Harsh Fate

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On the inside front cover of the CD, you can read a list of the influences that inspired Harsh Fate: The Grass Roots, The Standells, The Swingin’ Medallions, The Seeds, The Music Explosion, The Human Beinz, The Premiers, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Beatles, The Zombies, The Hollies, Santana, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, The Four Tops, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King, Carole King, The Kingsmen, South Carolina Beach Music, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Aretha Franklin, Nick Lowe, The Ramones, Bobby Freeman, XTC, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Nazz, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Lee Michaels, The Parliaments, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, The Johnny Burnette Trio, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Itals, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Flaco Jimenez, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Robbie Fulkes, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, John Prine, Jimmy “The Yodelin’ Hobo” Rodgers, Boz Scaggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Johnny Rivers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Harry Belafonte, Professor Longhair, Memphis Minnie, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Joan Osborne. They are all in there somewhere.

I thought of our project as garage-band Beatles. A kind of super-group of seasoned, battle-scarred, should-be-famous musicians get together—in Mike Perkin’s basement instead of a garage—and try to do their version of a Beatles album, in other words, a kind of low-rent concept album, an album that runs the gamut of American music genres and yet retains a common thread running throughout, a shared sensibility about how American music ought to be made.

Mike Perkins produced the album in his basement studio, The Lab, on his vintage 16-track tape machine, and played guitar. Noteworthy are Mike’s soaring, transcendent solos on Was It Love or Was It Magic?, Everybody I Know Loves You, and Gardens of Babylon, and his rockabilly stylings on Little Bit and It Was Love. Mike is left-handed, but plays guitar right-handed, his unique slow-hand style adding surprising, uncanny rhythmic intricacies to a song.

Tom Walz was instrumental in recruiting the Ghastly Fops. Like Keith Richards chucking the low E string to play in G-tuning, Tom stuck duct tape on the bass strings of his guitar to get the “chanks” just right on Is It True? and Harder Than You Think. That’s his jet-engine slide guitar revving and lonesome harmonica wailing on Can’t Get a Break, and his Albert King-esque garage-blues stylings on Ain’t That Lovin’ You?, and We Can Rock and Roll.

Virtuoso bassist, Al Guerrero, establishes the soundscape of the whole album. Just how essential he is can be heard best in his wildly walking lines on Little Bit, and his sonorous, singing tones on Is It True?

Scott Balliet’s jackhammer, minimal input/maximal result drumming gives the album its rock-solid undergirding. His bamboo brush-work in Little Bit is a rockabilly ne plus ultra.

That’s Original Sins alumnus Dan McKinney contributing the Hammond to We Can Rock and Roll, Smack Dab, and Gardens of Babylon, and the boogie-woogie piano to Little Bit.

Wayne “Dr. Squeeze” Leibel’s syncopated accordion gives Sweet Dreams its Flaco-style, Tex-Mex groove.

I played keyboards and guitar, sang the vocals, and wrote the songs

I originally imagined the album cover as a black-and-white picture of me standing in the doorway of a darkened bedroom, backlit by a ceiling light in the hall, smoking a cigarette whose tip glows red, head bowed, a pile of nostalgic photos lying on the bed. This did not pan out. For one thing, I don’t smoke. Anyway, though the final version may look Mondrian-esque, I didn’t think of it that way at first. I thought of it as the most minimal way I could depict colors I saw in the sky walking in the park late one rain-squall-filled dusk: magenta sunset, slate-blue clouds. Philip Glass seemed fascinated with the cover when I handed him the CD. I guess that design is just the thing if I want to build an audience of minimalist composers.

Is It True?

This is probably the oldest song I have written that I still play. I wrote it in the midst of one of those Beatles stylistic revivals that used to recur every decade or so. And never will again, apparently, now that the hit parade is all computerize and all. I don’t know where the image of being alone on a lover’s lane came from. I think I dreamed it. My main idea, an idea I suppose I was so young as to think original, was to write a song using all the diatonic chords. A big total of 6, to be precise. In G, in order, that would be G, Am, Bm, C, D7, Em. The influence of Tommy James and the Shondells’ I Think We’re Alone Now is pretty obvious, I guess. Not the same progression or melody, and a different viewpoint, but the same topic, and a similar sensibility. Required, of course, not optional, are the crickets (and guest katydids). One balmy summer night, Tom Walz stuck a tape recorder out in his sister’s rural woodpile and let it run all night, and there they are, immortalized for posterity. A less obvious inspiration is that repeated iii-ii, mediant-supertonic chord change that I am so fond of, famously to be found in Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Ooh, Baby, Baby. Not to give short shrift to the final, echoing sixth chord of She Loves You and No Reply out of which the crickets emerge at the end. The thing is full of guitars, acoustic and electric, strumming and chanking, I don’t remember how many, a banging piano, and lots of cymbals—in genre-appropriate Ringo fashion. Especially noteworthy is the little sigh that Al Guerrero entices from his bass guitar at the end of each repetition of the intro riff, and the whole new melody that is Tom Walz’s solo.

