Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reeves out

William C. Reeves, head of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Program at the CDC, is moving on. Effective February 14, he'll become senior advisor for a another department within the agency. Dr. Elizabeth Unger will temporarily replace him.

Those of you who have ME/CFS have probably heard about this already, and almost certainly know why it's cause for celebration. For everybody else, here's the deal.

Reeves has led the CDC's CFS program for around a decade. During that time, he has done nothing to bring us closer to a cure, or even marginally effective treatment. Instead ...
  • He has diluted the definition of ME/CFS to include people who instead suffer from clinical depression.

  • Armed with the new, diluted definition, he has promoted the belief that childhood trauma and sexual abuse are linked to ME/CFS. The 2009 paper supporting this assertion fails to cite an earlier study, which found that people with ME/CFS are less likely to report such abuse.

  • He has championed cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy, which may have small benefits for people with clinical depression, but do nothing for people with ME/CFS. In fact, graded exercise therapy can actually harm people with the disease.
In October of last year, the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro Immune Disease announced that it had found a strong link between ME/CFS and a retrovirus called XMRV. The discovery shone a bright light on Reeves' biases. Immediately following the announcement, he told the New York Times that "We and others are looking at our own specimens and trying to confirm it. If we validate it, great. My expectation is that we will not."

Will Reeves' move represent a significant change in the way the CDC deals with the disease? Will they take the program in a different direction? No idea.

It's possible that the CDC saw which way the wind was blowing in the wake of the XMRV discovery and decided to make Reeves the fall guy. Maybe they intend to go back to business as usual after he leaves, hoping that his removal alone will appease angry sufferers and advocates.

If that's the case, they're very wrong. It won't appease us. But it is still cause for celebration.

I like the way the wind is blowing.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Where's an evil twin when you need one?

I've been thinking about a song I wrote a while back. It runs a little long. Though I have no problem with longer songs on general principle, I fear that this one drags a bit. It could stand to shed a few pounds.

Tonight I tried snipping the last chorus. I decided it was probably dispensable; all I needed to do was tack a different ending onto the final verse. I played with it a little, and the solution quickly presented itself to me.

Just one problem. The new ending includes two different vocal melodies with alternating repetitions of two different lyrical snippets. Which requires two singers.

Cinder Bridge doesn't have two singers. There's only me.

Maybe if I learn Tuvan throat singing ...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The true artist

A quote from George Bernard Shaw, which I stumbled upon in a comment on Word Garden:
The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.
What do you think? Must an artist renounce all other responsibilities to be a real artist?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Atmosphere etiquette, part 2

I couldn't do this kind of gig, confessed Sweet Jane, a musician who had come to hear us play.

I wasn't sure what she meant. We were about halfway through a Cottage Bakery performance, taking a break, and as far as I could tell everything was going swimmingly.

She couldn't play in a coffeehouse or a bar, she explained. Anyplace where all the people were talking to each other instead of listening to the music. It felt so disrespectful.

Ah. Yes. I sympathize with that point of view. Personally, I try to keep the socializing to a minimum when I see other musicians. I know how disheartening it can be when we pour our hearts and souls into the music, and our audience barely notices we're there.

But I don't agree with the "disrespectful" part.

Context is everything. If all the chairs are pointed toward the band, no one is serving drinks or snacks, and the people around you are focusing intently on the music, then you're expected to uphold certain standards of behavior.

Clapping to the beat or singing along is fine. A spontaneous and heartfelt "WOO!" after a particularly good solo will contribute to the overall energy and make the band happy. But you shouldn't engage in extended conversation with the friend sitting next to you, and you need to make damn sure your cell phone is turned off.

An atmosphere gig is another animal.

People in coffeehouses or bars aren't there for the music. They go to have a coffee or beer while hanging out with buddies, doing homework, reading a book, whatever. They might not even have known there would be music until someone started playing. The live band is there to enhance the experience. That's all.

There are gradations of atmosphere-ness, of course. Sometimes people do go to these places to see the band. But not to the exclusion of everything else. Many of them want to spend time with their friends, maybe see if they can meet any attractive men/women, and they want to do that where the good music is.

If you're a musician and you don't want to work under those conditions, that's a perfectly reasonable choice. But if you're in, you're in. You understand that your job is to be part of the atmosphere, period. If any of the patrons or passersby listen or groove along—as they did at last night's Cottage Bakery gig—that's great. That's frosting.

