Getting to the Root of the Rut

Written by  on May 7, 2017

I was awakened earlier than expected by my dogs this morning. So, I did what every responsible musician should do, deciding to take this extra 2 hours of daylight and do some writing, practicing or arranging. And the first hour ended up in the YouTube rathole. Some good stuff, but not exactly how I decided to spend my morning.

Ok, so one hour left: dive in. Which workstation app? Logic? Ableton? Garageband? Or continuing to evaluate Notion vs. Finale? Or just sit on the couch with the Novation Circuit? Hell, how about just playing some guitar?

And I realized: at this time, I have more creativity-enabling tools than I have creativity. Great.

After a few minutes, I was able to unpack the situation a bit.

  1. Too many options. It has created a barrier to focusing my energies.
  2. Even with all these tools, I don’t know any of them well enough to get into flow.
  3. At home, I have a standing-only desk. It’s great for practicing guitar/bass but not for keyboard work or serious thinking.
  4. The above-mentioned desk is a mess. It’s been worse, but it’s still not good.
  5. No collaborators. I’m in a ton of bands, but I’m not really collaborating in a creative capacity, at least not in a way that requires work at home.
  6. No active projects or goals. This is really the kicker right now. In the absence of active goals – ideally, with expectations set with or by collaborators or clients – I’m not forced to get to know my tools by problem-solving.

I’m generally not a person that creates art in a vacuum. I’m more skilled and happier as an arranger than as a composer or songwriter. So a lack of guardrails is not helpful. I have conceived of a number of projects to pursue, but the motivation is low.

Here are some potential actions I could take.

  1. Learning the tools, by attempting to solve the same problem in each. I have a number of songs where I have all the rhythm section parts scored out, so I’m thinking of sequencing one particular song in multiple apps, for the purpose of learning the nuances and evaluating ease-of-use for later, more creative work.
  2. Evaluating a sit-stand adjustable desk vs. stand-only. Looks like that would run around $1000 at the size I want. So, maybe just a taller chair, and clean the desk I have. There are some easy wins in cleaning up big items to get more space. (This will start as soon as I publish this.)
  3. Finding a collaborator to work with on a project, with actual goals and milestones, with mutual expectations and responsibilities. This one’s a little harder since it’s not entirely in my control to act on. I guess we’ll see who reads this? And what ideas we can come up with to pursue.

Who Tells Your Story?

Written by  on December 23, 2016

It’s taken until today to finally listen to the “Hamilton” soundtrack in full. Knowing myself, I tend to latch on to certain musicals and consume them completely, and with the rabid fans out there – I might even say overexposure – I wanted to be careful with this one, to give it the proper attention and not a casual listen, and largely uninterrupted.

I listened on Spotify and followed the lyrics along on the official website – the site was fantastically easy to use, and almost every line is hyperlink-annotated for context. I’ll look at more of those on a 2nd listen – great stuff.

Also, I deliberately watched the HBO miniseries “John Adams” ahead of time for context – it was very helpful to get a sense of the players, the rivalries, and the urgency of their situation. I’ve found it particularly useful when getting into Electoral College discussions, having more context around federalism vs. republicanism.

Back to the show – here are a smattering of random observations.

  1. The rhymes are incredible, particularly given the subject matter.
  2. The parallels with “Rent”: In this one, I see a strong parallel of the Roger & Mark vs. Benny dynamic – what are you going to stand for? – and it doesn’t help that Manuel’s and Odom’s voices sound so much like Rapp and Diggs’.
    1. In fun other trivia, Odom was in the near-original Rent cast, although in a different role – no day but today! – and both shows have a principal surnamed Diggs, although unrelated.
  3. The NYC references feel anachronistic, but maybe I’m wrong on the city’s level of prominence in the 18th century? Calling it “the greatest city in the world” feels misplaced for the time. That said, for a composer who grew up there and as the show that took over the city, I’m cool with it. Also, some of the women’s lines recalled “Empire State of Mind” for me, probably not unintentionally.
  4. I finally feel like I understand the Hamilton/Burr feud, beyond just the history class “there was a duel and stuff”.
  5. Lin’s voice grates on me, but I think largely because he’s a bit overexposed right now. I’m very interested to hear somebody else sing the role for contrast.
  6. Gutsy move to have so many MacBeth references in a theater.
  7. As “revolutionary” (pun intended) as the musical style is for a mainstream Broadway show, it’s still a Broadway musical, even down to little details like end-of-song “buttons”. Manuel is a student of the form.
  8. I love that King George’s songs sound like they could have been arranged by George Martin. Seems appropriate, British Invasion?
  9. The arrangement cements my realization earlier this year that I needed to add synth bass to my toolbox, in addition to electric. It’s a great mixture of the two.
  10. Yes, I cried several times.

