Monday, December 23, 2013

Revenge of the Christmas music

I may have mentioned in passing that I don't like Christmas music. There are a few Christmas carols I enjoy, but most of the genre does nothing for me, and every year a goodly number of grocery stores and radio stations decide that I'm going to hear it no matter what.

Well, tonight Ron the Drummer and I became part of the problem. We had a gig at the VA hospital, and we were told that the audience would expect a few Christmas songs.

Hmm. We'd encountered this at a gig before, but got around it by playing part of "Linus and Lucy" (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) and "Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah." We couldn't get away with that this time. Hanukkah is long over by now, and we needed more than "Linus and Lucy."

So what songs to choose? I hate the Santa Claus/secular Christmas songs. The pretty ones are religious, and this isn't my religion.

In the end, I found a workaround. We'd throw in three Christmas carols (plus "Linus and "Lucy," natch), but we'd do them as instrumentals. The audience didn't seem to mind the lack of vocals for our shortened versions of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," or "Carol of the Bells." We had fun going from each carol instrumental straight into one of our originals.

Funny. The idea of singing about Jesus made me uneasy. No lyrics? No problem.

* * *

On a slightly less bah-humbuggy note, we had a great time at this gig. We love entertaining veterans, hospital staff, and volunteers, and this batch of listeners was responsive and appreciative. We hope we can do it again soon.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I'm theoretically excited about the song I'm writing at the moment. It taps into a mood most songs don't explore, which means I have have a chance to do something new. Newish, anyway.

Unfortunately, I'm stuck.

What challenge am I attempting to overcome? Plumbing the depths of a difficult emotion, perhaps? Finding precisely the right words to convey concepts that aren't easy to articulate?

Eventually. But right now I'm trying to find a rhyme for "live." Did you know that almost nothing rhymes with "live"? Seriously, almost nothing rhymes with "live."

On the bright side, obsessing over this one line means I can put off plumbing the depths of a difficult emotion and finding precisely the right words to convey concepts that aren't easy to articulate.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lyrics vs. technology, take 2

I needed something to rhyme with "on my own," or possibly "alone." Hmmm. How about "waiting by the phone"?

Not bad, not bad.

Oh, wait. Nobody waits by the phone anymore. Cell phones have destroyed that cliche forever. I've already lost one decent song to advances in telecommunications; no point in making another one obsolete before I've even finished it.

Back to the drawing board.

Or the tablet. Whatever.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Donations in Tom Hennessy's name

I happened to be on LinkedIn when an update popped up. "Thomas Hennessy has a new connection," it said. Weird. Did somebody take over his account?

At any rate, it reminded me that I still need to post names of organizations that he would have liked people to donate to. Sorry for the delay. I really haven't wanted to write this.

In alphabetical order:

Immune Dysfunction Association
This Vermont-based organization raises awareness for ME, supports and advocates for Vermonters who suffer from ME and related disorders, and facilitates the education of patients, families, healthcare providers, and primary care physicians about ME.

Invest in ME
An independent UK charity that campaigns for biomedical research into ME.

The Massachusetts CFIDS/ME & FM Association
An organization that educates healthcare providers and the general public regarding myalgic encephalomyelitis and fibromyalgia.

May 12 International Awareness Day
Tom pretty much invented ME Awareness Day.

National Advocacy Alliance for ME/CFS
A network of organizations and individual advocates who engage with government officials to promote change in federal public health policies to better meet the needs of people afflicted with ME.

National CFIDS Foundation
The Foundation's objective is to fund research to find a cause for ME, expedite treatments and eventually a cure, and provide information, education, and support to people with ME. They began a fund for Tom when he was in a nursing home not long ago.

The Nightingale Research Foundation
Founded by Dr. Byron Hyde in 1988, the NRF provides technical assistance and information to healthcare professionals and researchers to help North Americans who have or are related to somebody disabled by ME.

Pandora does advocacy for patients with neuro-endocrine-immune diseases, including ME and chronic Lyme disease.

Wisconsin Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Association, Inc.
A nonprofit dedicated to assisting Wisconsin ME patients.

