Tag Archives: 1914

Album Progress Report

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been working on recording an album of songs for this project. In the last month I finalised the track listing, did more work on final arrangements and mixes, and invited some guest musicians to perform on these recordings. I’ve been giving it a lot of time and attention. But with a dissertation to write as well, I fear I won’t have much more time to devote to the album in order to finish it before the end of September, let alone release it.

I released an album of original songs last year, and without doubt the hardest part for me was not performing, arranging, or recording the songs. The hardest part was what you would call ‘post-production’. Mastering is a highly technical process. A mastering engineer is equal parts scientist and artist. They play with the frequency spectrum of the final song mix, finessing the sound to achieve the best possible results for that final mix on all kinds of speakers. It’s also the part of the audio production chain where consistency between different songs is achieved to make a coherent overall sound for an album, with careful and skilled use of compression, limiters, and all kinds of other technical tools, sound levels can appear consistent throughout an album even when vastly different instrumentation is used on different songs. That’s quite a technical feat. And this is where I see myself spending most time to finish this album. Since I can’t afford to get anything mastered professionally, I’m going to have to do it myself, mostly by trial-and-error.

That’s what I did last year when I released ‘Dark Matters’. I spent weeks mixing, remixing, mastering, remixing, back and forth between different songs on different programs. The final results were good, I think. But not as good as a professional (with professional equipment and professional experience) could have done in a fraction of the time. It was a compromise. But without making this compromise, I couldn’t have released an album at all.

Then I had to promote the album. I spent a couple of months trying to find every music blog I could that features independent music. Then I emailed them all, a few hundred of them anyway. A group email is a big no-no. You have to personalise the emails, write enough at least so they know that you know who you’re talking to and you’ve read their blog. You’ve got to write hundreds of these personalised emails. Having researched other people’s release strategies, I decided to make a few music videos and release one a week in the weeks preceding the album launch. This would give music reviewers a few chances to hear my music before the album launch, without annoying them by sending the same press release over and over – I was giving them something new each time. Over a month I sent over 1500 emails, all personalised. I also had to make five music videos. As I was pretty new to video production, this was insanely ambitious. Being insanely ambitious has kind of become my hallmark. So as I was finishing recording the album, I divided my time between researching music blogs, making music videos, finalising the mixes, experimenting with mastering, designing the artwork, writing emails and press releases, and rehearsing with my live band to learn all the new songs. I set a release date in April. Between January and April I worked sixteen-hour days (a conservative estimate).

If you pick up any album that’s been successfully commercially released, there’s a list of credits as long as your arm. Musicians, producers, promoters, management, record companies. I tried to be all those things. And this is the part that people don’t understand. I didn’t envision massive commercial success myself, not for this first release. My reward was not to be monetary. I had made something I was proud of. By taking on the impossible challenge of single-handedly marketing it, I was further investing in myself. This time was spent turning me into the kind of person I want to be. As the years before my first release were spent learning all I could about songwriting and music and audio production, this was my first step in learning how to market my skills, and picking up other skills too. Failure does not faze me because I’ve been extraordinarily productive. I have a definite artistic sensibility (frequently characterised by taking on seemingly-impossible challenges). I have ‘creative confidence’. I have faith in my own creative abilities. I’ve worked extremely hard to hone my skills, and been fearless to experiment and try things out. My first album was a modest critical success (i.e. some people really liked it). In commercial terms, it was a dismal failure (as most music released these days is). But I see myself as an artist creating a body of work. As I was releasing the album, I was already writing songs for the next release. My first album had songs in very different styles, but was mostly guitar-based with arrangements for a live band. My next release was very different. It was an E.P. of synth-and-beat based songs (including an electro-pop version of ‘Who Is Silvia?’ by William Shakespeare).