Was It Love or Was It Magic?

The haunting atmosphere of this one is created by over-dubbing and double-tracking even more chiming and clanging and jingling guitars than in Is It True? 6 at least (not including Al’s on-the-money bass), all played by Mike Perkin. Outstanding amongst them is Mike’s soaring solo. I have heard it compared to something out of Disraeli Gears. I think it more like something out of Abraxas. Mike is the master of the perfect arc, the climactic curve. His solo builds steadily, each part feeding into the next, an intensifying conversation among different registers of his instrument, to climax, and conclude, by sinking low and then bending to its highest note. As in Is It True?, I used all the diatonic chords. This time without planning to. I think my original idea was just to write a song in a minor key. I think the Zombies were playing away somewhere in my subconscious at the time. I only realized later on that the song is “through-composed.” No melodic phrases or chord sequences repeat or mirror each other in either verse or bridge, though the antitheses of the lyrics hold it together, I think.

Smack Dab

All the concentration on music having awoken a snoozing songwriting gremlin in me, I wrote this one on my late, lamented Yamaha electronic weighted-key piano in the midst of our recording sessions. And promptly added it to the list. I figured we desperately needed a South Carolina Beach Music shuffle kind of song with a Marvin Gaye kind of piano riff in it to shag to. I guess I was feeling happy to be recording, because the song is about someone wondering how he ever got so lucky. On the other hand, it is also a paean to laziness, to a “lovely waste of time,” and so maybe I was just as much feeling eager for the whole thing to be over with. Logistics could get nightmarish of occasion. Keyboards predominate. Dan McKinney layers his estimable Booker T. Hammond over my E-Z Johnny Griffith piano to yeomanly effect. Not to overlook that eerily apt George Harrison-ized guitar arpeggio Mike Perkin comes up with for the chorus. How he came up with that I do not know. I suppose now only God knows.

Ain’t That Lovin’ You?

I collect 45s of early, pre-psychedelic garage-band, foremost among which is a pristine early pressing of Louie, Louie, and so I deliberately wrote Ain’t That Lovin’ You? to be a garage band song, complete with that pre-written unison guitar/bass riff thing, a junko-blues-with-a-bridge progression, and what the academics call “floating lyrics,” familiar lines and phrases that crop up in a hundred songs, sometimes cohering into a complete story, sometimes not. But then, in the studio, Tom Walz’s guitars inject a little funk and a lot of blues, Scott Balliet’s drums turn the customary rave-up fadeout at the end from backbeat polka to driving monad and we got ourselves a whole nother song, Houston.

Everybody I Know Loves You

I have only noticed in retrospect how I often start out to write a song with nothing but a chord progression in mind. In this case, I was determined to spawn another “begat” for the list known as “Louie, Louie’s Bastard Children,” a I-IV-V song. I kept to the program pretty much, with a few digressions. After we start rehearsing it, though, I realize the song isn’t garage band at all—it’s punkabilly. But none of the guitarists, it seems, know how to (or want to) play that simplest rhythm-guitar strum of all, punk/metal 16th-note “num-nums.” So I take one of Mike Perkin’s Les Pauls down off the wall and num-num like a house afire until I get the sound I want, and then Mike dubs in this Duane Allman-esque solo that kicks the beat even harder and into overdrive. The lyrics had a real-life inspiration, a sad young woman I knew once who was oblivious to the fact that everybody in her ambit was hopelessly in love with her.

