Friday, July 28, 2006

Album Review: Fish Out of Water

This album can be considered a bookend to Olias of Sunhillow. It was recorded by Chris Squire, bass player and co-founder of Yes, during the same period as Olias. It has nothing in common with Olias except for the quality of its work. Squire has crafted a dense and darkly orchestrated album, backboned by his muscular but agile bass playing. The five songs on the album flow into each other, divergent in content and tone, yet all blending together into a coherent musical suite.

Squire's strength as a composer is in two main areas: his ability to create a motif and then thematically build on it with subtle variations of ever increasing complexity, and his ear for arrangement to get the most out of his rather straightforward ideas. The musicians he chooses to back himself with are some of the finest jazz/rock fusion players in the world. The unique sound is due to the lack of a guitar - pianos, flutes, saxophones, organs and orchestration take their turn in supplying the melodic instrumentation. Squire's vocals are mediocre but sufficient.

This is Carlene's favourite album. It is also the pinnacle of Squire's work, perhaps only approached by the Yes album Drama, which he co-wrote and shared vocals on.For anybody wanting to get into prog rock, but actually wants to hear structure, cohesiveness and pleasant melodies as well as virtuoso playing and experimental tones, there is no finer place to start.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Song Writing: Nothing That Matters

Nothing That Matters
by John Hitchens

There ain't no point in blaming
It's nothing that I planned
But still I guess after the latest mess
I'd hoped you'd understand
Point the finger at me
It's not a chance you'd miss
But nothing we've gone through
When it was just us two
Could prepare us for this
Now you just leave me at the door
Without a goodbye kiss

There's promises we've made
Many things we've left unsaid
And quite a few callous words or two
Before I left your bed
I'd like to try to patch it up
It's always in my plans
But with promises broken
And words left unspoken
I doubt that there's a chance
Now I just leave you at the door
Without a backward glance

Nothing that matters comes easy
Sometimes what really matters never comes at all
It just leaves you feeling empty
Leaves you with nothing at all

Some nights I dream of you
Most nights I dream of her
For it's only in dreams that good things it seems
Happen to occur
Now here we are together
With no one else in sight
But even at this table
We're not even able
To talk without a fight
So let's just leave it at the door
And one final last goodnight.

Nothing that matters comes easy
Sometimes what really matters never comes at all
It just leaves you feeling empty
Leaves you with nothing at all

Song writing is an intensely personal experience, and there are as many different types of writing processes as there are artists. I can only give you my approach, which will no doubt be radically different from Helen's, for example.

With me, generally, it begins with the chorus. Some people grab a title and go with it, others get a theme and start to write from first line of first verse right to the end, but I get a chorus. It is not something I look for, but usually some sort of catch phrase will grab my attention, and then *bam* I have the whole thing in my head - the first two lines of the chorus, complete with harmonies, chords and other musical arrangements. I don't even have to write it down in case I forget, so vivid is the moment. Eventually I will write it down, and attempt to create a full blown song. Let's take a look at the second song I ever wrote, to see the process.

In this case, I had the idea that "nothing that matters is easy", like the idea "the course of true love never did run smooth". A sudden burst of insight sparked the idea that sometimes what really matters just doesn't come, for whatever reason, and that's just the way it is. So I had the basis for a song. I had been listening to a bunch of Springsteen at the time, so there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a guitar/harmonica song. I fleshed out the chorus, and then needed to work out the verses.

Quite often, I just write down the chorus and never progress further - I have many finished choruses lying around without a song attached to them. Here I decided to play on the theme of a marriage breaking down. It is important to realize that my songs are not auto-biographical, but they are plausible. I like to think of them as a path another John may have taken, somewhat akin to a collapse of the wavepoint function of John in the Many Worlds Interpretation around a different plausibility ("Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you"?)

Here, the verse starts vague, as I am not sure yet what I am writing about. I finally manage to firm it up into that familiar sordid story of another woman. Here, the man is so world weary that he can't even bring himself to care anymore. When does the need to leave finally overcome the inclination to stay?

If I was to release this song to a publisher, I would have to work on it a bit. There are three long verses. These each could be chopped in half to give six short verses. Since six is too many for a song, we should cut it down to four. The writing needs to be taughter so we can tell the same story in 2/3 of the words. Perhaps some development can happen - not much actually happens in this story. The author spends 150 words basically hinting he is probably leaving. An excellent model might be Glenn Frey's "Tequila Sunrise", which shows great economy in plot advancement. The chorus has lines of unequal length, which makes sense when one realizes it was written in the idea of a ragged, Springsteen-ish monotonic mumble, but not so good if you want a universal appeal.

Stylistically, I tried to make verse one about actions, and verse two about words, to set up a bit of a contrast, On the same note, verse one seems to be about the woman's reaction, and verse two about the man's. Thus verse three ends in a mutual decision to balance things and bring closure to the subject. I have a few triplet patterns to break the rhythm, which may or may not work, but are now so securely ensconced that I can not now imagine removing them. I also add a few interior rhymes (rhymes within a line like And quite a few callous words or two") to enhance the sound. I also synthetically created a motif at the end of each verse to give the audience an easily identifiable recurring theme, which looks forced, but will have to do for now.