Having immersed myself in the music blogosphere last year with these two very different releases, I came to some generalised conclusions about modern music. Firstly, most people seem to listen to ‘production’ first. Production is important, no doubt. I’ve spent a lot of time on it. But it does not, and should not ever, trump melody. I believe I have a melodic sensibility, though I’m not sure it can be defined or analysed easily. I’ve written hundreds of songs, and possibly tens of thousands of melodic lines. I’ve obsessively listened to a wide variety of music for at least the last twenty years. And melody is always the deciding factor for me, melody is the soul of the music. Rhythm is the life and melody is the soul. I often deconstruct music into its constituent parts as I’m listening to it. When a music reviewer raves about a certain song, I listen to it and I think… yes, I can see why they like this. The production is really good. The arrangement is inventive and unusual. But if the melody is boring and derivative, I can’t enjoy the music. Melody and lyrics are important to me. They’re what I love the most. And they’re the most undervalued things in modern music.

This was partially why I wanted to record an album of songs ‘rescued’ from the archives. If these songs still resonate with me, a modern musician, a hundred years after their release – I think there must be something universal about their appeal, something ‘timeless’ in the lyrics and melodies. The sentimental, melodramatic lyrics are a million miles away from the cynically calculated lyrical content of many of our most commercially successful modern songwriters. I found a charming naïveté there, I sensed sincerity in the writing and the performances. Recording modern versions of these songs was a huge learning experience for me in a musical sense as well. Making piano my main instrument for the album was ambitious, I’ve never received any formal instruction in piano playing. Then again, I’ve never received any formal musical education of any kind, I taught myself to play guitar in my teens and piano in my late twenties. This has been, and will continue to be, a labour of love. I’ll release it before the end of the year. But I think I’ll have to wait until after my dissertation, so it will be October before I start to formulate a release strategy and work on the mastering. I want to do these songs, and all my collaborators, justice.

While it may be a mad folly of mine to put all this work into recording an album of vintage songs, I regret nothing. I’ve learned so much. And I’m still learning. I’d love to be able to release a ‘sister’ album to my own, an album of contributions from anyone who has seen this project and decided to participate. So far, I haven’t had enough contributions to consider doing this. But the ones I’ve had have been fantastic and have only made me hungry for more. If you’re a musician, dig into the archives, find a song you like, and record it. I’ve complicated things for myself by recording twelve songs and having guest performers, but any modern musician could take up the challenge and give this a try. If you do, I guarantee you’ll learn something.

For Bloomsday

It’s June 16th, the day when literary appreciators all over the world remember the work of James Joyce. Today is Bloomsday, named for Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses. The events in the novel unfold on June 16th 1904, Joyce having apparently picked that day as it was when he had his first outing with Nora Barnacle, a walk in Ringsend.

A hundred years ago today, on June 16th 1914, four years before the initial publication of Ulysses in serialised form, Christine Miller recorded a song called ‘Oft In The Stilly Night’ in Camden, New Jersey. The words were written by Thomas Moore (who died in 1852). Joyce himself was familiar with this song, referencing it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a song sung by Stephen’s family on the eve of his departure. The lyrics evoke old memories and departed friends, and deeply affected Stephen as he prepared to emigrate in order to fulfil his artistic ambitions. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wasn’t published until 1916, so Joyce could well have heard Christine Miller’s 1914 version of the song before he wrote that passage. His love of music was well-known and Joyce was by all accounts a very good tenor singer. He won a bronze medal in Ireland’s Feis Ceoil on May 16th, 1904, exactly one month before his first date with Nora. Joyce was encouraged to enter the competition by his friend, and winner of the previous year’s Feis Ceoil, John McCormack. Joyce and McCormack even used to practise singing together. There’s a good chance they sang Oft in the Stilly Night together in 1904.

John McCormack was Ireland’s most famous singer in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1903 he won Ireland’s Feis Ceoil. By 1914 he had toured much of Europe and America, made many records and was an international singing star. Here’s a recording of John McCormack in 1914 singing ‘A Little Love, A Little Kiss’.


John McCormack, 1914

McCormack recorded a version of ‘Oft In The Stilly Night’ in 1907. I haven’t found a version of this recording to share with you, but he recorded it again in 1940. As a much older man, perhaps he understood the wistful lyrics a little better. When he recorded this in 1940, he wasn’t to know that his friend James Joyce would be dead within a year. Perhaps Joyce heard it before he died, it is noted in his biographies that he paid careful attention to the career of his old friend and singing companion.