Harder Than You Think

Like Smack Dab, this one was written on my Yamaha keyboard in the midst of recording (all the other songs, I think, were written on guitar, and long before the sessions), and promptly added it to the list. I had Motown on my mind: the Heat Wave-ish progression, the My Girl-ish intro riff, the Just My Imagination-ish chorus. (Steal only from the best, they say.) I put a lot of effort into the lyrics, the ridiculous rhymes, the allusions to things that mean something to me personally, like after-hours clubs and church choirs, and the old-fashioned things, like private eyes and Aqua Velva. (I thought Aqua Velva long defunct, but it turns out they still make it. Here’s hoping for some royalties.) This song has elicited some internet interest because its title is the same as a song at this writing on the hit parade. Surprisingly, since the two songs are not at all alike, some who clicked on it seeking the hit seem to have stayed on to listen to the obscurity and even express a modicum of approval. I guess that’s a good thing. The internet is a strangely literal place.

We Can Rock and Roll

Another song that started out as more or less a garage-band song. At first, all I had was the intro riff, with its suspended tonic. The verse uses that tried and true modal After Midnight, Green Onions, I Don’t Need No Doctor, Knock on Wood I-bIII-IV progression, but the hook is a little more non-standard-ish, especially in the suspension of the dominant over the bVI chord that creates a genre-inappropriate major seventh. Isn’t jargon wonderful? The song doesn’t sound half as complicated when you listen to it. The lyrics are once more more or less floating lyrics, unrequited street-side love subject matter well-traversed in innumerable songs, among them Silhouettes and No Reply, but less innocently traversed in this case, I think, thanks to the double entendre of the hook. Rhyming “can” with “and” is a joke, I think, although I don’t remember if on purpose or not.

Little Bit

This song originated sitting around waiting for a woman who was always late named Mary (whom I no longer remember), in the company of my rockabilly friend, stage name Johnny Jam, and Mary’s roommate, a Welshman and artist’s model, named Hugh, of course. I think I indulged in a little word painting there when I extended the basic blues form from 12 to 24 bars to reflect the idea of “waiting.” Not that I knew what I was doing at the time. I often find myself like the farmer who went to school only to find out he had been speaking prose all his life. I think Johnny stole that intro riff from somewhere good, but I never did figure out from where. I do my Elvis thing on vocals in there somewhere, Dan McKinney does his Johnnie Johnson thing on piano, and Scott Balliet outdoes himself with his bamboo brushes, having paid his dues playing in Johnny Jam’s rockabilly aggregation for a long time.

Gardens of Babylon

The initial inspiration for this song was an Itals concert. I don’t remember much. A chaos of swaying bodies and undulating lights and a slow-drag minor-key reggae song going on and on and on. It was great. I wanted Gardens to have the same lost-in-eternity feel, and so we arranged to leave a lot of space for Mike Perkin to stretch out in in this recording. (On some cassette tape buried away in some box somewhere, though, is Mike’s ultimate Gardens of Babylon guitar solo take. Maybe someday we’ll find it.) I am afraid I took the Jimmy Cliff-ish Biblical captivity lyrics rather seriously. I imagined a literate court slave, enjoying a beverage, lying on a couch under a palm tree, high on some ziggurat in ancient Babylon, looking down on his kinsmen toiling in the hot sun, while he is cooled by the gentle fanning of ostrich plumes, and then I imagined a privileged IT professional, sipping designer water and staring in air-conditioned cool out of a skyscraper window at a crew of his former neighbors at work in the hot sun spreading tar on the roof of a nearby tenement.

It Was Love

I meant this song to be almost proto-rockabilly, a cross between country and rock ‘n’ roll, as the contrast between Tom Walz’s finger-picking and Mike Perkin’s electric implies. The old-fashioned, or should I say “the timeless,” makes an appearance in this song, too, with its night trains and its air-mail letters and Rover. Rover is my favorite dog’s name. Some people call the name cliched, but for the life of me I don’t know why, because nobody, and I mean nobody, ever names his dog Rover. (If I ever get a dog, I’ll name it Rover and devil take the hindmost.) I think Johnny Burnette inspired the well-a, well-a, well-a’s. And Midland, Texas (which I seem to have pronounced in the plural), had to be in it, I am not sure why. My second favorite dog’s name is Fido. Fido is not in this song.

Sweet Dreams

Sweet Dreams was originally meant to be an Everly Brothers style song, but somehow it mutated into Tex-Mex. When I am out west, I generally put the top down and cruise around blaring the Tex-Mex station as loud as I can from dawn to dusk. Not precisely—and yet, when we found Wayne “Mr. Squeeze” Leibel to play the accordion part for Sweet Dreams, I felt an inexplicable desire to drive. I retained the Everly Brothers flavor by over-dubbing a harmony part on the vocal, and Wayne’s Flaco Jimenez-style syncopation adds just the right spice. The song’s subject is rather chaste: a phone call after a date, in which the caller wishes the callee sweet dreams. Someday I would like to translate it into Spanish. Que Tengas Dulces Sueños or something.

