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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 12, In Which I Feel Both Very Sad and Very Weird

When I first started songwriting classes, I embarrassed myself mightily on 2 occasions by crying in class. I am both a crier and not a crier. During that time, life really kind of sucked. The ZK had spent the first few months of 2008 mostly dead and entirely unemployed. I was woefully underemployed and we were both discovering how bad the job scene was. (Lest you question my priorities, I use my volunteer points to pay for my songwriting classes.) At the time of both crimes, I really had no idea I was going to cry until I was actually crying, and the tears were only loosely connected to the songs. I am sitting here on my couch nearly 3 years later, cringing and seriously considering fleeing the country.

I would like to say for the record that I DID NOT CRY this week in class, although it was a very close thing. On March 26, Diana Wynne Jones died. She'd been diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, and had recently stopped treatment for a recurrence, after her doctors deemed it ineffective.

Having always been a nerd and a reader, I have many, many authors that I love, but I can't really think of one more important to me than Diana Wynne Jones. When I was about 9, I checked Witch Week out of the library and read it probably 4 times before it was due again. I was over the moon when I found Charmed Life in a second hand bookstore and my mother let me use some of her store credit to buy it. And then it was the library again for Fire and Hemlock.

So many of the things that I used to make and define myself come from her: I became fascinated by England and scared up a British pen pal (who, sadly, proved to be rather boring and annoyed by my incessant questions). I decided that, like Polly, I wanted to like classical music, and it turned out that I did. And I identified with her characters: With Polly and her broken parents and their invasions into the life she was trying to make. Maybe most importantly, Diana Wynne Jones showed me that escape was possible—through books, through school, through art, and through sheer force of will.

Of course, my obsession with DWJ and other fantasy forms wasn't always easy. At some point, I started to experiment with writing a little of my own fantasy. Around the same time, I was also falling in love with Jean Webster and her epistolary pastiche, so most of my writing was "homage" in the form of letters and diary entries. My mother found and read my notebooks in one of her routine violations of my fourth amendment rights and decided that I had had a break with reality. There was a particularly epic fight in which I essentially invited her to fax me the rules to her little game about what was real and what wasn't.

Passing over that unpleasantness, about 10 years ago, I was chatting on a Buffy the Vampire Slayer IRC channel with an acquaintance. She revealed that she was going on the London Eye with an author of hers as part of some World Book Day Event. I asked her the author's name, and she said something along the lines of "Oh, you probably won't have heard of her, it's Diana Wynne Jones." I exclaimed, "The silken skin of his back!" and she responded, "Sentimental drivel." And oh, what a renaissance! Such riches that I hadn't known existed: I'd never read Howl's Moving Castle or The Homeward Bounders or or or or or . . . wonderful. And, of course, I got a dear friend out f the deal who managed to convince my sister that the bust of Giles as a Fyarl demon that she'd given us as a wedding present was, in fact, a juicer.

Our assignment for this week had actually been to rewatch a movie that was important to us, choose a character we identified with, and write a song (in first person) from that character's perspective at the end of the movie. As soon as I read the news about DWJ I thought, "I am going to need to write my song about her." Immediately after that, I thought, "Ugh, you pathetic feeb. You can't possibly write a song about her! How dare you!?" Hmm . . . mom might not have been ENTIRELY off base about that break with reality.

Sunday night I was more or less trying to sneak up on my songwriting self, if such a self exists. I had really not had any time to rewatch a movie, and anyway, only strange Japanese movies kept presenting themselves. We didn't technically have any musical requirements except the Kernel's parting shot "It should sound like what it sounds like," which, you know, complicates the Japanese thing.

Kikujiro was the movie that kept most insistently presenting itself for consideration, and I did actually watch the last 7 minutes or so. Masao's dream on a field of stars led me to what would eventually become my bridge/B section/whatever you want to call it.

[Dsus4] How can I [G7/F] sleep I am [Csus2] closing in [G]
On the [Gsus2/A] name [Csus2] of the [G7/F] last of the [Dsus4] stars

Initially that second G7/F (if in fact that is the name of that chord—I neglected to get confirmation in class, possibly because I was trying not to cry). was actually an Ebmaj7, which was very weird and dissonant, but I kind of liked it. When this section had that chord and was standing alone, I thought, "Ok, I am not writing a DWJ song after all." It seemed too firmly tied to the Kikujiro ending.

