Sunday, May 08, 2011

Process of Writing 8: Dulcimer Song Etc.

Dulcimer Song        AD, mountain dulcimer

Improvising on dulcimer this afternoon, making a piece in 7/8 out of nothing. Ideas lead to other ideas, and the next you know, there's a new piece coming out of it. Now, take the dulcimer lines and arrange them for piano and chorus.

Flexible line lengths in the musical phrase to accommodate the flexible line in the lyric.

A song about home, about the hearth, about country life, on the farm, going to Sunday church meeting. Singing around the parlor piano, singing hymns in the church accompanied by the wheezing old pipe organ.

Tonight I finished making a loop-based ambient/techno track on the studio computer. I've been working on it, off an on, for about a week. Just sitting down for a little while every other day, and adding to it, editing it, refining it, till it was all shaped up. I figured out how to end it, tonight. It turned out to be about 10 minutes long. I plan to take this as the rhythm bed for an ambient piece that I will mix together now, using other materials, maybe recording a new bass line, or flute line, to put with the existing rhythm bed.

I can only work on music for a few hours at a time. After a few hours, your ears get tired. You need to stop and go do something else for awhile. I can only record and mix for about four hours at a time, usually. After that, my ears are too tired and I start missing things, making mistakes, not being able to hear and decide about what to do next. I've done longer recording sessions, to be sure, but four hours is about the maximum amount of time I can spend on any given piece during one session. Sessions that go longer are usually addressing multiple tracks, so that when you ears get tired of one song, you step away for awhile, then can come back and do another song. More fresh that way.

After improvising on the dulcimer this afternoon for awhile—it's a mountain dulcimer, the three-stringed variety that you rest on your lap and strum, fretting the notes to make the chords and melodies—I went out for a drive. Just to get out of the house, clear my head, think about other things for awhile. I went for a drive, for about an hour, and ended up at the grocery store, to restock the victuals in the larder.

As so typically happens, it's when I'm driving, or walking, or otherwise in physical motion, that ideas start coming to me. So I got the idea to take the dulcimer song and use it as one section of the new music commission. The scene and setting are inspired by folk music, the kind of simple music made on simple instruments, played on the porches or in the kitchens of immigrant farm houses for generations.

So this is an instance of the music coming to me before the lyrics, and the lyrics being fit into the idea of the music, which in turn will get stretched to fit with the words.

One of the stories that has come up for the new commission is about growing up on a rural farm, going to church on Sundays, being part of the community. And eventually coming into some sort of conflict, either externally or completely internally, with being gay. Being gay in a small church-going town has two outcomes, typically. One of those is acceptance by family, friends and community; of being supported, of still being part of the community. One story still has the gay man in question, all grown up and out of the closet now, still occasionally going back to his small town church, and preaching a sermon. Lay preachers are not uncommon in small town churches.

Folk music is a big part of my musical roots. I spent a lot of time in college exploring all kinds of musical sources, singing and playing in various groups. I was in a madrigal group, and another choral group that focused on performing Medieval and Renaissance music. I also participated in the folk music scene—which back in those days in Ann Arbor meant going to frequent shows at The Ark, and sometimes performing there, too. I was part of a small group of improvising musicians who played new age music, folk music, world music, and various combinations thereof; I remember a lot of gigs we played at the Friends' Meeting House in Ann Arbor, a good room for chamber music, and a supportive community who always came to concerts even if they had no idea what to expect.

Folk music and Medieval music have a lot of concepts and styles in common. The division between "folk music" and "art music" didn't really develop until fairly recently in Western music history. The peasants sang in the cathedral, and the cathedral choirmaster used commonly-known folk songs in the composed music, as well. There was exploration and experimentation, but when you want the music to appeal to the people, and get them to sing along enthusiastically, you have to keep it simple, keep it plain. Folk music forms and idioms are ideal for that.

So it make sense to me, now, to incorporate some of this idiom into the new commission. I want to fit the musical setting to the lyrical subject matter. A story about singing in church, singing at home around the parlor piano, and finding other ways to worship, strikes me as an ideal opportunity to delve into folk music settings.

The chorus singers might balk at first about singing in 7/8. But once they get a feel for the rhythm and melody, I'm sure they'll find it fun.

A lot of eastern European folk music traditions (Bulgaria et al.) use odd meters, like 5/8 and 7/8 and even 13/8. Or they will subdivide a more symmetric even-numbered meter such as 12/8 into uneven segments. A common way to subdivide 12/8 in these folk music traditions (which are also their country's art music traditions, too) is 3+3 + 2+2+2.

A favorite way I like to subdivide 12/8, which I have done in both jazz and classical pieces I've written is 5+7. (You can hear that pattern in operation in my piece Kanjo for frame drums and Chapman Stick.)

It's really not hard at all to sing in odd meters, even for people who are used to always singing everything in 4/4 or 3/4, which are the dominant meters in Western popular and classical musics alike. The trick is to hear the melody as a rhythmic sequence of notes, and not think too hard about the meter. just learn the song, and don't try to analyze it while you're learning it. That makes it very practical.

So notating this dulcimer song for chorus is next on the commission agenda. Maybe tomorrow afternoon I'll have time to sit down and write it all down.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Arthur,

there is Eastern European folk music with way more complicated meters,as I seem to remember from a phase of folklore dancing in late University days.
its was next to hopeless to memorize the meters and their subdivision. Once one knew the steps of the dance "getting" the meters and their subdivisions was straightforward!

Best regards

Thomas Simon

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Arthur,

3:27 AM? Oh dear....


Thomas Simon

12:03 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Thomas, you're absolutely correct, of course. There are compound meters, and changing meters. One piece I recall from Bulgarian choral music shifts back and forth between compound meters.

You're right about the best way to learn these things: just learn the dance steps, or learn the melodies, and let the meters take of themselves.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Blogger seems to have crashed and lost days of posts just now. Sorry if any comments got lost in the fray, or the restore. I'll repost them if I find them, or please feel free to re-comment.

12:23 PM  

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