But they're allowed to ignore you. They're allowed to do whatever they came to do. As long as they're not heckling you or throwing things in your direction, they're not being disrespectful.

Because they aren't there for you. You're there for them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Through the cracks

The idea to write about Hugh MacLeod's Ignore Everybody didn't originate with me.

Here's what happened. Sometime during the holiday season, I received e-mail from Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby. He offered to send a copy of Ignore Everybody or one of Seth Godin's books to the first 15 working/blogging musicians who responded.

We would share our thoughts about the book on our blogs, then send him the URL. He would post links to the reviews on his own site one month later.

It was a great opportunity not only to take part in some nifty communal creativity, but also to drive a bit o' traffic to the Cinder Bridge blog.

I responded to Derek too late to receive a free copy, but that didn't matter; I already owned Ignore Everybody. I told him I was in.

Today, exactly one month later, Derek put the links to the reviews up. My post wasn't on the list. Why? Because I hadn't written it yet.

I didn't forget. It was on my list of things to do. I just lost track of the time and thought I still had a week or so.

* * *

I'm at my best when I only have one big thing to focus on. There are always distractions, of course. There will always be bills to pay, errands to run, dishes to do. But I'm OK as long as I can mentally place them in orbit around the One Big Thing.

For a while now, however, my life has been pulling me in four or five different directions at once. There's the day job, which demands a lot of time and energy. There's the music, which turns out to be many focal points instead of one: songwriting, practicing and rehearsing, gigging, and promotion. There's advocacy for ME/CFS awareness, which overlaps with the music, but not entirely. There's all the other life stuff.

When I had fewer things competing for my attention, I was able to overcome my natural tendency toward total disorganization. (Mostly.) Now, stuff falls through the cracks. Actually, everything but the job falls through the cracks. Nothing gets my full attention. Nothing gets done as well as it should.

And of all the time-sucks I've listed above, there's nothing I'm willing to give up.

So there was a certain irony to my last post about the creative freedom one gets from a day job. Don't get me wrong. I meant every word. It's just that, especially right now, I can also see the other side.

If I supported myself by gigging for cover bands, I would also be honing my craft. I could apply all the practicing, rehearsal, and promotion to my overall goals as a musician.

* * *

I'm not the first creative type to face this conundrum, and I won't be the last. But the ones who are successful are the ones who learn how to deal with it. Somehow, they figure out a workaround.

My greatest fear is that I'll go my entire life without learning the "somehow."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sex and cash

Years ago I met a fantasy/science fiction writer who had recently published a Star Trek novel. I watched Star Trek: Next Generation faithfully, and I'd met my share of hardcore Trekkies, so my first assumption was that he must be a big fan.

No, he said, not particularly.

At the beginning of his career, the writer explained, he decided that he would support himself by writing books. No day jobs for him. Just books. The money he earned from Star Trek novels and the like allowed him to write the stories he really wanted to write.

I was incredibly impressed that he'd been able to pull this off. Making a living as a novelist is well-nigh impossible.

Still, I wondered if I would make the same decision in his shoes.

* * *

A month or so ago, I read a short book that came highly recommended by Derek Sivers, the original founder of CD Baby. The book, Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod, contained unconventional advice to those of us who pursue creative endeavors.

I found most of his tips insightful, but one of my favorites was "keep your day job."
The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task at hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.
MacLeod calls this his "sex and cash" theory: one way or another, you'll always have to balance your need to support yourself (cash) with your desire to do the creative stuff you like (sex).

Reading this made me feel better about myself and my life.

Because eventually I did find myself in my writer friend's shoes. I started writing songs, bought a keyboard, joined a band ... and kept my day job. Why kill myself trying to find work as a lounge pianist, or as a member of a cover band, playing songs I didn't care for, when I already had a way to support myself?

In the end, keeping the day job didn't mean I was selling out somehow. It meant the opposite. It meant I could focus on the music I wanted to make rather than singing the equivalent of Star Trek novels.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Recruited (except not really)

A few days ago I received e-mail via the site that hosts our electronic press kit. The message came from Carl at A&R Select, a music licensing company I'd never heard of.

"I listened to all of your tracks," said Carl, "but 'Dry Ground' really stuck out to me more." He left contact info so we could talk about licensing our music "and possibly more."


On the one hand, his message was more targeted and personal than most spam. He did mention one of our songs by name. Then again, his comment about it was more than a little generic. "Stuck out" could mean anything, including "memorably bad."

"Is there any chance this could be legit?" I asked Ron the Drummer.

"Maybe," he said.

