Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Yellow Bellied [(Indian) Corn], Gotta Have Your Pops

Popcorn and Mom

While I briefly attended Goshen college in fall of 1993, I received the first letters from my parents in my life that hedged, however briefly, toward that elegiac project of letting you know that you mean something to them, more broadly, than a hug can any longer furnish, given the circumstances of your leaving (and your mutual new problem, life without each other).  Little did we know that I'd be back home in time to see the second or third snowfall and quit college, but that didn't diminish my interest in this new tone coming out of Mr. and Mrs. Alpha and Omega.

My mother wrote me a letter one day, for example, that I still can see in my hand.  She mentioned directly that she missed me, loved me.  But then admitted my spirit was missing around the house.  She said something to the effect, "Every night the house is without popcorn, and your father and I miss it!  We didn't realize how often you made it, how often you made it for us."  
I still make popcorn nearly every night. Its been eighteen years.  More than once I have bought fifty pound bags of popcorn at the wholesale club, and five gallon buckets of canola oil.  Combined cost of these is around thirty five dollars.  You can look at the nutrition facts on a bag of popcorn to figure out how many servings this amounts to, but whatever the figure, it is less than what I eat.  My friends frequently tell me, "Oh, I have never had popcorn like that!  Isn't that, like, cowboy popcorn or something?"  Not all of them call it "cowboy popcorn", but the intimation that I make it in a primitive manner, on the stove, in a pot, unadorned with options beyond oil and salt, is ubiquitous among this microwave generation that I am lucky to be part of (and let me tell you how grudgingly I admit that).  
Then again, it doesn't hurt that this habit of mine, like pulling my hair behind my ears used to be, is ingrained and autonomic by this point and can seem doting to women, and sometimes even guys, such that I slide in and out of the role of festive, nurturing host, without even realizing it.  Just as I had no idea that my mother would ever miss my eight o'clock, completely nutritionally avaricious, popcorn habit.  But she did.  And may very well to this day. 

I am a profoundly poorly trained, self taught, and sometimes abominable songwriter (in the mostly country/rock/ alt category).  Since I have never taken a class in songwriting, any little trick that comes out of Nashville seems ingenious to this cat from Blooming-Holler.   Like the "code" that charts are written in for session players.  It came out of Nashville, and is called The Nashville Method or more endearingly, and ungrammatically, "All The Notes There Is".   For any scale it simply removes the extra modifiers like the number sign for sharps, throughout a scale, and adds the letter b, to a roman numeral to code for all the half-steps in a scale.  Then you line up a typical scale (a coded thing that we are used to translating from our grade school days, "reading" music)  with roman numerals (from Do till it brings you back to Do).  Anywhere there is a sharp or flat you code that as a IIIB or what have you.  The point is that in the end you get a scale, that has "All the notes there is" and can be played by any instrument and player due to that fact that within the text of the scale there is embedded the technique of the theory of musical notation.  This allows songs to be written in this chart notation and handed out for extemporaneous, and highly entertaining off the cuff chart sessions.  This is what amounted to a classic night of drinking at the high tide of Nashville's Music City Row 'NightLife'.  Beautifully romantic, and probably very, very much dead these days.  But "All The Notes There Is" taught me even more about the idiomatic richness of not only the language of my area of the United States (for all practical purposes),  but of the deeper desire to communicate together, right now, on the same page, only just a bit out of tune.    I learned all of this from a songwriting book that cost me five bucks.  It was like learning a part of myself I had always contended with, my musicality, coming in and out of focus for me as have tried different modalities of sound.  Sounds you feel for as a singer (or writer) that you didn't know were Spanish, or vaguely Caribbean, or could be pinned by theory as Mixolydian.  Sounds that just shock you arise from your unconscious memory, it so often seems.  And now, I have a map that helps with that as well.  

Some examples of "All The Notes There Is": 

I     II    III    IV    V    VI    VII    (I)
do  re   mi    fa    so    la    ti       do

Roman numerals, strange but boring.
It's called the Nashville Number System,  but...

Here's "All The Notes There Is" with sharps and flats included, to represent a universal scale:

I    bII    II    BIII    III    IV    bV    V    bVI    VI    bVII    VII
C    Db   D      Eb       E     F     Gb    G     Ab     A       Bb      B

Since an D# is the same as an Eb, sharps can be regarded as redundant, so have been made into flats in the universal scale.  The flats are always before the letter designating the note, to avoid confusion.

