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.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Song Fight! - A Conversation

A new Song Fight! went live this week. Time to review the latest batch from my favorite songwriting community. This fight is a pretty big one: 22 entries; and there are a lot of strong songs.

Andy Sucks vs Darrell and Company
--- snnnnnnnnnnnnnnnrrrrrrrrrrxxxx ---

I'm sorry, were you trying to do something interesting or just a bunch of insular noise? Going meta doesn't save this. Maybe you should go back to the definition of the term "conversation," because this is nothing like that.

Berkeley Social Scene | lyrics
+++ hard-panned guitars; I especially like the acoustic tones +++
+++ melody; especially the chorus +++
--- lyrics are really on the nose ---

Billy and The Psychotics | lyrics | Vote
+++ melody; love the enjambment +++
+++ dynamics +++
+++ RAWK in the chorus +++

Blue Movies | Vote
+++ groove +++
/// putting such an overt effect on the vocals is a risky gamble ... ///
+++ that I think really pays off for this tune +++
/// bring that solo UP ///

Caravan Ray | lyrics | Vote
+++ vocals harmonies +++
+++ nice hymnal reference there +++
+++ great layering +++

This could do with some more melodic variation. The harmonies and instrumental layers are fantastic, but the whole thing seems to drag. I love the snark of the coda, but it seems tacked on.

This song sounds as if you just keep finding interesting tones and effects to pile on without rhyme or reason.; very little coheres.

The Elephant Choir
+++ call and response vocals +++

I have a soft spot for murder ballads and the minimalist instrumentation makes room for the vocal harmonies. Yet, this still doesn't really engage me. Maybe it needs more passion, energy, or... I'm not sure.

FauX | lyrics
--- instrumentation, especially that high-end, 70/80's synth arpeggio ---
--- prosody is either forced or sing-songy ---
--- boring story is boring ---

--- lyrics ---
--- the story is banal, which has possibilities, but never really goes anywhere ---

This has a lot of neat elements. I love the hard-panned guitars flanking the main acoustic tone. But, their use is inconsistent and don't seem to have a purpose.

Infinity Point Buck | lyrics
--- awkward prosody ---
--- unfinished; though that may be part of the point ---

Jan Krueger | lyrics | Vote
+++ groove and tone +++
+++ vocal harmonies +++

Jim of Seattle
This is a very interesting artistic experiment: a soundtrack to a short-short story, posted here. Separately, these works are brilliant. The "story," more of a prose poem about loss and leaving and identity, is emotionally engaging without being overwrought. The music is equally so: wonderfully performed and produced.

However, they don't gel well together. Jon Eric hit upon the right idea before I did:
[R]eading words on a page and listening to an audio recording aren't analogous because the listening is temporal, but the reading is not. People read at different paces, and you'd then have the benefit of being able to tailor the music to the point in the essay it's meant to accompany.
In literary and academic circles, the name for your problem is the "chronotope." While some scholars refer to this strictly as the way a give work represents time, a more post-modern take includes the reader in this representation. Reading has a highly-variable temporal experience; music (and cinema and theatrical performances) have a much more rigid chronotope. The present dissonance detracts from this possibly wonderful work.

Long story short (too late!): I'd love to hear these performed together.

Jon Eric | lyrics
+++ drums +++
+++ great lineBut being born in this town is walking in on a conversation / The moment it turns awkward. +++

I'd like to see this story more developed, though I'm not sure where you might go. That line is fantastic and good place to stop.

Longfellow Street | Vote
+++ RAWK; love the rough edges +++
+++ pleasantly unexpected female vox +++
--- oi oi oi ---

Paco del Stinko | lyrics
+++ vocal effect +++
+++ ending +++
/// This is short and punchy, but I'd still like to see a bit more dynamism ///

Ross Durand | Vote
+++ as usual, a fantastic Guy n' Guitar tune +++
+++ lyric narrative +++

This is a perfect coffee shop, or more appropriately, campfire tune. I want sit down next to Ross and pass around a bottle of whiskey and talk about lost love.

Scott Gesser | Vote
+++ riff +++
+++ melody +++
+++ chorus +++

I have a soft spot for "anti-choruses," or choruses with no words but memorable melodies.

Seismic Toss
+++ good groove +++
/// lacks dynamism ///

Smashy Claw
/// opening reminds me of Sublime ///
--- the tinny EQ on the guitars should be used much more sparingly; when the full band comes in it's a very welcome change, but it's long overdue ///
+++ when this finally takes off, it's great : lyrics, melody, performance and production are all spot on +++
/// end seems abrupt ///

Steve Durand | lyrics | Vote
+++ great gel of lyrics and musical genre +++
+++ excellent mix +++

Suckweasel | lyrics
+++ good rock vibe +++
/// familiar guitar tones and riffs ///

I would bop along with this in the background at a bar, but there's not much here to make it stand out.