I hopped onto their website that night and poked around enough to discern that you'd have to pay for their services. Then I replied to Carl.
Thanks for writing. Please do tell me more about A&R Select. Do you review every track the artist submits and only shop the ones you think are worthy? Or do you submit anything the artist pays you to submit? How does the process work?
Meanwhile, Ron did a little research of his own. He found out that the fee to submit stuff was at least $300. Even better, he found a query from another musician A&R Select had contacted. The e-mail that person received was nearly identical in wording to the one we got.

Funnily enough, Carl never wrote back. Perhaps they only prey upon bands too naive to figure out that they're being sold instead of recruited.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Failure to detect false illness beliefs

Well, this is interesting.

If you've been following the news about ME/CFS, you'll already know all about the latest storm that's been brewing. If not, here's a brief summary.

Back in October, the Whittemore Peterson Institute discovered a link between a retrovirus called XMRV and ME/CFS: 67 percent of the patients sampled tested positive for XMRV, as compared to 4 percent of the healthy controls. The WPI paper was published in Science.

Last week, a group of researchers at Imperial College London published "Failure to Detect the Novel Retrovirus XMRV in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" online. They claim they were unable to replicate the WPI's findings.

The WPI stands by its results. In an official statement, they list various reasons why they believe the new Erlwein et al. study is useless. One is the difference in the patient populations.
Significant and critical questions remain as to the status of patient samples used in the UK study as those samples may have been confused with fatigued psychiatric patients, since the UK has relegated “CFS” patients to psychiatric care and not traditional medical practices.
Nothing too surprising here. One of the paper's authors is Simon Wessely, who believes that people with ME/CFS (and fibromyalgia, and Gulf War syndrome) have "false illness beliefs." Here's a quote from an interview he did with New Scientist
Such symptoms only become a problem when people get trapped in excessively narrow explanations for illness - when they exclude any broader consideration of the many reasons why we feel the way we do.
But today he and a couple of coauthors posted a rebuttal to the WPI's dismissal of the new results. Here are the bits that interest me:
We follow the same psychiatric exclusion criteria as mandated by the Fukuda criteria. We do this on the basis of semi structured interviews and assessment that we have also published. In addition, we also exclude patients with chronic somatisation disorder as defined by DSM-IV, which is not required by the Fukuda criteria, but most experts and clinicians agree are a different population.
and ...
patients in our service have also co operated in studies of PET and fMRI neuroimaging, autonomic dysfunction, neurochemistry, respiratory function, vitamin status, anti nuclear antibodies, immune function, neuroendocrine function and genetics (see references). Hence it is untrue to state that patients at King’s for example do not show alterations in immune function – in fact they do - see Skowera et al, High levels of type 2 cytokine-producing cells in chronic fatigue syndrome." Clinical and Experimental Immunology 2004: 135: 294-302. Similarly, many of our patients also show altered neuroendocrine, neurochemical and other biological parameters, and we have published many examples of these (see references below). It is therefore simply untrue that we either seek to find no biological changes in CFS, or fail to report those that we do find.
So, people only have ME/CFS because they think they do. But our patient population is legitimate, because look how sick they are!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sublime scanning

Everyone understands the role rhyming plays in songs. Fewer people think about scansion—the rhythm or meter of the lines.

If a line scans well, then the emphasized beats match the emphasized syllables. Compare this:
to this:
MARy HAD a SMALL parAkeet
When it comes down to it, the scan is far more important than the rhyme. Don't believe me? Listen to Chicago's Questions 67 & 68. There's not one rhyme in that song. Because all the words fall neatly into place, you don't even notice until someone points it out.

Good scansion also goes a long way toward selling the lyrics.

Not long ago, fellow songstress Jannie Funster posted a snippet of something she's working on in my comments:
Give it away
it'll come back to ya.
Sweeter and deeper than
you ever dreamed.
Give it away
it'll come back to ya.
Give it away.
Because I'd never heard the song, I first read these lyrics as if they were prose, with no idea how they'd scan. My impression: Hmm, that's nice. Yep. Nice message.

But then, out of songwriterly curiosity, I looked at the lines again to figure out where the emphases should go.
GIVE it aWAY (beat beat)
IT'll come BACK to ya
SWEETer and DEEPer than
Suddenly the snippet was amazingly hooky. It stuck in my head without so much as a melody to help keep it there. And the lyrics! So insightful and meaningful and TRUE.

