Monday, December 31, 2012

Year of Song: Year in Review

New Year's resolutions come and go.  They usually come after Christmas and disappear by mid-January.  To this rule, I have historically been no exception.  However, I'm proud to announce that 2012 is the first year in which I have made it through.  I'm writing this review to chronicle the process and the experience, but even more important than the accomplishments from this resolution, was spending a year of being true to myself, which was the primary impetus for the accomplishments that resulted.

In December of 2011, I was a student in the PhD program in music theory at Louisiana State University, with a minor in music composition.  I had always had a passion for composing music, but I was majoring in music theory, because I believed that as a teacher, I would actually prefer to teach theory instead of composition.  Sadly, this decision led to a major decline in my compositional output.  In reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one key point really stood out.  It was that we are "defined by our actions."  I realized that although I considered myself to be a composer, I no longer felt like a composer, because I simply didn't compose very much.

I had gotten frustrated with myself and the reception of my material in the world of academia, which didn't generally appreciate popular music and musical theatre, which were the main thing I enjoyed composing.  In December 2011, I had the idea that it would be really great to make a big push for writing songs again, not for school, but just so my actions would once again define me as a composer.  I had considered writing and recording a song each day, but my wife wisely suggested that a song each week would be a more reasonable goal, considering my current time commitments as a student, teacher, father, etc.

So I set out in January 2012 announcing that I would be writing and recording a song each week for the entire year.  I think many people didn't expect it to last, in fact, three or four months into the project, some of my colleagues told me how surprised they were that I was keeping up with it.  Personally, I was surprised at how much more efficient I got at the process of writing and recording with regular practice.

In fact, I didn't have a lot of home recording experience.  I have some musical equipment and a decent computer, but I wasn't very familiar with recording software.  I had used a freeware program to put together some very basic recordings a few years back, but they were far from professional quality.  When beginning this project, I had remembered that a colleague had once recommended the freeware program Audacity as an excellent home recording software, so I downloaded it and starting tinkering.

In my first song, "The More You Think You Know," I recorded a piano track and then added the vocal parts on top, and finally added a tambourine and shaker (as these were the instruments at my disposal).   For the second song, "Big Bad Jim," I actually had the foresight to use a click track, which made the process of aligning the instruments easier.  I also experimented with using EQ on the vocals to make them sound more brassy.  Additionally, I learned how to use the horizontal pan space to make these two songs sound fuller.

For the third song, "I Look to the Stars," I recorded my first "synth" song, in the sense that I used my Roland XV-5080 sound module to create something that sounded like "synth" music, as opposed to using it to emulate actual acoustic instruments.  This also came in handy for the sixth song, "We Have a Visitor," which used synthesized music and audio clips from the ALF TV show.  This was also the first song of the year which I wrote with a humorous intent, but was certainly not the last.

I was amazed at how soon after the beginning of the project that my musical colleagues became interested in collaborating.  After the first couple of songs, I asked my friend Gracie Steavns, who is a vocalist and string player in Denver, if she would be interested in collaborating.  She was very enthusiastic about the idea, so I wrote song five, "Damascus," for her to record.  I scored it for two violins, viola, and mezzo soprano, and Gracie performed all four parts on the recording.  I was absolutely pleased at how the recording came out.

Song ten, "Lonely Tonight," was my next collaboration.  My friends Stephen and Adam Embree recorded this one.  They perform in an electropop duo called The Solution, and I was very interested in seeing what they would do with one of my songs.  I wrote a song specifically with them in mind, and I recorded a demo with just piano, playing chords in quarter notes, and a single vocal line.  I made the actual surface musical choices as generic as possible in my demo recording to give the Embrees plenty of room to interpret it their own way.  The result was astounding, and very different than I ever could have imagined.

As the project went along, I also learned more about creating videos to go along with them.  I posted all the songs to YouTube, mostly as a convenient way to host the audio and to share via social networking sites such as Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, and Pinterest.  The "videos" for the first four songs included only a title card that remained on the screen for the duration of the song.  The next few songs featured slideshows of images, which were more or less timed to certain words or musical features of the song.  For song 11, "The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls," I experimented with video for the first time, by simply recording a stationary video of a lake in Baton Rouge.

Songs 19 and 20, "Breathe in the noiSe (Breathe out the Silence)" and " You Talk Entirely Far Too Much," featured full video throughout.  The former contained video of me walking around doing things around Baton Rouge Lake, and the latter was video of me singing the song, although the audio heard on the video is the version that I recorded previously on the computer.  Song 28, "Celestial Dance," represented a fascinating collaboration in which I recorded an instrumental track for a samba tune, which I shared via Dropbox, with the vocalist Kelly Riely in Independence, Missouri.  In her home studio, she added the vocal part to the track and her husband Michael helped shoot a video of her singing it.  She shared these with me via Dropbox, and in Baton Rouge, I recorded a short clip of me playing the keyboard solo in the middle of the piece.  The final video shows Kelly singing in Independence, MO at the beginning, and at the next cut, I am seen playing keyboard in Baton Rouge, LA.  It is amazing that internet technology makes this sort of collaboration possible.

