Art Installation Music

I received word today of this short film by Steven Liang, of an art installation by Beili Liu. You can go to her site to see more pictures of this particular installation, Lure #1. He chose to use one of my favorite piano improvisations, An Elusive Sweetness, for the soundtrack. Check it out, it's a gorgeous piece of art.

New Recordings

I have a new recording of She Believes up over at my myspace page. It's more polished and smooth now, and also has a bass player. Still a rough, as I need to get another recording with my drummer, and the bass player mixed a little louder, but I like the progress. I also have a recording up called "Crunchhead", it's one of the many improvs my group called "Triage" is doing. (Need to change that name.) We just get together and make stuff up on the spot. This one is just of me and Steve Morgan, but usually we're also playing with Steve Turmell.

I'll have more stuff up here soon, I have a bit of a block because I want to restructure my feeds in a way that I feel more okay about posting my (many) roughdrafts. One thing that is odd is that there are all these rules against posting covers to one's own websites, but posting videos of those performances to youtube (and then posting the videos here) doesn't seem to be a problem.

Tired Hands

Man, after three hours of rehearsing with the trio - four takes of Not Today (working name for The Aaaaay song), three takes of She Believes, and four Triage songs... where I was especially pounding, competing with the volume... I woke up with very sore hands! And I think a bruised cuticle or something on the outside of my right thumb. Not very pleasurable to be typing right now. Might need to take a hand break today.

Sunday Rehearsal

Had a good rehearsal today, working on a couple of my tunes. My goal was to get a final working version of The Aaaaay Song ready, and I did, but just barely. This song has been such a bitch to work on. I've been through three concepts of what the song should even be about - at least this time I have lyrics that go all the way through, and it's singable.

I finished the lyrics two minutes before my drummer got here, so I didn't even get a chance to try and sing them through by myself. But luckily they came pretty quickly during rehearsal and I have a couple of takes with the trio that I can listen to and tear apart.

Since I got so desperate with needing to come up with lyrics, I found myself casting about for any old subject, and all I could eventually seize on is an old relationship. I don't like writing about past relationships, but I guess it's the only thing that wanted to move.

The other thing is that I think I crammed it full of too many words. It feels a little talky and I'm already finding lots of grammar articles I can take out.

My drummer thinks it's my best song so far - I still like She Believes better, which we also worked on. We'll see how this one gels and ages. After this, I've got one more song I'm actively working on... then it's about finding more ideas.

Songwriting Workshop - My Favorite Clown

The Portland Songwriting Association has a monthly songwriting workshop. I've been to it a couple of times before, once just to listen, and once to present Together. I'm hoping to go a bit more often now that I think my songwriting might be speeding up. Today I went and presented My Favorite Clown.

This was kind of a first for me because my first five songs (Vagabond Blues, As One, All Aboard, A Kiss, and Together) are all songs that I can't perform by myself. It was a real goal of mine to start developing songs that I'd be able to perform by myself (or also with an ensemble). So this meant I needed to get around to writing songs that are actually piano-driven. I don't know why I was reticent about this at first, considering piano is my main instrument.

So, in a way, I consider these more piano-driven songs my "real" songs, or at least attempts of them. Also because these are the songs I can perform if/when I start playing out. So I guess it felt like something of a... if not a coming out, at least a step forward for me.

It was really fun. I was a little late so I missed the first song and ended up last on the presenters list. I enjoyed listening to and making comments on the other songs - I didn't catch many names, but there was an unrequited love song that was especially nice (Ricky somethng?) and there was a father and young daughter there that both presented songs, which was really cute - the girl's song (a cappella) had some surprisingly nice elements to it. A lot of the songs were in development and everyone had lots of good suggestions and comments to make. It's a very constructive community.

Presenting my song was pretty interesting. For those who haven't been through it, putting your song on a cd player for others to listen to is quite the experience. You're just kind of sitting there trying to make yourself irrelevant while everyone's paying attention to this other part of you. As for that song, sometimes I get a little self-conscious about if it is too long but it didn't seem like anyone's attention was flagging so it felt pretty comfortable listening to it. There was a really nice reaction after the song was over.

