Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Off The Scale

O-o-o-o-o-O!!!-kinawa, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain...

Er, wait a minute...

This year, as always, I was a supervisor for a couple of 9th graders writing research papers. One of them chose as his topic researching the reason why some songs become hits in Japan while others don't. I was picked to be his supervisor because I took care of a student doing exactly the same topic a couple of years ago. The student this year was far less motivated and far less diligent in his research, but he still arrived at the same result. Analyzing the melodies of pop tunes, and (at my recommendation) actually going so far as to count the number of times a given note occurred, he came to the conclusion that the more popular ones tended to conform to a traditional pentatonic scale.
(A penta-what???!!?)

A five-tone scale. Since ancient times, traditional Japanese music has been based on one of three five-tone scales. Perhaps the best known in the West is the major pentatonic scale, which could also be called the "Chinese scale" since it has long been the basis of Chinese traditional music, though it is used quite a bit in Japan, too. (It could also be called "the black keys of the piano" since it is...well, you figure it out!). Based on C, it would follow the pattern C - D - E - G - A (- C).

(major pentatonic scale)

There is also the minor pentatonic scale, which could appropriately be called the "Japanese scale" since it is mostly heard in Japanese traditional music. Based on C, it would follow the pattern C - D - Eb - G - Ab (- C).

(minor pentatonic scale)

There is actually one more, and that is the "Okinawan scale", so called because it forms the basis of the traditional music of Oklahoma. (Ha ha, fooled you!) It follows the pattern C - E - F - G - B (- C).

(Okinawan scale)

This scale will no doubt be completely unfamiliar to people who have never had any exposure to things Okinawan; I myself was totally unaware of its existence until I started spying on the 9th grade music elective classes at Ye Olde Academy. Every year Mssr. Maestro Ogawa has the students write compositions using the Okinawan scale which are then performed using a sort of belt-fed music box. (He doesn't tell his students that he has them use the Okinawan scale because the D and A on the music box are broken. Mum's the word!) As for me, after listening both to the students' works and the samples of Okinawan music used as examples, I came to feel that the Okinawan scale had a certain unique character, a sense that was naturally joyful and yet melancholy, a woven tapestry of happy sentiment and tearful longing ([Dieter]and I am now totally insane[/Dieter]), just like Okinawan music itself. And of course, I immediately decided that I wanted to write an Okinawan song of my own. I mean, only five hard could it be?

The answer, of course, is "VERY hard". I just got frustrated. It was easy for me to put myself into the mood of it, but the melodic ideas that came pouring forth from my muse just would NOT be constrained to the Okinawan scale. Try as I might, I couldn't shake my D habit (read "the fifth of the dominant"...and get a headache). After all kinds of false starts and failed attempts I finally said "fuggit" and composed a tune that was made in the spirit of Okinawan music even if it didn't obey the scale. (I also wound up not using Okinawan instrument voices, but oh well.) Once I liberated myself from the shackles of tradition I found it much easier to work, and I soon had the drum and main rhythm parts programmed using my 61-key Edirol controller on my desktop computer. It was a simple matter to import the MIDI file into Sonar on my studio laptop and start fleshing it out.

