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A few weeks after my first announcement, I finally started my first writing challenge. And as promise, I tell you -almost- everything here. The goal: one day to kickstart one song, based on several constraints picked up randomly. (If you want to know more about the concept, just have a look here).
Plug your headphones and get ready for some weird noises, let’s go through this very first day of experiment.
Keyboard, bourrée and Scottish tune
First of all, I needed a guest, the person bringing their instrument and musical background to mix with mine and create something. This constraint is obviously not random, since it’s necessary to coordinate and find a date. My colleague Lucas accepted to join this crazy challenge! Lucas is not only a skilled programmer but also a great piano player, and we already had the occasion to work together. What seemed interesting here, is that Lucas and I have very different music universes. His classical background is way more accurate than mine, and he’s playing a lot of modern piano pieces. However, he’s not particularly into Celtic or folk music – although I made him dance Breton dances at several occasions – yes, I like to torture my colleagues. Anyway, I knew that this collaboration would be surprising and that we would both learn a lot in the process. Lucas has been doing some improvisation but just like me, he never wrote a full song before.
This experience is not sponsored by our employer.
We met at 10:00 at my place, with the few devices we had: a keyboard, an acoustic guitar, a microphone, a computer, a few cables. Nothing fancy but enough to compose and record a “musical draft”. We started with picking up the random constraints.
Dance (defines the rhythm of the song): Bourrée
Music inspiration: Scottish
Text inspiration: feminism
Language: English (I cheated on this one, I first picked up Breton, but I want to keep it for another time 😉 )
Bonus (picked among suggestions that friends make on Facebook): Yoik (thanks Anne!)
Starting with a bourrée was not that easy. This French dance has many variants, many different ways to be played and danced. I decided to go with the version I know the best, “bourrée deux temps”, based on a simple binary rhythm. On that dance, two partners are facing each other, first getting closer, going back to their position, then switching positions and finally going back to their first spot. If you’re curious, you can watch this video. The main bourrée I had in mind was the one from Plantec, very intense and with a specific flow. After picking this dance, I already knew two things:
The dance would have to be binary, for example 2/4, with a basic rhythm on one quarter and two eighths ♩♫
The structure of the song should be an alternation of a part A and a part B, with a different melody, but the same length
Then, we considered the “Scottish music” inspiration. That immediately raised a basic question: what is Scottish music? How does that sound like? What makes it different from other styles, what are the criteria that make it recognizable? I realized it was hard to explain that to Lucas, because even if I listen to Scottish music a lot, I was not able to describe it in words. So we did some research, listening to famous songs, looking for usual chord progressions, humming some melodies. I’m lucky, I have a good Scottish friend who’s also an amazing music player, and he helped me in my research. I got a lot of ideas from this piece. In the end, I think my main inspiration for the melody was Touch the Sky, from the OST of Brave – not very traditional, but bringing together a lot of interesting characteristics.
Finding chords and melodies
Enough research, it was time to play. We started playing some chords, trying to find a nice sequence. In the same time, I was improvising melodies on it. The first try was nice, but way too slow and nostalgic (and sounding too much like Let It Be). But it was a good warm-up. And maybe can be reused later.
First attempt of a chord progression and melody
I wrote the basic rhythm of the bourrée in Musescore and played it in a loop. At that point we were playing in E, with an A and a B, adding some minors to make it deeper. Nothing but classic, a bit frustrating, so we tried to include another chord, that was not really in the scale: a C. That was surprising, but interesting. We decided to play around with it, experimenting several orders. Of course, each time we got something interesting, we recorded it.
Samples and progression of the melody
After many different version, we found something that sounded good. We had a part A, quite classic, with E, A, B and C#m, and some kind of change of scale, going to C, G and D, before going back to the E. The melody started getting stuck in my mind, which was a good sign. This is also the moment where I realized what was missing to the song so it really sounds like a bourrée: the anacrousis, one eighth before starting the beat at the beginning of the sentence.
