saxophone and flute. Carter is not only an excellent player, he also holds a degree in musical composition and performance. We will perform songs from my latest CD, “Courage Walks with Us,” as well as jazz standards (perhaps even a song or two from my upcoming album). CheckOut Carter as part of the Scott Anthony Andrews Quartet performing “Down Deep, Deep in My Soul”

There are many wonderful musicians to hear this week around town, and if you have opportunity to hear Carter and I, come by and say hello…. have a drink or two, some appetizers or a meal….

Relaxing Friday evening music….we perform until 10….
BreakOut West is all around us! Music is in the cool Regina air…
Sincere thanks to the Regina Jazz Society and 20Ten City Eatery

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Jay Semko “It All Starts with a Song”

If the tagline for the Songwriters Association of Canada is “It All Starts with a Song”, then Jay Semko must have written it. Mr. Semko was our guest for the Regina Regional Writers group of SAC this week; Jay is a wonderful story-teller, weaving anecdotes in and out of his life with implicit songwriting tips, lessons and techniques. Like many musicians who have careers spanning decades, Jay has done many things:  He’s a bass player, guitar player, singer, performer, composer for television series and movies of the week—so classical composer as well as folk/pop/Indie music. Jay is probably best known as the front man for the Northern Pikes. On top of all that, he’s an instructor, and this week, he was our mentor. But at the heart of everything—and a point he stressed—he is a songwriter.  It all starts (and ends) with a song.

semko semko_and-_rrwg

Jay Semko at the Regina Regional Writers Group of SAC

Within music I see myself much the same way—that I am a songwriter first—that songwriting is my musical foundation, my rock.  Other opportunities may spring from songwriting, so we must keep our skills and craft tuned. So, we must not be afraid to follow where our songwriting takes us, and recognize

Speaking of craft, Jay several times alluded to the balancing act of trusting oneself as a songwriter to honour one’s intuition and creative spark at the same time as editing and re-editing our songs, perhaps the more cerebral aspect of songwriting. Another useful lesson was Jay’s assertion that songs are everywhere—they are right in front of us. He then described three adjoining tables in the room, forming an “L” and a backwards “L”; he began to describe different ways in which a song may be written with this simple observation. Inspiration is everywhere.  If “it all starts with a song” and “it all comes back to the song”—then the song is all around us. What a grand place to be!

Inspiring lessons. Thanks Mr Semko!

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