Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Song Anatomy: Tuesday in the Park with Fred

 My grandparents lived on the 12th Floor
   My grandfather, Fred Hofkin, was an amateur painter. His studio was a room in the apartment he shared with my grandmother in Philadelphia and he kept his materials (an apothecary of droppers, jars, pigments, and the like) in a bookcase next to the table where he'd set up his easel. As far as I know he had no Ambition for his work but approached it like a craftsman, and detachedly so. I hope that I learned something of that attitude for my own work.
   He tried to teach me to paint, and although I am a poor draftsman and my earnest attempts yielded lackluster results, something carried over and I approach my musical work as he would a painting. When I composed my opera, Queen of Knives, although I made some sketches while traveling on trains, and staying in hotel rooms while on tour, the majority of the work was conducted in my home studio. Having a score in front of you (a blank page with the names of each instrument in the opera down the side of the page) is like having a canvas. I'd add colors (a little bit of the violin here, a warm blast of the trumpet there), and shadings (mezzo-piano crescendoing into forte). Sometimes I'd work at the end of the canvas, which would inform the middle, and so on.
   As I nestle into another home project this Winter (I've been commissioned to compose a musical), I want to share a song that I've composed outside of the studio. Like many people my grandfather liked the Impressionists. They're almost a cliche now, but being  born in 1900 my grandfather was that much closer to the source--in that year Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cassat were all still very much alive. Just as the Impressionists made a point to get out into the open air, I try to do the same by composing outside, or at least away from my desk. It's a different animal, for sure.
   My grandfather had a wooden box, sort of a suitcase packed with paints and a place to put the canvas, and he would take it down to the water or the park or to the ocean in Ventor, and paint outside. My own toolbox is a small hand-held recorder and a journal and pen. Sometimes I bring my net book with a small keyboard attached (Akai LPK25 if you need to know) but the idea is to keep things simple, fresh, and spontaneous.
  While we still had a sunny day here and there a couple of months back (remember I'm in Portland) I climbed on to my bike, girded on my satchel that held my supplies (just the recorder, journal and two pens) and headed to the gardens of Peninsula Park. The biggest challenge for composing away from home is noise. Some ambient noise can be inspiring (birds, background conversation) and some can be downright nasty (leaf blowers). The most impossible noise to compose to is music. I'll write lyrics in coffee shops but I've only found one in Portland that has no music at all—the coffee shop at Powell's books—so generally I find myself outside, or at the library, in train stations, or other odd places.
   I've found myself in these sorts of odd places for at least the past twenty years of my artistic life. I remember in Philadelphia when I was learning how to sing opera, if I wanted to practice late at night I couldn't in my Manayunk apartment, so there I was, this long-haired kid in my older brother's army jacket, singing “Ma, ma, ma, ma” at a construction site or under the bridge near the train station. After awhile the cops got to know me and gave a friendly wave.
Manayunk Courtesy Jack Paolini
   I arrived at Peninsula Park early because around 2 PM each day if the weather's good, a man sits in the gazebo with a drum and plays it so that it echoes throughout the park. I'm probably supposed to think it's a good thing (after all I used to be a street performer) but I find it annoying and there's no way I can compose while that man plays djembe and bongos.
   I had been actively listening to Natacha Atlas in preparation for my interview with her (See last blog entry) and her music was ricocheting around my brain. I have the perfect-not-quite-smart-enough brain for songwriting! If I had total auditory memory I'd recall each note but what ends up happening is that I'll listen to a song and in the in-between-time before I learn it, variations spin off (since my brain just remembers the gist) and pretty soon I'm working with the variation and adding to it and turning it into something new.
   I sat near the fountain in the garden and felt like I was in Moorish Spain (I'm very suggestible. A fountain and garden is all it takes to make me feel that way). Atlas's song La Vida Callada was sort of in my head. 
Courtesy Christopher Harley

   I turned on the recorder and hummed a bit and tried not to feel too silly doing all of this in public.
  At home no one's seeing you rock and hum like someone out of a Dostoevsky story. Pretty soon though, you forget that other people are around and anyway I hope the fact that I'm holding a recording device gives me a semblance of sanity. If not I'm OK if people think I'm a madman. I sat in one location and came up with about five very short snatches of song. Here's one to give you an idea. Very simple. I ended up not using it and I end up not using most of them. I moved to a different bench and came up with five others, and then on my way home, now that my brain was in receiving mode I thought of another little bit and pulled over in the parking lot of the welfare office and sang the last song into the recorder standing behind a dumpster.
  When I got home I transferred them on to my laptop, made a back up and let them sit for a couple of months. Finally, two weeks ago, I took the bus to Powell's and sat down in the coffee shop and listened. I found two that I really liked and thought would go well with one another and combined them and transcribed them on to my net book with the keyboard. The whole time I was sitting at one of the long counters that faces Burnside so I was able to look outside at all the people going by in the rain.
   Whether the song is “good” or not (or if I'll ever use it) isn't the point here, but rather the process. I like to think that getting out of the studio helped and that every element, the fountain, the garden, the bike ride, and the people in the rain are somehow in the song, or at least a part of the experience of composing it.
  I'm a big believer in quantity too. Do this enough times and you'll hundreds of little song bits that you can build on and combine. Songwriters: Keep your toolbox ready and with you, be open to receiving, and make the effort to actually set aside time to do this work.

Here's the song: Song sketch


  1. Accidentally got the two versions looped over each other - mess with it, something works.

  2. Fascinating. That Sondheim book has me thinking a great deal about songwriting process and methodology as well - composing in any of the formal genres is necessarily such a nuts-and-bolts process, one must find ways of tricking the mind into operating simultaneously as a technician and a dreamer. I love what SS has to say about rock music - that it values the immediate emotion, and thus all formal concerns are relegated to a tertiary role and songwriting can become a simple exercise in jotting down one's innermost thoughts. But I conclude as he has, that the emotional impact and the lasting impression of a set of lyrics is potentially greater when the songwriter removes himself from the emotions of the moment and permits himself to build the Work with a cold clinician's eye.

  3. I really enjoyed your sketches. It's beautifully simplistic and different. I experienced Vagabond Opera today on my Pandora account, and I just want to say that I look forward to becoming more aquainted with the band's music. Thanks.

  4. I spied the Zoom H2 recorder and had to smile. Such wonderful recording devices these are.

    I enjoy using the recorder I have and used it to capture ambient sounds from our walks around Paris. I only captured one of the street artists as he played his sax on the metro as we headed to Montmartre. Rather wished I'd collected more sounds. Fortunately, there may be a next time.

    Oh, I used it once to capture the sounds of Miz Kitty's show up at mission one evening. Amazing quality. You can even hear the whiz of the package of nuts as they flew threw the air when someone distributed them during her song of "Hot Nuts". :-)