Wednesday, October 20, 2010

and then there was the antidote

not that i was gun-shy or anything, after my last house concert experience, outlined in some detail on these pages, but i don't think i was in my usual "this should be good" frame of mind as i walked the few blocks to my friendly neighbourhood private venue.

punters were few and far between when i entered the music room, and i wondered if it were in any way a reflection of the previous experience. but hell, i was there - so maybe not.
any reservations were immediately dispelled when Ashley Condon walked to her stool and started talking with us. i swear it went on for twenty minutes, before she even thought about playing a song.

if i believed in such things, i would have thought she had been sent by the powers that be to soothe my savage breast. she was the perfect antidote: friendly, funny, engaging and interested in us. our small number didn't seem to bother her at all, and she put on a wonderful show. we felt free to comment whenever, sing along at will. she invited some of us to play with her - cello, guitar, harmonica.
afterwards we removed to the kichen where Ashley asked us to play some of our songs - these are arms which require little twisting - and listened long, although she had to be very tired.

i heard the next day that she had been sick all night and was not in good shape for her cd release in Toronto that night. i hope she got through it ok.

except for that last bit, i felt so good about the night, had my faith restored.

thanks Ashley. the rest of you should go see her if you ever get a chance. a guaranteed good time.
looking forward to the next one.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

performance: it's not "give AND/OR take"

i'm not sure how i'm going to say this, or even if i should. i can imagine how some of my friends will react.
such is life.
so i went to a house concert the other night. i love house concerts - don't you? so warm and intimate, no barriers of microphones and speakers between you and the performer. the banter, the give and take can be so much fun.
and the lack of such barriers means a lovely opportunity for the performer as well - a chance to share your art and stories with new friends.
"share" being the operative word: "to participate in, use or experience in common".
the best concerts, in houses or halls, are not so much monologues as they are conversations, even if the audience isn't actually speaking. the performer is somehow in touch with our thoughts, conversant with them. we are part of what's going on.
the best performers can do that - break down the physical barriers of props and stages and large spaces, share an intimate experience despite the surroundings.
many more can't quite reach that state in an auditorium but do very nicely in a living room. they welcome the change, and they welcome us. they talk with, not at us. perhaps they change their set list when they perceive a link with a new friend's story.
well, the performer on this night was of a third type: aloof, wary, and not conversant with the other folks in the room. which was something of a surprise, after an early comment that by the end of the evening, we would know her quite well.
but it turned out not to be true at all. sure, she told us some intimate details of her life in story and song, hoping we would be titillated and mildly outraged. she wasn't sharing them with us - we weren't part of the equation at all. it would have been the same show, no matter which 20 people in all the world were in that room with her.
and when some of us tried to start a conversation around her songs, she was taken aback and shot us down with a sarcastic "Oh - is this the audience participation part?" she managed to create distance where there was none.
i'm still not sure what i want to say here. it was mostly an observation i've been musing on and felt the need to share. i left immediately after the concert, as i had to be up before the birds the next day. so i didn't get to speak to anyone else, or to the performer, for that matter. perhaps i might have gleaned a reason for her style. or perhaps not. it may be a very deep reason indeed - who is to know?
it's a very difficult thing for me to understand. i love an audience, and the more intimate the better. i've tried recording studio-style a few times, and i can't do it. so i record live shows, and damn the technical torpedoes - tough on the engineer, but he forgives me much.
in a perfect world, this performer would be able to make a living playing the medium-size shows i can see her being most comfortable with - stage, props, a little safe distance. i daresay i would have enjoyed her show more in that type of setting. and our living rooms would be visited by those suited best to it.
perhaps my expectations of house concerts are out of whack - is it wrong to assume that i will enjoy an intimate experience simply because it's an intimate space?
i'd love to hear your comments. i think.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

movies of books are like Coles Notes

so my new Project is all about writing songs inspired by books. last month saw the first instalment of paul's court: salon of the literary song in my backyard tent, where five of us spent an evening talking about songwriting and books we are passionate about.

next thing i knew, it was the day before our BADAS/S meeting (the other writers' group) and i didn't yet have a song. and whatever book i was reading at the time wasn't one to inspire a song.
what to do, what to do...

when in doubt, change your guitar strings. happens i had recently received two sets of strings in the mail from for my lap steel, in custom gauges for a Mel Bay tuning i had never been able to try with regular string sets. so i put them on, tuned it up, and voila! it sounded Hawaiian. as it should. had no idea how to play the thing, but one shouldn't let that discourage one.

hmm. maybe i could come up with something by tomorrow, given appropriate inspiration. hmm. Hawaii...

i drove immediately to the library (can't walk there anymore as they're rebuilding downtown, and the temporary [two years minimum, yikes!] site is in a disused bar on the highway bypass on the edge of town) and borrowed the dvd of From Here to Eternity. didn't have time to read the James Jones book, and besides, they don't have a copy anyway.

