Tag Archives: reinterpretation

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.

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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.

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?

Let’s Make Music. Let’s Make History.

There are many projects in Digital Humanities which need active participation from a community of users in order to grow. The most famous and staggering example is Wikipedia, a vast Encyclopedia of human knowledge produced, edited and updated by its own users, generously donating their time and expertise to make it an invaluable resource for millions of people. New technology has enabled the interconnectivity of scattered users throughout the world, based not on geography but on the interests of those people. Clay Shirky spoke of ‘cognitive surplus’, the generosity of these scattered users uniting for a common goal, contributing to a collaborative project of some kind, using their own free time, resources and expertise to build something for the common good.

There are also many projects in Digital Humanities which seek to digitise archived material to give it new value. Once text is digitised and collated in a computer system, it becomes possible to perform text mining and other technologically advanced techniques to obtain new meaning and insights from the material.

Music is a special case among these archived materials. A computer algorithm cannot analyse and extract meaning from a sound recording to the same degree that it can ‘understand’ text. For archived music, human ears and listening is required. Metadata is often attached to a music file. In the case of a wax record from a hundred years ago being transferred to .mp3 or .wav format, the kind of dry information that is typically attached will not answer the kinds of questions a musician, or indeed a casual listener, might want to ask.




Four very different interpretations of
When You’re a Long Long Way from Home
performed and recorded since 1914.

I would contend that music itself is alive. Songs are not static and unchanging, good songs are malleable things. A strong melody can be transposed in style from jazz to classical to rock. It can survive and thrive in different time signatures, at different tempos, on different instruments. A good song can be reinterpreted and reimagined to suit the sensibilities and peculiar gifts of the musician or musicians reworking it. A hundred different singers will sing it a hundred different ways. Just listen to these strikingly different versions of the same song. It was recorded by influential R&B outfit The Orioles in 1951, by Bing Crosby and The Paradise Isle Trio in 1954, Buffalo Bills in 1961 and the final version was performed by The Fralinger String Band earlier this year. Across these different versions the song went from soul to soft jazz to barbershop to bluegrass banjo/string band. And the first recording I can find of this song is by Henry Burr in 1914. Interestingly, Henry Burr recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1927. You could say he was the Elvis of his day.

Music, more than most literary forms, can have an immediate emotional impact. It is a uniquely personal and emotional form of human expression. I recently read a thought-provoking post entitled ‘Emotion, Archives, Interactive Fiction, and Linked Data’ on Mark A. Motienzo’s blog. In it, he examines the idea that archives can be repositories of emotion, appealing not merely to the academic or the intellectual parts of our minds, but connecting very powerfully with our emotional cores. It occurs to me that music archives have the power to move us like no other archives.

You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away
Sung by Manuel Romain in 1914
A fine example of emotion in the archives.



File embedded from
The Internet Archive (archive.org)

As a musician and songwriter myself, I’m very interested in old songs. What made them different from songs today? What makes a song timeless? The archived music from 1914 is fascinating. In terms of sound quality, it’s sometimes grainy and muffled. The old recordings are scratchy, the bass end is missing, the overall sound fidelity leaves an awful lot to be desired. Apart from the sound quality, I’m struck by how different the vocal stylings are from what’s common today. Most singers then were accustomed to performing without electrical amplification, they projected their voices to fill large rooms in an operatic style. Backing music was typically ornate and orchestral. The modern drum kit barely existed yet, most songs had none, and the rhythm would slow down and speed up in response to the crescendos and mood of the vocal performance. All of these features make these songs very different from most modern songs.

Part of my exploration of music archives has been to find songs that still feel relevant, though they were being performed a hundred years ago. The process of finding these songs has been quite organic. I don’t have specific criteria, I’m just looking for songs that I like. I want to undertake a project that allows me to indulge my passion for music in a hands-on creative way. The idea of methodically cataloguing music archives or some such other typically-academic project was intimidating in its scale and would likely never be completed. There are thousands of archives on the Internet, some in private collections only available to certain academic institutions and/or paid subscribers. I found the idea of reinterpreting one song at a time much more exciting. The idea becomes more exciting still if lots of people decide to do it – it can become a community of curators and creators. When I sat down at my piano and figured out the chords to some of these songs, they came alive again. Immediately, as musicians do, I was thinking about how I would rearrange and rework them to suit my own peculiar gifts and sensibilities. Compositionally, I found the chords interesting, sometimes jazzy, sometimes presciently modern in feel. Some very sophisticated musical ideas were hiding behind those scratchy old recordings. I felt like I learned a lot in the process of reinterpreting them. And I found it so enjoyable, I thought perhaps other musicians would enjoy it too.

Picture of The Edison Phonograph Player

The Edison Phonograph Cylinder Player, an early record player. In 1914, cylinders were losing out to the new disc format in the first commercial format war of recorded music.

Music recording software has allowed many people to have a functional recording studio in their home. There’s a legion of bedroom producers out there who are making incredible music across all kinds of genres. I began thinking how brilliant it would be to harness some of that talent and creativity and direct it to an archive-revival project, taking those old songs and reworking them into something new and unique. Picking a hundred years ago as a starting point will ensure most songs are out of copyright, allowing musicians to experiment with them however they please. In 1914, recorded music was in its infancy. That’s a good place to start. That narrow time-frame will make this a focused cohesive blog. Hundred Years Late will be a forum for musicians to showcase their talents and share the songs they found most interesting. Contributors will be encouraged to write about what they have recorded, why they picked the song, any historical background, links to the archived version (where possible), lyrics, score, chords etc, anything the musician wants to include. Other visitors to the blog can comment, perhaps contributing other historical information or links to further resources on the song.

As the collection grows, the links to various scattered archives will start to amass as contributors and enthusiasts find more archived material. Ultimately this will make the blog a valuable resource about where to find music from this era. If this project aims to mirror the archives a hundred years later, it will be an incomplete picture. Not every archived song will grab the attention of modern listeners and inspire musicians to record a cover version. But it will encourage engagement with music archives and salvage from obscurity some absolutely wonderful songs that have a lot to offer modern audiences and a lot to teach modern songwriters. If it works like I’m hoping it will, it can be a vivid, creative and vibrant community. The more musicians, contributors, followers and enthusiasts we can attract, the better the resource will become.

To get the ball rolling, I’m going to upload a couple of songs I’ve recorded. Each blog entry will include background info contributed by the musician, a link to the source version in an archive (where available), the contributor’s version of the song in some streamable format (YouTube video, Soundcloud widget, anything WordPress-compatible). Hopefully other user comments will provide further metadata. This ‘music-blog’ style arrangement allows the contributors to host the Be Creative!music however they please and retain control of it. It also seems to be a manageable format from my point of view. If musicians email me with their work, I can compose the posts in a consistent format and maintain the focus of the blog as a Digital Humanities project and a resource on archived music. I’ve posted a video on YouTube that introduces the project and outlines its objectives. It would be good of you to share it, especially among Digital Humanities practitioners, lecturers and students and most importantly, musicians who enjoy a challenge.

If you like this idea, please help me run with it. Tell people. Tweet and talk.