Monthly Archives: October 2008

Wind that Shakes the Barley

barley
 
During the Irish Rebellion of 1798 the rebels were often known to carry barley oats in their pockets as provisions while on march. Unfortunately, thousands of the dead rebels found their final resting place in mass unmarked graves, which were referred to as croppy holes.

As the seasons passed barley would be found growing above the croppy holes and came to symbolize the regenerative nature of Irish resistance to British rule.

In the nineteenth century the Irish poet, Robert Dwyer Joyce wrote a ballad entitled Wind that Shakes the Barley, which repeatedly references the barley as a young lad has to decide between the love of his lady or the love of his country.

As our last track on the 1999 Amadán album, Sarah Kennedy sang a A cappella version of this haunting song.
 
Wind That Shakes the Barley by baconworks

The Master

I was talkin’ to Luke today about the Planxty video below. Somewhere in our conversation, I was reminded of this video of Matt Molloy and Dónal Lunny. First, Matt Molloy is the master of all masters in the Irish flute world. However, in this video he is being closely watched by another flute master. Watch as the camera pans right around 1:08 and you realize that Matt is not just playing for any audience. In fact, he is playing for James Galway…who looks concerned that he may not be able to top Matt’s chops.

Alright, I promise, no more videos for awhile. I just couldn’t stand to have that IE6 post at the top of my blog for more than ten minutes.
 

Time to Trash IE6

trash IE6
 
We’ve been having lots of trouble with IE6 at work this week. What a hassle. Then, this evening I noticed that some of my videos on baconworks.com are not displaying properly in IE6. Unstachio, soon to be known as Restachio, had complained about this to me a few weeks back, but as a Firefox user, I wasn’t seeing the issue.

Now, I do not really want to spend my free time trying to prove that IE6 is the problem. But, if your running IE6, the same IE6 that was released seven years ago, I might recommend upgrading to something else. Anything.

Alright. Sorry for the diversion. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

The Blacksmith

I heard The Blacksmith on the Celtic Sojourn the other morning. Man, what a cool song. It is an old classic by a band called Planxty. After hearing it on the radio I realized I did not own the Planxty album this was first heard on. Had to fix that problem right away.
 
Planxty
 
Here is a great video, probably from ’72 or ’73 of Planxty playing The Blacksmith. Though our modern ears have grown accustomed to the sounds that Planxty created, it is worth noting that nobody had really heard bouzouki in Celtic music until Andy and Donal came along. And those strange Eastern European melodies…forget about it.

Planxty:
Dónal Lunny on bouzouki
Andy Irvine on mandolin
Liam O’Flynn the uilleann pipes
Christy Moore on harmonium and bodhrán

In almost forty years no one has done it better. Check out the Balkan inspired weirdness at 3:24. Mighty.
 

Growing a Tune: Crashing

Ship at Sea
 
The other day Luke summonsed me into his office. He had been working feverishly on a new version of The Marlin Spike with both of Josh’s new guitar parts. Once in his office he had me put the cans on to take a listen. But before doing so, he prefaced my first listen with his impressions of the tune.

The tune, as he described, made him think of an old ship, sails full of wind making headway through the vast ocean. He could hear the waves crashing against the sides of the ship. He could imagine the sound the ship would make as it pitched up and over the swells of the sea. And with that he decided to add some percussion. I listened. His descriptions came to life. As the tune ended and I was reaching to pull the phones off, I started to say that I didn’t want it to end. Then I noticed a gleam in his eye, he raised one finger and said, ‘wait’…

The thing I love about this recording is that it has taken turns that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have done on my own. Luke does not come to this recording with the shackles of how percussion or bass is supposed to sound in Celtic music. It is just not part of his musical background. This is new material for him. Consequently, he, unknowingly, breaks some traditional rules and adds a new dimension, an entirely appealing dimension, to the music…and that is exciting.
 
The Marlin Spike (crashing) by baconworks

Growing a Tune: Mixing up Josh

Josh spent some time recording two new guitar tracks. One he describes as being a bit more traditional versus the other being a bit more chordal. I liked them both and decided to split the difference and mix the two tracks together. I can also tell you that Luke is working on another wicked pissa track, with a new bass line, that uses both of Josh’s tracks as well. I’m hoping to be able to post that track in the next day or so…Luke???

Also, there has been some interest by a couple of new musicians in recording some additional tracks. So, with any luck, we may soon have a fiddle track and a resophonic tenor guitar.

In the interim, I’ve created an image map of the various iterations below. This gives a nice visual representation of how much activity is happening:
 
Marlin Spike Map

Check it out.
 