One thing that is interesting about that song, and I haven't written about this before here, is that it has a dual meaning. I never explicitly mention age or gender in the song but it definitely hits people in a parent/child way, especially people who might be parents. And that is how it seemed to hit everyone at first, just of it being a really sweet song.

But then after three or four people commented, another woman spoke up and mentioned that it might have just been her, but she also had the thought that it might have been a girlfriend song, or at least that elements of that were in there and maybe she wasn't sure of my intention... and so there I broke in, and said, "See, that's what the song is actually about." And everyone in the room stopped and went, "Oohhhhh." :-) That was really funny and satisfying on some level.

It might have made some people not actually like the song as much... :) I heard someone say they liked it better when they thought it was about parents and children, and not about a failed love relationship. It spun into this fun discussion about whether they liked it as a child song or a girlfriend song, and discussions of certain phrases, making them work better for one direction, after which someone else would disagree because it would make it work worse for the other direction. I love that it's a bit of a puzzle song, although I know that some of the challenge is that it makes it so hard to find phrases that work very well for both meetings. I told them that I really did want it to be about both, but that I wanted the ex-girlfriend angle to remain kind of hidden.

It's also interesting to me how people are so different in what they see. I have one friend - who, granted, knows me - saw the relationship metaphor immediately, and thinks it's too obvious and that I'm pounding it home too much. Others don't see it at all. I love that - there's definitely a ton left for me to discover about what you can do with lyrics. My music side is way ahead of the lyric side.

Overall it was pretty illuminating. Dan Lowe had some great comments after the workshop too. He's got a ton of songwriting experience and is very respected in the community - definitely a high compliment that he enjoyed it.

I'm not sure how much I'll change it. I like how the song hits people when they don't know the story. When the truth is that I love how this song pretty much perfectly captures so many of the dynamics of a major past relationship of mine. I don't see myself sacrificing one direction for the other. I think that with a little more musical variation in melody and background, and some minor lyric phrase changes, I'll be done.

Tempo, Tempo...

It's interesting how a song "settles in" in the weeks after it has been written. She Believes has been in my head quite a bit lately, and I've been practicing it every day. Now, when I put the recording on the stereo, it sounds too fast. Not by a lot, just by a noticeable degree. A few clicks. I'll have a new revision up soon, I'm sure.

Looking For A Bass Player

I'm looking for another bass player to do some rehearsing with. I have a couple of bass players that I'm able to play with once in a while, but both are also pretty busy and I'm hoping to do some more workshopping of my songs and also some jazz trio playing.

Here are some of the future plans:

  • She Believes - this is actually intended for a trio - me, bass, and drums. I've got a couple of great mp3s of me rehearsing it with a drummer friend, and it sounds great. A good bass part would really fill it out.
  • The Aaaaay Song - I don't have a version of this online yet (still working on the lyrics) but it's a bouncy shuffle that's great fun to play. Again, good for trio - me, bass, and drums.
  • All Aboard - this was originally intended to also have guitar, but with a good bass a drum section, it might work without it - I'm still working on it. It's an older song and not necessarily closely related to my more recent sound, but it's good filler and good to have around.
  • My Favorite Clown - this is probably better for a more produced sound - either solo, or with strings or something - but it would be interesting to have a fairly active upright bass sound to it, especially if bowed. I've got other instrumentalists that would be interested in being part of an ensemble for some of these arrangements.

There are a few other songs in progress. Of course, with a good trio in my back pocket, it motivates me to write faster!

There are also plenty of jazz standards. Ain't Misbehavin', But Beautiful, Desafinado, Have You Met Miss Jones, etc. Recordings available upon request.

I'm basically looking to split time between actually slowly working up a set, but also just using rehearsal time to play around and be a good trio.

She Believes (v1)

4:34 minutes

At about the time his daughter turned five, a buddy of mine started telling her goodnight stories. Except, this guy grew up reading comic books, so his idea of telling goodnight stories was to tell her the story of Darth Vader, and of Superman. There was something about that that I thought was so funny, and kind of touching too. So that eventually turned into this song.