Deb and i watched the movie - she thought it an odd choice - and i had my ears pricked for delicious pieces of dialogue, of which there are many. i had to resist writing notes while watching, and i enjoyed it immensely. next morning - the day of the songwriters' group meeting - i got up early and watched again, this time taking copious notes - three pages of notes.

but whose story would i tell? i'm sure the most popular memory of the film is the beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. and Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning performance of Maggio proved that he was the greatest singer/actor of all time.

but Montgomery Clift was my man. tragic, brooding, beautiful genius of a man. and the character of Private Prewitt!

it all fell into place as i began to literally cut and paste the bits of dialogue i had chosen. i thought about calling the song Talking to Prew, as for every two lines spoken by Prew, there were eight by, in order, the Sinatra character, the Lancaster character, and Donna Reed's Lorene/Alma.

it was also temporarily called The Treatment, relating to the hazing abuse suffered by Prewitt at the hands of the non-coms who were trying to force him back into boxing, which he refused to do after having blinded a mate in the ring. i later changed it to From Here to Eternity, on the advice of BADAS/S. i played it for them that night without saying anything, hoping that someone might catch the references, but evidently no one else had watched the movie twice in the last twenty-four hours, and they had no idea what it was about. so i'll have to remember to introduce the song a bit whenever i play it for folks.

and i still haven't figured out how to play the electric lap steel with the new tuning. what i ended up doing was playing it on the acoustic Hawaiian Steel, tuned only slightly differently than my usual CGCGCE, viz. CGCGAE. if you've ever wondered what makes that Hawaiian sound, that's it - the open chord is a C6.

From Here to Eternity

Buddy boy, you've made a big mistake
But from here, i can't quite reach ya
All they see in that uniform is a middleweight
Now you're in for the treatment / in for the treatment

Dress us up in civvies, we're as good as the rest
Hell - you played "Taps" at Arlington, for the President
So have some of this i got under my vest
You'll need it more than me when you're back with the treatment
back with the treatment.

But i ain't fighting
'though my war may start a little early

Advance, friend, and be recognized
No way you can win this event
You've seen tears flow from sightless eyes
And now you've seen the treatment
seen the treatment

You've fallen for some dame at the New Congress Club
I didn't know you had it in ya
You ain't enjoyin' life too much, are you kid?
And now she'll give you the treatment
give you the treatment

But i ain't complainin'
Man don't go his own way is nothin'

Don't tell me - the Princess is your style:
I'm Lorene, but my name is Alma
What do you know about pearl diving?
I didn't think you were a soldier
but you're a soldier

You're already married - to the Army
I got a stocking full, to buy a life that's proper
Nobody lies about being lonely
But i will never be the wife of a soldier
wife of a soldier

Now i'm leaving
I gotta turn off the light

please note that most of the words are not mine - i'll have to share credit with James Jones and the screenwriter.

if you happen to be in Orillia in the last two weeks before the Mariposa Folk Festival, take a walk down the main street to Manticore Books, where the wonderful Julianna Hawke will have built a display featuring the artists who will be teaching at this year's Mariposa ArtsU. my sixth of the display will be the fragments of how this song was built.


Monday, May 10, 2010

the project is dead. long live the project

this is my drummer, Deb Gemmell, flanked by our kids, after the triumphant premiere of "Tiny Rehearsals" by Slim Chance and the Future Dead. the t-shirts were Morgan's idea and Dylan's work. they surprised us with them at the show.

it was the culmination of a six-month-long project i started with my brilliant friend Susan Braedley, previously mentioned in these pages as "Suse-my-muse". it was Deb's idea to invite songwriters Carol Teal and Roy Hickling to join us, and my idea to ask Deb to be the drummer.

i had been writing songs about and around death and mortality for a few years, being of an age closer to the end of my life than the beginning, and having people near me begin to die. i was also aware that my contemporaries had been following a similar path.

so i had a few songs, i surmised that Carol and Roy could glean a similar number, and perhaps we could write some over the course of the project in order to have enough for a full-length quasi-theatrical show.

i had no idea. when we first started getting together to discuss what might be used in the show, we realized that we already had a surplus of material and we would need to cull a significant number, especially if we found that we would need to write something specific to an idea that we felt should be included. one song was written specifically for the show - My Late Husband, wonderfully crafted by Roy and hilariously, beautifully sung by Susan.

i have written some on the process, the learning curve we needed to establish how the collaboration would work best. there were struggles indeed, to the point where it looked like the thing might be entirely derailed. almost died, you might say.