Only one of the videos in the project was a live performance, "Psalm 16" from week 23.  This was a live performance of a choral work that I composed, which was performed by the Trinity Lutheran Choir in Baton Rouge.  This came about as a colleague of mine in the PhD program heard "Damascus" and became enthusiastic about me writing a song for his church choir.  Although the video is live, there was a small amount of creative editing that helped get the best possible outcome from the footage.  I recorded two performances of the song (one from each service) from different angles.  One of the angles put the camera rather close to the air conditioning vent adding a lot of background noise.  The other angle had less noise, but unfortunately there was a rather noticeable missed note during the end of that performance.  For the best result, I carefully spliced the audio from the end of one performance on to the end of the other, being careful to make sure that the audio remained in sync with the video, but also making sure that the audio splice was not noticeable to the ear.  It was not possible to get an entirely clean recording with congregational noise in addition to the previously mentioned air conditioning vent, but with a little work, I was able to get the best product from the recording footage that I took.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project was the opportunity I had for experimentation.  In particular, songs 9 and 45, "Bathsheba's Song" and "I Have a Bad Feeling About This" were electronic pieces that were included on the programs for the Experimental Music/Digital Media concerts at LSU in the spring and autumn.  "Bathsheba's Song," in particular, was full of experimental ideas.  I used effects such as phasing, panning, reverb, reversing the audio, among others to create a very eerie sound.

An interesting and not entirely expected outcome of the project was the number of humorous songs that came out of it.  I figured that I would write some humorous material, but to my surprise, more than one fourth of the songs were overtly humorous in their intent.  As I wrote humorous material, I sent it to Dr. Demento, a radio DJ that specializes in novelty songs.  This endeavor proved rather successful, as songs of mine were featured on eight episodes of The Dr. Demento Show in 2012.  After a while, I realized that it would beneficial to send my material to other DJs as well, so I also received airplay on Ben's Wacky Radio, A-log on the Airwaves, and I Still Get Demented.  Additionally, I was proud to learn that my "ALF for President" song (week 22) was shared by Linda Fusco on her Facebook wall.  Linda is one of the ALF puppeteers and wife of Paul Fusco, creator of ALF.

It was also interesting to keep an eye on the viewing statistics, which YouTube tracks automatically.  In week 39, I wrote a parody of the Sesame Street theme, entitled, "That is How You Get to Sesame Street."  After Romney made a controversial comment about eliminating funding for PBS at the first presidential debate, mentioning Big Bird specifically, I noticed a significant spike in the number of views on that particular video the next day.  After seeing the rapidity with which internet memes popped up immediately following the debate, I decided that I would try to quickly pick up the most memorable quotes to pop up in the next two debates and post something as quickly as possible.  After the second debate, I posted song 43, "Binders Full of Women" around noon the next day.  It got a considerable amount of attention, but to my surprise, I found that there were already about a dozen other "Binders Full of Women" songs posted before mine.  For the third debate, I began writing "Horses and Bayonets" while the debate was still taking place.  After the quote was spoken by Obama, I saw a big response to it on Facebook and decided that it would probably be the most memorable of the debate.  I completed the recording of the song that very night and it ends the year with the highest number of views with 5,798.  Of course, while these two videos had enormous viewership in the first week after posting, they dropped significantly after the hype cooled down.

I had been considering getting involved in advocating for children's mental health for some time now, and after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I felt moved to begin work on a free internet source for stories and songs that can help children to learn coping skills.  The final three songs, "Time to Calm Down," "When Things Don't Go Your Way," and "Time to Clean Up," are all songs that were written for this effort.

Many of the songs in the Year of Song project allowed me to express a wide variety of emotions, but the one that will probably leave the most lasting memory is "Te Quiero, Princesa," which I wrote for my eight-year old niece who was dying of cancer.  It was difficult to write, but it also turned about being the most meaningful.  The song was played at my niece's funeral in July.

An interesting, and completely, unexpected outcome of this project occurred about halfway through the year, when a music theory professor of mine actually asked if I should perhaps be a composition major instead of a theory major.  I had actually been thinking how I would like to do this, but felt that it was logistically impossible without adding at least another year to my program.  However he suggested that I at least consider it, so I began looking at the requirements and asking questions.  Long story short – my professors were very supportive and I succeeded in switching my major and minor and still plan to graduate on my original time frame.  It's amazing that when I began writing regularly (in other words, doing what a composer does), that I very naturally became a composer, and my professors also saw this and were able to easily accept that I am a composer.  In this way, I truly defined myself through my actions.

The year is at an end, but I see no reason to end the project.  My resolution for 2013 is to continue producing a song each week.  In addition, I plan to add new material to my website for children's coping skills on a weekly basis.  The current plan for the website is to have a collection of at least 90 stories with discussion questions and twenty songs that can be used to help children cope with real life situations.  I'm hoping that at this time next year, I can write another review about the effect of this outreach effort.

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