The final version of the song I wish to share is my own. I found it to be a very touching song, universal and timeless in its appeal. Wistful and nostalgic as it is, there’s something very sweet about the lyrics. They’re as relevant today as when Thomas Moore wrote them over 160 years ago. I arranged it quite simply, voice and finger-picked guitar for the first half with bass, kick-drum, electric guitar and a vocal harmony joining in for the second half, a piano chiming in near the end. For the artwork, I’ve composited a photo of Joyce and McCormack together, as it was these two men who inspired my Bloomsday cover of the song, and of course, Christine Miller who sang this song a hundred years ago today. On that day she also recorded ‘The Slumber Boat‘, which I also covered. With all these coincidences arising from this day and this song, I wish you all a Happy Bloomsday.

Play a Simple Melody

Irving Berlin wrote the words and music for the 1914 musical ‘Watch Your Step’, which included the song ‘Play a Simple Melody’. The musical was a ragtime revue starring the popular dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, who you may remember from my post on unsung jazz pioneer James Reese Europe. Relatively few songs have the cultural importance to merit their own Wikipedia page, this song’s got one. It notes that the song was one of the few true examples of counterpoint in American popular music – a melody running against a second melody, both with independent lyrics. The parts are musically independent and very cleverly also lyrically contradictory. The lyrics of the first melodic line yearn for a simple melody “like my mother sang to me”, melody in the old simple style of bygone years. The second melody line calls for music in the more exciting modern ragtime style.

Polo Moro recorded this wonderful version of ‘Play a Simple Melody’ for Hundred Years Late. I absolutely love the fiddle on it. And the good old-fashioned harmony. Really excellent work by Polo Moro. He had this to say…

A duet by Bing and Gary Crosby (listed on the label as “Gary Crosby and Friend”) was a hit recording in 1950. This was the main inspiration for my re-recording. Procuring a ragtime band, traditionally clarinet, trumpet, trombone and banjo was not feasible, so I have subbed in violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and what is known as a banjuitar, a banjo head strung with 6 strings in guitar tuning.

Its worth noting too that these music hall compositions were a strong influence on Paul MacCartney in his formative songwriting years, echoes of ‘Simple Melody’ can be heard in ‘Octopus’s Garden’ from the Abbey Road album, with very similar chord progressions.

 

You can hear more from Polo Moro on reverbation. Here’s that version by Gary Crosby and Friend… Gary Crosby’s vocal stylings seem to be making Bing laugh. I like when Bing says “Steady, steady!” It’s quite funny. He then adds, “Don’t lose your head.”

I also found this fun version of the song from The Muppet Show, Jean Stapleton singing a duet of ‘Play a Simple Melody’ with Fozzie Bear. Jean Stapleton was a popular American actress of stage, television and film (I knew her from her guest appearances in 1990s sitcoms). She died last year, aged 90. Fozzie Bear is still alive and well.

-Singer 1-
Won’t you play a simple melody

Like my mother sang to me?

One with good old-fashioned harmony.

Play some simple melody.

-Singer 2-

Musical demons set my honey a-dreaming.

Won’t you play me some rag?

Just change that classical nag

To some sweet musical drag.

When you play from a copy of a tune that is choppy

You’ll get all my applause, simply because.

I wanna listen to rag.

 

All these modern versions left out the opening verse section which is included on the 1916 recording by Elsie Baker (credited as Edna Brown) and Billy Murray (linked in the image below, the one disguised as an embedded player). Maybe the verse section was left out in later versions because of the use of the word ‘darkies’. Or maybe it just wasn’t as catchy. Casual racism in the archives, I’m getting déjà vu.

This image represents the earliest recording of the song I could find. Click to listen to it on US National Library of Congress website, National Jukebox.

