Monthly Archives: June 2013

Risk: Not Just a Boardgame for Masochists

Dethhed photo

When in doubt, add more flames.

Last Friday was the inaugural Make Music Philly event in which different groups banded together with different venues to create a solid day of performances by local musicians throughout the city.  Not wanting to be left out, I joined forces with my friend Samantha to form an impromptu band named Dethhed.  I play tuba and accordion, she plays ukulele and harp.  We have a few original songs that each of us has written as well as a collection of songs we sing together.

After running into some difficulty finding a venue, we opted to go to a park in Center City and just set up and play.  While this seems pretty straightforward and easy, we both had some anxieties.  We’re both people who have a respect for the rules, and we didn’t want to be breaking any laws.  Samantha was concerned that police might come and ask us to leave.  I was concerned that people in the park would find us a nuisance.  We discussed this on Friday on the way there and came to the conclusion that we would see what happens.  There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with what we were doing, but if someone asked us to stop, we’d try to be respectful to their wishes (especially if they were an authority figure).

As it turned out, the performance was very well-received.  The police did not ask us to vacate, and the audience was very receptive and engaged.  We played for about 45 minutes while onlookers watched, filmed, and danced.  We were both relieved to find our fears were unrealized and encouraged to try new ways of performing in the future.

Dethhed in Concert

Dethhed Live at Louis Kahn Park

While we were driving to the park and discussing our anxieties, I apologetically shared an overly cheery maxim: Worrying is a waste of imagination.  We had both imagined and fleshed-out a scenario as to why we couldn’t or shouldn’t play; I might add that we both have exceptional imaginations.  The whole situation could have easily turned into an excuse (valid or not) why we stayed home instead.  Instead, we recognized the potential negative consequences, weighed them against the potential positive outcomes, and tempered them with our own sense of integrity.  The net result was a risk that we felt comfortable making.

Let me talk about that “tempered with a sense of integrity” part, as it has been weighing heavily on my mind lately.  My natural inclination when I need to ask something of someone is to put as little burden on them as possible.  I am slowly beginning to feel more comfortable about making reasonable requests of people.  Reasonable by whose standard?  Well, just mine.  I can keep this in check pretty well, as I have a pretty hard time lying to myself.

For example, a few weeks ago I was playing with a 4-piece band for a 4 hour show.  I had played the same venue the night before with a 3-piece band for a 2 hour show.  At that show each of the 3 performers was given 2 food/drink tickets.  That’s 6 for those of you without an abacus.  With the 4-piece band, each of the performers was given 3 food/drink tickets, for a total of 12.  Avid fans of multiplication should realize that if the ratio is the same, we should have been given 16 tickets.

Asking for more was the last thing I wanted to do, but I felt like I had the facts (the math) on my side.  If I were playing this solo, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but I was the bandleader and I wanted to make sure the people in my band were getting their fair share.  The risk I was taking was the rejection I might have faced as well as becoming a perceived nuisance to the booker.  I looked at the risks, looked at the benefits, and tempered it with my own integrity of what I thought was right.  And so I asked.  Had we been given 16 tickets, I would have had a hard time justifying asking for more, because I truthfully didn’t think we deserved more.

My point here is definitely not that taking risks yields positive results.  Rather, when we’re honest with ourselves about the things that can go wrong, the things that can go right, and our justifications for our actions, we can make the most of the situations that present themselves to us.  If we want to continue to develop, we sometimes need to take risks.  There really isn’t any other way to grow as a person.  We just need to keep our worrying imagination in check, keep our eyes open, and try to do what’s right.

On Skipping Stones

As a child growing up in a rather rural part of Bucks County, I was fortunate to live a short walk from a small creek called the Little Neshaminy.  From age 3 onward, I spent much of my play time with my parents, siblings, and friends down at this creek wading by the rocks, catching crayfish and frogs, and exploring the surrounding forest.  I couldn’t make these cliches up, I swear!

My favorite activity at the Little Neshaminy was skipping stones.  As you can probably guess, as a 3 year old, I was really bad at it.  I was so jealous that my father, brother, and sister could make the water ripple so smoothly, that I used to try to emulate them by picking up many small rocks and tossing them in one after the other; thereby making a similar series of splashes the rest of my family made.  Except not really.