Thanks to Joni Comstock, Juliet, Pat, Lois Ventura, Erica Verrillo, and Victoria for contributing names of organizations.

Tom also had chronic Lyme disease—somehow I managed not to know this until after he died. If anybody knows of Lyme organizations Tom specifically endorsed, I'll post those too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

RIP Tom Hennessy


Tom Hennessy was an ME activist. Though he was desperately sick himself, he fought for over two decades to get people to take myalgic encephalomyelitis seriously, call it by the right name, and fund research for a cure.

I first encountered Tom in 2008. Ron and I had just released a recording of "Everybody Knows About Me," our ME advocacy song, and I wanted advice on how to get it out into the world. I found his site, RESCIND (no longer online), and figured he'd be a good person to contact. He loved the song. He proposed hosting it on RESCIND to raise funds, which we did. He was so passionate and enthusiastic, despite the havoc his disease had wrought on his body, despite his anger at the indifference and scorn leveled at sufferers.

The last time I talked to him was a year ago, via Facebook. I linked him to a song I'd written recently, and he expressed his frustration about not being able to do more for the cause. He'd wanted to put a huge, big-name fundraising/awareness concert together, but he got into a car wreck before plans took off. He still had hope that he could make it happen if a couple of big names did more of the heavy lifting.

Now he's gone. Died by his own hand. It's stupid for me to be surprised, as this is a common cause of death for people with ME, but he seemed like one of those people who would fight forever. Live forever.

I wish his story had a happier ending. RIP, Tom.

* * *

I wanted to close this with a link to a charitable organization that funds ME research or ME awareness. Unfortunately, I don't know where Tom would have wanted the money to go. His obituary page lists two places where memorial contributions can be sent, but one of them is the CAA, and I know for damn sure he wouldn't want you giving them the time of day. If anybody has a better idea, please contact me at susan[at] or leave a comment.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The unlikely songwriter

Ever hear of alternate universes theory? It goes something like this. Every time an outcome is in question, the universe splits into two, or three, or however many possibilities exist.

You turn right or left.

You have a second cup of coffee or you don't.

You take the job in Dallas or Berkeley.

Science fiction is rife with stories about alternate universes. Some physicists believe they exist for real. I don't understand the science nearly well enough to form an opinion about that, but isn't it fun to think about? To imagine all those different lives our counterparts could be living because they chose differently?

I thought of this tonight because of a post on Captain Awkward, one of my favorite advice column blogs. The letter writer had just about completed a first novel, and instead of being thrilled, felt sort of meh about it. Where could the writer find the motivation to keep going?

Captain Awkward had tons of great advice. The piece that clicked best for me referenced, of all things, the theme song from Flashdance.
"First, when there's nothing ..." the song starts. I am skeptical that "Flashdancing" is actually a thing-distinct-from-stripping that was popular in working-class Pittsburgh in the 80s, but I do think that all creative acts start there.

First, there is nothing.

And then there is you.

And then there is something that didn't exist before in the world.
What does this have to do with alternative universes?

When I ponder all the different courses my life could have taken, one of the first things that comes to mind is songwriting. In how many other universes do I end up doing that? My answer is always "not many." Not even if every version of my life provided me with a random song idea. Inspiration is the easy part for daydreamy fog-heads like me. It's the follow-through that's hard.

The first three lines of what would become my first song came out of freaking nowhere. A gift from the universe, or God, or random neurons colliding. The rest of the line and the vocal melody for the verses came just as quickly, through improvisation. Anything else—if there was to be anything else—I'd have to work for.

I mused, That's kind of catchy. It could be a song.

I thought, That's dumb. I don't write songs.

Here's where the road forks.

I easily could've thought: Yeah, I don't write songs, no point trying. That would've been the end of the line. Why attempt something so difficult when I knew I'd fail anyway?

I also could have given myself a pep talk. You can do it! You just have to believe in yourself! It probably wouldn't have worked. Not for long, anyway. Not enough to overcome my natural fear and self-doubt and laziness the first time I ran into an obstacle higher than my knees.