Line the words up with the beat, and their impact increases a hundredfold.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Baton Hero

Have you ever listened to classical music and pretended you were conducting?

It's a video game now. Kind of.

(Hat tip: Andrew Durkin.)

I don't find this nearly as satisfying as waving an imaginary baton. But then, that might have something to do with my abysmally low score.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In progress

Browsing a Billy Joel fan site, I came across a May 2009 interview in which he talks about what he's doing creatively these days.
Well, I never stopped writing music. I'm just writing a different kind of music now. I'm writing instrumental music and thematic music ... I stopped writing songs back in the early '90s. I'm not really interested in songwriting these days ...
I think I can understand where Joel is coming from. He wrote lyrics prolifically for around three decades. At some point, maybe you run out of new ideas. Maybe you feel you've said everything you needed to say.

Sometimes I wonder if I'll get to that point.

I hope not. Or if I do, I hope I find another outlet, as Joel has. Here's why.

I feel different when I'm writing. Life continues to dole out its usual frustrations, but there's a buffer between them and me. I have more compelling things to think about, like whether I should stick a certain phrase in the first or second verse, and what I can rhyme with "memorized."

I'm making it sound like songwriting is nothing more than an excellent distraction, and that's not quite right. It is an excellent distraction, but there's something else going on too.

When I write songs, I feel like I'm bigger than my problems.

Bigger. Better. Above.

It doesn't matter how many songs I've already brought into the world. I'm always happiest when I've got something in progress.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Throwaway lines

The song was called "Dry Ground" and I was pleased with it. I'd written about that friend who constantly unloads on you, hoping you'll magically know how to solve all of his or her problems—not a topic I'd heard set to music before.

I felt the lyrics said exactly what I needed them to say. Just one tiny part of the bridge troubled me. I've boldfaced the problematic line below.
Two hours later and you are still
Talking in circles
Rejecting solutions
And wondering
Why nothing ever changes

Seven years later will you still be
Going in circles
Drowning in puddles
While nothing
Nothing ever changes
(You can listen to the full song on our Myspace page.)

I didn't dislike "drowning in puddles." I liked it too much. Rather than spend its existence buried in the middle of a song, it deserved greater prominence. It should be the refrain that gave the song its name. But there was no place for it in the refrain, and "Dry Ground" was a more fitting title.

For maybe half a second, I considered stripping the line, saving it for some other song's chorus. But I liked it too much where it was. Regretfully, I let it remain a throwaway.

* * *

With more songwriting experience under my belt, I've come to value the clever turns of phrase that only come around once.

Last week I decided to build a song around a cool sentence that had been bouncing around my head. (I can't claim much credit for the sentence; it's an adaptation of something a friend of mine said first. I think she'll let me use it, though.) I made it the first line of an otherwise unwritten chorus ... and didn't get any further. The line wasn't inspiring a melody or other lyrics that particularly excited me.

Then, a few days later, I came up with an idea for a whole 'nother song. I realized that the line would scan perfectly into one of its verses. Could it make sense in this new context? Yes, it could. Done.

Sometimes a lyric works a lot better when it doesn't have to carry the entire tune.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Targeting 2010

I never bothered with New Year's resolutions until the songwriting took off.

I'd finished "I've Been Waiting" in 2000 and considered it a one-off. Maybe I'd write another song if I stumbled across something else I felt like writing about. If not, that was fine too.

But by the end of 2001, I'd written 13 more—one with a friend and the rest by myself. Upon realizing that I'd averaged about a song per month, I thought, That's my goal for 2002. 12 more songs.

And I did it. I churned out one song every month until late 2003, when I started a job that sucked up a lot more of my time. These days I average around four songs a year. Which is all right under the circumstances, but it means I need to set different goals for myself and for Cinder Bridge.

I haven't been sure how to go about it.

The 12-songs goal worked because I already knew I could do it. I just needed the extra incentive to keep plugging away. I don't know how to sell more CDs, or get more bookings for Cinder Bridge, or do more effective advocacy for ME/CFS.

I don't know which of these things should get top priority, either. Advocacy is certainly the more lofty goal. On the other hand, if Cinder Bridge gained a huge following, a lot more people would care about what I had to say.

Yesterday, the last day of 2009, I finally settled on one goal: to find our target audience.

We need to know what kind of people like our music. We need to know what other artists those people like. We need to find out where they are, and how we can reach them.

That's where we need to put all our efforts. We can't reach any of the other goals until we do.

Readers: If you have any ideas, please leave a comment. And enjoy the first day of 2010!