Over time I became much better.  It became a social activity, both as a connection point I could make with friends I introduced to the river as well as an activity to do while discussing more heady subjects.  To this day when I come to the bank of any body of water, I start to scan the rocks for ideal skipping stones: stones that are flat with a small grip for the index finger, not too heavy and not too light.

Stone skippingIt’s a strange sensation to skip stones at this stage in my life.  I usually am near a forest and it’s usually a beautiful sunny day.  I am able to blot out the sounds and distractions as I search for rocks.  I have a sense of excitement and anticipation that I’ll find an absolutely perfect example that will fit perfectly in my hand and have the correct weight.  From experience, I also know to look for some of the better stones underneath the bed of the banks.

Once I have collected about 5 or 6 stones, I turn my focus back to the water.  I look for an expanse of water with few visible currents so that my stone won’t be deflected irregularly.  I also have to look for a span of water that is long enough to carry the stone should I get a good shot.  In smaller bodies of water, often that means throwing upstream or downstream, which adds to the issue of currents.  Just as my mind was focused on finding the stones, I now focus on the way the water runs and plot my trajectory.

I grip the stone in my right hand, feeling for a notch to grip with my index finger.  Meanwhile, I find the point on the bank where my foot will plant as I release the stone, scanning for loose rocks that might trip me up.  I begin my approach, shuffling forward to gain momentum while my right arm hinges outward and back.  As I reach the release point, my body shifts to profile.  My left foot plants, my arm falls back to its apex before snapping forward.  My index finger presses forward on the notch to create the spin that will allow the stone to glide across the surface tension of the water.  I watch with satisfaction as the stone skids forward and flicks the face of the creek, skipping one, two, three times or more.

I enjoy the transience of the experience; the function of the most perfect stone is to be thrown and then become irretrievable.  Once it is expended, there are so many options left to try, each with their own qualities.  I also like the the hypnotic nature of the search for first the stone, then the path.  I feel like all of my senses close in to the function of those moments before expanding again and bringing me back to full awareness.  And the unconscious nature of the experience is wonderful; the way I can be holding a conversation, telling a joke, or just turning inward while skipping stones is warm and real.

The sense of accomplishment when I am able to skip multiple times or reach the other bank is exhilarating.  Even when I fail and the stone GAH-LOPs to the bottom, I am exhilarated by the process of learning and grateful for the immediate feedback.  I savor the bite of the stone into the pad of my index finger, the strength of my body that allows me to throw, and even the impending ache from activating dormant muscles.  I love the cycle of throwing and searching that drives me onward and the reward of the act in itself.

I’m past due the time in my blog when I throw in a twist or tie the first subject with a second.  For today, though I think I’ll skip it and just satisfy myself with the visceral memory of the joy of a summer afternoon.  Get out there and find the tactile joy in whatever it is you do.  Happy skipping!

Amelie skipping stones

Level One to Level Two

It’s been a while since I shared the process of my songwriting back here and here.  About a year.  Mostly because after I released my cd, my songwriting slowed considerably.  However, a few months back, my friend Chris asked if I wanted to be a part of a Kickstarter campaign for his role-play game Kobolds Ate My Baby, I immediately agreed to write a song as part of the rewards for the supporters.  Writing a song with no constraints can be difficult, as there are too many options.  When you add in a theme, a reason, and (most importantly) a deadline, it ironically allows you to create more fluidly and often with more creativity.  I recommend occasionally adding constraints to any project you might be working on.  You’ll be surprised how it changes the dynamic.

Kobold chasing woman and baby

Art by John Kovalic

The game is a very silly role-play game in which you play small furry creatures that are none too bright.  These “kobolds” are borrowed from the classic RPG Dungeons and Dragons.  In D&D, kobolds are one of the first monsters a player will encounter in the game.  They come in large numbers and are ridiculously easy to kill, but they often provide the first challenge for plays.  In Kobolds Ate My Baby, rather than playing the role of the adventuring hero, you play the role of these expendable speed bumps.  In very silly settings, your goal is to bring food back to the kobold taskmaster, King Torg (all hail King Torg!).  Just to give you an idea of how silly the game is, any time your king’s name is mentioned, all players must shout “All Hail King Torg!” as quickly as possible or risk dying a horrible random death.  King Torg (all hail… you get it) has three-tiered system of food-preference.  At the top is the pinnacle: a human baby.  Slightly lower is a delicious roasted chicken.  Unfortunately, the third tier is the absolutely delectable delicacy of… kobold.