The Marlin Spike (Josh mix) by baconworks

Growing a Tune: A Bit of Analysis

experiment
 
I was talking to my friend Ned the other day about tune writing. Somehow we got onto the topic of what it means to write good music that is clearly part of a specific genre. For example, what does it mean to write Celtic music? What are the traits that define that style of music? And, within those set of definable traits, what distinguishes a good tune from one that is less desirable? Also, what happens when a tune lives near the boundaries of those definitions? All interesting questions.

This got me thinking about why it has been fun to play and record The Marlin Spike. I’ve written a lot of tunes. Some of them I just don’t care to ever play again. But I enjoy The Marlin Spike. And it seems that others do too. Why? What makes it likable?

So, to help answer that question, I decided to do a little graphical analysis on The Marlin Spike comparing it to The Kesh Jig. Now, bear in mind that The Kesh Jig may be the most popular Irish tune in the world. You can find a recording of The Kesh on no less than seventy-five albums. In fact, it is built-in to any whistle, flute or fiddle when you buy it. Comes right out with no training at all.

The Marlin Spike, on the other hand … well, let’s just say it has a ways to go to catch up to The Kesh.

Here is what I did: I looked at both tunes and color coded all the measures. Blocks of color that are the same are thematically the same. If a color only appears once, it is because that measure is unique. So here goes, first The Kesh (take a listen to an mp3 I found out on the web):
 
Kesh Jig Color Analysis
 
You can quickly see that the first three measures are thematically the same as measures five through seven. Next you can see that measures nine and ten are thematically the same as thirteen and fourteen. Also, I’ve tried to indicate that measure thirteen and fifteen are very similar as well.

Another way to look at this is that there is an A section that is repeated twice and a B section that is repeated twice. The A section is essentially broken into two halves that are basically the same. The B section is also broken into two halves that, although a bit more unique, thematically don’t differ all that much. The only unique measures are towards the end of the phrases.

Ok, on to The Marlin Spike, which can be heard here.
 
Marlin Spike Color Analysis
 
In The Marlin Spike we see an entirely different story. There are so many colors, in fact, that I had to move away from primaries and secondary colors and start using tertiary colors to identify unique measures. The exceptions, of course, are the last two measures of both the A strain and the B strain, which are exactly the same. There are also some other minor similarities. For example, the first half of the fourth measure is the same as the first half of the fifth measure. Likewise the first half of measure six and fourteen. Other than that, the measures are unique.

One subjective observation that I have made when comparing how these two tunes sound, verses analyzing their structure, is that similar measures placed towards the tail of the strain seem to have a less defining affect on the overall theme of the tune than similarities towards the beginning of the strain. For example, The Kesh’s major similarities are in the beginning of the strains while The Marlin Spike’s similarities are a the tail end of the strains. The heart of The Kesh is very much defined by those opening measures. They are the ‘tell’ of that tune. In fact, I would put money on the fact that anyone that has ever played and Irish tune would be able to name-that-tune with just the first measure of The Kesh. I would also argue that it would be much more difficult to name-that-tune, even if The Marlin Spike was super-duper-famous, with just the seventh measure, which is the measure that is again repeated in the fifteenth measure.

It is, therefore, my observation that similar thematic measures towards the end of a phrase are less likely to be consciously noticed by the listener. I do believe, however, that they do serve a valuable purpose. They serve to give the tune a foundation so as not to feel random or thematically lost. Those measures tie up all the loose ends and bring it all home, which makes us feel good.

So, what is the conclusion? Well, The Marlin Spike is more thematically complex than The Kesh. There is more variation, which certainly keeps things interesting. Does that make it better. ‘Fraid not. Just different. Because of its complexity, it may have more appeal to those who have been playing this style of music for many years. Following that logic, it may be unappealing to those who are fairly new to the jigs and reels and may be looking for tunes that are a bit more grounded up front.

Suffice it to say, that as a tune author, these are things that I intuitively think about as I’m writing. To dial up the interest, repeat measures less often; to drive home a theme, repeat measures more often. Admittedly, this is just one lens to view a tune through and, luckily, there really are no rules.

Growing a Tune: Not Finished Yet…

Luke on Bass
 
Luke is at it again.

This time, he has put a bass track to Josh’s first guitar track, which Josh thought of as a rough draft. Compared to my track this accompaniment has a much more jazzy feel.

Also, you will notice that the melody does not include the original flute and, instead, only features the penny whistle. This is an artifact of the impromptu process that we used to do the recording, which is illustrated in the highly technical graphic below:
 
Recording Process
 
One of the things going on here is that above all the music there is a process that we are learning about as we go. That process includes syncing and overdubbing tracks across multiple players who don’t know each other and we have learned that there are some steps that can be added to that picture to give us more flexibility in the future (as we will see in a subsequent post).