Final chords at the piano
Still, some parts of the melody seemed a bit boring of repetitive, so we tried to improve it with picking other notes from the chord, and adding some extra notes.
Attempt to improve the melody
A list of feminist writers
At that point, I started wondering if this speed, dense melody would really work with lyrics. I had no idea what to write yet, and I was not in the mood to start working on the lyrics, so I needed to find some random text to sing. What’s better than a Wikipedia page for that? I went on the article feminism on English Wikipedia, and tried to apply the first paragraph to the melody. Spoiler alert: that doesn’t work well 😀 Sentences are way too long and complex. (We went to Simple English Wikipedia. Didn’t work really better).
We realized that singing random sentences on our melody would not work, so we tried something more simple, and from a link to another, landed to a list of English feminist writers. That sounded way easier to sing, and mixing a few names, I managed to put text on my melody. And realized that it was, indeed, quite fast, but feasible.
Singing a list of English feminist writers on the melody
Yeah, sorry ladies for the pronunciation.
That was the only attempt of putting lyrics for the day. I still need to think about what I want to talk about here. The only thing I know is that I want something positive, going with the flow of the song, highlighting some power words on the high notes.
Building the structure
After lunch, we were a bit stuck. We had cool chords, a cool melody, our parts A and B, that doesn’t make a song yet, so what next? We tried different options, finally decided to play part A three times and keep part B a bit special, and tried to write some new parts of melody. I played a basic intro with the guitar. We thought about a bridge, maybe that was the moment to include the bonus constraint given by my friend Anne, the Yoik. That’s a special way of chanting, coming from Finland, actually quite close from the way I was singing my celtic melody. After a few experiments, we decided to push the chanting at the end of the song, more like an easy part that everyone in the audience could sing along, and to have a drum solo as a bridge.
A drum solo, yes! That’s the moment when I removed the dust from my fancy bodhrán, gift from my Scottish friend – how convenient. I don’t know how to play it correctly, but I found a simple rhythm to play.
More experiments, more endless looping at the piano, and finally we got a structure that we were kind of happy about – the piece was five minutes long, a good average for folk dance music. 17:00, the sun was about to hide behind the buildings, it was time for recording.
And finally, recording
Like I mentioned above, we were not in a studio and had no professional devices. But the key of this experience was to try and play, and not expect perfection. So we recorded our “draft” with the material we had. Lucas recorded the piano first – the keyboard was connected to my recorder. Then I recorded parts of the guitar, and reassembled it afterwards on Audacity. (Yes, I also don’t use a proper computer music software, I know – if you have good suggestions on Linux, let me know.) Then the drums, and finally the voice. All of it was quickly assembled, no mixing, no fancy production – just a composing draft, you’re warned.
I’m not going to lie, almost two hours of recording after a day of intense thinking, that was exhausting and a bit boring. But at the end, listening to our first unique piece, we were quite proud of ourselves :’)
Draft recording of the song
After nine hours of hard work, it was time to stop, and keep the rest for another time. The next step will be lyrics, of course. I feel like I need some time to reflect on what I want to write – I don’t want to write about feminism in general, I want to pick one of my favorite topics, but I don’t know which one yet. As soon as I come up with some ideas, I’ll write another blog post.
Then I guess that I need to practice the song more and more, improve the structure, try it with other musicians, and very quickly, try to make people dance on it. I guess that’s the only way to see if the song is really “danceable” or not. I’ll bring it to the next balfolk open stage or session – lucky me, this scene is quite active in Berlin, I should find an occasion soon.
This is the end of this first report! If you managed to read it until that point, please let me know what you though about it. What did you like? What did you miss? What would you like to read next time? I’m open to your suggestions and I’ll be very happy of your support 🙂 Thanks again to Lucas for accepting the challenge and starting this first and successful songwriting day!
And just for you, who read all this, here’s a small bonus-blooper track. Enjoy 😀
Bonus or funny things you find when unrushing your recording material
Text and pictures: CC-BY-SA Auregann. Music & weird sounds: CC-BY-SA Auregann & Lucas Werkmeister.