Did I mention that constraining yourself to something fun also helps with the songwriting?

If you’re the impatient sort, the finished product is down at the bottom.  When you’re done, come back up!

As usual, it took a while for me to figure out how I wanted to approach the subject.  I rarely like to take the direct approach, even when the direct approach involves shouting about a king and stupid furry things dying in huge numbers.  I didn’t want to really just write about their silly adventures involving chickens, spatulas, and random immolation.  I started thinking about the pathos of these creatures’ existences.  In the D&D world, their only real purpose is to provide the players with experience so they can go on to bigger and better things.  As no one dies at level 1 in the game, it’s pretty much assured the kobolds are going to lose, and lose badly.

All this was milling around in my head, when once again while swimming, I had some lyrics come to me (through the chlorine, I suppose).

Past the paths you must pass through
On the path from level one to level two

This meant the song would be about the fledgling heroes completing their first quest at the expense of the fragile kobolds.  Having played D&D as a child… er teenager… er adult, I knew some of the standard tropes of the game.  Soon after, I sat at the piano and came up with this little intro:

You traded gold for a broadsword +0
Establishing yourself in this campaign: the hero.
A simple quest to launch your new career:
Eliminate the kobold menace, there’s nothing to fear.

See, later in the game, your swords get all enchanted which makes them a sword +2 or +5.  At this stage, you can’t afford that, so you just end up with a sword +0.

This ballad-like intro makes way to a faster more pop-like section that gives the exposition:

The village elder sets the scene
What’s happening and where these fiends convene
Babies gone missing
Kobolds preparing
A delicious feast for their king

And just like that you’re on your way
Your fight for glory or just to save the day
As you leave the town
Crossing open ground
An encampment is waiting to be found

So basically, it’s a combination of cliches from a typical campaign.  There’s a crisis in town that the ubiquitous village elder informs you of, and then sends you on your way.  There’s a little foreshadowing about the hero’s less than benign intentions.  You fight for glory or to save the day or whatever!  Since you’re playing a game, you don’t need to hammer down the finer ethical points.  This theme comes back in the fourth verse a bit more pointedly.

Usually I write the lyrics first, but for most of this song I wrote the lyrics and music at the same time.  In the second half of each verse, that allowed me to throw in a little lick like the Superman theme.  You hear it in the keyboard right before I sing “babies gone missing,” and “kobolds preparing.”  I also had fun playing around the key of A major, starting with a typical I-IV-V progression before throwing in a flat VI chord.

Then we have the encounter:

You surprise them on the plain
Giving no time to explain
Their evil exploits are now through

A hack and slash is all it takes
An easy THAC0 roll to make
On the path from level one to level two.

This demonstrates the ease in dispatching these creatures.  It also gives me an excuse to break the fourth wall and use the acronym thac0 (to hit armor class zero) in a song.  This is a game mechanic to determine how easy it is to maim your opponent in combat.  I love throwing in little bits of specialty knowledge, as the joy from the few people who recognize it far outweighs the confused stares of the majority.  I find it brings a very specific connection with my audience.

Notice my original lyric conceived in the swimming pool got morphed.  This was because of the cadence of the lyrics in relation to the music.  It just didn’t fit in its original form.

In the bridge, I move to A minor and shift the perspective to the hapless kobolds:

The few survivors turn and flee
Back to their cave and family
Awaiting orders for they do what they are told

Demoralized by their defeat
And bringing nothing back to eat
Their king will feast upon a delicacy called kobold

After I finished writing the first draft of the bridge, I was particularly proud of the harmonic progression, a nice little descending minor sequence with a baroque sensibility.  About three days later, I made a horrifying discovery:

Facebook screenshot: Damnit! I just realized that I "wrote" Jonathan Coulton's Creepy Doll. Back to the drawing board...

Yes, it is that most hated of afflictions, the subconscious plagiarism.  In the past, I’ve also “written” Don McLean’s American Pie, which you’d think I would have noticed right away.  Fortunately, as I mentioned above, the fact that sequences were used all the time in baroque music meant that I just needed to make some minor adjustments to make it more mine.  So instead of the progression going:

Am – E – G – D – F – C – D – E

I went:

Am – E – Gm – D – F – C – Dm7 – E

It looks like only a slight shift, but with a different melody, it was really unrecognizable.

