All Aboard (v2)

3:55 minutes

In March I had a rehearsal with two friends of mine, and I pulled out this song to try and get a decent performance of it - I think it turned out pretty well. All Aboard is a song I originally wrote while I visited Nashville for a weekend. It's about how sometimes we follow a path just from simple inertia - what it can be like when we don't take the road less traveled. There's still more to add - I want more backup vocals and maybe a tin whistle solo - but it's starting to come together. Special thanks to Ken and Steve from Quoting Napoleon for helping me out on the recording.

If you enjoy this song, feel free to download and share, but please sign up for my mailing list. Thanks!

Songs In The Round Podcast

I had an idea for a new podcast and started developing the idea today. There are songwriters out there that are gaining attention and buzz by trying to write a song every so often and put it up on their website. That's some of what I've been doing here, both with my own songs, and also my piano improvisations. I've made podcasts out of both of them and listeners keep slowly subscribing, so it's encouraging.

But I'm also finding that people tend to like following along with the development process - it's kind of a way to step inside the mind of a songwriter, and see what it is like. It makes it more community-driven.

I'm also trying to motivate myself to songwrite more often. I want to find ways to get comments, and also find other musicians to possibly collaborate with. I'm sure others are in the same boat.

So I thought a songwriting workshop would be the way to go - but to make a podcast and website out of it as well. Each episode, a few songwriters get together to share their ideas or roughdrafts of their songs. We'll discuss the songs, songwriting in general, and perform for each other. We'll then post the episode and the songs on the website, and tell our friends/fans/supporters. It'll be a great way to get additional visibility, and to motivate each other to write songs as well.

The idea of having half-formed songs out there might be frightening, but I find that the benefits far outweight the costs. People are interested in this, and a songwriter can always write more songs - the hard part is gaining the interest. That's the approach I'm taking - I'm releasing all my music under Creative Commons. Eventually I might release a cd for sale, with better versions of the songs, but in the meantime, I want to find listeners.

I've posted an ad in a few places and have started to get some good feedback and interest. I'll keep y'all posted about the development of the idea. It will be called "Songs In The Round". Feel free to contact me if you're interested. If nothing else, for participants it'll be a fun way to get good comments and free beer, and for listeners, it'll be a good way to get some free music.

New Song - Balancing Above The Air

I recorded the first version of a new song tonight. I added it to the Bits and Pieces podcast. It's called Balancing Above The Air. Remember you can get all these songs automatically by subscribing to the podcasts.

Comments or feedback appreciated.

New Piano Musings

Coming soon: new piano musings! I'm working on putting together a whole new batch of them... currently deciding on whether to auto-post them every three days, every week, etc. In the meantime, you can check out the old ones here. I think my favorites are still An Elusive Sweetness and Slow Rain.

Symmetric Diminished Scale

As good as I am at recognizing patterns, it's humbling when you miss some! I went into my most recent lesson feeling like I knew my octatonic/half-dim scale. Tony calls it a symmetric diminished scale.

So, he asked me to play it in C. Then he asked me to play it in F. Then he asked me to play it in G. I figured he was just testing me in some random keys.

It became clear later that the point of asking for those three are that those are the only scales I really need to know. All the rest of them are just the same scales as the same as those three because of the symmetry of the scale. Eb, F#, and A are the same as C. Ab, B, and D are the same as F. Etc.

He showed me some sequences then too - any pattern of notes in that scale can become a sequence of playing the same intervals lower in the scale. I probably just need to see some more relationships in the scales and then I'll be able to start putting those sequences together in real time.

Octatonic And Alt Scales

One of the interesting things about learning jazz piano, and jazz theory in general, is how all the theory starts to feel inter-related after a while.

Most jazz piano books, and Mark Levine's is no exception, seem to take the tack of throwing a bunch of data at you and hoping it sticks. I've had a little trouble with that so far. For instance, I put a lot of pressure on myself to start trying to memorize jazz standards about eight months ago, and I got discouraged really fast. I just felt like I was trying to drill myself and none of it was sticking. I was missing glue.

I've learned a lot about learning in my days of memorizing classical piano pieces. The main thing is that you can't memorize something in only one way. If you memorize simply by muscle memory, then it requires a huge amount of focus to stay in the brainspace to rely on only that when you're performing. It's the same with memorizing by ear - what if you have a brain lapse and forget how something is supposed to "go" next? But if you can memorize it in five different ways, you've got redudancy - you've always got a fallback. I would always try to memorize in as many ways as possible - muscle memory by playing the piece on a table. Ear, by playing through the whole piece in my mind when falling asleep in bed. Visually by trying to photographically memorize the score, and also by visually memorizing what the piano keys looked like - and finally, analytically with harmonic relations, how the chords changed from a theory perspective.

Basically, what matters is not really the data, but how linked it is. And that is what makes jazz theory so difficult for beginners, and then so much more weirdly easy once you really get going. What matters is how much glue you have.

I had a few brainbending moments yesterday while practicing. For a while I've been stuck in the phase of improvising diatonically, with a few blues scales mixed in. But as soon as it would get into things like the more interesting scales one could play for the more interesting chords, I wouldn't know how to link that together in my head.

Two good examples are the octactonic scale and the alt scale.

I've known the octatonic scale (aka the half-dim scale) for a long time, from a theoretical perspective. Half-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step. But that bit of knowledge is basically meaningless to me. It's like all I could do was either struggle through playing the mental pattern (while the visual pattern is so different from key to key), or drill myself to learn it with muscle memory. I didn't see any other way to look at it other than it being two of the three dim-7 chords clustered together - and I don't make a practice of looking at scales as clustered chords while I'm trying to play scales, so that wasn't helpful. And some people define the half-dim scale as starting with the whole step, which just confuses the issue.