Now, if the words come first, how do I find a melody? When I write my verses, I have a rhythm track in my head. In this case, I was writing to the meter of "Devils and Dust", while envisioning a tune (can you envision a tune?) akin to "Philadelphia" (both by Springsteen for those one or two non-afficionados in the world). The next problem was to make sure my melody was NOT "Devils and Dust". I started about a third above the Devils and Dust, and then tried some random notes. I got something workable, and then I put in some chords with a walking bass line (C G/B Am G) for the triplets and the song was mostly written. I just needed to check that it didn't subconsciously duplicate a song I had heard before. I think the tune is a bit too happy for the subject matter, but you can't have everything!

The last thing to do was work out the harmonica part. This posed certain difficulties, as I did not own a harmonica. In fact, I did not even know how to play a harmonica! Thus I bought a harmonica in C major (this allows you to play in the keys of C and G) and started to learn. This song was written in G, so that was not a problem. I worked out a bit of a harmonica interlude to go after the choruses. Now to put it all together.

I bought a harp holder, so that I could play guitar and harmonica at the same time, and fired up the song. I now remembered why I hate the key of G (although it is a great key to play in). I can not sing in it!! My voice fits the key of C perfectly, but in G I am either too high or too low. Now my sisters can understand why I grumble about playing everything in G. I tried switching to C, but the chords did not sound right, so G it is. Maybe I'll get Tony to sing it ...

Anyway, if I ever get a car that can take me to Kitchener, I'll have to play it for my sisters.

Monday, July 10, 2006

CRPG Review: Akalabeth

One of my favourite hobbies is playing computer role-playing games, or CRPG's for short. I have collected 232 (at last count), played 63 of them, and have even finished 28 of them (I know these numbers because I keep a spreadsheet on them!) I started to wonder why I gravitate towards CRPG's in particular, out of all the different genres of game there are, and found the reason to be multi-faceted.

The first reason I have is my love of maps. As a child I used to pore over the world atlas we had (the lovely England-centric one with maps of each individual county, while giving one map to boring Canada), memorizing each town in Cumberland or tracing Peter Brownrigg's journey across Yorkshire and down to London on the Old North Road. At age eight years I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and spent hours studying the maps, referring to them constantly while reading the books. One of the major delights of the Swallows and Amazons series was the inevitable map in the frontispiece. My fascination continues even today - I own the complete set of topographical maps for the Bruce Trail. In each CRPG, you explore a unique world map, possible full of dark forests, deep jungles, jagged mountains, misty swamps, searing deserts and other phenomena. That joy of seeing what is over the hill is a major plus.

Related to my love of maps, is my love of mazes and puzzle solving. Every CRPG has its underground dungeons or impossibly spiring towers full of traps and treasure. It is extremely satisfying to break out my graph paper and transfer with draughtsman precision a rendering of the labyrinth I find myself in. My sisters may remember those Vladimir Koziakin maze books I used to buy when I was younger, with complicated mazes with rated time limits like 28 minutes. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of beating a challenging maze.

Of course, mazes are not the only problems to be solved in a CRPG. There are traps to bypass, quite often needed to be worked out with logical analysis. For example, in one game, the blue bleebs always tell the truth, the red bleebs always lie, and the green bleebs sometimes lie and sometimes tell the truth. At some point you must talk to the bleebs to get help, and must weigh their cryptic utterances with what you know of their character to figure out your path. There are other types of puzzles as well, such as how to by pass the magical statue, where to find that magic Sword of Wounding, the location of the hidden tapestry, or the last person to have seen Chips O'Toole before he mysteriously vanished. Who can resist these mysteries?

The last few examples point out another enjoyable feature of CRPG's - the story itself. I enjoy a good read, whether fantasy, science fiction, mystery, spy, or historical fiction. I enjoy the story on an entertainment level, as well as the aspect of trying to discover what comes next (or whodunnit). All CRPG's tell a story, if you care to look for or follow it, and are thus an interactive novel. Even better than a book, is the chance to change the story, or have your character be the one to fulfill the plot, instead of just reading about the protagonist. This is extremely rewarding.

Of course, having your character be the prime mover is where the role-play comes in. In our childhood, we are variously fire fighters, cowboys, astronauts, baseball players, roman centurions, nuclear physicists, or whatever our imagination conjurs (think of Calvin and Hobbes). As adults, we are somehow supposed to ignore all these flights of fantasy and "enjoy" our serious role of whatever-we-do-for-a-living. Well, I still imagine myself as a rock star, or a mad scientist, or an evil genius trying to take over the world with an insane lab rat as my partner, so why not pretend to be a warrior or wizard?

In CRPG's you roll up a persona or alter-ego, and then armed with the abilities possessed by your electronic avatar, and whatever talents you personally profess to have in problem solving, you set out on your quest. In real life, I am neither particularly strong or charismatic, but I have a quick wit and quicker reflexes. Can I replicate myself in a fantasy game? I could be a studious wizard, gleaning spells from painstakingly researched tomes, or a nimble thief with sleight-of-hand swashbuckling my way through the world.

