30. In Visible Cities

2018 was the year I discovered Italo Calvino – If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and latterly, Invisible Cities. I would encourage you to read Invisible Cities without reading a precis first. There is a conceptual spoiler that is only revealed half way through the book, and having heard what it is when I started reading the book, I scoured the first half for clues and foreshadowing of that reveal. This is not a good way to read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino – and once I let go of my sleuthing and enjoyed it at face value, it was a much more enjoyable book. Thanks to Eleanor McDowell for both introducing me to the book, and for spoilering it for me.

I had been in London for about a month, for the first time in a year, and was about to leave to start a tour with The Allusionist. As we sat in the back of an airport taxi (a perk of age), I found myself looking at the front doors of the Georgian townhouses and Victorian terraces of north London, shiny and impervious. I started to wonder how old those doors were – how long do doors last? As long as the houses they’re part of? – whether the owners can just layer paint on those things and neglect other parts of the house, so they look impervious and fancy but are falling apart behind the facade. Somewhere in the attic of that house, is there a painting of a damp, rotten door? I hadn’t realised my brain had done a “Picture of Door-ian Gray” pun. This idea took root and spread out and became a song about London, a creative and cosmopolitan city defined by waves of migration, cast adrift culturally from the country around it by the UK’s rejection of these values, and finally physically separating into its own island through force of will.

I didn’t write or record the accompanying music until we reached our destination, Chicago – where we were staying with Jen Brandel and Aaron Wickenden, the proud owners of a double bass* and a dobro guitar. I’ve always struggled with double bass, but this one was a beaut to play, and those two instruments became the core of In Visible Cities. As ever, listen to the accompanying podcast to hear more about how this track was recorded, and the sounds and instruments used. And you can hear some of that beautiful upright bass in isolation.

So, we’re at the end of Volume 3 of Year of The Bird! Which means Volume 3 is out, available to buy on Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and all your favourite places. I’ll be back in a few weeks to begin the final batch (Volume 4).

*which they accidentally (?) bought when they travelled miles to try to buy a vintage banjo (?)

29. A Bad Crossword

IXI Lang is a programming language used for making music – especially live coding music. The way it works is you have a bunch of “players”, and you give them statements like:

Jeff > piano[1 5 1 4 ]

Then your “piano player”, “Jeff”, plays a melody – based on the 1st, 5th and 4th notes of the scale (default C major), landing on beats 1,3,5 and 7 of an 8 beat pattern. You can make these melodies pretty much as long as you like, which is important for what comes later…

I came across IXI Lang via Emma Winston, who as Deerful recorded the Tell Me I Can Fix This On My Own mini-album using IXI. I really like her approach to singing and the way her music combines electronic music with personal stories. She was also incredibly helpful when I came to start fiddling about with IXI myself, and helped me to get it installed. IXI is easy to use, but very annoying to install – I finally gave up when I managed to get everything working except the drums – which is why the two songs I composed using IXI (this one, and Dental Health, the previously track) don’t have drums.

So IXI’s basic melodic engine is based on numbers – each one representing a note in the scale, and numbers above 7 being octaves of the basic scale – and so like every good maths nerd, I programmed the first 700-odd digits of PI into the engine to see how it would sound, and whether I could pick out a melody. When that didn’t work I started thinking about defining a harmony – in the song, the first 16 notes are unaccompanied; followed by:

[3 3 8 3 2 7 9 5 0 2 8 8 4 1 9 7 1 6 9 3 9 9 3 7 ]

Or, in the key of C major

[E E C E D B D G D C C F C D B C A D E D D E B]

I’ve highlighted the notes that chords fall on – so those notes were the basis for the chords I would use for the verse. Usually, but not always, the root of the chord was defined by the note; sometimes I would choose the note to be the 5th of the chord, for example. A “0” created a gap (with no note playing) for the third chord, so I had free choice there. So with the melody you see above, I built the chord progression, and then fixed these chords for future verses; the melody rumbled on through the digits of pi, but those chords remained. At some point we get to the chorus, and I followed the notes that were playing in the chorus and tried to work out which chords went best underneath. And then that was the chorus progression.