(insert cliche here)

yes, it made us stronger. we knew that we had a group of really powerful songs, and we had found a sequence that could flow beautifully throughout the evening.

the plan was to have a sort of script, some narration and dialogue which would bridge the gaps between songs, let us say something about where the songs came from, and to have some fun with.

that's where many of our troubles began. we were worried about having to remember lines, about being stiff doing it. we had lost the original notion, that it would be a loosely structured thing, and we would rely on our natural ability to pull it off with improvisation. but somehow we found our way back, mostly by reinforcing the idea that the structure rested on a solid foundation of good songs. all we needed to do was string them together with intelligence and humour.

the rehearsals got better, more relaxed. the arrangements got tighter, the playing more confident. we were having fun. the in-between banter almost got to be too much fun - we were all riffing on ideas, stepping on each other's lines. it was a happy mess. kinda like life.

in the midst of all this, Deb was prompting me to start planning the next project. no resting on laurels in this house. we hadn't even done the show - no laurels!

so i did, of course. not as easily as that. if you've read former posts, you may know how i've struggled in search of capital-P Projects. Deb knew that it would have to stew for a while, because that's how i work. i call it "organically". names don't matter much.

i hadn't written a song for a couple of months, and we were coming up to our monthly writers' group meeting. i had an idea to write something distilled from a book i had just read, Vancouverite Timothy Taylor's Story House. so i reread the book, making notes as i went, gradually getting a handle on how a song might evolve. and realizing why i needed to do this. i love to read, but i LOVED this book. i was passionate about it. books can do that to me.

at some point i realized this was more than a specific piece of work. it was the project. i would initiate a monthly salon - i've always wanted to do that, dreamed of Alexander Pope in my living room - for songwriters to share their similar passion. the idea seems diverting enough in itself, but i have no doubt that something more tangible may come of it. a show. a series of shows...

so last thursday's afternoon rehearsal, our last before the culmination of the Slim Chance project on saturday night, was followed immediately by the meeting of the Barrie and District Association of Singer/Songwriters and the unveiling of the song that started the new project.
we have overlap!


she comes to me through broken dreams
behind her wrecking ball
the goddess moved a house of glass / up a hillside wall

her crow-black hair; her pale skin; her slenderness belies
the power she holds over me / behind the steely eyes

a third of me surrenders / and i am that much more
she's introducing chaos / my knees are on the floor

another came from paradise / to be my fishing guide
the angler calculates the sea / how far, how deep, how wide

theories fail, and fishing too / she could not catch a king
forgot the rule of tension / explaining everything

a third of me surrenders / i am pierced, seen through
she's introducing order / the past is nothing new

i went to her, there was no choice / the counterfeiter's wife
as we spoke, she nursed her twins / and in my room i cried

anger fades unwillingly / her hair the only blaze
she was the smart one / the one who stayed away

a third of me surrenders / any one can drive
the goddess, the angler, / the counterfeiter's wife.

and then the show saturday. it went very well. we played well, sang well, did fine with the dialogue. even Deb did great under the lights - she was cringing at the thought of being in the glare - i have no idea how she even agreed to do it - but she managed to have at least as good a time as the rest of us.

i was very proud of what we had accomplished together. but i was also excited to let leak at every opportunity that the new project would begin immediately...

i figure i can rest when i'm dead.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