I only nitpick because I care. Now onto the Mixtape

Below: My wife Robin, at the Hamilton Hotel in DC, not throwing away her shot.

thehamilton

Misdirected Evangelism

Written by  on June 29, 2011

I still remember the date – Feb 18, 2011. I was at work, surfing the web, and found an opportunity to experience something I had ignored for years, but a number of my friends described as life-changing and a huge part of their own identity. So I decided to check it out a little bit. And I was transformed – and regretful of all the wasted years which I’d spent without it.  Since that day, I’ve surrounded myself with it and allowed it to work within me, changing and growing me.

Does this sound familiar? No, it’s not a Christian testimony (although I confess to writing it as closely as I could). On Feb 18, 2011, Radiohead released “The King of Limbs” and allowed NPR to stream the whole thing in one pass. Like most of the mainstream music industry, I’d ignored Radiohead since “The Bends” and their music became less accessible. Toward the end of 2010, Rolling Stone put out a list of the best and most influential albums of the decade – and it didn’t escape my notice that both “OK Computer” and “Kid A” were on the short list. But it wasn’t until February when I heard “The King of Limbs” when I realized what I’d missed all these years, and said to myself “oh boy…I’ve made a mistake here.” (Upon posting this on Facebook, my friends definitely affirmed this as a mistake, and encouraged me to dig deeper.)

Within the next few weeks, I bought the entire catalog, and spent the next two months really diving in.  (The “OK Rainbows” or “01 and 10” mashup of the “OK Computer” and “In Rainbows” album is particularly fascinating to me.)

Part of my regret and shock at my own ignorance is how much their music means to other musicians – and I missed it.  It doesn’t take much to see from just the cover versions – Brad Mehldau’s many jazz arrangements, several lullaby CDs, even John Mayer making the song “Kid A” actually singable.  One of my favorites is this recent fan mashup, released on this year’s anniversary of “OK Computer”.

Since that day, I’ve been an eager evangelist for the band, although not as much as I have been for The Civil Wars.  I literally can’t say enough about hem, but I will actually try to restrain myself here.

I recently tweeted out, “The crazy part of musicianship is that you strive to do complexity like @radiohead and write sublimely like @thecivilwars.”  How many chords does YOUR last song have?

The eternal problem is that I’m a mad evangelist for the wrong things.  I can so easily tell somebody how experiencing a band or piece of music will change their life, but I’m terrified of sharing the gospel with them. I’m equally afraid of offending a friend and of being rejected as a friend.  And of course I’m embarrassed of being associated with crazy (and some not as crazy) right-wing Christians too.  And yet Penn Jillette’s words haunt me – “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize…If you believe that there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell…how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?”

It’s just difficult for me to communicate “I tell you this because I truly care about you”, when so many folks over the years have essentially said either “I’m trying to get you on my team” or “I’m trying to show you I’m right” or even just “you’re wrong!”  That’s the last thing I want to communicate.  My intention is more of a combination of “I really think you’re missing out on something bigger” and “I think a train is coming down the tracks and I’m begging you to get out of the way”.

This feels like a pathetic way to do it, but seriously, friends, if anybody wants to have this conversation, I would love to – I just don’t know how to start it effectively.

From C to shining C, Please

Written by  on April 28, 2011

The process of selecting songs for a church’s worship ministry is a complicated one, with both content and usability implications for both the lyrics and the music.  Here I’m going to highlight a particular criterion of a song’s musical usability – can we find a key that everybody can sing this melody in?

Songs with big ranges are tough to find common ground for men and women – not to mention tenor vs. bass and soprano vs. alto!  The conventional wisdom around this is a mnemonic of “From sea to shining sea” (from America the Beautiful) as picking a one-octave range from the notes C to C.  At my church, we tend do things a little low for my “sweet spot” range in order to accommodate the women and baritones in the congregation, and keeping the above guideline in mind, I rarely have melodies go higher than a D for anything congregational.  On the platform we generally have me leading with a single female backup vocalist, and occasionally the reverse for a particular song or verse or an entire morning.

So what do you do when otherwise-great songs don’t fit into a range like this?  Here’s an interesting example – Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend’s masterpiece In Christ Alone, in medley with the classic hymn refrain to The Solid Rock, performed by Travis Cottrell.