What I actually thought surprised me. One of those pieces of internal dialogue that seem to come from someone else. Okay, said the indifferent voice in my head. But if you don't, nobody else will.

Nobody else.

If I didn't make it exist, it wouldn't.

So I did. And here I am.

And sometimes, like tonight, I think about all the universes where I didn't keep going because I didn't understand why I should. I feel bad for those other selves.

Then again, who knows. If I wrote my first song when I was 30, another me could write my first song when I'm 44, or 63, or 80.

It's never too late to do the unlikely thing that changes your life.

If you don't, nobody else will.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Same love, different audience

You've probably heard "Same Love," a song that advocates for gay rights. If not, take a listen:

Cool, right? Hip hop has a history of homophobia. It's nice that someone is using the genre to speak out against discrimination. Not everyone is feeling the love, though. Tyler Coates, a gay rapper, finds the whole thing kind of annoying.
I know it's OK to be gay. Most of those I know in the LGBT community know it's ok to be queer, too. And here’s a surprise for the heterosexual world: most of us didn't learn from you anything about understanding and appreciating ourselves.
It's understandable, his frustration. The gay community hardly needs Macklemore's validation. On the other hand—and Coates acknowledges this throughout his piece—"Same Love" isn't for out-and-proud gay people. "Same Love" is for heteros with homophobic tendencies. Bigots are generally more open to a message that opposes bigotry when it comes from somebody they consider to be one of their own.

I don't know how many people "Same Love" has reached. I don't know if anyone ever reconsiders strongly held prejudices because of a song. I do hope that at the very least, it will encourage straight allies to be more outspoken when they encounter bigotry.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

We'll stick with our Cinder Bridge T-shirts

My friend Pamela sent me the following Buzzfeed link with the message, "Don't be these bands."

21 Painfully Awkward Band Photos

No worries. If anybody tried to pose Ron the Drummer and me that way, we wouldn't be able to stop laughing long enough to finish the shoot.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Cutting-edge copyright, part II

Remember those songs I sent to the US Copyright Office back in June? My certificate of registration came in the mail today. That was a surprise. The last time I registered songs, it took them four or five years to do anything about it.

Maybe registering online is just that much more efficient. If so, it's nice to know that the government is capable of using the internet for more than just spying on us.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Runaway composition

The nice thing about writing lyrics is that I can do it anywhere. As long as somebody else's music isn't playing in the background, I'm free to piece words together while I wash dishes, do laundry, or walk to the store. Because I write slowly, just a little at a time, it's easy to remember what I've done until I have access to a computer, or a pen and paper.

Writing music is different. For whatever reason, a new musical phrase is more apt to flee from my memory if I don't record it right away. Sometimes it comes back, but it does so on its own time, and quite often when, once again, I don't have the ability to get it down.

This usually isn't a problem for me. When it comes to piano accompaniments and solos, I compose more with my hands than my head. For whatever reason, I do better when I'm sitting at the piano and playing, and I always have a little recorder handy when I'm at the piano.

Every now and then, though, a solo that's been eluding me begins to gain momentum. That's when it becomes dangerous. I play what I have over and over again in my mind, fingers working an imaginary keyboard, obsessively trying to fill in the missing parts. Occasionally I have a good idea. But if I'm not where I can record or notate that idea, I have to keep the idea on repeat or risk losing it.

I did manage to get tonight's musical phrase down before it disappeared on me. Still, maybe I should remind myself to think about other things while I'm in the shower.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

She cuts me even more, she changes

While things are looking up for gay rights in this country, other current events have got me down. Browsing iPod selections this morning, I happened on this song ...

... and realized that it fit my political mood perfectly.
Beauty like a knife
She cuts me even more, she changes
Right before my eyes into something ugly and sore
"Of Thee I Sing," by Leon Russell, is over 40 years old. Should we worry when a protest song written in 1971 still rings true today?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A real honor

"Thanks for coming out to see us," I announced over the simple left-hand riff I was playing on my keyboard. Then I stopped and turned to Ron. "That doesn't sound right. They aren't really coming to see us."