The Murder Machine

The Murder Machine

I’d like to introduce an interesting and unusual song sent to me by a band called Yearning Curve. Instead of interpreting an archived song, they’ve used snippets of the text from Pádraig Pearse’s 1914 essay ‘The Murder Machine’ in a new composition. Pearse’s essay on the inequities of the Irish education system and the dysfunctional realities of imperialism and occupation can be read in full on UCC’s Corpus of Electronic Texts. Yearning Curve’s version of ‘The Murder Machine’ also includes modern-day sound-bites, painting a sound-picture of an Ireland swathed in corruption, still offering up its young to an indifferent imperial ruling class a hundred years after Pearse’s essay. In this post, Bairbre from Yearning Curve tells me a bit more about ‘The Murder Machine’…


 

“A machine vast, complicated, with a multitude of far-reaching arms, with many ponderous presses, carrying out mysterious and long-drawn processes of shaping and moulding…”
– Patrick Pearse,
The Murder Machine (1914)

‘The Murder Machine’ is the title track from our debut album inspired by Patrick Pearse’s book, ‘The Murder Machine’ (1914).

Using lines from Pearse’s book, samples from the infamous bankers tapes, Vincent Browne in full flight and Bertie Ahern on the steps of Dáil Éireann, we wanted to explore the idea of ‘The Murder Machine’ and the relevance of it in our time.

Although Pearse’s book deals mainly with the early 20th century education system, ‘The Murder Machine’ of the corporate world is surely as oppressive as anything the imperialist world could dream up as we struggle daily with the grinders of poverty, inequality and conformity.

I read somewhere once that Bertie Ahern kept a photo of Pearse on his desk and the irony of that couldn’t be lost on those who are living in the Ireland that Ahern and his policy-makers have left behind. The ‘Murder Machine’ song is some attempt to reclaim our history in the spirit of those who visioned a fair and free future for all of us. Kind of like Jinx Lennon, but not funny. 

Listen here:
https://soundcloud.com/yearningcurve/themurdermachine
Album out May 1st:
https://soundcloud.com/yearningcurve/the-murder-machine
—–

What is ‘The Murder Machine’? 
The personal and political meathooks, 
the myriad ways we can be ground up? 
And why make music about it?

—–
http://www.breakingtunes.com/yearningcurve
http://www.facebook.com/yearningcurve
http://www.twitter.com/yearningcurve

Creation vs Destruction

Creation vs Destruction

‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’
sung by Richard José in 1905. The 1914 version by Louise Homer unfortunately can’t be embedded in WordPress.

So far, every musician I’ve talked to has been very positive about the idea of reinterpreting archived material. But I’ve received zero submissions so far (apart from this one on this blog post, which was great). To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been as dynamic and forthright about promoting this idea as I could have been. I’ve been absorbed in my studies, and of course in the other areas of this project – listening to archived music, researching the people who wrote and performed it, and recording new versions of some of the songs I’ve stumbled across so far. The idea behind this blog, musicians, is that you can make something really creative and worthwhile by digging in the archives and finding any song recorded or published in 1914 that you like enough to learn, perform, arrange and record. Maybe you just want to sing it to the camera on your computer. Or maybe you want to record a video of a choral group in a cathedral performing a song you’ve found for them (if I don’t do that first). Maybe you’ll have your own imaginative ideas. There are many music archive resources available online, and a Music Resources section on this blog. You can do it in your own style, and put your own spin on it. Then you could write something about the experience, or any historical context you found interesting, or just your thoughts on the song.

In order to demonstrate to you that this idea has potential, I’ve done two different versions of an old song. I found it on the National Jukebox website, as sung by Louise Homer in 1914. The song predates that by some time since its writer and composer, Claribel, died in 1869. ‘Claribel’ was the pseudonym of Charlotte Alington Barnard, an English poet and composer of ballads and hymns. ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’ couldn’t be a more fitting song for this project.

I Cannot Sing the Old Songs (Traditional Arrangement)

Initially I recorded a pretty minimal piano version, quite faithful to the original, then I added an organ and some harmonies. I came back to it a week later and some subversive impulse compelled me to put a slightly discordant bluesy guitar line over the last verse. I kept remixing the song, changing my mind back and forth as to whether to keep the electric guitar. Hearing the subversive melody so often, I started to sing along with it. Eventually another subversive idea occurred to me – to re-record the song using this as the vocal melody, with minor chords and heavy distortion. I have a bit of a history with this kind of thing. I used to do a minor version of Amazing Grace with my band. And I uploaded Minor Silent Night with new lyrics to YouTube on Christmas Eve a few years back. I’ve also written new music for Shakespearean poetry, perhaps his first foray into synth-rock. Some may see this as sacrilege. But I think reinterpretation helps to keep art alive. That’s valid even if you don’t happen to like what I’ve done with it.