Now to determine scales and Modes, it's a plug and play matter of very simple cryptography or code:

for the scale of D:

I    bII    II    bIII    III    IV    bV    V    bVI    VI    bVII    VII
D   Eb    E       F       Gb   G     Ab    A    Bb      B       C         Db

To determine the D major scale from this, all you need to determine is which of the letters lie beneath the universal scale (without flats) and voila!, you have all the notes there is in a D major scale.  If you memorize those notes in the universal scale that apply to D major, then when you read a song written in the Roman numeral Nashville way, you can plug in the key by memory and play any instrument with the same chart (sheet of music).  Wow!  It is a little work, for huge payoff at the recording session (which is why it came into existence in the first place) or just when you want to sit with some friends and play songs together without bringing an entire filing cabinet of paperwork, or what have you.  Dem folks sure is swell.

Lastly, there are chord building conveniences and what they call Modes, which I briefly mentioned above as having to do with the way a type of music sounds.

For the chord building

For a major chord you can use the Universal Letters     I         III         V
Simple enough.

For a minor chord you can use the Universal Letters     I          bIII        V
You know, for that dark and stormy sound.....

But what about things like Major sixth or Seventh chords.  Or how about Suspended second chords, I mean, what the hell are all those chords in the chord book anyway?  Well, if you don't know the chord book, and what it's for, fine.  But if you do play guitar, and love to write songs, but have found your ability to identify chords that are helpful in the literature massively impeded by your ignorance as to how to construct them, then this universal scale was made for you.  Only one more chord and the truth would do for some, but here's a couple:

After following the instructions with the scales above, and coming up with the corresponding notes to any scale conjured in that manner, your universal notes are:  

For Major Sixth Chord          I                III           V              VI

For Seventh Chord                  I               III            V             bVII

For Minor Seventh Chord      I              bIII          V              bVII

Suspended second Chord        I               II             V     

Half diminished Chord           I               bIII         bV             bVII

Diminished Chord                   I               bIII          bV              VI

The technical name for the Do Re Mi scale (the major) is Ionian, which makes it sound Greek to me.  All scales are "modal" which is to say they  have a sound and feel that conforms to a certain backwater of culture that hey, just might, like Ionian, be your own today, or your particular heritages (Jesus, I'm Polish, German, Irish, French and rock and roll countrified American in the here and now.  Whatever day the music died happened before I was born, that's for sure.)  Some of you may know that the scale made on the black keys of  a piano, played alone, are pentatonic.  Some of you may even have surmised on your own (not me) that they were named this due to their peculiar limitation to five notes.  Outside of the major/minor pentatonic, there are damned few scales in music with five of anything.  Fewer even called something other than pentatonic.  So we'll start there.  Using the rules for finding notes of any scale, given above, (and go ahead, if you don't have scales memorized, just use the universal D chart above and plug in these modes, then go to a piano for their sound.  Dorian is said to have a "Santana" sound, and Fleminco music is in the Phrygian mode.  My favorite mode, which I mentioned up above, just in terms of crazy things to remember is Mixolydian.  You'll know it, when you hear it.  That's because it's music.  And music, like you, and the smell of bitter almonds, is inherently human.)

Chart Of Modes:

Major Pentatonic   I      II      III       V       VI

Lydian                      I       II      III        bV          V        V       VI         VII

Mixolydian              I       II       III       IV            V                 VI          bVII

Natural minor        I         II      bIII     IV            V                 bVI       bVII

Melodic minor        I        II       bIII     IV           V                 VI          VII

Harmonic minor     I        II       bIII     IV            V                  bVI       VII

Minor pentatonic    I                  bIII     IV            V                              bVII

Phrygian                   I       bII       bIII      IV          V                bVI      bVII
Dorian                      I        II        bIII       IV          V                VI       bVII

Locrian                    I          bII     bIII        IV       bV               bVI      bVII

Blues                        I                     bIII       IV        bV       V                 bVII

Hungarian               I           II           bIII      bV       V              bVI        VII

Neapolitan Ice Cream (just kidding, )

Neapolitan (for real) I       bII      bIII        IV       V                 VI         VII