Ron and I were rehearsing for a VA Hospital gig. We would be playing in the cafeteria during dinner hours, entertaining the residents while they went about their otherwise normal routine. My usual intro wasn't going to work.

Ron thought for a moment. "Say it's an honor for us to be there."

Yes, that was much better.

"It's a real honor to be here!" I announced to the vets who were sitting at their tables and lining up to get their food. "We're Cinder Bridge."

Better, but still inadequate.

* * *

I was a senior at Indiana University when the Gulf War started. During the long run-up to the war, as George H. W. Bush formed his careful alliances, I felt deeply conflicted. On the one hand, we were obviously getting involved because it was in America's self-interest. On the other hand, Kuwait had been invaded, and they genuinely wanted our help. I didn't join the students who were marching around Dunn Meadow with signs that said "No Blood for Oil" because I thought it was more complicated than that. And yet ...

If I believed this war was just, why wasn't I signing up? How could I even have an opinion when others would be doing the fighting? I didn't want to kill, and I didn't want to die, so how could I say it was okay for others to do so?

Ever since then, when I've heard about the horrors our soldiers have faced in the latest conflicts, or Gulf War syndrome (which shares a lot of symptoms in common with myalgic encephalomyelitis), or PTSD, I think, You suffered so I didn't have to.

Yeah, there's still some lingering guilt.

But I could hardly convey that to our audience. What would I say? "Thanks for listening. I don't even deserve to be sitting here in front of you, but I hope you enjoy the music."

"It's a real honor to be here" would have to do.

I hope they enjoyed the music.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Borderlands gig

Aw, man, I thought. There's nobody here.

Ron and I had just arrived at Borderlands Brewing Company so we could set up for our gig. The place had been packed the night before. Where were all the people? This was going to be our first time playing here, and if we played to an empty house, we likely wouldn't be invited back.

Then I remembered. It was 3:20 p.m. Borderlands didn't open until 4:00.

People started trickling in right at opening time. By the time we started, the place was packed.

So much for needless worries. Hopefully this means we'll get to go back. It really is a neat place.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Audience karma

We're playing at Borderlands Brewing Company for the first time tomorrow evening. I went over there tonight to get a feel for the space. A few minutes after I arrived, a man and a woman approached me. They quickly realized that I didn't recognize them—I have a horrible memory for faces—and introduced themselves. We'd originally met when Ron and I sat in on a Songwriter's Night at Monterey Court, and they signed up for our mailing list.

As it turns out, they were at Borderlands to see us. They thought we were playing tonight instead of Saturday night. Sadly, they didn't think they'd be able to make it out tomorrow. But, they said, at least they got to go to Borderlands for the first time, and they liked Shrimp Chaperone, the band that was actually playing.

I'll look on the bright side as well and take this as a good omen. Cinder Bridge hasn't even played at Borderlands yet, and we've already brought them new patrons!

Here's hoping karma works in our favor, and people who didn't mean to see us end up enjoying our music by mistake.

* * *
Borderlands Brewing Company is at 119 E. Toole Ave., Tucson, Arizona. We'll be playing from 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 11. As I discovered today, the space is fantastic. Come see us!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cutting-edge copyright

I just sent 28 songs to the US Copyright Office for registration. The last time I registered any of my work was six or seven years ago, so it was overdue.

A lot has changed in six years.

Back in 2006, I downloaded the proper form online, printed it, filled it out, and Fed-Exed it along with a CD and a check. Tonight I did the entire thing online. Even though a few of the instructions were more confusing than what I'd encountered before, it felt a lot more convenient. And cutting-edge.

Well, almost cutting-edge. Ordinary non-technical people have been ordering and paying for stuff online since what, 1999? But hey, it takes the government a while to catch up.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


My driver's license has been suspended.

The chain of events leading up to this predicament began back in February, when I got pulled over for not having renewed my registration. The cop told me he was writing it up, but that nothing bad would happen as long as I got it taken care of immediately. I hauled ass to the emissions place, renewed online, paid the late fee, and got on with my life.