In Christ Alone is already a tough song because it’s got a big range – an octave plus a 4th.  (In C, that would be a lower G to a higher C.)   In Christ Alone is a rare exception for my team in that we do it in E, which means it goes up to an E, mostly because the low end of the range is so low for my voice in any other key.  So that means that it’s relatively high for women.

So take another listen to the video, where the song transition takes place: you notice that his voice drops in and out?  That’s because Solid Rock goes up another 5th at that point – which in our case, would be up to B!  So you can tell that he picked a key that was optimized for his choir to take over at that point.  Note that also in the 3rd verse when his voice jumps into the higher octave for the “up from the grave” line, he isn’t able to stay on the melody for the whole verse.  Same thing in the final verse after Solid Rock – he isn’t able to stay on the melody in that octave.

You can see where this gets complicated.  Making things sound excellent but are also congregationally singable are two entirely different animals and serve at times conflicting purposes in actual implementation.

A bigger frustration I have is with songs that have the verse in a low octave and the chorus in a high octave. Here’s an example of a song that my team just learned: Happy Day written by Tim Hughes, as performed by Jesus Culture.

It works great from a songwriting perspective, because it brings immediate energy to the big chorus and matches the lyrics well.  But it ultimately fails congregationally, because it’s nearly impossible to find a key that both genders can adequately sing in both octaves.  So what it usually means is that one gender or the other ends up singing harmony by necessity only in half the song, or if they’re not able to harmonize, due to either ability or chord complexity, they end up singing the verse in the high octave, and the chorus in the low octave – thereby stripping the whole arc of the song for half of your congregation.  Unfortunately, this is the norm in worship chorus writing these days, and it’s annoying all of us.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder how Chris Tomlin has been as successful as he has – his recordings are generally out of range for men AND women!  I can’t imagine actually trying to sing along with him in a worship context – unless the whole congregation singing in harmony (again, by necessity) sounds like this big heavenly choir.

Note: if you read this post earlier, I’ve rewritten this section – I’ve come around on this one.
His Jesus Messiah is an interesting one – it’s in kind of an odd key, but the whole song only has the range of a 5th-  in this key (B), it goes from B to F#- but what that means is that once you find your octave, at least you’re able to get comfortable on the melody or harmony and not have to jump around.  (Taking a note from Bruce Springsteen, the master of small vocal range, perhaps?)

I’ve made the choice to be extremely conscious of this issue; it’s one of those things the congregation would generally never notice unless it went away.  My team members might take note that most special music tunes that I sing are in higher keys than the worship choruses surrounding them.  I would make a lot of enemies in the congregation very, very quickly if I chose not to care about this.

So- worship songwriters- big dramatic song ranges might get you on the radio, and a lot of play in larger churches where the emphasis is on the production and not on the congregation, but for smaller churches with normal singers where everybody can hear each other, try to keep your writing with more achievable ranges.  We appreciate it!

38 Bass Hooks You Must Listen To Before Next Sunday

Written by  on March 26, 2011

As promised previously, I have assembled a laundry list of classic, influential, inspiring yet practical bass lines from the last 50 years, particularly ones that form the “hook” of the song.  The idea here isn’t to wow you with unachievable pyrotechnics, but to provide some alternatives to the usual quarter-and-eighth-note drivel that has come out of the mainstream worship scene in the last 10 years.  I’ve tried to include some examples from CCM & P&W recording where I was able to think of them.  Usual disclaimer: this is by no means a comprehensive list – how could it be? – but merely a list of specific bass lines that have inspired and influenced my own playing over the years, and I’ve added notes in the link tooltips (hover the mouse over the link) where there’s something particular to pay attention to. I hope that you can find things to learn from and apply easily to your current playing!

Note: I’m adding tunes as I think of more – there’s now more than 38!  Bonus tracks!

60’s

The Beatles (Paul McCartney) – Getting Better, Something, Come Together
Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones) – Good Times Bad Times, Ramble On
Marvin Gaye (James Jamerson) – What’s Going On bass isolated version!
Jimi Hendrix (Noel Redding) – Fire

70’s
Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones) – Dancing Days
Steely Dan (Chuck Rainey) – Josie
Doobie Brothers (Tiran Porter) – Takin’ It to the Streets (sorry, can only find live clips – you need to hear the studio version so you can hear the bass)
Aerosmith (Tom Hamilton) – Sweet Emotion
Joni Mitchell (Jaco Pastorius) – Hejira
Pink Floyd (Roger Waters) – Hey You