I don’t love the chorus for a couple of reasons; firstly because I’m not sure the lyrics distinguish finely enough between not asking for permission to do something (which is what I intended), and not asking for consent before doing something to someone (which is not what I intended). The second reason I don’t like it is that I think it sounds like Morrissey.

Next week, we travel underneath one of the oldest cities in the world. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here, and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

28. Dental Health

I need to have two wisdom teeth out. It’s not my fault. They just sit at the back of my mouth, not growing properly. Eventually they’ll go bad. I have to get rid of them. I was travelling basically constantly last year and it made it impossible to get them sorted. I did have a useful dentists appointment though – it made it clear that there is something I can do, if only to get them pulled. I tend to be fatalistic about health – that things I do to help myself will ultimately have no impact. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because I’ve got a lot of bad advice?

Mental health is an area people freely dispense bad advice in. Just cheer up! Get some exercises and drink a fruit drink and your bad times will fall away! Have you considered this herbal supplement? Visualise a bright, abundant meadow. People with much more severe challenges than I do get much worse advice than this from people with zero experience and no qualification. So I started wondering what it would look like if strangers started giving unsolicited and uninformed dental health advice. See what I did there? Change a single letter, and uninformed, unsolicited advice promising incredible restorative effects becomes obviously ridiculous to everyone. Drink a glass of piss every day! It will straighten your crooked canine. Rub grapes into the gum where a tooth was extracted, and the tooth will grow back! And so on.

Lyrically, the song forms a sort of an acrostic – the first word of each line from the first and second verse and chorus form the final verse. There’s not much to say about that except I find the final verse exceptionally satisfying:

Every time you promise
I do not believe
Your teeth grew back

I don’t think that
This helped one person
My mind came back

I wrote this using a music coding language called IXI lang – I’ll explain next week a bit more about what that is, but in the meantime I want to thank Emma Winston (aka Deerful), who helped me to learn the language, and inspired me to do it in the first place. Her music is great, download it immediately (after you’ve pre-ordered mine, obviously).

Next week, I make a song out of the first 700-something digits of Pi – until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here, and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

27. After All This Time

Nick Gill is a very talented person. By day, he’s a typesetter and printer, by night, a guitarist, composer, and playwright. I played in his band The Monroe Transfer, around ten years ago – a 7-piece post rock band featuring cello, double bass, violin, viola, drums, and two guitars (I played one of those guitars). Comparisons are odious, but they sounded a bit like Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You Black Emperor*. I really rate his playing and composition, and back then, we were talking about songwriting, and he he advised me “try to write a song in the style of someone you like – you don’t have to release it or even play it to anyone, and it probably won’t sound like what you’re trying to copy, but you’ll learn a lot”. I completely ignored this advice.

Until I wrote this song. Can you tell who I’m trying to copy? The dry, strummy acoustic guitar? The growly bass? The wailing lead guitar? If you can’t, it’s probably not you fault. It probably just proves the impossibility of trying to copy the Pixies. Although Jonny Greenwood famously said “The Pixies only made four albums” when asked why there was little to no guitar on Amnesiac, Radiohead’s fifth. The famous pre-chorus “chukka” from Creep is the less-famous pre-chorus chukka from verse two of I Bleed (“as breathing flows/my mind secedes”) and I claim my five pounds.

Lyrically, this was the closest to a stream of consciousness piece I’d written for a while. I was visiting Wolverhampton (the muthaland) and living in Islington, the latter of which felt very weird. I had never before lived in North London, so you can appreciate the culture shock.