Apparently I was also supposed to inform the City of Tucson that I had done this. Oops. On top of that, the Motor Vehicle Division of Arizona (I realized) had never sent me my proof of registration, which I needed to get my license unsuspended.


Like so many people, I've become ridiculously dependent on my car. A decade ago I could get most of the places I needed to go on my bicycle. No more ... and time constraints have made it such that I don't even go to places in biking distance on my bike now. My bike requires repairs before it's even rideable.

Which sucks on days like today, when you're not allowed to drive and you need to go to the pharmacy.

Before I tried calling around to see if any friends could take me, it occurred to me that the pharmacy wasn't really that far. I Google-mapped it. 1.7 miles each way.

Fine. I would walk. But I was not happy about it. I had things I desperately needed to get done, and this was going to turn a quick-and-dirty errand into a rather long one.

I set out in the late afternoon. Just a few feet from my driveway, I thought, the song.

Oh yeah! There was a song I'd been working on for many weeks, or perhaps I should say not working on. After a few cool lines that made me happy, I was completely stuck.

In the early days of my songwriting, I had thought up most of my lyrics while on my bike. Walking worked just as well. Maybe I could scratch out a line or two, and the time suck wouldn't be a total waste.

I wrote six lines.

Creative juices still flowing, I wrote seven more after I got home.

You have to understand, this never happens. One or two new lines in the course of a day is a really good day for me. This is true even though I have set periods of time where I have to do something tedious (cooking) and can think about writing without having to procrastinate something else. Getting my body moving shook something loose somehow.

The funny thing? When I got home, I checked my mailbox. The MVD had sent my proof of registration. If I'd known it was going to arrive so fast, I probably would've waited for it, then risked the short drive with my new tag on the car. I'm so glad I didn't.

Guess I need to lose my license more often.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A bit of news for ME Awareness Day

May 12 is ME Awareness Day! What is ME, you ask? It's a disease. Read this and become aware.

One of the most important symptoms is post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion. It means the other symptoms—pain, debilitating exhaustion, etc., get worse after physical or mental exertion and require an extended recovery period.

A study published last month may shed some light on why post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion exists:
The cells from ME patients produced on average 20 times as much acid when exercised, suggesting an underlying cause for the aching muscles that patients often experience as soon as they begin to exercise.

(Interpret "exercise" to mean any physical exertion, not exercise like pushups.)

Here's hoping for more progress by this time next year.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A poignant moment between bandmates just before the songwriting contest

Ron the Drummer: "So are you ready?"

Me: "Yep!"

Ron: "Are you sure?"

Me: "Yep."

Ron: "Are you really sure?"

Me: "..."

Ron: "Remember—don't fuck up!"

Me: "I am so blogging this."

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Photo by Christina Farnsworth

The songwriting contest went well. I didn't win, but the audience really seemed to like the songs. I hope I'll get another chance to participate someday.

Well, mostly. When the winners were announced, I learned something terrifying: they always try to get past winners to judge the contests. I ran into one of the judges, Mitzi Cowell, later on, and she confirmed this. Having won last year, she felt obligated to fulfill the judging role. She talked about how hard it was to choose, how intently she had to listen to every word.

Oh yikes.

The thing about contests involving music is, it's impossible to be completely objective because songs don't have objective value. Different people like different things. I'm OK with this as a songwriting participant. But as a judge, I'd want to pick the "right" song based upon some kind of objective criteria, and I wouldn't be able to do it. The angst would just about kill me. It almost makes me not want to win.

Be judged not, lest ye judge?

See Cinder Bridge

When I first had visions of starting my own band, I had no idea what the band would be called. I just knew I didn't want it to be my name. A band's sound reflects the contributions of all its members. Calling us "Susan Wenger and the Disturbed Unicorns" (or whatever) would deny those contributions.

The decision has served Cinder Bridge well. It only becomes inconvenient at events like the Tucson Folk Festival Songwriting Contest, where the songwriters enter under their own names. My hope is that audience members who have never heard of us will like the two songs I play and buy our CD at the festival's Kitchen Store. But our CD will be filed under Cinder Bridge. Oops.