Another interesting phenomenon that I see unfolding in this collaborative recording experiment is that the distinction between what is a rough take and what is a ‘finished product’ has been blurred. Josh’s rough guitar track sits nicely with Luke’s bass and from my perspective the mix is a very listenable and arguably ‘finished’. But, I know that Josh was generally unhappy with the sound quality of the guitar track and, therefore, his perception of ‘finished’ is probably different than mine, which brings me to a very salient point: There is no such thing as ‘finished’ in the absolute sense.

The term ‘finished’ is a misleading adjective that we tend to use when describing our intentions. It is not, ironically, a very good word for accurately describing state. In other words, when I say I am finished with a tune or a painting or building a new deck, I am really saying that I have no intention of doing more work on that thing. However, given that humans are notoriously bad a predicting the future, it might not be wise to place bets on whether the state of that thing will remain stable in the future. After all, I may decide, many years later, to add more paint to the canvas. Is it finished then?

Why am I babbling on about this? Because the notion of finishing a recording, which is very often a goal of musicians, is just an artifact associated with the historically high costs of recording albums. While it is hard for many artists to get their heads around this, I’m here to demonstrate that it is time. Free yourselves from the shackles of that elusive perfect and printable recording. Instead, embrace the notion that the process, flaws and all, is just as interesting and is really the reason we play music to begin with.

The cool thing here is that the plummeting cost of recording and music distribution facilitates the phenomenon I’m describing. The Compact Disc is no longer a necessity and, therefore, does not need to be the final resting place, as it once was, for a musical idea. With the financial factors removed, the creative process, once again, can take its rightful place at center stage thereby giving freedom back to the artist to create as inspiration strikes.

I used to believe that waking up on the wrong side of the sod was the only sure measure of being truly finished. But in world where we allow others to expand on our ideas we open the doors for evolution, which is far more enduring and exciting than being finished.

To Write or Not to…

writing
 
I somehow have acquired the onerous task of Guest blogging on the acclaimed baconworks. How did this come about? Why do you care? You probably don’t but I’ve got the floor, so you may as well read on.

I happened to post a comment on Greg’s recent post entitled Growing a Tune: The Seed, and something in my comment seemed to inspire Mr. Bacon to grant me the opportunity to elocute upon a relatively captive and targeted audience.

Being a fellow tunesmith, I commented that I, too, had a collection of tune snippets floating around in various drawers, folders, book-bindings, shoe-boxes, glove-boxes, hat-boxes, etc., most of which have amounted to nothing more than saving another precious microgram of landfill. All of which begs the question, “Why write tunes at all?” I have actually been challenged on more than one occasion with this very question. After all, aren’t there already tens of thousands of tunes out there already? Most of which have been completely unexplored by such a fledgling instrumentalist as myself, not to mention the countless that are no doubt far better than anything I could come up with. So why write something new? Some might even argue (myself included) that one really can’t write anything truly “new” – there are in reality only a finite (though arguably large) number of ways you can combine notes and rhythms in a pleasing fashion (subjective, of course), and within some realm or genre (Irishy trad sounding, fife and drum-ish, etc.). There are, of course, certain common rhythmic and melodic figures that just “fit” in a certain way in a tune. And I’ve often said, in Zen-like fashion, that there is in reality only ONE tune — we just play different parts of it at different times.

And what kind of audacity is required? How dare I even attempt to place myself among the greats whose immortality has all but been assured by the very act of their creative genius? Unforgettable themes such as the opening strain of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven’s Fur Elise, John Williams’ Star Wars, and innumerable others stick in humanity’s collective consciousness. Even such melodies whose authors have long since been forgotten, and we attribute them to someone “unknown”, or the enigmatic “traditional”, still infest our brains like that late summer cold that you can’t seem to shake, long after the session or muster has ended. Do I have one of those tunes? Or maybe two?

Do any of us who again dare to write music have these delusions of grandeur? Do I really think that someone else might remember, or even enjoy my tunes enough to play them or listen to them again when I the composer am not around or in earshot? Will they play them for or teach them to others?

So many questions.

But when I write, I don’t ask these questions. I just write. I like to play what I write – sometimes. And, I like to share. That’s why I do what I do: Music for me is about sharing something the way I understand it. I’m not trying to be profound, or brilliant. I’m just trying to share something with other humans. If you get it – good. If you don’t, that’s okay too. And if you get it enough that you want to share it too, even better. I know I like to hear and play what some of my fellow composers have done. Maybe it’s not too much of a stretch that some of them might reciprocate. Just because that’s what we do.