[Technical BS]
Except it wasn't. It had always worked well before, but this time my equipment suddenly decided not to cooperate. MIDI playback seemed to be working fine for the most part, but when I tried to convert the drum track from MIDI to audio it wouldn't run smoothly; it would be okay for maybe a few dozen measures, but then one measure would suddenly glitch. I tried monkeying around with all those various buffers and did a whole bunch of takes before I finally got one that I figured was as good as I was gonna get. But I still wasn't satisfied. The directions for the Sonic Cell recommend using the ASIO driver, but I'd always used WDM instead since I'd had better luck with it. I decided to try giving ASIO another shot, figuring I had nothing to lose, but it ran like a dog. I immediately went back to WDM, but when I did so Sonar apparently reconfigured its DMA settings for the Sonic Cell, and they didn't look right (but I didn't remember what they had been originally...and the manuals say strictly hands off!). After a lot of experimenting I managed to get an audio drum track that sounded a bit better, so I went ahead and converted all the other MIDI tracks...and got even more frustrated. Switching back to ASIO again and doing some mucking around, I finally got it playing properly...even better than before...but the whole feel and timing pulse were different, which meant redubbing the MIDI tracks would require redoing all the live tracks I'd finished, too. So I gave up and switched back over to WDM, and viola! (An instrument similar to but slightly larger than a violin.) (I meant to say "voila"!) Sonar automatically reconfigured the DMA settings again, and this time it apparently got them right, because suddenly it was working properly. Well, maybe not perfect, though. MIDI playback was working perfectly, but when I redubbed that damned drum track, while it never glitched, it seemed to be struggling with the tempo a little bit, hanging slightly behind the beat in a couple of places as if the drummer's cybermuscles were getting tired. It still sounded a lot better than before, so I went with it. [/Technical BS]

The lyrics were inspired by and based (loosely) on a speech I heard broadcast in part on TV some years ago. It was by an Okinawan high school student at an event protesting the continued use of Okinawa as the U.S. military's doormat main base of operations in the Pacific. There had just been an incident in which live shells fired during a training exercise landed on her high school campus, which was immediately adjacent to the firing range. Fortunately, the speech was in standard Japanese rather than Okinawan, which is so different it requires subtitles when shown on TV elsewhere in the country. What I heard went something like, "Give us back our peace! Give us back our security! Give us back our pride! For our future, give us back our land!" That at least gave me something to work from.

There has been a nasty chest and throat cold going around these days, and I haven't been immune. My voice has been consistently rough, so I decided to test my setup some more by recording a whole bunch of layered vocal tracks a la Abba or Enya (only male). I haven't fully gotten the hang of it, but it was still a lot of fun.

So now...I give you my latest musical spawn: "Give Us Back". At 33 tracks, most of them stereo, this is by far my most ambitious single song project to date (which means people probably aren't going to like it), and Sonar still had lots of power to spare even on my modest studio laptop...which I hope to replace soon with something a little more powerful and a lot less fascist. (More on my Minstrel's Muse site.)

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  • Mums the word

    Me and the rest of the Internet promise not to tell. :D

    Imagine what a pain the drum track would have been if you weren't a computer geek in addition to being a musician.

    Since you are trying some techniques that Enya uses, maybe she ought to try some of yours and spice up her musical range a bit. Something along the lines of Rad World maybe.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:09 AM  

  • Oh my goodness, that track reminds me of a cassette my mother used to put in the tape player at bedtime when I was a child, you know, so I didn't get scared alone in the dark....
    So I like it :)

    By the way, my word verif. is comashi, which sounds japanese, so...ko ma shi? Anything?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 2:26 PM  

  • Snabudon
    But I'm NOT a computer geek!

    Enya's Amarantine album was, in many ways, a break from the rut she seemed to have gotten into. My first impression of her newest album, And Winter Came..., was that she had dropped back into it again. Then I found out some of the tracks were actually recorded much earlier as limited edition promotions. On the other hand, there are a couple of tunes that are much poppier than anything else she has done to date.

    But "Rad World"...?

    I'd call that serendipity, then. ;-)

    Komashi? I can't find a word like that anywhere, which doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one. There might be a proper name like that. I'll look some more.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:57 PM  

  • Must catch up
    Funny though in this electronic age, when we can accurately (faithfully) & digitally reproduce music and sound, Culture and the individual ear still fill us with a diversity of musical tastes

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 8:14 AM  

  • I did nearly call it serendipity! But didn't feel like using a big word...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:37 AM  

  • I like it. I've seen Okinawan Bon dances in Hawaii and the music was distinctive, but I didn't have the knowledge to sort out why. Now I know, thanks.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:07 PM  

  • Uh-oh! You've been tagged for Photo Tag

    word verif. "sandulst": a sexual urge one feels on the beach?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:29 PM  

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