This is my first successful recording of "She Believes". This is a rough recording, more of a way to document the introduction of the song rather than stand behind a particular performance of it. Still, it's probably my favorite song of mine so far. I'll be uploading more versions of it in the future. Comments appreciated as always.

Releasing A Song

While I have quite a bit of musical background at this point - classical piano, theory, orchestrating, film scoring, vocal arranging, etc - songwriting is still pretty new to me. I don't know exactly how many songs I've written that could be counted as pop songs (I should count someday), but it still feels like less than ten.

So there's this weird period of time where the song finally comes together, but where you haven't shared it with anyone yet. I don't know quite how to describe it - it's like it's both born and not born yet. Because there are two states of existence of a song, the state of existence that is its own, when it's completed but alone, where the audience reaction is completely and entirely irrelevant, and the one where it's out there, and the audience reaction matters.

You get conflicting advice as a songwriter, about what to aim for when writing a song. Obviously, since it's music, you want it to evoke an emotional response. And yet, if you write for the perceived musical tastes of others, you're kind of going in a soulless direction. So the answer for me is to write what I musically respond to, and then hope and pray that I'm tapping into something universal that will hook into others.

What happens is that after I have successfully written something, I feel great. It's a big rush or a release or something, and if it lives up to my standards, which it usually has to in order for me to actually feel able to declare it done, it means that I feel like it's managed to both successfully carve out its own universe, and inhabit it fully.

So there's that moment where the song finally fully exists. The last bit of music is written, or the last lyric is written (7:48 pm 5/31/08). Or perhaps it is the first time it is successfully run through with all music and lyrics - I have a few intense memories regarding that (Vagabond Blues being most notable). It's a sense of tumblers clicking into place or a puzzle finally being completed, except where the puzzle pieces were plucked out of life itself and you weren't even sure if they were supposed to be part of the same picture. It's an extremely satisfying feeling to bring a poetic order to something that no one ever knew was in chaos. So that's the journey to the first state of existence.

And it means I'm confident in the song, for what it is. The state of existence that is its own. Where the audience reaction is irrelevant.

But there's that other state of existence...

She Believes was written for a friend, and I'll tell that story in the future. I presented the song to him and got an initial reaction, but then like a time bomb all these doubts started coming up - about how it was being taken, whether the meaning of the song was coming across different than I intended... whether the emotional response it was generating was slightly different (and therefore possibly completely opposite) than what I intended, etc.

And I guess I'm experiencing that to a lesser extent with everyone else I share it with - I've emailed the rough around to a few people and gotten some responses. They're never quite what I expect. Some are underwhelming, others responding in an unexpectedly inspiring way; about what you'd expect when you are dealing with people that are all different from each other. It's fascinating.

But I have to say, there's this moment, where you're in the middle of the presentation - where you know a response is happening but hasn't happened yet. I was on the phone with my parents, having emailed them the mp3 of the rough, and listening to them listen to the song, and I realized that that period of time, before their reaction, was my favorite part of the whole experience. It didn't matter if it wasn't really their cup of tea. What mattered is that there was this sense of expansion, of something that used to just be inside my head, that had then started existing but only by itself, was actually becoming separate, and starting to live.

I hope that feeling doesn't become routine for me! I imagine old grizzled songwriters out there that wave it off with a flick of their hand. I don't want to be that.

She Believes - Lyrics

So wow. I have to say, lyrics are HARD. So much harder than music writing, for me. We songwriters are really just poets that happen to know how to play an instrument or two, and... I've never really seen myself as poet. There's a lot more freedom with music (at least the way I deal with it), and with lyrics, you have to hone and craft and... it just doesn't feel particularly instinctive to me.

So that's why this freaking song took almost a year. Because of the damn lyrics.

If you want to wait until the song is posted, so you can hear it before you read the lyrics, then stop here. But if you want to read an examination of the lyrics, read on.

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