24 November, 2009

The Sound Of Music

This music recording has gotten me thinking about improvisation and inspiration.  And it's gotten me thinking about the way I sound, under different circumstances, and why I sound so different (and sometimes, to me, bad) given small changes to my singing, playing, environment and instrument.

It might, perhaps, seem like a really silly subject to you.  And lord knows, things like music theory are hardly like a lighter held aloft at a concert, by the thousands.  Some forms of music seem epic, in performance.  And some of this discussion, is, to say the least, less than epic.

But it sure is interesting when you are trying to share something very important to you, and it isn't coming out right.  Today I made a bunch of adjustments to my capo (the thing that holds my guitar strings down to change the guitars tone, and depending, key) up the neck of the guitar.

The reason?  I pretty much learned to play on a "parlour" guitar, which is a rather small version of a steel string guitar.  It usually has a smaller "waist" then your typical dreadnaut, full sized steel string.  And it usually, if its a good guitar (mine was definitely not a good guitar) has a very sweet tone.  Needless to say I have a tendency to play fingerstyle, a primitive sort of fingerstyle, but it's unmistakably not strumming, as you will have noticed if you listened to my Widget up top.

The reason I mention my old parlour guitar, is that much of my inspiration for three years or so, when after dinner I would grab my guitar, and knock my neighbors socks off, came from the guitar itself.  The natural set of tones that the instruments form and function caused it to play, when I chorded with my fingers and plucked the thing.

Today, I have a medium sized, Fender, steel string, that cost about $400.00 on sale.  It's, by far, the nicest guitar I have ever had.  It has the loveliest overtones that come out of it when you play it, and the strings against the neck have a wonderful "action" that makes my playing far easier than a crappy guitar.  Guitars aren't like Golf clubs:  the better the guitar: the EASIER to play guitar.  Oh well, sometimes, my infamous cheapskate values bite me in the ass.  But lets not talk about that.  I own a middle range guitar.  And I love it.

The problem is that I sometimes forget to take the capo, and search around the neck for the proper place to set the capo.  This is important due to the difference in the way the capo makes the guitar sound.  And the difference in SOUND in music is a far more interesting thing (especially to a singer, but certainly in all forms of music it's important) than it would seem.

Human beings, given as arrogant as we are, surprisingly underestimate to a ridiculous extent how difficult many of the things we do are.  A great example is driving a car.  Looking at a road, it is obvious to most of us how to navigate even the twistiest street, at a reasonable speed.  I was driving through the mountains of Vermont, on the way to my sisters wedding a few months back, and I was just amazed my brain was able to manage to subtle choices that looking at the road and operating the car, presented to me.  Were I to somehow be required to "figure" on paper, or in a computer algorithm, a similar set of problems, can you imagine what a mess of graphs and charts, and calculations I would need to describe these rates of speed, curves of change, pull of gravity, and hazard of the elements?  Few things in life are as easy as driving an automobile.  But that only goes to show the freakish power of your brain.

A somewhat more pedestrian subject (though LESS pedestrian to me) is the question of a songs "sound."  To me a "sound" is something like what fashionable people (not me) call a "look."  As in, "wow, she has a great look."  Or, "don't you love this look?" you might hear someone say, pointing in a magazine to a woman wearing a leather pom pom.  Somehow I have cultivated a life that rarely puts me in the position of answering such a question.  And that's good, for I have no idea how to tell the truth about such things while encouraging a sensation of a shared taste.

With music, however, my friend Matt and I, or my brother and I, or my sister and I can all appreciate some old fogey and his guitar, or some young woman, and her rueful song about drinking.  The "sound" of the song is rather important: in some ways the "sound" says more about the song, than the words and even, in some ways, the rhythm.  Just as the "look" of the fashionable, can be somewhat more compelling to the gaze, than, say, their surname.

But how is the sound created?  And what does this have to do with my difficulties in getting across to you, my friends, my feelings, when I originally sang a song?  I'd like to say it's complicated, since it took me forever to discover this, but in many ways, its kinda simple, and certainly understandable.

A sound is principally determined by a songs modality.  And modality just means the set of notes more or less chosen by the singer or player.  I kinda hate the word modality.  It sounds ridiculously complicated, and no doubt scares a lot of cool people away from even the barest outlines of music theory.  But don't be scared.  This isn't music theory.  It's a redneck explaining choices he makes, to sing his corny music.