So this week my teacher (Tony Pacini) got me working on quartal chord voicings, and one of the most common ones is the dom7 voicing that starts on the 7 and goes up by tritones and fourths. In F: Eb, A, D, G, C, F. And we were also talking about tritone substitution, and how basically any voicing of dom7 chord works over the root or the note a tritone away from the root. And he also made the point that you really only have to think about the octatonic scale that starts with the half-step.

So here were the brainbending moments:

  • While I don't know the half-dim/octatonic scale, I do know my modes. The two most common are Lydian (raised fourth; film scoring, Grieg, John Williams), and Mixolydian (lowered seventh; it's all over the place). If you combine them, you have a lydian-mixolydian scale, with both a raised 4 and a lowered 7. I've always loved that sound. While playing with the half-dim scale that starts with the half-step, it started to look and sound familiar. It turns out that the half-dim scale is just a lydian-mixolydian scale, with a crunched up beginning (instead of a 2, you play the notes on either side of the 2). And that made it click. All of a sudden, I can now play it in every key.
  • That lydian-mixolydian scale shows up elsewhere, too. Take the above dom7 voicing and crunch it down to within one octave, over the tritone root (B natural). B, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B. What's that? That's the alt scale. What is that over its original root? F, G, A, B, C, D, Eb, F. The B isn't actually in there, but you have to use a #11. That's the lydian-mixolydian scale. Yes, in other words, the alt scale is always the lydian-mixolydian scale, starting on the tritone.
  • I liked looking at the half-dim scale as being like the lydian-mixolydian, but with a crunched-up beginning. So what's another way of looking at the alt scale? It turns out it is like a whole-tone scale, except with a crunched-up beginning. Again, instead of the 2, it's the notes on either side. It's like it's half a half-dim scale, and then half a whole-tone scale.

I guess that was a productive few minutes when that all clicked together for me.

Art Musings - Strumming Lost Threads

Another Kasey Baker painting, in response to my piano musings.

Strumming Lost Threads is one of my earlier improvs, and basically illustrates what it feels like to come up with one of these improvs. There's a peculiar mix of care and blitheness that goes into these pieces.

Strumming Lost Threads

"That occasional state of mind of when you're trying to remember an old memory but don't really mind when you can't. Maybe because you're drunk on a porch swing."

Art Musings - A Young Church

Another Kasey Baker painting, in response to my piano musings.

A Young Church is again part of the small town theme I've been drawn to. There's a lot of hope and potential and idealism and goodness in new churches - as much as there can be weight and corruption in stale churches. It's a hint of what to avoid in the journey.

A Young Church

"It starts with a gathering. Healthy ideals. A gentle church is formed, and it grows - hopefully not too quickly."

Art Musings - Drunk On A Porch Swing

Another painting by Kasey Baker, in response to my piano musings.

Drunk On A Porch Swing was one of my first improvs where I felt like I really stumbled onto a distinct concept. I have a porch swing of my own and I've never really enjoyed it to its full potential, but this piece is about a porch swing properly used. Kasey really captured the sense of it.

Drunk On A Porch Swing

"Sitting on a porch swing, swinging back and forth, looking at a sun-drenched field with dandelions and breezes, except your lemonade is spiked and you're completely soused."

Presenting A Song

A few weeks ago I found out the Portland Songwriters Association was advertising an event (presented in conjuction with West Coast Songwriters) wherein songwriters could bring songs in to be screened by a Ms. Antoinette Olesen, who is head of A&R for Parthenon Music Group Inc.

I don't really know what "Parthenon Music Group" is, but I figured what the heck, "head of A&R" always sounds good. I don't really understand how this A&R stuff works, though. The event was $10/head, but I think that was money that went to the two nonprofit songwriters' groups, which I'm more than happy to pitch in to.

There were quite a few people pitching songs - and she was very nice. She apparently liked every song that she heard tonight - songs that weren't a fit for what she was looking for were "perfect for what they were". She was very much looking for "Great country or country pop songs that are outstanding and different from what you hear on the radio but 'fit' major radio. Especially female intelligent up-tempo."

It was interesting hearing the songs, too. There were some very twanged-up retro-sounding old country, stuff that you could just tell immediately would not be marketable for her purposes. And a couple of songs that were quite good that she seemed excited about. A lot of songs with intros that were too long, or with forms that needed tightening.

I decided to attend at the last minute - the song I have that is the best fit is All Aboard (update: I have since posted the song - go listen), and while I think it could go in a Nashville direction, the recording I have now is from a rehearsal and isn't very produced. It's very strummy and without any kind of country touches (other than the fact that it's about a train).

Since I was late, my song was last and didn't get presented until about 11pm, after about 1/3 of the people left.

It was a pretty cool reaction, I guess. "Is this your band?" "No, it's not a band yet, it's just some guys I got together to help me out." "But this could be a band, and you're the artist?" "Yeah, I'm the artist." "I really think you should continue with that. Put your band together and continue with that. This really isn't the style of what I shop, but I like it a lot - the lyrics are picturesque, I really like the sound. I really think you should go for it. And you've got other material? Send it to me as you come up with it, I would like to hear more."

And I got a couple of good comments afterwards, too. I don't know, it wasn't underwhelming. She was so nice to everyone else, and she told plenty of other people to send her more stuff. So it could have easily been her just choosing to be encouraging to a songwriter. But it seemed genuine. I remember struggling with how to feel afterwards, while walking back to my truck, and I ended up just seizing on the thought:

"Well, I did my music thing for the day."

So that felt good.

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© 2007 Curt Siffert. Some audio protected with a Creative Commons license.
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