My plan had been to ask the people running the Kitchen Store to file half of our CDs under "Cinder Bridge" and the other half under my name. I'd slap labels on the "Susan" CDs so searchers wouldn't get confused. The Kitchen Store people had a better idea: They'd have a "Susan Wenger" card in the Ws, and on it they'd write "See Cinder Bridge." If they filed our CDs under both the band name and my name, one group might sell out, and people who looked for us under one name wouldn't know to check the other.

Works for me. I'm for anything that tells people to see Cinder Bridge.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Any ordinary legend: Why I dig Rodriguez

When tickets for Rodriguez went on sale in Tucson, they sold out very quickly. Twelve days, to be exact.

Because of course they did. The Rialto, where Rodriguez was to perform, hits capacity at 1,200 people. I can't even imagine what the people in charge of this event were thinking.

A little background, for those of you who have never heard of Rodriguez. He made a couple of records in the early '70s. His label had high hopes for him, but dropped him after sales went nowhere. Part of the problem may have been his inability to promote himself. He had a habit of playing with his back to the audience.

So his music career came to an end, with no chance of revival ... until the late '90s, when some people from South Africa tracked him down. Amongst white progressive South Africans, it turns out, Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis.

* * *

Like most American fans, I discovered Rodriguez through the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Listening to him for the first time was like remembering an alternate past. He sounded a little like Bob Dylan infused with Donovan. He sounded like I should have heard him a thousand times before. As if a very specific space had been reserved for him in my consciousness, and I didn't know it was there until his music filled it.

That's why I wasn't surprised when his show had to be moved from the Rialto to AVA, an amphitheater seating 5,000. Just about everybody in Tucson who saw Searching for Sugar Man wanted more of what they'd been missing all these years.

And let's face it, everybody loves a plucky underdog story. We don't just want to hear this guy. We want to be this guy. If I feel discouraged because Cinder Bridge hasn't yet garnered international recognition, I can take comfort in the tale of Rodriguez, who carried on with his life for over two decades before discovering that his music had connected with people after all. I can fantasize about the reactions of old friends, of acquaintances, of the checkout people who recognize me at the grocery store because I've been shopping there so long, when a song of ours becomes famous. We didn't know who you really were. We didn't know you were special.

At any rate, I got to see Rodriguez with a friend at AVA last night, and Rodriguez delivered. Not only did he sound fantastic live, but he's clearly gotten past his overwhelming stage shyness. Even if he wasn't chatting up the audience at every opportunity, he occasionally threw out a line or two to make the concert experience complete.

"I love you, Tucson."

"Maybe it's just the drinks, but I still love you, Tucson."

At one point he needed to pause between songs to tune his guitar.

"Don't rush me," he said. And then, after a few more moments, sounding like he was trying to stifle a laugh:

"I just want to be treated like any ordinary legend."

Don't we all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


We've written a bunch of new songs recently, which means it's time to put a new set list together. I'm pretty happy with my first draft except for the placement of one song, a mellow, happy tune called "Saturday Morning." It isn't terrible where it is. It just isn't optimal. There are a few others that would go better in the spot.

But switching them around doesn't work. If I put "Saturday Morning" in a more favorable place, it displaces something else. And vice versa.

This is why set lists stagnate. There comes a point when you get tired of playing Tetris with the tunes.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A late application

In 2002, my friend and vocal coach Wendy Adams was accepted as a finalist at the Tucson Folk Festival Songwriting Competition. I'd never heard of the contest before. I showed up because I wanted to hear Wendy.

And I was so happy I did. Wendy was fabulous, as expected, but I grooved on the entire event. Ten finalists, two hours, so much great music, such a great atmosphere.

I decided that one day, I wanted to be playing up there.

Just one problem. Supposedly only acoustic instruments were allowed. I kept forgetting to find out if they meant that literally, or if keyboards that sounded like pianos were kosher. I kept missing the application dates. (This is why Ron the Drummer handles our booking.) Next year I'll remember, I thought every time.