I love thinking and reading about the philosophy of things as mundane as musical scales.  It had never in my childhood occurred to me that  scales have a "sound".  To me, they were the sound of music. Lest there be any confusion, repeated viewings of "The Sound of Music" allowed for a sleepy acceptance of this "way things are" and its sibling "the way things ought to be".  In truth, I was acting as all children will, for there were arguments to the contrary all over the place, in the face of this monolithic twelve tone Do through So.  Indian music went through its initial earthquake, pre-Putumayo days in the '70's with Ravi Shankar.  And as a child of people who edged rather precariously around that high lip of the late sixties construction of far outness, (while never really "dropping out" of their world) I dutifully attended some Indian music concerts which my parents seemed to really appreciate.  I learned early in life that when it came to high culture, feeling nothing but a fidelity to some authority other than my own heart (preferably even, someone else's head space) was a sure sign that something important was happening. And classical music to this day remains a outgrowth of pure Western culture but is hardly being composed today within the idioms and rules and realms of the songs I write. It was such a surprise to me when music started to come out of the very center of myself thirteen years ago. That was where I least expected to listen to. And that was certainly a place I wouldn't have asked anyone else to listen to.  

A strange and wonderful thing happened the other day while I was editing a song.  I have for a few years had trouble understanding certain relationships in some of my songs that revolve around tempo and length.  As will surprise no one who is interested in even the most marginal aspects of songwriting, there are a few basic song structures that most popular songs conform to.  The best way to describe this, without pointless and arbitrary jargon, is to remind anyone who has sung in a church or a chorus, of the refrain in between each stanza of phrases.  Typical is a paragraph of phrases, then a paragraph of chorus, then a paragraph of phrases, ect. ect.  This is the singing part of  a song, alternating amidst imagery and narrative, reminding the singer (and listener) with repetitive metaphor. This is about reminding and remembering the subject of whatever you have embarked on, as a singer or congregation, or for that matter, have been handed down to you from slaves in spiritual:

In the morning, when I rise
In the morning, when I rise
In the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus

Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
But give me Jesus.

When I am alone
When I am alone
When I am alone, give me Jesus.


Even an atheist can feel a tingle of rapture in the Bible belt singing that line, "You can have all this world."  The sopranos in even the the least qualified congregation have a tendency to belt that line such that God simply has to hear it.  Really nice stuff. 

