Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lyrics vs. the prefrontal cortex

DeppityBob recently sent along an article about how jazz musicians' prefrontal cortexes wind down when they improvise:
Scientists funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) have found that, when jazz musicians are engaged in the highly creative and spontaneous activity known as improvisation, a large region of the brain involved in monitoring one’s performance is shut down, while a small region involved in organizing self-initiated thoughts and behaviors is highly activated.
Go here for the rest.

This sheds some light on why creating music feels like tapping into some mystical well of infinite possibility, whereas writing lyrics feels like rolling up my sleeves and getting to work. It's not that language can't exist in that same mystical, infinite well. It's that my brain plays guardian at the gate, refusing to let the words through because they might not be exactly right.

Friday, May 30, 2008

And then there were (still) two

Ever since Cinder Bridge's inception, Ron the Drummer and I have been its only members. We're open to the idea of hooking up with a good bassist or rhythm guitarist ... it just hasn't been in the stars.

For a brief period, there was a possibility that a bassist might join our little outfit. Unfortunately, we never made it to the jam-and-see-what-the-chemistry's-like stage. First he was too busy to get together, and now he's decided to leave the state.

Too bad. He's an excellent bassist with tons of experience, and he's fun to be around. He also would've been the only one among us who looks like a genuine rocker: earrings in both ears, spiky hair, and a face just slightly reminiscent of Bob Geldof's in his younger days. Unlike Ron and me, there's no way he could pass for someone who works in middle management.

That last part isn't nearly as important, but still. :)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Music and lyrics

Occasionally people ask me which comes first when I write a song: the music or the lyrics. The answer is that it depends on the song, and I've gotten equally good results both ways. However, I've noticed that most of my songs begin with an idea for lyrics.

There's a good reason for this. I always know that if I create lyrics, the music will follow. Most of the time this will be quick; occasionally it will take some time. Either way, it will happen. It's as though music exists in the ether, and I can tap into it almost any time I want.

Lyrics are another story. They require hard work and concentration and more hard work and looking stuff up in rhyming dictionaries, and did I mention hard work? When I create an interesting melody or piano riff, lord only knows when I'll discover words for it. It's hard enough to figure out how to say what I want to say. If I have no idea what I even want to say, well ...

* * *

So last night, I started to hum a melody that came to me out of the clear blue sky. I jotted it down in my little composition notebook so I wouldn't forget it, then sat down at the keyboard. Frustrated by my tendency to let music-first creations lie fallow for-freaking-ever, I decided to fish for some lyrics. In short order, I had three lines. They weren't particularly profound or original, but they seemed like they could lead somewhere.

Less than 24 hours later, I had a whole song.

Granted, there are still things I need to tweak musically, and then Ron the Drummer and I will need to arrange it. Still, I'm pleased, and kind of shocked. This is the fastest I've written ANY song. It usually takes a few weeks at the very least. To break my record for speed with a music-first song feels pretty amazing.

Rediscovering new music

I discovered these guys while surfing for Tucson bands:

Nobody, et al. calls themselves folk, but you don't have to be a folkie to appreciate them. You might like them if you're into Iron and Wine -- their stuff has a kind of intensity that you don't expect from slow, guitar-driven music.

When the Myspace player brought up the third song, "Over the Desert," I could've sworn I'd heard it before. Kind of strange, given that their band name wasn't familiar to me at all, and they probably wouldn't be getting radio play. Then it hit me. I checked, and sure enough, the song was on the 2007 Tucson Acoustic Battle of the Bands compilation. Ron the Drummer and I scored a copy when we participated; one of our songs is on there too.

Hopefully I'll get to see them live sometime soon. If I can just find the time to go see live music again ...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Who hasn't done nothing?

I was driving around, running some errands, when "You Haven't Done Nothing" came on the radio. Soon I was singing along best I could, even though the only words I knew were the refrain and the parts where Stevie Wonder goes "Dooooooo de wop."

