Rise in…pride

February 5, 2009

Sweet Honey in the Rock recorded Ysaye M. Barnwell‘s commentary on September 11th: Rise In Love. 

I still remember when I first heard it. Jane was over at my house for a meeting to talk about potential pieces for Kaia. She thought Rise In Love might be a good candidate and I played her CD on my laptop.

I loved the sentiments and the overall message of the piece—rise up in love rather than hatred—but I kept shaking my head as I listened to the piece. “No,” I kept saying, “this line should be going up, it should be going up.”

I felt like a downright heretic, questioning anything remotely Sweet Honey. After all, these are legendary musicians. Heck, they’re legendary people. I took a workshop of Barnwell’s once and she was even more incredible in person than onstage. How dare I question a piece that had been commissioned and that was dedicated to an infant? Eek!!

We went through the usual tedious steps of trying to get a transcript made so I could see the physical structure of the piece. And then I was struck down hard by that hideous pestilence that everyone was sick with in Jan/Feb ’08. Our show was coming up; the piece had to be finished. I was laid up in bed for days with a fever over 100 degrees, writing line after line of a 7-voice piece. When I recall working on the piece, I recall feeling hot! That, and an overall otherworldliness that came from my fevered state.

Kaia attacked the piece with its usual gusto, nailing complex lines and rhythms in record time. We all loved the piece, though I kept my usual practice of tinkering with the arrangement.

My dad once asked me what an arranger does. Arrangers take a song and find another version of the song within it. The most radical perhaps is Siouxsie and the Banshee’s version of Strange Fruit. Arrangers can change the melody, chord progressions, and lyrics. In other words, the end result can be an almost entirely new song!

In my case, I wanted a less meditative piece. I wanted something scathing. I wanted En Vogue’s Free Your Mind! I took Kevin’s advice and stopped listening to the Sweet Honey version and stopped looking at the transcription. I just went with what I heard in my head.

I found the lyrics a little too intellectual/abstract, so I re-wrote them. I added a bridge-type section that broke up the energy of the piece so we could then take off with a powerful “where’s the courage to change what we’ve condoned?” and—zoom—off into a power-build ending. I gave the Alto IIs the most challenging line they’ve had in order to build the power. (You can always tell a good song by its bass line.)

We probably debuted the song at a “giglet” (a short gig of 20 minutes or so, usually at a benefit). Possibly not—I remember working with “the angel choir” trio on the night of our first show right before we went on. We performed Rise In Love at our back-to-back shows in April of ’08 to extremely gratifying applause! It was the third in a medley of heavy pieces. The first was First Nations Lament, an original piece I also wrote while fevered, and then the beautiful shape note mourning hymn Wood Street.

I remember the applause very well because something rose up within me and I took it to heart. I was deeply gratified that all our collective hard work was appreciated and savored. More than that, I loved that we had connected with the audience in that way. What a high!

I then spent the next 9 months working on the CD with our sound engineer. We worked on Rise In Love more than any other piece, splicing together the best bits from Friday night’s show with Saturday’s. As usual, we had some problems with the mics (it’s impossible to mic us) and Ramsey went to heroic lengths to make the cut the best it could be.

All this time, we wondered if there were some way to pay royalties to Sweet Honey. We hadn’t been able to find them on Harry Fox or elsewhere on the Web. I wrapped up the CD and sent it off for production. 

Which is precisely when Jane found a site with info on paying royalties to Sweet Honey! Angela sent an email which was answered by The Divine Ms Barnwell herself, in which she asked to hear the arrangement. Talk about “eek!” What if she were infuriated? What if we’d screwed up big time? After all, we’re small potatoes and could easily have screwed up the rights for the piece. We waited on tenterhooks.

The reply came a couple days ago. {Ahem} Ms Barnwell “loves” the arrangement. She loves it! I’m on Cloud Nine!! Of course, we did screw up some of the credits and will fix it when we next get CDs made, but my ego is infinitely more important than a piddly screw-up like that!

Actually, I’m having a hard time comprehending the whole thing. I certainly feel that it’s the greatest honor I’ve received as a musician. And for someone who doesn’t even know key signatures and wrote the bloody piece in a fever, it’s a tremendous affirmation of my abilities, if only on one song. But what a song! It’s a work of art, and I am so grateful that Ms Barnwell allowed it to be shared, sliced, quartered, diced, and reborn in a whole new skin. What grace! I only hope I can be that gracious if the opportunity ever arises.

So the bottom line is, I’m damn proud of myself. {Patting myself on the back} Go, me. And many thanks to Kaia for devouring it so passionately and delivering it so well! And of course, ultimate thanks to The Divine Ms B for her brief but deeply appreciated affirmation. Rise in love!

Speedy crawdads

December 6, 2008

Today we started recording Lara Weaver‘s children’s songs album. She, (her husband) Kevin MacDowell (AKA Kid Kazooey), and I clustered around a righteous handheld digital recorder and learned/ran “Fishin’ Medley” 3 times.

In the meantime, I’ll say what a treat it is to work with Lara. She is so open and vibrant and ready for anything. She has a vision for each piece but also allows it to grow organically as others give input. I have no idea how she so graciously makes it seem like everyone’s piece equally when it’s really hers, but it’s truly a gift.

For all his clowning elsewhere, Kevin is a professional when it comes to studio work. He wastes no time in fluffy conversation. He gets his equipment tuned and ready to go, and stays focused throughout the session. He’s there to make music, and it really makes you want to step up and give your best.