80’s
Bob Bennett (Gary Lunn)- Man of the Tombs
Paul Simon (Bakithi Kumalo) – Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Peter Gabriel (Tony Levin) – Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up
Tears For Fears (Pino Palladino) – Woman in Chains
The Police (Sting) – King Of Pain, When the World is Running Down
U2 (Adam Clayton) – New Year’s Day

90’s
Alice in Chains – Would? (Mike Starr), No Excuses (Mike Inez)
Dave Matthews Band (Stefan Lessard) – The Best of What’s Around
Toad the Wet Sprocket (Dean Dinning) – Walk on the Ocean, Fly From Heaven, Butterflies
Matt Redman – Can I Ascend (sorry, no video available)
Michael Card (Danny O’Lannerghty)- The Basin and the Towel
White Heart – Let the Kingdom Come (Tommy Sims), Unchain (Anthony Sallee)
PFR (Patrick Andrew) – Merry Go Round

00’s
New!  Radiohead (Colin Greenwood) – The National Anthem
New!  The Killers (Mark Stoermer) – Jenny Was a Friend of Mine
Muse (Chiris Wolstenholme) – Time is Running Out
Silversun Pickups (Nicki Monninger) – Panic Switch My band’s version!
U2 (Adam Clayton) – Vertigo
Death Cab For Cutie (Nick Harmer) – I Will Possess Your Heart, Summer Skin
Hillsong United (?) – Hosanna
Robbie Seay Band (?) – Hallelujah, God is Near

10’s
????????   Any suggestions from the last year or so?  Leave comments below!

Removing Overtones to Get to the Fundamental

Written by  on March 4, 2011

It was accurately pointed out to me today that I needed to clarify or answer for a couple things in my “Putting the Fun in Fundamental” blog post from a little while back. I confess that blogging is a dangerous activity for those of us given to passive-aggressive tendencies, as it allows us to just throw stuff out to the world and feel safer from the consequences of our actions. But there are consequences for making generalizations without clarification or reflection, so here we go:

1.  The implied criticism against church musical & outreach leadership was a generalization and not about any particular church that I have been directly associated with. I do think we need to be careful about value judgments that are made about a person’s ability to be effective in ministry based on externals, and I wouldn’t give the time of day to a church that would do so this blatantly.  Obviously even I have my limits to accepting a person’s externals, but I sincerely try not to let it get in the way.

2.  My lament of the lack of musical “meat” (versus “milk” – see Hebrews 5) in modern worship songwriting and arranging is not so much from a “keep the musicians stimulated by letting them do complicated stuff even if they annoy the congregation in the process” perspective; it’s more from a place of “if they only are presented with the basics, then they’ll never develop the skills they need to develop musically and write their own arrangements for their instruments”.  That said, some sub-points:

a.  I think the simple arrangements give great opportunity for newer players to get involved easily.  I can imagine throwing “Blessed Be Your Name” at a first-year bassist.  Can’t say the same for “Mourning Into Dancing“.  (But I do miss playing that one.)

b.  I will quite often ask my bassists to simplify!  (Gasp! Betrayal of the Brotherhood of Bottom End!) The problem I find here in most cases is that, because of the lack of variety in style presented to them by the “worship market”, they don’t have good examples available of a) when to play simply other than quarter notes, b) how to play simply other than quarter notes, and c) appropriate/musical/tasty ways of playing complicated parts which then end up sounding like mush.  I don’t blame these guys at all; my main critique here in the video is blaming the arrangers/producers.  (And I’ve been in those roles too, and guilty of the same.)

c.  Regarding the lack of examples in part b), I have a future blog post with positive examples of each of these techniques.  I will definitely be going outside the area of CCM/worship for this, although I’ll try to find them where I can.

Most of the responses I received from the community have been “right on!” but I know there were cases where people implied that I was talking about specific churches including my own.  I’m happy to say that it’s not the case, and I’m sorry if I’ve offended or caused anyone grief over this.  Please feel free to leave comments here or contact me privately.

Thanks-
Jeff

Mr. Overly Sensitive

Written by  on February 5, 2011

I cry easily.   To quote Jude Law’s character in The Holiday, “I’m a weeper.”  Particularly during songs that have particular meaning, memories or associations of brokenness, loss of relationship, or the spiritually sublime. Some are sad, but not necessarily.

The “fun” part is that it’s not just hearing the song; sometimes even just the memory of the song is enough to bring a tear.  It’s not always a terribly convenient feature, particularly when driving, coding, performing, shopping, bowling, etc.  You get the idea.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the list of the worst offenders for me.  Some I can explain, some I cannot.  Please, use with caution.