I've always loved this song. The lyrics (which I've since googled) are so biting and accusatory:
But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
'Cause if you really want to hear our views
You haven't done nothing
I'd always imagined that his accusation was leveled at people like me: well-intentioned liberals who pay lip service to defeating social injustice, then flip open the TV Guide to see if there's anything good on. Hearing it this time around, though, I began to wonder if Mr. Stevie had another target in mind:
We are amazed but not amused
By all the things you say that you'll do
Though much concerned but not involved
With decisions that are made by you
Yeah, seems likely that he's talking about the powers that be rather than our lethargic citizenry. Probably it was guilt over my own tendency toward inaction that made me misinterpret the lyrics when I first started paying attention to them. Possibly it was my current frustration over the state of health care in this country that got me to listen more closely.

In any case, it's funny how much of our own baggage we bring to the songs we hear.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Come back to the Firefly, Amber Jade, Amber Jade

Had the iPod on shuffle last night, and one of my favorite songs by Amber Jade came up. Amber was a local musician who played around town and, for a short time, ran an open mic at a now-defunct restaurant called Firefly. She was as relaxed on stage as most of us are sitting on the couch watching TV. I loved watching her and listening to her clear, beautiful voice.

A wave of nostalgia hit for this period of my life, when I held Amber up as a role model, when I had all the time in the world to perform at her open mics, when the path I'd chosen was filled with endless possibilities. Now a lot of those possibilities have come to pass. This makes me feel like I'm on the right track, but most days it also makes life too busy for me to decide at the spur of the moment to go out and see a band.

Amber: I hope you come back to Tucson to play one of these days. If I don't have a gig myself, I promise I will make the time to see you.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Unnatural caregiving?

Eric Hansen, a local folksinger who gave me a few valuable voice lessons a while back, has a congenital lung disease called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Today I read about his experiences with it. As a singer, I wanted to know how someone who makes his living singing learns to cope with a condition that reduces lung capacity to 40%.

Then I got to this part, where he talks about participating in a clinical study for a new drug:
Boxes and boxes of supplies began arriving at my apartment which included: syringes, a centrifuge to spin blood, a pump, tubing and big foam boxes for shipping blood, Sharps containers and on and on. My girl friend just freaked out (I wasn’t too happy either) ... She did adjust a bit, but she never did go to Cleveland with me for support. Clearly, she was not a natural caregiver.
That caught my attention. I'd like to think that if someone I was dating suddenly found himself in possession of all this scary medical equipment, my reaction would be one of supportiveness and calm. In reality, I'd probably be pretty rattled.

We can all imagine what a "natural" caregiver is like -- someone with great nurturing instincts and a whole lot of patience. We can also imagine someone utterly lacking in these traits. My question: Can someone who isn't a natural caregiver learn to become one? And if so, how?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

My kingdom for a verse

I came up with an idea for a song yesterday. Riding my bike to work, I developed the seeds of a chorus. Just before leaving work, I finished the chorus and e-mailed the lines to my home address. I'm pleased. What I've got so far has a cool metaphor that (to my knowledge) no one's used before, and it tackles an interesting topic.

But now ... now I have to write verses. I'm drawing a blank.

See, choruses are easy. They don't have to tell a story. They don't have to provide any specifics. All they have to do is present a basic concept in a catchy way. Coming up with the details that surround and support that concept? That's hard.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More awareness for everyone

Thanks to everyone who linked back to either the CFIDS Awareness Day post here or "Everybody Knows About Me" on Myspace: I Learned Something Today,, RachelCreative, Saving My Sanity, and Songs to a Midnight Sky. If you're interested in learning more about what CFIDS is like from someone who has it, RachelCreative wrote an essay about it for Awareness Day and linked to many others who did the same.

The responses to "Everybody Knows About Me" have been extremely positive. This is ... a relief. Anytime I write a song, I fret about making the lyrics as good as they can be, but the truth is that getting it wrong doesn't generally have substantial consequences. It's just a song, right? Writing about the devastating effects of a widely misunderstood illness I've witnessed but never experienced, that kicks the level of importance up a few dozen notches. Fail to convey some essential piece I was going for, and the song could do more harm than good.