An instrument has a hell of a lot of notes.  And the evolution of an an instruments design usually amounts to a gradual greater and greater division of the choices you can make, say, plucking a string, until, one day, the fully realized guitar, can only make ten or twelve sounds on a string that theoretically could makes hundreds of sounds.  This limitation, in any instrument, of the sounds it can make, has to do with the culture in which the instrument is played within.  Therefore, if a culture, like ours has twelve tones to a scale (if you include the sharps and flats), it's instruments must be able to play, more or less, all of the twelve tones, but don't really need the theoretical hundreds of others.  That's why a wind instrument can drill its keys permanently into the cylinder of metal or wood that it's made of.  There are only so many notes, in the Western world that a Wind instrument needs to play.  This is changing with the shrinking of the world.  But for my purposes (redneck!) I pays to think about.

So what's my point?  My point is that even in the design of an instrument a lot of the "thinking" and choices that one might have, in creating a song, has already been done.  There's only so many notes, and as they say in Nashville Tennessee, that's "all the notes there is."  Here's my blog post, on Brand of Make Believe about that.  So you begin playing a song, the first time you play it, with a limited set of choices based on the instrument you are playing.

The next choice (usually unconscious, unless you are rather well educated indeed) that the songwriter will make is, "what notes am I going to play?"  But there is a complementary choice to this question, "what notes am I not going to play?"  And these two questions are answered by that damn word that scares some people away, "modality."  All modality means is "which notes I'm going to play."  So you take your instrument, that already only plays the notes your culture desires, and you begin playing certain notes, BUT NEVER OTHERS.  So, what are these notes?

The simplest modal system to explain to people who don't play much music, but have enjoyed music their whole lives, and are familiar with a piano (as in, what it looks like.) is the Pentatonic.  Which, incidentally is the only form of modality (or the only SOUND) in western music that utilizes only five notes in its scale:  only uses five notes, of all the notes in the world!  This may sound limiting, but trust me, you love the way it sounds.  You know the album Graceland, by Paul Simon, where Simon goes a little global with Ladysmith Black Mambazo?  Remember when you first heard that album what the main thing about the album was?  It was the sound.  The South African sound.  Mixed with Simon's long recognized melodic structures.  The mix was striking, as mixes of musical disciplines rather depend on, to grow new musical experiences.  However, the basic sound of the album, was the occasional insertion, usually in the form of a refrain, from Ladysmith, in the Pentatonic modality.  Many many traditional cultures across the world love a five note scale.  You know this scale, since it is simply the five black keys of the piano.  And depending on how you play them, you can sound like Ladysmith, or certain traditional Chinese songs, ect.  You instantly know when someone is jamming on the black keys of a piano that there is a "sound" there.  You know the sound isn't some C Major sound, like the song Lean on Me.  Or Heart and Soul.  It's a different sound.  And what makes it different are the choices the song makes (only five notes, only five tones, and zippo half steps, or bluesy note bending sounds.  Crisp, punchy notes, never crossing into anything else.  Pentatonic.)  Many of the famous Caribbean songs are pentatonic, and derive their staccato, chanting sound as much from their limited (or liberating) choice of notes, as from some imaginary notion of percussion.  The sound of the songs is led by the choice of notes, and the lack of choice of notes alike.

Most of the time, we aren't doodling on the black keys of a piano.  Most of the time I am fingering a guitar, and working around a set of six to ten chords, with a heavy emphasis on five of them.  But since I fingerpick my guitar, more often than strum it, certain notes are more or less constantly coming out of the guitar, whereas others, many many others, virtually never come.  Poor things.

When making a song the three things that more or less matter, are rhythm, time, and tonality.  Of these three, the primary conjurer of "sound" is perhaps tonality.  But this is closely related to time.  Rhythm, matters, of course, and matters a great deal.  But for some reason the human brain can experience the same drumbeat over and over again in a thousand different songs and never be bothered that it was the same damn snare, bass, and cymbals, played the same way.  The songs, your friends will tell you, "sounded completely different."  An ethnomusicographer might not agree, but lets be frank:  some people cultivate the capacity to regard anything limited in it's scope, as necessarily limiting.  Even though such a formulation paints all people as tiny and without much vision.  And that is perhaps as poor a definition of people as can be had.