Tuners Union
/// mix is rather quiet ///
+++ once I turn it up, it's beautiful: lovely harmonies, (mostly) nice instrument tones, good melody +++
/// the snare and guitar strum on beats 2 and 4 are really hot and nearly the same tone; it slices right through the mix and becomes distracting///
/// the acoustic guitar part in general is a little hot and lacks satisfying low end. ///

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lighten up already!

As I was saying on Monday, one of my goals for 2012 is to take things less seriously, especially in the classroom. The thing is, disposition is a tough nut to crack, and requires a lot of introspection that sometimes I'm not really good at. I mean, I've been trained as a critical thinker by some of the best - that's what a Ph.D. from a leading program at an R1 university should get you. So, I can train an analytical eye on movies, on political discourse, on pedagogical practices and take them apart six ways to Sunday. But, my own actions and their underlying motivations, especially their emotional impulses - that's a much more slippery target.

And yet, it's an area that needs focus and improvement. I'm a good teacher for a number of reasons: I'm organized, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and rigorous. I ask a lot of my students, but nothing that I don't believe that they can't achieve and nothing for which I don't provide structure and support. But a side effect of this seems to be that I can come off as abrasive, even aggressive. One of my student evaluations from last semester nails it:
The only thing I would change about Dr. McLaughlin's course is that he could have a little more relaxed environment in his classroom. It can be very stressful to have a professor with such high expectations sometimes and I have discussed with other students of his that it causes some people to not speak up for fear that they will answer incorrectly
There's a fine line between apprehension and effective learning. I do want my students to think about what they say, but I don't want them gagged by fear. This is counter-productive: it limits what students are putting in to the course and what they can, as a group, get out of it.

So, how can I go about creating a "more relaxed environment" in the classroom? Honestly, this runs counter to nearly every instinct I have as an instructor. Class-time doesn't have to be all work and all seriousness all the time, but it should be focused, structured, productive and include attention to the task at hand with appropriate feedback.

Ah... there's the kicker, isn't it? Sometimes, a light touch is the best way to go. So, here are some things that I'm going to try out and focus on this semester:

This past Monday morning, on the very first day of class, before the session had even begun, I had a student shyly approach me with an old edition of the textbook.
She started: "Is this -"
"Nope," I cut her off.
Whoa. Teacher fail. Imagine that being the very thing you hear from your professor? Ouf. I tried to back-pedal quickly, highlighting the improvements of the new edition, but the damage was done. I need to avoid doing these kinds of abrupt, insensitive interactions. It's not that these happen often, but acutely negative moments like this stick in a person's mind much more than a hundred gentle smiles.

So, the moral of this story is: take a moment; smile; consider where the student is coming from, not just what I want them to accomplish or how I want them to go about doing it.

To make up for that gaffe, alas not with the same class, but karma-wise, at least, I had an effective humorous moment on Monday, too. I was presenting the textbook; pointing out how well it's organized and how it presents its information (that is, grammar, vocabulary, etc.; some pretty dry stuff on its own) in an engaging and often visually-stimulating way. "It reminds me of a kid's book," I said, off the cuff, and then proceeded to read to the class in my best Kindergarten Teacher Voice:
Make sure to learn the correct article with each faire expression that calls for one. For faire expressions requiring a partitive article or indefinite article, the article is replaced with de when the expression is negated.
Silly, but effective. The students learned how to best do their homework, prepare for class and interact with their textbook and I earned some kudos for poking fun at my own textbook.

Games Without Consequence
I often play games, including Jeopardy! for unit reviews, Pictionary for vocabulary lessons, and even Taboo! But I attach some sort of consequence; usually, this is extra credit for an upcoming assessment or assignment. My thinking behind this is that the score is a motivator; their performance is more pertinent to their course experience.

However, an unintended - but no less important - consequence is that even fun things become stressful. It's time to play just for the sake of playing. It's okay to let your hair down and kick about every now and then. Why not? It's just a French class. (Nevermind that just participating in the game helps them learn, and having fun improves their disposition towards the course...)

Don't Take it Personally
This is perhaps the thing at the heart of my problem. I internalize a lot of my coursework; it's really an extension of myself. I put my ego out there every day. So, when students fail to reach my expectations, when they are unprepared or just having a blank moment - I feel like I've failed. Yup, I have failed. This is frustrating, and sometimes I take this frustration out on them. This is doubly bad, because not only are they embarrassed for not knowing the answer in front of God and everybody, but here I am chastising them for it in front of God and everybody.

It's okay to fail. I want my students to fail every now and then; failures and problems are the beginning of learning. But I have to let them know that during class-time, I'll be there to catch them, to laugh it off with a joke and to help them find a way to succeed.