Of course, musical taste is a hugely subjective thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. When I deconstruct a song and put it back together in my own style, it’s as much an act of destruction as it is a creative act. The listener’s personal taste determines my guilt or innocence. Have I befouled a sacred piece of art? Or have I reinvented and reinvigorated it? There are enough opinions out there for both views to be perfectly valid. These thoughts of individual aesthetic preferences, of creation and destruction, informed my new mix of ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’.

I Cannot Sing the Old Songs (Creation vs Destruction Mix)

I went for heavy distortion and heavy emotion, encoded and compressed with destructive algorithms, ready for this digital realm of infinite distraction. I’ve been studying Audio Processing this term, and I’m kind of shocked to get down to the nuts and bolts of just how destructive these audio codecs are, especially the MP3. My immediate reaction to it, as evidenced by this mix, has been to process every signal with distortion and other effects, so there’s no acoustic fidelity left for the codec to destroy. Instead I tried to make the digital seem visceral, keeping it decidedly lo-fi, awash with feedback and noise – evoking the hiss and fuzz of my teenage practice rooms half a lifetime ago, which in turn tied me in to the theme of the song and its emotional core. I think my emotional response to the material is evident in my vocal performance (or what’s left of it with all that distortion).

Hundred Years Late on Bandcamp

The image I used for the cover is in the public domain and attribution details are included in a post entitled Designing Hundred Years Late. You can also click the image above to check out Hundred Years Late on Bandcamp, a wonderful website that facilitates musicians in the sharing of their work. I hope to upload many more songs in the coming months.

It’s a very different approach from the one I took to all the 1914 songs I’ve recorded so far. I had been keeping it to bass / drums / piano / vocals, with occasional organ, guitar and ukulele. This song sounds like a spaceship landed in the playlist. It’s brash, obnoxious, incongruous, subversive. And like the guitar line that spawned it, I’m still ambivalent about whether it belongs there, whether it is in fact creativity or a manifestation of a darkly destructive impulse. As I trace the map of ideas and influences back through my own thoughts, of all the things that fed into this reinterpretation, objectivity becomes impossible. I’m never entirely sure my own subversive aesthetic preferences will resonate with other people. I’ll continue to vacillate, I expect, and I’ll keep working on writing a masters thesis that gets to the bottom of these and other questions. For now, there’s these songs, this project, this open call to musicians. Like it or not, you’ve got to admit you didn’t expect this from a ballad written in the 1800s. Musicians, are you starting to see the potential here?

Vintage Artwork – Part 1

Vintage Artwork Part 1

This will be the first in a series of posts where I’ll be displaying some of the wonderful front cover artwork from the published sheet music of a hundred years ago (most of these songs were published or recorded in 1914). It’s been a real pleasure going through these images. The typography and illustrations of this era are beautiful and fascinating. So far I’ve only selected artwork for which I can also include a period recording. I hope you enjoy it.

The Yellow Dog Rag
by W.C. Handy

The cover is vibrant red, there’s yellow in the title, and the song is written by W.C. Handy, a man often credited with popularising the blues. Now there’s a colourful story.

The Rose of the Mountain Trail
performed by The Peerless Quartet

This version is sung by Peerless Quartet. The lovely illustration sets the tone for the song.

You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away
performed by Manuel Romain

O! The cruel vagaries of love! Such a wonderfully melodramatic song. The wide-brimmed hat of the cold-hearted woman on the cover seems to say… Don’t get too close.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
performed by Albert H. Campbell and Irving Gillette

Though this version is sung by Albert H. Campbell and Henry Burr (credited here as Irving Gillette), the beautifully illustrated sheet music artwork features a photographic inset of popular singing duo The Manson Twins.

In the Palace of Dreams
performed by Helen Clark and Emory B. Randolph

The front cover artwork features singer and actress Reine Davies.