Can’t Get a Break

Ripped direct from the daily headlines, Can’t Get a Break is a straight-ahead John Lee Hooker boogie. Tom Walz gets to cut loose on this one, on harmonica as well as slide guitar. The lyrics are right out of the floating verses phrase-book, telling the age-old blues story of a working man not being treated right at home.

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Mos Maiorum

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“Mos maiorum” means “the time-honored traditions of the ancestors” in the Latin of the ancient Romans. I thought it a good name for an album of songs in traditional American styles.

Except for Crazy ‘Bout You, Baby and Sweet Young Thing, both of which I wrote in Austin, Texas, I wrote all of these songs around the same time, at home, on a little, borrowed, nylon-string acoustic guitar, the same one I use on the recording. I liked the way it sounded, I could really strum up a storm on it, and, turned up loud, it sounds very percussive, making for a good beat that is easy to dance to, sans drums. The plan was to record an album of simple, to-the-point roots music, rockabilly, blues, folk, country (plus quasi-calypso, as it turns out).

In keeping with the simplicity of the music, we kept the recording complexity to a minimum. Mike Perkin sat me down in front of his studio soundboard with two microphones and went back upstairs to watch TV. I think I pumped all the songs out in a day, maybe two at the most.

In concert with the simplicity theme, the album cover is minimal, a drawing of The Ancient Temple of the Mos Maiorum and some words.

Ramona

Ramona is blues without a turnaround in form, rockabilly in style. The solo incorporates a riff I stole from my friend and Austin band-mate California Jeff Kile’s version of Fannie Mae. It is always a joy when you get to use phrases like “St. Vitus’ Dance,” “ants in the pants,” “ballin’ the jack,” and “jumpin’ bean” in a song. I like to play it at blazing tempos, or faster if possible. I learned the blazing tempo thing from punk bands at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. Blazing tempos were what I liked about punk. They lost me when they started grinding the tempos down to a middling-to-slow drag.

Crazy ‘Bout You, Baby

This blues brings back memories: East Austin, Texas, sitting on next-door neighbor Texas bluesman Hank Drury’s porch and gobbling his personally-formulated-barbeque-sauce-slathered ribs, California Jeff Kile’s James Cotton/Norton Buffalo harmonica wailing amidst the parti-colored candles shaped like armadillos that he hand-crafted and sold at a table down on Sixth Street for spending money, the watermelon trucks, the sunflowers, the bluebell, the Indian paintbrush, swimming in the Pedernales. I think the lyrics might have to do with Hank’s perception of his domestic situation or something, I don’t know.

Why She Loves Me

This is a punch-line song about an incorrigible reprobate and the woman who loves him. The verse uses that good old Jailhouse Rock-ish stop-time, but the chorus is a kind of rockabilly Robert Johnson, if such a hippogriff were permissible. In the middle, the written-out, 12-bar-style solo creates a whole nother song with alternate chord voicings.

Pass Round the Bottle

I always liked songs about passing bottles round in colloquy. This one celebrates that eternal wondering about the one that got away so many are prone to in their cups. Odd how, even in this our day and age, age of jet travel and mass communication though it may be, when somebody moves away, that’s generally all she wrote. My direct inspiration was that bass riff and chord thing that Elvis does while singing One Night With You on that segment of his 1968 TV Comeback Special where he sits in a circle with his friends and plays old songs, the drummer keeping the beat on the back of a guitar case. I recommend it.

Long Gone

The inspiration for this song came from an old hillbilly I used to know in Nashville, Tennessee who was always saying, “I’ll tell you what.” In another case of accidental word-painting, the blazing tempo, it seems, recapitulates the speed with which the speaker of the song wishes to skedaddle. On the other hand, I would have played it at blazing tempo even if the lyrics didn’t fit. By piling a bunch of my favorite cliches all on top of each other like that, humor is intended.