The question was finally put to rest last year, when I saw Amber Norgaard play in the competition ... with her keyboard. I swore to myself that I wouldn't let the date go by again for 2013. This time I would apply.

So I did.

And I'm in.

Save the date. The contest is Saturday, May 4th, from noon to 2 p.m. MST. It will be broadcast on KXCI (and streamed on 90 minutes later. Each participant plays two songs each. We won't know what order we're in until we're there, but that's OK. You'll seriously want to stay for the whole thing. I promise it will be a good time.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Whither the weather?

The rain, staying up in the sky where it belongs
and graciously not falling on our heads

"Hey, look, it's getting warmer outside," I said in my last message to the Cinder Bridge mailing list. "Just in time, too. We’re playing at La Encantada on Sunday, and the forecast says the high will be 72 degrees."

By the time Friday rolled around, an updated forecast was still predicting a high of 72. Unfortunately, it also said there'd be a 20 percent chance of rain. I had hoped we'd have a decent-sized audience in spite of the Superbowl. If it rained, we wouldn't even get to play.

I kept an eye on the great outdoors this morning and early afternoon. The skies were gray and somewhat foreboding, but no rain. I drove up to our gig in the Foothills without wearing a hat or using the windshield visor because clouds kept the sun out of my eyes, but no rain. Ron the Drummer and I set up, and it was chilly enough to make me wish I'd worn something a little warmer ... but no rain.

Just as we started to play, the sun came out. The glorious, glorious sun.

Days like this make me realize how far so many of us humans have removed ourselves from nature. Imagine living in a preindustrial world, where "work" meant hunting or gathering or farming. Whether or not it rained would mean the difference between life and death, or at the very least between comfort and discomfort. In that context, it's a little crazy that I only have to think about the weather on outdoor gig days.

Thanks to everyone who came out and basked in the sun with us.

* * *

Photos by Neill Mills. Muchas gracias, Neill!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The perils of ignoring mainstream culture

A few weeks ago there was a call for musicians to perform at the La Encantada Fine Art Festival here in Tucson. The festival was to take place this weekend. Out of the many performance slots available on Saturday and Sunday, I picked Sunday, 3 to 4 p.m.

Oops. Turns out this is Superbowl Sunday. Who knew? I mean, besides every other person in America except me?

The slot could be worse. Pregame stuff, whatever that is, starts exactly when our set ends. Kickoff begins half an hour later. So, you know, theoretically people could come out to see us and be home in time for the game.

Still, I probably should've just chosen Saturday to play. I have to remember to pay more attention to things that don't interest me when it comes to scheduling.

* * *
If you care as little about the Superbowl as I do (or you can drive really fast) and you live in Tucson, come see us! La Encantada is at 2905 E. Skyline Drive (NW corner of Campbell & Skyline). We play, as mentioned above, Sunday, Feb. 3, from 3 to 4 p.m.

* * *
UPDATE: People totally came, you guys! Not only did we have a decent crowd, but everyone was really into the music. It was the kind of gig that puts you in a good mood for the whole day. I wish we could've played longer.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Their A&R app said "I don't hear a single"

When music lovers don't like a pop song, they often use the word "formula" to express their disdain. If you have artistic integrity, you'll write from the heart instead of painting by numbers, dammit!

Alas. The music world is about to get a whole lot more formulaic. Computer scientists from the University of Bristol have invented an algorithm that can predict whether a song will become a hit.
The researchers used musical features such as, tempo, time signature, song duration and loudness. They also computed more detailed summaries of the songs such as harmonic simplicity, how simple the chord sequence is, and non-harmonicity, how ‘noisy’ the song is.

A ‘hit potential equation’ that scores a song according to its audio features was devised. ... The team found they could classify a song into a ‘hit’ or ‘not hit’ based on its score, with an accuracy rate of 60 per cent as to whether a song will make it to top five, or if it will never reach above position 30 on the UK top 40 singles chart.

So far this is just a bunch of academics who asked an interesting question ("What specific variables give a song mass appeal?") and found an interesting way to answer it. But it has implications beyond the scholarly realm. Potentially troubling implications.

