Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SpinTunes: Always Someone's Monster

The topic for Round 1 of SpinTunes 4 was to write a song about a childhood nightmare and include significant use of rubato. My offering is called "Always Someone's Monster," number 7 on the playlist below. Please download the entire album on Bandcamp for a really impressive display of creativity that runs the musical gambit of genres and styles.

Song Bio
My parents divorced when I was three. I was too young to remember clearly, but family lore is that I woke up crying for several nights after my father left us. There's a shadow from that episode that I still struggle with. I took some dramatic licence for this tune. My real mother is made of anything but steel: she's the nicest, most disorganized person I know. All in all, I still have this lingering fear of abandonment, I suppose.

Initial drafts of the second verse were more compact; the lines left too much space in the phrase and the melody didn't match up well with what I had established in the first verse. The "you" of this song isn't really any one in particular, more like an amalgamation of people in my life; I like the slight variation in the second prechorus.

[Fmaj7] my mother was [C] adamant
[Gmaj7] that woman was made of [Am] steel
so one night she stole away
said she couldn't feel

my father wasn't there
his jaw slack, his eyes a-glaze
he awoke hard one day
left the porch, the house ablaze

[Em] and i tell you [Cmaj7] all of this
[Am] so you can under-[Dadd9] stand

[Fmaj7] my [C] mother always [Gmaj7] said
there are no monsters under your bed
in the closet they abide
keep them [Fmaj7] there [C]

i am working my way on through
my family tree of twisted branches
climb on down to the tangled roots
find out where my shadow dances

i am looking for the answer
to the question you asked me
if you are always someone's monster
are you ever really free

and i tell you all of this
so you will take my hand

my mother always said
there are no monsters under your bed
in the closet they abide
keep them there

Coda : Fmaj7/add9 - Cadd9/C/Cmaj7 - Gmaj7 - Em

(Yup, I slightly flubbed the second verse: I should have sung "tangled roots" instead of "twisted." Le sigh. Deadlines.)

I'm proud of the structural work on this song, especially the coda. I had eight bars of this neat little melody hanging around for weeks without a home. I think it lends a hopeful tone to an otherwise really dark piece. I love time changes; this one shifts from 4/4 at about 80 bpm to 6/8 at 126 bpm. It was originally 16 bars longer; the fade continued in reverse order of the instrumentation as they are introduced: the guitar took back over from the piano, the organs faded, then the percussion, and finally the cello, to leave the guitar slowly winding down. But I felt like the point had been made, musically, and opted for concision.

The rubato is significant, creating an ebb and flow within the song that matches a dream-like state, and it is paralleled by crescendos. Basically, faster and louder means more urgent and more important. The rubato challenge was particularly sticky for me, since I played or programmed each part myself and thus had to multitrack the whole thing instead of a live performance where I would have had more liberty with tempo. Instead, the entire piece slowly builds with a few hanging moments, starting at 80 bpm, stepping up to 82 for the second half of each verse, a momentary hang, then to 84 for the prechorus,and then jumping to 86 bpm for the chorus. (It was originally 88 bpm; that was just a smidge too fast.)

I love the MIDI organ tone I found, but it was difficulty to include all of the sonic ideas in the chorus without clipping. When I revisit this for an album, I think I'll move the organ arpeggio to the second portion of each phrase to make more room for the vocals and explosive guitars.

A word about the chord progressions. As I said, the coda existed as a sketch long before this challenge, and I first started using the Fmaj7 - C - Gmaj7 - Em, but both the progression and 6/8 time it didn't work with the melody I had in my head. But, switching it up to a slow-tempo 4/4 and ending the phrase on Am worked wonderfully. (It also made is sound very close to a song I wrote last year, Looking at the Sea.)

I wanted to push myself to craft something more complicated than the usual Verse-Chorus-Verse arrangement, and changing the end of the phrase from Em to Am let me then transition to a prechorus that starts with Em and ascends. You'll notice that there are lots of major 7ths; to create tension through the song, I let the high-E string ring as much as possible. For the prechorus, I went all out with open, jangling chords and a steady up-tempo rhythm to segue from the laconic, meditative verse to the more energetic chorus. With all these complicated chords, I wanted the chorus to be much more straightforward: just a IV - I - V - V rock-out.

During the listening party, it turned out that reverb was a sonic effect of choice for many compositions, and I'm as guilty as anyone. It's the go-to sound for making things sound dreamlike and bigger than life. Part of me wishes I would have thought ahead about that and looked for something more distinct. Nonetheless, I'm confident in my choice for this specific song: it works for what I want to do and the feelings I want to convey.

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