Next week, I’ll be thinking about my dental health. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

*add your exclamation point wherever you fancy

26. Little Thing

I’ve written and sung and talked about mental health on this collection a few times – most obviously anxiety on “Obliterate, Annihilate” and depression on “Sensible List” – but I haven’t really talked about the ways I soothe some of those noisy voices. This song refers back to when my wife was in hospital and was pretty sick and I was very worried about her and the main way I coped with moment-to-moment fear was to read very nerdy fan wiki pages describing the operations of spacecraft, weapons and vehicles in the Aliens movies. I even did some cartoons where I took those films, and other movies, and decatastrophised them – where the loss of signal from the LV-426 colony was due to a downed transmitter, and colonists had seen “Carter Burke” in their email and assumed it was spam, so never traveled to the site of the Aliens; where Kane never stuck his face next to a pulsating alien egg; and so on. But second to second, if I was feeling panicky I occupied myself with the technical details and understanding how this fictional world slotted together. Therapist and podcaster Lily Sloane introduced me to the phrase “digital pacing” – the act of cycling between social media apps, spending a small amount of time on each before moving on to the next. I’d read about this as a symptom of stress and anxiety, but not given it a name before – but pacing around the internet without getting very far – or letting your brain sit down and have a nice rest – seemed apt.

I spent a lot of of time in my teens reading Warhammer 40,000 lore. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40,000 (or WH40K) is a science fiction tabletop battle game set in the year 40,000AD. In this world, humankind is beset on all sides by interlopers and corrupting influences, which apparently means it has a sizeable contingent of racists and fascists that like it*. I didn’t see much evidence of that as a kid in Shropshire. I spent time reading the lore, painting the figurines very badly, and not playing very much, because it was faffy and complicated. I was a weird and solitary teenager, which is to say, a teenager, and I was more interested in reading about Space Marines and Chaos Gods and learning their rules of engagement and dress codes than interacting with a peer group whose rules of engagement and dress codes I did not seem to understand. My first contact with The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear is from the same era, and appears in Frank Herbert’s Dune books – it’s spoken inwardly by the Bene Gesserit, a cult of weird ninja nuns, to calm the nerves and allow clear thought and action. I can’t quite remember it right, but my version goes something like this:

I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration
I will face my fear
I will permit it to pass over me and through me
And when it is gone, I will turn my inner eye on its path
Where the fear was, there will be nothing
Only I will remain

Dune is considered highly problematic nowadays. Herbert conceived it walking through the sand dunes of western Oregon, and envisaged a people in a desert holding a universally-craved asset who are freed from imperial oppression by a very well-bred white dude. When I frame it like that it sounds bad, right? Well, sure, but it does contain a very well-realised world, and reflections on how imperialists manipulate local belief systems to their own ends, and the dangers of fundamentalism, and imagines a fully-functional futuristic feudalistic society without computers. I’m not enough of a scholar to argue whether it’s self-aware enough to undermine its own White Messiah complex, or whether its imagination outweigh its problems, so you might well think it’s trash, or brilliant, or neither. Anyway, The Litany Against Fear is a useful takeaway if you want to pace around your own head for a bit.

(Look at that, I got to the end of the post without sharing my feelings about Ready Player One! Or talking about the sounds in this recording! Well, you can hear about those on the accompanying podcast.)

Next week, we visit the midlands. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here, and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

*doesn’t everything? I feel like you could jump into a Facebook group on meringue baking and there’d be some ethnonationalist who sees egg whites as a metaphor for racial purity. No grease! Not a speck of shell! Or the precious fluids are compromised! THE FOAM WILL NOT HOLD apart from the flecks at the corners of my mouth

25. I Only See The Moon

Language note: contains the M-bomb.

The Moon is the opposite of the Milky Way (the subject of the last song); you can only see the Milky Way at the right time of year, in a dark sky away from city lights, if it’s very clear and not rainy or cloudy, long after sunset. The Moon blasts through the sky like a blowtorch, obliterating almost any other celestial object – certainly the Milky Way, if not literally every star in the sky. When there’s a full moon in the middle of the night, I only see the moon.

This guy fucking loves the moon. He loves the moon so much that he’s created some fake vendetta against the earth’s oceans, claiming that the oceans’ strength comes largely from the influence of the moon, that they’d be sleepy and boring otherwise, and even making up shit that the oceans say about the moon – “[we] won’t let one little puddle be pushed around by that silver motherfucker”. He’s quick to disclaim “that’s how the oceans describe the moon – those aren’t my words, I love the moon!”. I think it’s the only time I’ve used the word “motherfucker” in a song, and I find the ardency of this guy’s pro-moon stanning absolutely hilarious and ridiculous. Is this what it’s like to be a Beyonce fan? Please do not tell me the answer.