You’ve Got to Take that Freight Train

I always like to include a one-chord song, although somebody told me once You’ve Got to Take that Freight Train has three chords. Passing chords is my retort. Passing chords. I don’t know what got me started listing state products. I vaguely recall a chapter in a 4th grade textbook about state export industries: New Jersey truck farms, Arkansas rice bogs, and so on. I know, I have uranium in there, and I am inordinately un-fond of uranium, especially riding the rails in a boxcar next to a load of it. But uranium rhymes with titanium. What could I do?

Sweet Young Thing

This is the other blues song I wrote in Austin, Texas. Texas is known for its Miss Americas, and I was inspired by some young women in the milieu who were so popular they started fights. Everywhere they went they were forever surrounded by a pack of yapping, emulous dogs. In emulation of the pack, the whole band used to come in in unison on the chorus. I always liked when the big bands used to do that, put down their horns and chime in on the vocals. Ray Charles’s Granny Wasn’t Grinnin’ comes to mind.

If There’s One Thing

If There’s One Thing started out as an instrumental that I later added lyrics, chorus and bridge to, a kind of Maybelle Carter/Buddy Holly chord/melody guitar riff that really rumbles on that old nylon-string. The lyrics’ theme is the time-honored “stupid me” one of Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World. In my defense, I am not the only one who cannot tell Crockett from Boone—in view of the fact that they’re both Fess Parker anyway.

On Account of My Heart

I originally thought of this as a sort of minor-key folk-blues/garage-band song. Garage-band because it is a chaconne like Louie, Louie. I was trying to learn some Robert Johnson songs at the time, and I noticed, for all the attention given to his guitar-playing, his vocal style, with all that swooping up and down and abrupt changes of register, is just as worthy of study. Which worthy vocal style then bled into the melody I devised for On Account of My Heart, the most difficult vocal on the album. It may not sound difficult. But it is. I spent a lot of time on the road around the time I wrote the lyrics, and sometimes it is my experience that a long highway drive through night-time America can leave one feeling a little bleak.

All Night Long, Maryanne

Strumming away like a self-pitchforked demon, my guitar style on All Night Long, Maryanne is hardly calypso. Nor ska nor highlife either. But whatever it is the guitar is up to, the lyrics partake of the cheerful spirit of Caribbean song. A lot of it. Bordering on the deliriously ecstatic. I don’t remember doing it deliberately, but the chaconne on I-IV-V changes and the inverse-pyramid harmony entrances on the dominant crescendo would indicate a certain debt to Twist and Shout.

One Innocent Man

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One Innocent Man is an album of topical songs, protests against all the evils in the world—the greed, the lust, the hate, the fear, all of man’s inhumanity to man. Or something like that. In other words, I have always sympathized with the down and out. George Orwell’s book on the subject ought to be required reading, it is my humble opinion.

The album cover is a selection from Pieter Bruegel, the Elder’s 1568 painting, The Magpie on the Gallows. I always thought it was a happy picture, celebrating the triumph over death, or at least the persistence of life, what with its sublime landscape and its dancing people, but experts say the meaning is just the opposite. Oh, well.

One Innocent Man

In this song, I catalog every single reason I can think of why having a system of capital punishment unerringly necessitates killing a few innocents, innocents that get caught up in the machinery like dolphins in tuna nets, here and there, once in a while. Need I add I think killing innocents is wrong? I mean, you execute murderers for murdering innocent people and then you murder innocent people so you can execute more murderers? The logic escapes me. I think opponents of capital punishment ought to emphasize this argument more than they do, before all others, in fact, because this is the argument that gets through to, even converts, the most rabid proponents. Because the answer to “Would you sacrifice one innocent man / to see a hundred murderers fall?” should always be “No.”

Afghan Lullaby

These are the days of the refugee. I don’t have to imagine much to see a mother, on the road in Afghanistan, lying to her child, telling it they are safe, telling it the future is bright, telling it Daddy is coming soon, trying to sing it to sleep, while explosives shake the ground. I would like to translate Afghan Lullaby into an Afghan language, but which one is the question.

Sally and Johnny

This song is about the tragedy of unemployment, how unemployment destroys people, how it is happening all around us, how no-one seems to want to so much as acknowledge it, how a family dreaming of nothing more ambitious than a normal, settled American life falls to pieces when all the mills shut down. Sally and Johnny is written in the quatrains of a traditional ballad, the traditional form for a working person’s tragedy.