Someone I know who has CFIDS did give EKAM a pass before it saw the light of day. Nevertheless, it's reassuring to get good reactions from people who don't know me personally.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Song for CFIDS: Everybody Knows About Me

Today is CFIDS Awareness Day. To mark the occasion, we've uploaded a song called "Everybody Knows About Me" to our Myspace page. I wrote this from the perspective of someone suffering from undiagnosed CFIDS, though it could also easily apply to undiagnosed fibromyalgia, MCS/environmental injury, lyme disease, or many other so-called invisible illnesses.

You can find the song here. (Click the "Everybody Knows About Me" link if it doesn't start playing immediately.)

You may be thinking, "CFIDS? What the heck is that?" I'll answer that question and others in a handy FAQ format:

CFIDS? What the heck is that?

It stands for chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome. Symptoms vary from person to person, but commonly include:
  • chronic, debilitating pain
  • post-exertional malaise -- symptoms get worse after physical or mental exertion and require an extended recovery period
  • flu-like symptoms, such as joint and muscle pain
  • cognitive impairment, including problems with short-term memory
  • crushing fatigue, which is not relieved by rest
Other common symptoms include cardiac arrhythmias, chemical sensitivities, food sensitivities, blurry vision, eye pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and a host of other conditions that are nasty in their own right.

CFIDS is also known by the name myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). You've most likely heard it referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Oh, chronic fatigue syndrome! Yeah, I've heard of that. A friend of mine says she has it, but every time I see her, she seems fine. I think she's just a hypochondriac.

Probably not. It's typical for sufferers to have good days and bad days (though a "good day" can still be pretty bad from a healthy person's perspective). If you see someone with CFIDS out and about, you've probably caught them on a good day. You don't see them lying flat on their back for the rest of the week, in the privacy of their own home, recovering from their trip to the grocery store.

I don't have CFIDS, but I have seen more than a few bad days up close. They're not pretty.

Is there a cure?

No. And at the rate research for a cure is being funded, it's going to be a while. In 2007, more money went to research on hay fever than CFIDS.


Yeah. If you'd like to donate to an organization whose primary purpose is finding a cure, go here.

How else can I help?

Write your congressman. If you have a friend with CFIDS, make an effort to keep in touch. Your friend may not have the energy to call you, but he or she would probably love to hear from you. Listen. Sympathize. If someone you know makes a comment about how chronic fatigue syndrome is just laziness, don't let it pass. Explain that CFIDS involves serious pain and real impairment, not just greater-than-average tiredness.

Oh, and if you know anyone who might benefit from hearing "Everybody Knows About Me," send the link. But please don't send it to absolutely everyone in your e-mail address book. Spam is annoying, no matter how noble the cause.

Thanks for listening.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Missing Persons

Earlier this week I did a long-overdue culling of our mailing list. It's around 30 obsolete e-mail addresses lighter now. I don't know who most of the purged people are; a couple, however, stand out.

Megan Mitcher. The first singer I ever worked with, back before I could sing or even thought I could learn. She had a low, lovely voice and the kind of self-effacing yet utterly cool demeanor that made you want to hang around for as long as she'd let you. I did a search on her name after taking her e-mail off the list. Can't find her. It's like she never existed.

Vanessa Zuber, a Tucson folksinger. I liked all of her songs, but one in particular stuck with me, a heartbreakingly gorgeous tune called "Hands Touching the Sky." I requested it a lot. When I google Vanessa, a bunch of shows from 2001 come up. Nothing current. I can't find the song anywhere either.

I think I've been spoiled by the Internet. I've grown so accustomed to being able to access any piece of information whenever I've got a computer within arm's reach, it surprises me when the people I lose touch with are actually gone.

Megan and Vanessa: If you happen upon this post while idly searching for your own names, drop me a line. I'd love to know how you're doing.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Event descriptions

Just updated our Myspace page with info on our upcoming Old Town Artisans gig. As usual, I was stymied when entering a description of the event.

If we're doing something like a cancer benefit, I can say a little about the cause and talk about the other activities that will be happening. If we're performing at a new place, I can say a little about the place. When it's a venue we've played before -- or many times before -- writing something new becomes a challenge. As I stare at the blank page, I compose in my head:

"It's a gig. If you're reading this, you already know what we sound like. Hope you can make it."