Anyway, however ridiculous, he really does like the moon. I like it too, I’d just like it more if it didn’t drown out the stars. I think I was probably thinking a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sun Whose Rays are all ablaze”*. G&S are probably associated most with twiddly twee songs like “I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General” and “Here’s A Pretty State of Things”; “The Sun Whose Rays…” is a bona fide ballad, and unusual in the portion of their oevre I’ve heard. If you’ve seen the movie “Brick”, you will have heard a spoken word version of the first part of this song. My dad is a big fan of G&S, which is how I heard the song, and think it’s really beautiful; it’s first verse is dedicated to the sun, and the second verse, to the moon, culminating in the defiant:

But, prey, make no mistake
We are not shy
We’re very wide awake
The moon and I

I suspect this song will eventually sink beneath the waves of history; it’s from The Mikado, a British Victorian-era opera set in Japan and… not unproblematic in 2019. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” seems to have outlived its parent musical, so maybe “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” will too.

The man in this song doesn’t aspire to be the moon, or to mimic it; he hopes to do no more than convince people how great the moon is, and talk shit about the ocean. Who amongst etc etc.

Next week, we reach out for the (/a) good book. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here: https://palebird.bandcamp.com/album/year-of-the-bird-volume-3

*The other obvious touchstone is Joel Veitch’s “We Like The Moon” and it’s only marginally more silly than this song.

23b. Intermission & 24. Remarks Upon Seeing The Milky Way With The Naked Eye

The Southern Hemisphere affords some incredible views of the Milky Way, and, while Australia wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, the way that it stretches directly overhead from horizon to horizon in the winter months was new to me. It was utterly inspiring and humbling and all that jazz. The clouds of dust obscuring the centre of the galaxy, and how we were all created from similar bits of dust floating around – it’s hard not to see the Milky Way above our heads as the literal birth canal of existence. And it does…. sort of… look like a massive space vagina. The Space Vagina. I’m not embarrassed to say it. Carl Sagan called it “the backbone of the night”, but he. Was. A. Coward!

I would like to say that I was able to find out more about the historical (and prehistorical) antecedents of this idea – The Milky Way being the vagina of human existence – but, while googling “space vagina Milky Way” leads to more SFW hits than you’d expect, they’re mostly webpages in the authorial voice of a stoned kid at Frank Zappa concert rather than, say, academic works on myth and folklore. And I really struggled to convey the concept of “space vagina” lyrically without it sounding… well, like a stoned kid at a Frank Zappa concert. At the time I came up with the idea, I was crossing the Bass Strait – the stretch of ocean between Tasmania and Melbourne bay – and I started thinking about how, far from land, seeing the Milky Way overhead and the dark ocean all around must have been mind-blowing to mariners of 100, or 200, or 20,000 years ago. I was travelling on a well-lit overnight ferry; I was mostly watching 80s Australian music videos below decks, so my spiritual journey was different in nature. I’m neither a sailor, nor a captain, Richie Valens.

You can hear a lot more about the music on the accompanying podcast episode; the music from the Intermission and intro to “Remarks…” came from a commission to write the theme song for the 90 Minutes or Less Film Festival Podcast, set up by a couple of friends of mine; I repurposed the music for this, accurate organ sounds for 1920s Cinema Wurlitzers and Ennio Morricone guitars and all. And of course I repurposed The Boss’ title, “The Darkness At The Edge of Town”, for the chorus refrain, “the darkness above the centre of town” – in this case, the Milky Way. I hadn’t heard his song before I wrote this one, but I really liked the title – I think I’d mentally elided it with HP Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, a short story in which a meteor crashes on the edge of a farm in rural New England, and starts to corrupt and drive mad everything in its orbit. That isn’t what the Bruce Springsteen song is about, unfortunately.

Next week, in keeping with our celestial theme, we hear from a guy who really likes the moon. Until then, you can read about all the songs from Year of The Bird here and pre-order the album here.