Cell Phone Call from Iraq

This song is full of images of life in small-town U.S.A. A soldier, calling home from Iraq, is asking if all the things he loves are still there, still the way they were. Implying a contrast with “what I’ve been through.” Cell Phone Call from Iraq is in an old-fashioned, classic country style. I imagine maybe a Porter Wagoner or a Randy Travis singing it, pedal steel accompanying. I am aware that the average Iraq War veteran listens to more rumbustious stuff. But I had in mind one of those older reservists called up at the beginning of the war, a 50-something non-com, with a wife and young daughter back at home, plenty old enough to appreciate a little classic country and western music.

When I Get Rich

This song is about being in love, being poor, and wishing you were rich. Fantasies of buying stuff, cutting a fine figure, showing up those peasants who used to look down on you, contrasted with realism about the uncertainties of life without money: “When you got no dough / you never know / when they’re comin’ for you.” A bluegrass rendition sets the requisite jaunty tone.

Symphony #2 + Sonata for Orchestra

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I originally set out to write something very simple for amateur orchestras—Symphony #2 is mostly in the keys of C and G; it doesn’t modulate much; it is in four parts and only four parts, no divisi sections. But I was having so much fun I got carried away. And so some parts are simple, some not so much. I wrote it entirely on the computer on my Finale orchestration program, without recourse to an instrument. Which is a strange and perhaps awkward way of going about it. But I think it would have been an entirely different work had I composed it on the piano.

My plan was to write Popular Classical Music for Everyday People—the kind of music that audiences actually go to classical concerts to hear, rather than what cultural arbiters say is cool and is not—something radical, so to speak, a regular, tonal, formal, common-practice piece of Classical music instead of something theoretical, au courant, or over-intellectualized. In other words, I tried nothing more ambitious than to write singing, singable melodies, rich harmonies, and driving rhythms. Such an objective is radical, I would submit, because, in a time when all rules are broken, what rules are there left to break? The only one left I can see is the rule against rules.

To a cursory listening, the music of this album no doubt will sound classically Classical, or perhaps a little early Romantic. But no Classical composer would write exactly this way. Their sensibilities and backgrounds are too different from mine. I actually think of this album as rock ‘n’ roll for orchestra using classical conventions.

Allegro

Technically, the introduction is in an Allegretto tempo, which then revs up into Allegro at the entrance of Theme I, and so I should have labeled the movement “Allegretto-Allegro.” But I didn’t. 95% of it is Allegro, so I don’t think the omission all that grievous. This is the only movement of Symphony #2 that is in sonata form. There is a little Bach in there, a little Vivaldi, a little Beatles, not to forget a chord change stolen from Dolly Parton.

Largo

I made up my own three-part form for this movement. Only after I wrote it did I notice that it constituted a kind of fantasia on the themes of repetition and non-repetition. The first section is thoroughly through-composed: nothing repeats. The middle section is a chaconne. The same chords repeat over and over, (although they are differently voiced with each iteration). The rhythm of the middle section proceeds in an unvaryingly repetitive pattern of sixteenth-note melody against quarter-note accompaniment (at least for the first twenty bars, after which counterpoint breaks up the steady rhythmic pattern). The third section repeats the opening through-composed part in which nothing repeats, followed by a short coda whose melody repeats a single note. Unless I write another one, I want this movement to be my requiem. Mortality lay heavy on my mind through the dark winter in which I composed it.

Marcia Moderato

There is a festival every year in Salento, Apulia, called Notte della Taranta, “The Night of the Tarantula,” featuring Pizzica, a popular folk genre of dance and music related to the Tarantella. This area of Italy has a large, ancient population of ethnic Greeks, and some Pizzica is sung in Griko, a southern Italian dialect of Greek. In this movement I overlap Pizzica folk melodies, variations on them, and original melodies in the style, steadily building to climax. This is an arrangement for string orchestra, but it is best accompanied in the listener’s imagination by a dancer with a tambourine thumping out every beat in that insistent 6/8 time.

Presto

This movement is a rondo. The form is a mirror form, themes following one another in sequence to the center and then repeating in reverse order coming out. Sometimes the meter sounds like it is switching from duple to triple. But the whole thing is in 3/4 time. Another thing I only realized in retrospect. I don’t even understand how I did it. The final iteration of Theme I is in half-time: each phrase is twice as long as in the original. I also seem to remember taking a section from the first movement, changing it from major to minor, and re-writing it so completely for the fourth movement that I can’t figure out which section it was. Now only God knows, I guess.