130 Years Later, and i'm Still At It

Today is the 130th anniversary of the Donnelly massacre. so here i am, late again, but drawn back by a significant date in Canada's history, the stories of which continue to be central to my "career" as a happy amateur, and to my life.
my writers' group happens to be meeting tonight, and when pal Scott pointed out the coincidence of the date, i decided to revisit the project and try to come up with Song Number 11.
now, by the time i finished writing Number 10, i had reached some kind of quota. the last few had been difficult, as i was less motivated to tell those stories than i had been in the beginning, when my desire to tell the tales i had been immediately struck with amounted to something of a compulsion. and Susan was working on the stories, and could fill any obvious gaps with narrative.
Number 10 was also a departure, being written from my own point of view, 100 years after the Lucan story. it was also the last song of the show and cd. i was looking to the past, but stepping back into the present, literally out of the story.
so i started skimming through Ray Fazakas' book The Donnelly Album, which i used almost exclusively for my research for the Project. i was hoping for, and expecting, i think, something to jump out at me - something i had been considering earlier, or perhaps something i have been moved by in Susan's stories.
and it was the latter which happened. Susan touches on the story of William Donnelly's star-crossed love for Maggie Thompson, daughter of a sworn enemy, and how he had tried, with a posse of men, to take her by force. Old Thompson had spirited her away, and managed to keep them apart for years, 'til Will finally married another.
in the book i found The Letter - not hearsay, or paraphrase, but a photograph of the actual letter which Maggie had written to Will on Christmas Eve 1873, having snuck off to the Post Office in Offa, and which invites Will to come and take her away by force.
December 24th, 1873
William Donnelly
Dear friend,
I adress you with these few lines to let you know I am well, and hopes you are enjoying the same blessing. I wish to let you know a little about the performance I had to gp through since i came up here. My friends herd all about me writing Letters to you, which caused an awfull storm, so that I could not ask to go any where, and on that account you will please excuse me for not writing to you. Dear William, I would rather be in the grave than at home, at preasant, for the way my people abused me on your account hinders me of ever forgiving them. I will never have anything like a chance of fulfilling my promise of marriage to you except you came and take me away by force, and if you think as much of me now as you did always I trust you will relieve me before long, and if not you will please send me my Letters to Offa P.O., and i will try to put up with all. I burnt your Letters when they commenced to abuse me about you, for they would shurly get them, if I did not do something with them. Excuse my bad writing, for I am in an awfull hury, as it is in the office I am writing it. No more at preasant from your loving friend
Margret Thompson
pretty powerful. so i have my subject. how do i turn it into a song? my first idea was that i would have to paraphrase Maggie's words, so that they could fit some sort of song structure and rhyme scheme.
i got out my trusty DIY Gathering notebook and wrote the letter on the left-hand pages, with lots of space for notes, and the sentences (some of them DO run on, don't they? i picture her rather breathless, scribbling those intense words in the post office) broken into song-line type lengths. i would write my paraphrased lines on the right-hand pages. i was planning to be as faithful as possible to the original.
the next day, when i went to make a start, i had a revelation: "as faithful as possible to the original", is, of course, the original. the more i read and re-read the letter, the more attached i was to it as a discrete, important thing. i was no longer willing to change the letter to suit my purposes as a songwriter.
very noble i'm sure. but WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO NOW?
i read the letter out loud. i read it into my Zoom H2 recorder and listened to it. i realized the obvious: language is music. i knew that. melody, rhythm, dynamics. music.
what if i simply exaggerated the language? stretch out the melody, accentuate the rhythms, add necessary pauses, both for affect and for purposes of performance, amplify the dynamics.
so i tried it. sat down with the mountain dulcimer in my lap, and wrote out the notes to a melody which approximated the rise and falls of natural language in the letter.
there is no song structure for the listener to get a hold of. there are no rhymes. the rhythm shifts from 4/4 to 6/8 in one of the run-on sentences. and, truth be told, despite the exaggeration, the melody is pretty monotonous.
i know it's not up to performance standards, but i'm still excited to share it tonight with my fellow writers, see what they think, hear their ideas.
and then i'm going to continue to work on it, and hopefully present it as a proper song (without rhymes - a stretch for me) at next month's meet.
it's going to be a lot of work, which i've already begun. the first attempt was not wasted at all, even though i don't have a performance piece to show for it. as i became more intimate with the nuances of the letter and more adept at singing the non-song that it is, finding more rhythm and natural pauses, i realized that a song was possible.
i broke the letter into three, and printed the separate pages. lo and behold, there were definite parallels. without too much tweaking, i saw that i could fit the pieces of the entire letter into two or three musical parts, with an added or subtracted line here and there, vocal lines replaced by instrumental, etc.
i even wrote the melody and (almost) fit the words for the first four lines of each of the three parts. turns out that was a teaser, definitely the easiest. "I adress you with these few lines"="I would rather be in the grave". couldn't get any easier than that.
and it doesn't. but it's a very cool and worthwhile challenge, and i'm looking forward to it.