The last verse goes back to the peppy “hero saving the day” style with a tongue in cheek look at what these heroes actually do:

But you won’t let this spoil your fun
This quest is over, but you’ve just begun
Your bard strums a chord
As you sheath you sword
You head back to the town for your reward

You’ll find more challenges to meet
Treasures to win and villains to defeat
Slaughter to enjoy
Families to destroy
Crushing everything, this world is your toy.

Two things with this.  First, I really was proud of the line “Treasures to win and villains to defeat.”  I like to take two words that are opposite like “win and defeat” and apply them to the same idea in a way that makes sense.  Meaning, normally if you win and lose, then you’re back to neutral.  But here you end up ahead.  It’s a minor bit of wordplay, but I liked the way it came out.

Secondly, here’s where not only the fourth wall is broken, but the ethical implications of the heroes’ actions are laid bare.  Yes, the heroes rescue the kidnapped babies and save the town, but they also got to become stronger (PING up to level 2).  The collateral damage of destroying living things doesn’t matter.

And yes, I know it’s a game, so we suspend disbelief.  I really am not petitioning for kobold rights, but it’s just interesting to think about.

Then another chorus:

Without traveling far-range
You defeat the foe orange
Your token quest, first in your queue

Sure, plenty of people have rhymed “orange” and better than I did.  For some reason I felt the challenge arise and went for it.

Fiercer than a cocker spaniel
Cockroach of the Monster Manual
Blocking platinum and gold
And doing just what it’s been told
You are not much to behold
When you’re fighting a kobold

On the path from level one to level two

Another D&D reference: the Monster Manual.  This is just a big book of all the possible encounters.  I don’t even know if they still print something called the Monster Manual, but old-school fans of the game will recognize it.  I also enjoyed stretching the second half of the chorus to build momentum.  Especially that last part where I keep using words that end with “-old,” but keep avoiding using the obvious “kobold.”  It’s like a delayed resolution.

Pretty soon after writing the song, I had to record it for the Kickstarter reward compilation.  Usually I have more time to sit with a song before I commit it to a recording.  I had written it at the piano, but I didn’t want the sound of an acoustic piano as the main instrument.  I started sampling electronic sounds, and the one I liked most was a jazz organ sound.  I laid down a full track with the organ playing all the harmony, then used “quantizing” to make it line up a bit better.  Since it’s MIDI, it’s a little easier to edit, so I got rid of the bad notes.

levelI had this idea to use a brass choir in the intro and bridge, just to change it up from the pop section.  I pulled out my tuba and trombone and tried to improvise my way through some four-part harmony.  When that proved fruitless, I buckled down and actually wrote out some parts that were low enough for me to read.  The intro took on the feeling of a fanfare, while the bridge became a more baroque-styled motet.  After adding in some heavy reverb and some, ahem, pitch correction, it was sounding much better.

I also needed to develop the pop section beyond the organ (that’s what she… oh never mind…).  I often combine acoustic and electronic elements, but this time I decided to go all electronic.  I experimented with some drum loop samples and found a few that fit what I wanted.  Then I found a great funky bass and decided to use it in place of the tuba in the pop section.  In the 3rd and 4th verses, I added a bit of the trombone in as well for some horn hits.

I had also written in a longer break after the bridge for a solo while the trombones and tuba were still playing, but I wasn’t sure what instrument to use.  After auditioning a few including a slide whistle and toy piano, I broke out a flute I haven’t played in about 10 years.  15 takes later, I had a passable one.  I added in some reverb and put some of the drums back in.  Having played it for several people now, this is unanimously everyone’s favorite part of the song.  As Chris said when I sent it to him, “I love it.  Especially the flute solo/70s movie breakdown…”  I was just missing bongos apparently, but having been burned by bongos in the past (Burned by Bongos is now officially the title of my next album), it was not to be.

After some mixing and tweaking, I sent out the finished song to be a part of the Kickstarter rewards.  If you supported the Kickstarter, last week you received this song along with 3 others as part of the rewards package.  If not, here’s the track in its entirety:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guided tour through my brain.

And finally, big thanks to everyone who commented on my last post.  Your support means so much to me, and I really appreciate it!

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