So, the structure of a songs lyrics are certainly relevant to the writer and singer of a song.  And everyone understands this without even thinking about it, for music composes at least some of the blood of any culture.  A real challenge, however, to an amateur songwriter such as myself is the interpolation of that other thing in a song, that so far has gone unmentioned by me.  Not the words, for these purposes, but the music.  What about the instrumentation of the song, what about the time signatures?  What about the repetition of musical motifs?  The key of the song.  The length of each phrase and its complexity of improvisation.  When I began to sing, in earnest thirteen years ago, in a hotel room in Indianapolis, none of this mattered to me.  For me, my main concern was more a feeling of relief.  When I sang a line, somehow my fingers were playing (a very few) chords on the guitar that didn't ruin the song.  That was the sum total of what I brought to the songwriting table.  And for that reason, and another even more important one, I didn't really write songs for years and years.  The reasons are related:  I didn't want to screw up, and I didn't want to screw up a good thing.  I loved singing.  And once a month I learned some silly little trick that took me a little farther along.  Sometimes I wouldn't have a guitar, and I would just belt songs to God, or whatever, in my car, or while painting a fence at the farm.  Sometimes I even sang while working in a kitchen, listening to my coworkers sometime amusement or watching them roll their eyes.  Criticism, or approval, was all the same to me, a sign that I could provoke with my choices of phrase and words through my voice.  But mostly this was a private affair with roots in my domesticity, and the friends and family that have always shared my homes.  Sometimes a housemate  would tolerate my thoughtful choice to only sing while they were  not sleeping, or hosting company.  Sometimes a friend would ask me to sing right in front of them and their friends.  And rarely was there a dinner party where I would not be encouraged, to my terror, to share my hobby.  People are, of course, wonderful and sensitive to insecure, private performers.  They can really be so kind.
So, its been a somewhat long road.  I add up the hours occasionally, and realize at the end of the year that if I was studying something useful then the advice I would give to someone other than my self is that ubiquitous line, "Hey, you should really do something with that."  But
as it stands, the music is really something in my personal life. Something I am proud to share with loved ones, sometimes on stage, and mostly just for the guy who deserves it most of all, myself. 
On occasion, being human, I will awake in the morning and feel like I have mortar block hooked to all my limbs.  Prickly, and extremely excitable, I will go to work dreading the human company that normally I accept with so much joy.  Slowly the day drags on, and I feel lucky if I can so much as get very much OUT of the moment, and anesthetize myself from my rotten feeling, whatever it is.  This does not happen often, but it is certainly an insight into what it would be like if it did happen more often.  It's a terrible way to feel for even a few hours.  In any case, usually the feeling sort of lifts, and I roll my eyes at my emotionalism and go home relieved to know whomever I find there will hear in my voice the guy I mostly want to be known as.  After dinner I frequently get together with a friend or loved one (if in fact I don't have dinner with them) and eventually, most nights I find myself with a guitar in my hands, alone either at the school where I sometimes work, or at home in my room.  If I am at home, I sometimes warn my ninety-year old housemate that I am going to be making some noise, and he is so great about this.  When I first lived with Robert, whom I mention all the time on this blog (he is a great friend), he would on occasion knock on my door (which is always closed) and I would furtively open it, ready to apologize, and Robert would say, "Please keep singing for another hour, or so, it is so wonderful to fall to sleep to."  He, no doubt, is as practiced a person, in flattery and compliments, as anybody I will meet, but wow, I really do sometimes sing to him while he sleeps.  For who does not love to sing a ballad?  As they say, smoke 'em, if you got 'em.  By then end of singing, while I put my guitar up, and sometimes walk with it, or drive back to my home, the end of another day finally come, I will think back to the morning, and the days work with wonder, how can this music so transcend those valleys, and that exhaustion.  I don't know the answer.  Only that for when things have been feeling pretty bad, within the mansions of my heart, they completely turn around in the presence of song.  And when things are pretty good, within the mansions of my heart, the song can sometimes fly, and completely take my breathe away. That is why real musicians call it "this music" as often as "my music".  Nobody takes credit for stuff like this, and then sleeps properly.  I know it is as much a gift of spirit, as yet another doggedly stubborn character trait of Andy.   
So, the other day I was analyzing the patterns of my songs tempos, and the length of their musical phrases across a range of time signatures.  This was due to a period of years of wondering about this and never doing anything about it. So I built a spreadsheet, and plugged in the various variables from beats per second tempo data, to length of measure, to bar lengths of average phrases, to total bar length for song.  And I read the numbers that came out the other end, which I then plugged into another page that split various numbers into categories of song structure that I typically employ (unconsciously, I readily admit.  Poetry, years of bad poetry come in very, very handy.)  A ton of interesting numbers resulted, some of which caught my eye and took me over an hour of staring (not my goal in this process, to say the least) to determine what was so interesting about them.  Turned out they reminded me of Fibonacci sequences I had read about ten years ago, and more recently on the internet.  Ten years ago I read various books the centered on the subject of irrational numbers in nature.  I also read in 1999 many histories of math, so many in fact, that my girlfriend at the time seemed a bit frustrated with my "mistresses" work, and mathematics.  Well, I had always imagined myself a failure when it came to math, something it is easy for some people who are good at math, and insecure, to encourage you to believe.  My girlfriend, at the time, had breezed through her calculus in high school and then given last rites to all things numbers, and so found this romance in her lover a bit different then the way she'd planned things.  This should have been a gift to me of insight into her nature, but we had a lot of fun between various textbooks and amidst smaller volumes as well so I guess all was not for naught.  The point is that I saw a stream of numbers running down the axis of my analysis of the length of my songs by phrase length, for example:  where a phrase was sixteen measures you can compare it to a phrase that was ten measures, and that to a phrase that was six measures and all of this to phrases of the same length, but within a different signature.  The reason for being interested in all of this goes back to my introduction to myself of the relationship of LOG(10) math to music, and a dalliance with prime numbers I found interesting in 1997- 1998, especially in light of the construction of musical instruments in general, and more to the point their construction before the widespread teaching of calculus.  Long before I was interested in carpentry, I knew I wanted to build a guitar one day (reflecting my tendency to drag horses about with carts, I know, I know).  So one day I was sitting in a cafe, and dividing a page of my lined journal paper (the page, in fact, after the telling poem, I smirk with this memory, "My Poems Often Turn Into Love Songs", Danger Will Robinson, indeed.  Turn now to the death knell of your future relationship, next page: prime numbers.)  Just marking out even printed parallel lines in three's, then fives, then sevens.  Mostly for the pleasure of seeing the interaction of the blocks of 3's, 5's and 7's as you went out in the sequence.  Well, I'm no mathematician, and I certainly was no luthier, but by and by it reminded me of enough things I had vaguely seen in books ect., that I went to the library to find out more about math and its relationship to musical instruments, the production of tones, the circle of fifths, and other music theory stuff, from the material science, and construction side of things.  And all of that led to reading about Pythagorus, and his columns of numbers (sort of an archaic cousin of cellular automata), and polynomials and their relationship with polar coordinates and Fibonacci sequences (for example the fixed relationship of angles and distances between seeds in a sunflower head describe Fibonacci sequences, and suggest Fibonacci sequences result from conformation pressure caused by natural selection, not mathematical genius, in plants, per se). In a future post I will give links to many, many websites that look at some of these fascinating things in great detail, with an emphasis on the ones that I found most useful (read: lucid, and easy to understand).
Turns out music has a lot to do with mathematical themes from its head down to its shoes.  And I was shocked, when I looked at my favorite website on the subject of Fibonacci numbers, how similar some of the ratio's I was unconsciously constructing into my songs were to them.  I finally plugged in enough comparisons of various things I knew to be likely candidates for fruiting these kinds of behaviors in the calculations, and a few basic things arose.  My sixteen bar phrasing in the music and lyrics of my songs strongly influence song length in common four/four time (many, many songs I write conform to about five different song lengths, nearly to the second.  "No secret there, " my old girlfriend, Christine, would have loved to say, "all your songs sound the same.  Turns out they are the same songs!")   This means that other variables, such as tempo (usually 120 beats per minute), and seconds per measure being the same, then the statistics on the songs, over a few dozen songs (and probably over the hundreds I have written) come together, to paint a similar picture.  And that picture includes ratios that spring out as eerily recognizable irrational numbers, in most sequences at every fourth entry point down a column. Or so.  It was very cool to see and investigate, especially since I did it on a hunch that it would be solely musically interesting as an experiment (but it took three and a half hours, so I put it off for a year).  Math is worth losing a few lousy calculus prodigies (who happen to be your girlfriend) over.  Trust me.  Sucking at math is a gift.  