And then I started writing verses that were very clearly DWJ verses, as the phrase "I am going nowhere" struck me as a not terrible opening line. (Playing with the word nowhere is central to the plot of Fire and Hemlock and "alternative wheres" are at the center of many of DWJ's works.) Parts of verses started to come to me pretty quickly, then, and I just left the bridge on the page under them, figuring I'd separate it out into its own document later.

Initially, Verse 1 was purely references to DWJ's books and characters, which kind of left me nowhere to go. So I had a version of Verse 1 and the bridge sitting on the page. I realized that the verses needed to mix things about her books and characters with a more immediately present moment. It shortly became obvious that the moment had to be connected to the fact of her death. And then I remembered this lovely piece that Neil Gaiman wrote about seeing Diana for the last time.

Suddenly, the bridge fit with the verses that were shaping up, if I changed the word sleep to "rest" and got rid of the aggressively weird Ebmaj7. The second half I had for Verse 1 became the second half of verse 2. Without too much trouble the lyric for the second half of Verse 1 got roughed out along with the first half of Verse 2. By Sunday night had the chords for those as well.

[Dm] I am going nowhere, I have [F] been there in the dreams
Of a [Gm] silver-haired woman and the [F] child she has been [Dm]
[Dm] I hear them say it's [F] safe to rest, the [Gm] light is paper thin
Now, [Fadd9] here I am [Am] waiting while the [C] stone vases spin [Dm]

[Dm] Another time, another place, [F] another life consumed
By the [Gm] white, hot, bloodless fires I [F] walked through in my youth [Dm]
[Dm] I have braved the [F] ghosts, the mothers, [Gm] worlds away from mine
Now, [Fadd9] here I'm going [Am] nowhere, [C] running out of time [Dm]

[Dm] [Dsus2]

Verse 1 is almost entirely drawn from Fire & Hemlock; Verse 2 could also be a reference to the Undying Laurel from that book, but also to Christopher, Cat, and the other 9-lived enchanters from that series. For once, I didn't struggle too much with rules about what the verses must be or do. It felt like thinking out loud about the themes in all her books, which of course deal with a lot of the good and not so good in her own life.

I'm not in love with the verse's chord progression. It is more mournful than I wanted it to be, although changes I made to the melody as late as Tuesday afternoon alleviated that, at least to some extent. The progression in the bridge is one of those weird things that came all by itself and insisted that I figure out how to play it. When I had originally written it with the Ebmaj7 in it, whatever wrote it insisted that was right. After I grafted it to the verses, though, it was content to ascend, then descent. I kind of like its ambiguous character, but I'm still not sure it's right for this song.

I wrote the third verse on Monday evening before rushing up north to practice, then play at Silvie's. . There's a brief shout out to Calcifer and Howl's Moving Castle, then just generic reflections (that I have no right to make) on life and all that. The long second line dogged me when playing it in class, but it also was resistant to change. I really don't like the last line of this verse.

[Dm] Stars must fall to earth we cannot [F] catch them in our hands
Anchored [Gm] heartless like these hours slipping [F] by like grains of sand [Dm]
[Dm] I have sown a [F] paper garden, [Gm] sons and daughters grown
Now, [Fadd9] here in the [Am] arms of nowhere, [C] I am not alone [Dm]

I was really unsure if I could go back to the bridge/B part, but it felt abrupt just ending on the third verse. As it turned out, R wanted to hear the B part again, hence the repetition at the end. I didn't tell my classmates what the song was about before playing it, and they had funny guesses. D said something that I really liked about how the narrator seemed like this ephemeral being dipping in and out of the scenes, which I guess is not a terrible way to describe the relationship between author and characters.

Very hard pressed for recording time, as we have house guests and I have work coming out of my bottom. There are incredibly dead spaces where I just keep hanging out on Dminor for no good reason other than I didn't have time to do another take. Probably there could be short melodic passages there. Or something. Um, you'll also hear the tippy tappy of hound dog nails over the vocal track.

As the title notes, I feel really weird about this song and was tempted not to record it, but here it is anyway.

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