Why stop there? Why not imagine myself as something completely different? Now I can be that strong but dumb barbarian who solves puzzles with an axe. Or a gentle healer who eschews combat. Why stay human? I can play an elf who is deadly with a bow, like my hero Legolas from Lord of the Rings. I can even switch genders, and create a female alter-ego - the choices are limited only by your game system and your imagination.

But what I like most of all, is when you have to create a team of characters. In these games, one character is not strong enough to overcome all the challenges, but a group of four or six with enough diversity can make their way through. Now you are trying to solve a puzzle with imperfect information with a spectrum of characters who may or may not be up to the task. Each battle becomes a tactical challenge, as you husband or spend your resources, and commit your characters to actions, trying to get the most payback for the least loss. And if you mess up, unlike in real life - re-load and try again!

Now on to my first review. Akalabeth is not a particularly good game (see my rating of 1 star out of 5). The game is in black-and-white, the outside world is a featureless expanse relieved only by the occassional abstract symbol representing mountains, dungeons and towns dotted here and there. Your character is likely to die from starvation before even finding the first dungeon (you don't have enough money to buy both weapons and enough food to get to the beginning dungeon and back unless you get a lucky random map at the beginning). There is no save game feature, so if you do not finish the game in one sitting, you must start again from the beginning. There is also not much variety, with three weapons and two character classes. After ten minutes play, you have basically seen all the game has to offer. There is also an optimum strategy that once you figure out, you can beat the game with no thought and a couple hours work. There are so many better games out there that playing this is almost pointless.


In 1979, the Apple 2 home computer had penetrated into 100,000 homes. These people needed games to play, but there were few written. Richard Garriott, a fifteen-year-old high school student, had a part-time job after school working at the local computer store. For his own amusement, he wrote Akalabeth. His boss convinced him to send the game off to a publishing house, and it sold 25,000 copies. Garriot made $5 per copy, and no longer needed to worry about his college tuition. Why did it sell so well?

It was the world's first graphical roleplaying game. Until Akalabeth, all adventure games were text-based, where the scene was described to the players and then they typed in their input. Now here, the dungeon was represented pictorially. Take a look at the screen shot. You can see a 3-D representation of what your character sees. You are fighting a skeleton, while in the background is a ladder leading to escape, and down the corridor is a door you could also take on the left. This view worked so well, that it was still being used as a standard ten years later. Even twenty years after Akalabeth was released, this 90-degree pictorial 3-D view was being used (albeit with colour and texture) although full 360-degree motion had become viable in the early 90's. You have combat action choices, and statistics that affect your health, damage, etc. These are still staples of the CRPG.

In summary, this game is worth spending ten minutes on, just to view the origin of the CRPG, and to see both how much, and how little, has changed.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Performance and Practise: Problem Composers

In my guitar practise, I frequently meet with pieces by Robert de Visée, court guitarist for Louis XIV of France. These pieces are not any more technically challenging than the others surrounding them, but I have always had difficulties in playing them. The timing seems weird, or the harmonies seem wrong. Or I get the notes right but it sounds like a random collection of notes, with no sense of conveying a musical piece. An example is the Saraband pictured above. I practised this on and off for a three month period before I could even play all the way through it without mistakes, but it still sounded "wrong".

I understand that this is not a unique problem - Alison can not play Mozart, for example, even though she can play technically more demanding pieces from Débussy or Chopin. Even world-reknowned recording artists seem to have their favourite composers to play.

So the question is - what do people do about this problem? I have no musical teacher to help me out. Alison suggested just skipping the composer on the grounds of incompatibility - you don't have to learn everything. This seemed quite practical, but I am stubborn. I refused to consider that a composer could "beat" me.

I found a solution that worked for me.

I was fortunate enough to find a CD in the library that had Julian Bream playing de Visée's entire suite in Dm. I took it out and listened to it. A light went on. I listened to it again and again and just absorbed the composer's spirit (as filtered by Bream). I have probably listened to the piece over 100 times now. The first of my mistakes was that I was subconciously playing it like a J.S. Bach piece. I had to throw that thinking out. Secondly, I realized my tempo was wrong - the piece has a stylized and deliberate tempo. Lastly, I listened to Bream personalize the piece.

Here is a link to the first eight bar theme as recorded by Julian Bream. Go ahead, click and listen.

Bream omits some notes, adds his own grace notes, varies the tempo, and varies his tone - the simple piece comes alive when he plays it. I have now started to incorporate some of his techniques in my playing, and now the piece sounds like it means something. I have applied this thinking/approach to other de Visée pieces, and it has paid off - I no longer fear him.

Practical advice - if you have acomposer you just can't fathom, listen to somebody you admire playing that piece, and dissect their approach and then try to incorporate it. Listen 100 times if you have to, until you "get it"

You will open up new worlds in your repertoire, and learn new performing techniques as well.