Less innovation

Big record labels will jump on this technology if it works. Why wouldn't they? Historically, they've chosen new acts based on what they think will sell, and what they think will sell sounds like what has sold before. Nothing new about that.

But every now and again, somebody bucks the trend. Bob Dylan and Nirvana weren't putting out what the labels considered commercial music, but they got their shot because an A&R guy sensed that there was something special about them and convinced the higher-ups to give them a chance.

The algorithm can't do that. One of its limitations is that it only makes correct predictions within a given era—a hit from the early '80s isn't the same as a hit today. So if a new sound comes along, something with the potential to catch fire with a large audience, the program has no way of knowing that.

In an ideal world, there could be A&R people who do their own research when a new musical trend sets off their Spidey sense, and then feed their software new data when they're right. Maybe that will happen. Or maybe the big labels, eager for short-term rewards, will just replace their expensive expert humans with software.

I'll leave you to ponder which option is more likely.

Songwriting software

With the ability to predict what songs will be popular, how long will it be until software is actually writing the songs? How long before my fellow songwriters and I are replaced by a machine?

This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, I know. Still, artificial intelligence is getting better and better. And it's not an either/or proposition—there are intermediate steps. Before we have AI that can compose music and lyrics unaided, we may have ...
  • Hit-predicting software as an editing tool. Songwriters will create their own first drafts, then run them through a program to see what they need to change. This isn't the most attractive alternative if you want to express yourself and create something new, but it's highly useful if you're just trying to churn out a hit.
  • Songwriting AI that creates the first draft. Early software won't be able to produce a radio hit on its own. The lyrics will probably sound like a bad Babelfish translation. However, it might hash together something a human songwriter can tweak and build upon.

Wild, handwringing speculation, you say? Well, yes. And it's important to remember that the music industry doesn't control all the music. Thanks to the internet and cheaper recording equipment, it's easier than ever for new bands to gain an audience without the help of a label.

But as far as radio play goes, I really do believe this is something to keep an eye on. Technology gets better, and all sorts of things that once sounded like sci fi have become possible. Someday we may have computer programs writing our greatest hits ... and we won't be able to tell the difference.

Hell, the article I linked to is over a year old.

Maybe it's already happened.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Resolutions unresolved

On New Year's day, I thought about the things I planned to accomplish in 2013 and felt pretty good about them. Right up until the moment I realized that they were exactly the same as the goals I'd failed to achieve in 2012.

To be fair to myself, I made a tiny bit of progress. I didn't spend the entire year standing still. But wow, I'm not nearly as far along as I thought I'd be.

The good news is that a few days ago, I remembered a song I'd started last year. One about New Year's resolutions unresolved. With fresh motivation, I dug it up and quickly fixed the lyrical issue I'd been stuck on, the one that prevented me from taking it any further. Now it's almost done.

Once I've finished it, I'd better get started on those other goals. I can make the same resolution twice, but I can't write a song about it twice.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The ghost of songs past

I really felt like writing this afternoon. I even had a nice little stretch of time to do it, while I was chopping up vegetables and meat for lunch. The problem? No ideas had taken hold. Usually I want to write because I've thought of a phrase or a rhyme or something else to build on. Today, what I mostly had was an urge to create.

I gave it a go anyway. Played around. And maybe one of my vague, half-formed ideas could've stuck and evolved. Instead, I let previous songs I'd written creep into my head. Lyrics I was particularly proud of.

My vague ideas fled as the ghost of songs past settled in. "How can we ever live up to those," they cried.

Intellectually I understand that songs are the result of so much work, so many discarded words, over such a long period of time. I remember what it took to assemble them, how much grunt work was involved. So why would I expect a new song to fall out of the sky, fully formed? I know better.

And yet, the songs I've already written can intimidate me. Too much distance between them and whatever new thing I'm thinking about.

At my next little stretch of free time, I'll have to try again. Remind myself that I don't need to produce a finished work of art in one sitting. All I need is to develop one tiny idea that is interesting enough to take root. One tiny idea that refuses to let go.