Sonata for Orchestra

Unlike Symphony #2, which is for strings, this sonata is for full orchestra. It was a long time in coming. I wrote the two themes at one period in my life, worked out the development, recapitulation and coda years later, and committed it to computer orchestration more years later. That was a regular fun extravaganza. I was using the cheapest orchestration program I could find. You pays for what you gets. Halfway through the project, the program suddenly squashes all the measures together on the screen, and I can’t figure out how to un-squash them for love nor money. I am sure I’ve lost half a year’s work. After a month of hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing, I finally figured out how to fool the computer into thinking I wasn’t doing what I was doing. (Is it not ever so?). My relief was boundless. There is a slide-show video on YouTube where I use great Romantic paintings to visually reflect the emotions suggested by this work. Yes, Theme I uses an idea from Mozart. And someone told me that Theme II is Mahler-esque, but I have not been able to discover which work it resembles. On the other hand, hidden in the development is a deliberate quote from Milton Nasciamento. The long coda is more Beatles than Beethoven, although the florid improvisation-esque ornamental passages with their dueling woodwinds hark back (at least to my mind) to the early classical practice of the improvisational cadenza.

I Know, Already—Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Ridiculous

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Fewer and fewer people use “rock ‘n’ roll” like I do to refer to popular music in general. But anyhow, whatever the name, whatever it is has been painfully, absurdly ridiculous for a long time.

The early 21st-century variety most flagrantly, of course. The ridiculous outfits. Twice as many words squeezed into the same old three-minutes. AcCENTS on the wrong SyLABble. “I Am the Walrus” nonsense from songwriters who think they are making sense. Leering sexual pandering. Cloyingly sincere lyrics coupled with leering sexual pandering. Songs about how rich the singer is. Squeaking noises. Acclaimed singers who can’t sing. Focus-grouped-to-death, hook-jampacked songs that still suck. “Artists.” Hysterical caterwauling alternating with cutesy-wootsey Betty-Boopish cheeping and peeping, cooing and oohing. Merchandise. Gossip the product, the song the lagniappe. The tedious, soul-less, mindless, mechanical, godawful, voice-lesson-hatched “riffing” that renders similar songs identical. The ridiculous outfits.

I could be more specific. But then I would have to listen to more of it. You see my conundrum.

This is not to say that popular music has not always been ridiculous. Think screaming teenaged girls. Moshing. Theater rock. The ridiculous outfits. Rock opera. Devo (self-conscious ridiculousness is still ridiculous; no-one gets off the hook that easy). Little Richard.

And I like Little Richard. So much that I never noticed his ridiculousness until it was pointed out to me.

It seems apparent, at least in its more recent manifestations, that Popular Music, like the bruited sentient computer, has evolved awareness of its own ridiculousness. Magically turning plain old dumb old ridiculousness into the lovely, supposedly witty, “irony.”

Irony, someone said, is the last refuge of the chuckle-headed.

Irony, at least the rock ‘n’ roll kind, mitigates nothing for me however. I’m too simple-minded. Too stolid. Too unsophisticated. Plain old dumb old ridiculous is still just plain old dumb old ridiculous to me.

Thus, for a long time now, I have felt a certain embarrassment about engaging in something so ridiculous, or at least so girded round with ridiculousness, as the writing of rock ‘n’ roll songs. You will notice, for instance, that I also write symphonic works, among other things. In part to appease my self-respect. I cannot imagine devoting one’s entire life to nothing but rock ‘n’ roll/popular music/whatever. How—ridiculous.

So why persist at all?

Perhaps because, writing my songs as I do in isolation, as it were, I never think of them as popular music. I think of them as little three-minute jewels painstakingly cut and polished and set. I think of myself as an artisan trying to imbed in each effort some unique little inclusion that might, if he is lucky, bring a smile to the discerning. Songwriting, to me, is arts and crafts. The song itself, to me, is the thing: the accretions adhering to its packaging do not really obtain. A song’s worth, to me, is to be found in how well it is crafted, and nowhere else. I think I think this way because, when I was young, songs were anonymous. A song would come on the radio and you would have no idea who the band was, where they came from, what their favorite colors were. It was just a song.

So if you think I wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star, don’t be ridiculous. All I want is to locate a small group of like-minded people who might appreciate workmanlike attempts at gem-cutting. Which is why I have put my music up on the internet. Do chime in if you are feeling like-minded.