For my part, I felt a bit unprepared and tried to get into the groove as quickly as possible. Lara handed me a new (solo) verse when I walked in and then let me completely change the tune — indeed, I changed it every time I sang it, since I had no idea what I was doing! I love singing with Lara — we have a very similar New Orleans jazz feel on some pieces — but I admit I am stymied by the word “crawdad.” She has a particular pronunciation that I haven’t quite nailed yet. “Crawdad.” Hm.

It’s fun singing backup with the lyric sheet right in your hand. There’s lots of repetition and little pressure. The worst part every time is listening to the playback, since all you do is pick apart every slightly off-pitch note and brain yourself for being an utter loser in the face of this other talent. 🙂 

We got a pretty good recording last time through but the balance was a little off on “my” verse, so next week we’ll record once more before going on to the next song. I’m doing some Leon Redbone-sounding trumpet sound effects on one piece in the medley and I hope to perfect the lip-buzz so I’m not spitting quite so much. This is quite the groovin’ sound, unlike any kids music I’ve heard before, and I’m looking forward to continuing the journey. Apparently Lara’s already got us a gig with Sophia Travis in February, so maybe I’ll need to learn the words by then!


Bing & Satchmo/Contrast & Concord in Singing

December 3, 2008

Today I went down to the Bus-Chum for a free showing of High Society, the lame musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. Bing Crosby was improbably cast as C.K. Dexter Haven, a flimsy excuse to give him the most musical numbers. Louis Armstrong and his band were also in the picture, spliced in at odd intervals.

Bing and Satchmo sing a duet — Cole Porter’s famous Now You Have Jazz. It got me thinking how a basic principle of design applies equally to music. Good design exhibits elements of contrast and/or concord. Take a swash cap and pair it with a serif typeface and you have contrast. Combine a monoline script with a monoline decorative border and you have concord. But take an italic typeface and pair it with a script and what do you have? Conflict!

Same thing with music. Bing Crosby was not a jazz singer by any stretch of the imagination. He was an old-style crooner with the smooth sounds of a wind instrument. Louis Armstrong, who seems like jazz incarnate, is Crosby’s vocal opposite. His voice is brassy, rough, and edgy. 

It’s because of this contrast (plus their mutual respect as musicians) that helped make Bing and Satchmo a popular combination on jazz tunes. The contrast in their voices, delivery, and mannerisms complemented each other nicely.

For an example of concord in music, check out Bing singing with the Andrews Sisters. They all share the same smooth sound and delivery. Their stagecraft is in the same vein: smooth, smooth, smooth. And oh so “nice” — this is a sound and method of delivery that is entirely inoffensive. It lacks the edginess of Satchmo’s New Orleans sound and is part of the long tradition of toning down “race music” to make it more palatable to Caucasians. (It’s probably obvious where my tastes lie, eh?)

What about conflict? Bing and Danny Kaye. It’s obvious in this clip from White Christmas: I Wish I Was Back In The Army. Danny Kaye’s voice has more elasticity than Bing’s, and he goes wide on pronunciation for comic effect. His physical comedy is more crisp than Bing’s, making the latter look lazy. While Bing was the more experienced singer, Danny’s expressiveness draws your eyes to him and makes you tilt an ear to hear him.

If you don’t hear the lack of blend in their voices when this clip starts, wait for Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen to come on. Their blend is so close that it sounds like one person singing: concord. 

The same elements of contrast, concord, and concord can be explored through instrumentation, but that post can wait for another day. Or for someone to leave a comment!

Lyrics: Not One More Day

November 30, 2008

Not One More Day
Melody based on Oh, Freedom 
© 2008 Cairril Adaire 

Oh, freedom (2x)
Oh, freedom from bein’ ignored
We don’t want no more
Of this endless, pointless war
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day 

No more suffering
No more killing
No more pain in my name (in my name)
Can you look me in the eye
And say all those people deserve to die
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day 

No more sending our poor
To fight a rich man’s war
No more blood
Blood for oil (no more blood for oil)
I’d rather be poor
Than see my country fight this war
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day   

No more spying
No more lying
No more secrets
No more shame (we are better than this)
We take to the streets and say
We are standing in your way
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day 

Not one more dollar
Not one more day
Not one cent of my money
Spent in this wicked way

Not one more death
Not one more day
Not one more of our children
Not one more of theirs

No more torture
We’re forced to pay for
No more torture in my name (we are better than this)
I still believe
In the land of liberty
Not one more dollar, not one more death, not one more day

Vahine Taihara

November 30, 2008

SSAA. Mahoi (Polynesian) song transcribed from a field recording. Has a chant-like quality. Difficult to learn but very fun to sing, especially when imitating the “yowling cat” sounds of the field recording. Short solos and one wailing descant above the chanting, rhythmically interesting 4-part chorus. See KaiaSing.com for more info on the piece.

Everybody Loves My Baby

November 29, 2008

SSAA. Based very closely on the Boswell Sisters’ classic rendition. Voicings are almost identical. All instrumentation has been stripped or converted, such as the bass line combining several of the rhythm instruments from the originals ’20s-era recording. I kept the scat, but simplified it to make it humanly possible to sing.

This took Kaia about a year to nail and it’s one of the most technically challenging pieces we’ve done. You’d have no idea it was so difficult when you just listen to the Boswells doing it! Phenomenal musicians. I prostrate myself in homage.

Everybody Loves My Baby sample by Kaia

Not One More Day

November 23, 2008

Lead line only; harmonies are easy to devise. Tune based on civil rights song Oh, Freedom. Lyrics and overall arrangement by moi. Biting critique of the Bush administration, particularly the war in Iraq. The idea for the song originally came from a T-shirt with the slogan “Not one more dollar, not one more day, not one more death.” I changed the order and made it into the song’s refrain: “Not more dollar, not one more death, not one more day.”

Lyrics for Not One More Day