The last entry in this rather long evening of writing concerns a new face in the neighborhood (the egg timer is experiencing mechanical problems, please stand by for run on sentences and fever dreams.) 
She is, of course the dirty debutante of Spring, the Crocus, a patch of which I came across the other day while walking back from my friends Michael and Luanne.  It was a crisp 20 degrees outside, the soil felt like candle wax and was buckling and moving all over the place.  I finally got off my knees, praying at the temple of my friends capacities with lettuce, and had just passed a herd of six deer, in broad daylight, a commonplace here in Bloomington (the other day I saw NINE).  And what did I see a few blocks down, but growing from the frozen waxy earth, limp white crocus, laughing off winter, stooping to conquer, and inviting my rather Asiatic bow in return.  Dudes driving by in their trucks no doubt were unsurprised by another liberal weirdo, mouthing strange words of praise to the frozen earth filled with little, half dead flowers.  I'm basically in complete agreement.  Like puberty, my affliction is not particularly flattering.  But we won't tell the dudes in trucks how funny they look after a day at the lake going in circles and drinking diet beer.  Cus, hey man, can't we just get along.  Give you a Crocus for a beer?  I think I'll open a spray on Redneck clinic. UV protection that actually feeds your skin as it burns it.   Ought to be popular with the graduate students majoring in irony and pegged leg jeans or what have you.  Could be popular with the still married rednecks!?!

And now I'll really end (?) with a note about my neighbors.  I have mentioned what long suffering and lovely people they are before.  The other day I was out in my garden, in my standard pose (and favorite tool in hand: coffee cup), standing and staring.  Planning what should happen, eventually....  And my neighbors come my direction.  Now given that they have been assaulted by my family with full bore appalachian guerilla, broke down Dukes of Hazard--- Uncle Jesse sicks the boys and their vixen sibling on you should you mess with our junk filled yard!!!! And multiple broke down vehicles, PRACTICALLY SMASHING A PORTION OF YOU'RE CAREFULLY CRAFTED LIFE INTO THE DIRT;  I rarely expect a hello from them.  I thought about it hard, and said the midwestern greeting, "Hello," with as mirthful an expression as my weasel face could produce. I felt it useful to hold my hands out in exclamation of the unseasonably (that day) warm weather, saying, "God, I am in heaven."  The female component of the middle aged couple, who's name I can never remember since having learned they are not married, and she, therefore is no Mrs., smiled so broadly, that I actually got the feeling she was feeling it herself as well.  She maintained eye contact. Her lovely husband who is apparently a sculptor as well, managed a perfectly well pitched grunt, and brief eye contact, and the whole thing made all my efforts on their side of the yard seem worth it.  And made me feel like the neighbor whisperer, or what have you.  Thank God for the Saints of the world who stay their hands in execution of little men such as myself.  Hosanna, Hosanna.

Andy Coffey

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