Navajo Indian Songs

Geoffrey O'Hara Record

‘Navajo Indian Songs’ – Geoffrey O’Hara
File embedded from
Cylinder Preservation & Digitization Project,
Department of Special Collections,
Donald C. Davidson Library,
University of California, Santa Barbara

Every song tells a story. Most old sound recordings I’ve found online have some metadata attached – composer’s names, performers names, date of recording. When I start looking into these names and reading about the lives and careers of the people involved in the recording, it brings a new layer of understanding to the material. When I stumbled across ‘Navajo Indian Songs’, I knew there must be an interesting story behind it. Introduced and sung by Geoffrey O’Hara, a Canadian American composer, singer, ethnomusicologist and music professor, his respect for the Navajo musical tradition is apparent, though his use of the word ‘savage’ is typical enough of the time. He introduces one Navajo medicine song by saying, These songs abound in strange and wonderful rhythms and melodies, many of them quite baffling and bewildering to our ears. At first hearing, they sound as if they were simply improvisations of a savage mind. But upon investigation, the student finds that they are composed along well-established rules and abound in poetic figures of speech. And in the performance of most of them, not the slightest error is tolerated.

There’s a great forum for antique phonograph and recording enthusiasts called ‘The Talking Machine Forum’. On it I found a thread about O’Hara’s Navajo recordings. Lenoirstreetguy posted a wonderful photograph (apparently taken from a book – see bottom of post) of O’Hara and three Navajo singers, with unnamed phonograph operator and, as interestingly noted by Lenoirstreetguy, a battery-powered phonograph recording machine. O’Hara’s recordings of Navajo songs began in 1913, on behalf of the U.S. Government. Another member of The Talking Machine Forum, Discman, added the text from a May 1913 article in Le Petit Journal’s illustrated supplement, Les Peaux Rouges et le Phonographe (The Redskins and the Phonograph). If I’m not mistaken, this is Discman’s own English translation of the French article…

Everyone knows how quickly the last races of the primitive inhabitants of North America are disappearing. Within a century, perhaps, there will be no more redskins in the United States.

This disappearance is unavoidable. This is why, before it becomes accomplished fact, the American government is taking the effort to collect all the materials which will permit future scholars to study these people.

Thus, the Secretary of the Interior in Washington chose Mr. Geoffrey O’Hara to collect the songs and music of the indigenous tribes of the United States. These songs are, it appears, highly original.

Therefore Mr. O’Hara has arranged to record into a “talking machine” the principal songs of the tribes, which still exist. He began with the tribe of the Blackfeet who are encamped in the Glacial National Park, in the state of Montana.

Three of the principal chiefs: “Medicine Bull,” “Sleeps Long Time,” and “Big Top,” were brought to New York where they were invited by Mr. O’Hara to sing into a precision phonograph.

”The Indians,” we read in Musical America, ”could only with difficulty understand how, in singing into a sort of funnel, one could possibly harvest the sound of their voices. A few minutes after they had recorded their first song the machine was started up. The magic of the operation left them stupefied. They declared that it was the most extraordinary marvel of any they had seen in the Empire City.”

The modern reader is struck by the callousness of the first couple of paragraphs, the description of Native Americans as ‘primitive’ and the casual assertion that their ‘disappearance is unavoidable’. If these were the prevailing ideas of the time, then the story of Geoffrey O’Hara’s engagement with their musical culture becomes more extraordinary. He found a musical sophistication and depth where many others heard ‘improvisations of a savage mind’. ‘Navajo Indian Songs’ was included on The Edison Phonograph Monthly (v.12 from 1914) which was very well-subscribed at the time. It would have been the subject of many heated discussions, no doubt. I can’t help but admire O’Hara for undertaking a musical project that must have been so strange to his sensibilities, rather like my own journey into the archives. If music is unfamiliar to our ears, we may dismiss it immediately. Or we may realise that it has something to teach us.

O'Hara & Navajo Recording

Above is the image shared by Lenoirstreetguy.
Below, the cover of Le Petit Journal which featured the article translated by Discman.
Original French text available on cent.ans.free.fr

LePetitJournal Navajo