Just for the record, grabbing all these YouTube links and listening to even 10 seconds of each one of these back to back has just about knocked me out for the day.  Yikes.

What are yours???

Update: adding The Civil Wars’ Poison and Wine to this list.  ….wow.

Hejira, a radio blessing

Written by  on January 31, 2011

Just wanted to give props to The Mountain on Sunday afternoon – after leaving church and a great morning of music, I turned on the radio and was treated to the languorous sounds of Joni Mitchell‘s “Hejira“, featuring Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny.  This was followed immediately by Marc Cohn‘s sublime “Walking in Memphis“.  It made my day.

Putting the Fun in Fundamental

Written by  on January 26, 2011

Note: I have posted an update/clarification to this post here.

I generally feel pretty bad for church bass players who have only learned to play in a church setting, and particularly in the last 10 years.  Let me apologize for my generation’s songwriting influences – yes, I’m one of the many members of Gen-X Christendom that has every U2 album.  Unfortunately, it has crept in so strongly to worship songwriting that you can’t escape it.  Guitarists, make sure you have your delay pedal handy.  Drummers, tune up those toms and stretch your Achilles tendon to get that 4-on-the-floor going.  Bass players, grab a cup of coffee because your part isn’t going to mentally stimulate you to wakefulness on a Sunday morning.

To be fair, as a bassist I am myself heavily influenced by Adam Clayton – good note choices, good grooves, good tone.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with simplicity when it is called for.  Not at all.  But if that’s all you’ve ever heard, then our worship bands will all suffer for it, and we will never get any respect as musicians because we aren’t bringing anything to the table, because we’re not expected to – rather, we’re expected NOT to.

Am I bitter?  Well….I decided to turn this into an xtraNormal video.  Enjoy.

Update: I’m doing some penance for my jadedness by listening to U2 this afternoon.  Finding that “No Line on the Horizon” is much better up really loud.  That said- the original (U2) will always be better than the imitators (worship songwriters).  Oops.  Jaded again.

Will the Real M&M Please Stand Up?

Written by  on January 22, 2011

radio dialDriving home from work the other night, after a relatively stressful day, my usual drive-time radio show was in a long commercial break, so I started channel surfing for something to bolster my mood.  Sometimes I need something loud to drown out the day; sometimes it’s something funny to make me smile; sometimes it’s something soothing.  NPR often works for the latter….sorta: soothing voices, but talk about news and politics.  A mixed bag.  So the surfing began:

It took me a couple of seconds to recognize it (hey, it’s instrumental), but then I figured out that it was one from one of my favorite albums, Metheny/Mehldau, the final track, “Make Peace”.  And – at a red light, thank you – I sighed, bowed my head, and said “Thank you.”  I’ve been a long-time fan of Pat Metheny‘s guitar work and compositions, and a more recent fan of Brad Mehldau‘s piano work, but the two of them together is simply magical.  The album is mostly piano/guitar duets, in largely through-composed-but-with-hooks contemporary jazz.

Live M/MI use that term with hesitation because I can’t figure out a better one.  I think jazz has evolved again for contemporary composers, like Metheny, who came out of the fusion movement of the 70’s and are searching now for creating beauty in melody and not in rhythmic and/or harmonic complexity.  (Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter’s 1+1 album comes to mind.)  Call it deconstructionist, perhaps, but not in an academic way.  I first discovered this with Metheny’s earlier collaboration with Charlie Haden Under the Missouri Sky, which will merit its own post here later.  In that case, it was a combination of their own individual compositions and a handful of others’, but the Metheny/Mehldau album has much more of a collaborative and interactive feel to it.  The dynamics and fluidity of the interaction between the two seems improvised, although I’m sure that’s not the case.

harp guitarI did get to see them live a couple of years ago- on a Sunday morning at church, I found out that M/M was in town, and a few of the other musicians were planning on attending.  I called my mom and asked if she wanted to go – she’s a pianist and we’d enjoyed seeing Hancock & Shorter a few years earlier.  We bought tickets and were at the Seattle Paramount Theatre a few hours later.  It was a fantastic show.  Never to disappoint, Metheny came out in his trademark bumblebee shirt.  This was right after their second collaboration, Quartet, was released.  The first album has a few quartet numbers, and the second is mostly quartet with only a few duet numbers.  What a band, what a show.  Mehldau’s hand independence was incredible.  Seeing and hearing Metheny’s harp guitar (picture at right) on “The Sound of Water” was fascinating.  I will definitely catch them again next time they come back – ideally I’ll have more than a few hours notice this time!