This is not the kind of copy that draws a crowd.

And on an entirely tangential note ...

I would love to know why the text in these posts reverts from "double-spaced" to "single-spaced," seemingly at random.

Enhancing Tucson's reputation, one song at a time

In response to my musings about the Tucson International Airport gig, David Powell asked:

Do you guys get paid for that? If so, by whom? Just curious. :)

We do get paid. I'm not entirely sure where the money comes from, but the airport's publicity department does the hiring.

I consider this both funny and pretty darned cool. People go to the airport for one of two reasons: their plane is taking off from there, or their plane is landing there. They don't choose which one to patronize based on advertising or publicity. It's ... the airport. Nice to think that anyone involved with TIA/the city of Tucson cares about making the experience more pleasant.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Roots and the Crops

I don't get out enough.

With various and sundry life commitments, it seems like the only times I can justify going out to experience live music is when Ron and I are playing it. I don't get to be part of the audience as much as I used to, or would like to. I heard two bands at the Tucson Folk Festival this weekend -- the excellent Bright and Childers, and a bluegrass group whose name I've forgotten. I missed a whole bunch of other people I'd hoped to catch.

But while I was there, I finally snagged Leila Lopez's latest album, The Roots and the Crops. Good stuff. If it takes a while before I'm able to hear her play live again, this is the next best thing.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Airport gig report

I like playing at the TIA. It's fun to watch people pass by with surprised and often pleased looks on their faces as they think, "Huh. There's a band ... at the airport. That's interesting."

One guy was there with his three-year-old daughter and danced with her through several songs. So cute. Another guy bought a CD. In general, anyone paying attention to us at all seemed to be happy we were there. We were slated to play for an hour, but no one objected when we made it two.

Err, almost no one. A woman came up to us toward the end with her very best trying-to-be-nice-but-not-trying-to-conceal-irritation face and asked if we could take a break for a while, because "I can't hear the announcements."

Oh well. Can't please everyone. :)

Airport gig

It's just after 1 a.m., and it occurs to me I should think about getting to bed. We have a gig at Tucson International Airport from 1-2 tomorrow, which means Ron and I will need to be there at 11 a.m. to set up.

I'm not all that tired yet and would prefer to stay awake a while longer. So I start doing the math in my head, figuring out when I'll need to get up to be at the airport by 11. Let's see. An hour and a half before 11 is 9:30 ...

And then I remember that it's a gig, not a trip. I don't have to tack on extra time to get through security.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

"Cinder Bridge?"

Coming up with a band name is harder than you think.

When Ron and I decided the time had come to call our project something other than "our project," the goal was to find one word or phrase that conveyed everything we wanted to be. Something that said we didn't take ourselves too seriously. But not so weird that we'd get sick of it in a few weeks.

Oh, and it had to sound cool.

We asked other people for advice, then realized this may have been a mistake as they flooded us with Mad Libs-style offerings. I could be, say, eating a banana while talking about about searching the classifieds for jobs, and a friend would say, "Hey! How about "Banana Classified"? They'd be all disappointed when I explained that although the name was cute, we didn't see calling ourselves Banana Classified for the rest of the band's career. Meanwhile, we weren't coming up with anything better on our own.

So why Cinder Bridge?

At some point I got it into my head that I'd like a name with "bridge" in it. Not sure I could tell you why. It felt right. When "Cinder Bridge" popped into my mind, I liked it a lot ... and then discounted it. It sounded good, but what the heck did it mean?

Still, it stuck with me. Eventually, the meaning began to emerge. One of my dominant personality characteristics has been a fear of starting anything. I always feel unready. If I begin my endeavor before I'm fully prepared, I'll inevitably screw the whole thing up. I'll burn my bridges behind me.

The lesson I've had to learn over and over again is this: The worst thing you can do is nothing. The burning bridge behind you is better than the bridge you never had the courage to cross.

* * *

I've been wanting to start our little band blog for a while. I haven't done it 'til now because I've felt unready. What if I had nothing to write? What if nobody read it?

Eh. The hell with it. Welcome to Cinder Bridge world. And may the bridges we burn light our way.