So, here's to a semester of having more fun and letting the serious business of second language acquisition in a university environment become a little less so. Let's start with this:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Looking Back, Looking Forward

One of the best things about working at Kennesaw State University is that all full-time faculty need to perform an annual self-review, along with a plan for what we want to accomplish in the coming year. It's a great moment to step back, look at what you've accomplished and what passed you by, then reassess and re-gear for the coming year. I'm not one for resolutions, but I think this would be a good time to perform something of a personal ARD / FPA. That's check out the past year in review and make some specific and general plans for 2012.
Mark Kostabi, "Two Cats Make Plans"
I feel like last year was kind of a mixed bag. Let's focus on the positive, first, though:
  • Wrote a bunch of songs for FAWM (February Album Writing Month)
  • Went to the New York Song Fight! Live. Had great time, met a whole bunch of folks for the first time. Learned a lot about performing live.
  • Shadowed SpinTunes 3
  • Had my first moderate Song Fight! hit my with Circle Titles II: "Bourbon and Boobs."
  • Had a brief but very successful collaboration, Juliet's Happy Dagger, with Brooke Tournoux.
  • Released two albums: Longing the Mirror in April (mostly FAWM material) and then Secrets Replete in September.
  • Joined Google+ and learned how cool Hangouts can be.
  • Met a metric tonne of really great stars at Dragon*Con, including chatting with Edward James Olmos and Tricia Helfer.
  • Started this blog up again in earnest and gave it a good run of content for a few weeks.
  • Raised funds for, arranged and coordinated the 2011 Francophone Film Festival at KSU, pretty much all by myself.
  • Celebrated 10 years of marriage by a long and luxurious weekend at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
  • Taught FREN 2003, and accelerated and intensive Intermediate French course for the first time. Used it to test successful the use of Integrated Performance Assessment.
  • Continued to score well on Student Evaluations of Teaching effectiveness and by many measures, had many student successes. 
  • Made lots of new friends all over the gorram place: Jon Eric, Chris and Les Howard, Denise HudsonJulia Sherred and many others at Dragon*Con (Go ScotchCast!) and SpinTunes.

So, all in all, a pretty damn good list, especially musically and socially. Yet, there are some things that I didn't manage to accomplish, outright flubbed, or just had a rough time with:

  • Presented no research at any professional conferences. Didn't even attend a conference, despite that things like ACTFL should probably be becoming a priority for me.
  • Published nothing, at least professionally.
  • Publicly performed my music only once.
  • Continuously had mechanical problems with my Genuine Black Jack Scooter.
  • My grandmother has recently contracted - and is presently still recovering from - a bad case of bronchitis.
  • My presence as an Admin at [iO] Gaming has been erratic.
  • I got a guitar method book and did about two pages of exercises.
See, this is one of the great things about making lists like this. When I started this post, I was really feeling rather negative about how 2011 went. But 'lo and behold, there was a lot more good stuff than bad, n'est-ce pas?

So, let's build upon the successes and rectify some of the failings.


  • Attend the 2012 Song Fight! Live.
  • Participate in the next SpinTunes (yup, I've already signed up).
  • Participate in the next FAWM.
This are are easy; they're what I really want to do to anyway. More difficult goals are these:
  • Find a local open mic and attend regularly. Use that work on my vocal strength.
  • Work more on my guitar technique. I need to set up a feasible goal to shoot for: so many exercises to master a week, or something.
  • Explore some different musical sounds. I feel like I've found a limited range of things that I'm good at, but it's getting stale.


  • Keep going to Dragon*Con and meeting awesome people.
  • Get back into being an active [iO] Admin, more than just showing up on the servers.
  • Keep in touch with all my new friends. This doesn't have to be full-bore, all-the-time, but a  "how are you?" email every now and then is always a good idea.


  • Maintain this blog more regularly. This is a tough one. With the last burst of activity, I ran out of both topics and energy as the semester began to draw to a close. I've got a few things hanging around to write about, but I think the key is just to get in here and write something, to keep up the practice and focus on some concision. (This post is not a good start to the latter goal, I know.)
  • Present research about the video game Portal at Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association Conference in Boston in April .
  • Present research about the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose at the Film and History League conference in Milwaukee in September.
  • Get two of my four current research manuscripts published.
  • Coordinate the 2012 Francophone Film Festival.
  • Have more fun in class. This is the really big thing, I think. Honestly, I take myself a wee bit too seriously a lot of the time. (I know, shocker.) I'm going to expand this goal into a blog post of its own in a short while, when I wrap my brain around just how to go about this. Any suggestions are welcome.

It's well past time to sum things up. All in all, 2011 wasn't bad. In fact, it was pretty good if I take the time to focus on all the neat things I did. Sure, there are plenty of things to do, and frankly none of these are critical. But I like to dream big, and I hate to sit on my laurels. So, here's to this year being even better than the last.