My purpose is not to paint some hard and fast picture about sound here, but rather to point out that it is composed primarily through the extraction of many different choices.  Just like a white sheet of paper has upon its face every picture ever known to man (which is how your computer monitor works, for crying out loud.)  All you have to do to draw the Mona Lisa, on the page, is to remove the appropriate colors (white, has them all) and leave the Mona Lisa, already there, just where she is.  Music is sorta similar.  You take from the infinite continuum of notes in the universe, the tiny tiny tiny little few that can be heard by man, and from that tiny few (thousands) you discipline yourself into twelve tones, comprising perhaps, fourteen scales from the highest sounds heard by the human ear, to the lowest.  From those notes you choose a modality, be it the Pentatonic that Caribbean cultures, and others use, which would give you, five times fourteen (five keys, black, times fourteen scales) or seventy notes to play, in your song.  Seventy notes out of the millions and millions that the universe can conjure.  Just as with the Mona Lisa, they were already there, you just removed whatever alternatives presented themselves.  And what's left over, gives you your modality, and to some extent, your sound.

So my primary problem these last few weeks, in singing for you, was that I was spending so much time trying to get electronic equipment to work, that I forgot about my sound.  And I tried to force my sound onto the computer, with slightly less than ideal results.  I don't sound completely terrible, but I sound tense, and many of the natural choices that I make as a singer and guitar player come off sounding forced in the most of the songs you can hear on this blog.  So in the last couple days I forced myself to slow down and determine the very best way back to those few perfect notes, out of "all the notes there is."  Once I found the right notes, using the capo on the guitar, I was able to conjure the sound.  It is truly a remarkable feeling.

And before long, you can hear it too.

6 comments:

Midnight Whisperer said...

I don't believe that any imperfections that may have been present in your recordings marred your music in anyway. I think it only served to make it more real. The radiator hissing in the background, the sounds of an old classroom, they only enhanced the experience of hearing a man with his guitar. And that the distracted tense man at the time showed those same emotions in his music, only created a more natural and true to self sound. If you were able to play in contrast to how you felt, it would not have been as powerful. I understand being a perfectionist and wanting or needing everything to be 'right', but at the same time, there is true beauty in the imperfections.

Andy Coffey said...

Midnight,

Well... I believe you have cornered me to a place of pacific agreement. And complimented me at the same time. Hats off to you.

Midnight Whisperer said...

Just speaking the truth as I see it ; )

Andy Coffey said...

Midnight,

Some say I accept compliments poorly, and some say I joke and jest rather than demurely accept the mantle that just surely will fit over the beak of my nose.

I believe these soothsayers. Why not.. they mean me no harm. Recognize a little boy whose been squished into a man. Why protest too much? Eh...

The truth, and your willingness to speak it, should mean a lot to me, should I accept your terms.

I accept your terms.

Jenny said...

Hi Andy,

Out of curiosity, is “Darkness Knows” a newly written song of yours? I cannot recall having seen it in the “music box” before. I listened to it this morning and I like it.

Somehow the atmosphere made me think of a Lynch film. Someone said that one of my poems (think it was “Reservoir Gates”) had a Lynch feel to it, as well. But I guess your song has a warmer tone.

I can hear that your vocal range/register is wide. You vary your singing a lot at times, which I like a lot.

Take care,

Jenny

Andy Coffey said...

Jenny,

Lovely to hear from you. Yes, Darkness knows is a new song. I wrote it while singing three weeks ago. I thought about messing around with it, and inevitably will tighten it up (though I think I am genuinely unable to do that, right now.)

The song is about a father who is scared of life, and his kid who comes into his room, and needs to be comforted (after realizing, somehow, that her/ she is going to die.)

When I was little, I remember very well, having a scary few hours thinking about the fact that I was going to die, sometime.

I went to my parents room, and got into bed with them. I don't think I was crying, just scared.

That moment in my life comes to me, sometimes. I suppose it is the work of adulthood, to deny ourselves the genius of a childs fears. I know I have lost something now that my innocence can be explained away.

Thanks for you kind inquiry. And comments. It's fun to sing for you and everyone.