DAWN CHORUS (TRANSLATION)
We look up and see that the storm is passing us… the thunder fades into the distance and the rain dissipates. We come to… and find ourselves in a new environment. The heart of a dense tropical rainforest paradise. A cacophony of birds is building up to full swing, a surround-sound enchantment, a prehistoric symphony of abstract communication. This envelopment of sound holds some sort of primal meaning for our avian choir, though we know not what or why. It could just be a simple expression of life, a community mating call or instinctive prayer. But then something else happens…
Before I go on with this image, I want to I want to give a little on the backstory of how this song came to fruition. This was the last song I recorded for this record. I did it in a month's time, from the initial recording processes to finished product (not counting the final mixing). This is very quick for me. I had finished, for the most part, all seven of the other songs on the record, and was about to call it quits, as I had completed my intended collection of songs. But when I laid it all out in my head and on the screen, it felt incomplete. Maybe it was the odd number of songs. The flow and order of the album needed something else, some kind of interlude. Everything else I had in "the vault" that was close to being finished, that I could make quick work of wouldn't have fitted, or would have taken away from the record they were intended for. Plus there's no such thing as quick work, I had thought. So, if I was going to do something, it had to be something new, and maybe more spontaneous, to avoid over-thought. There was this idea I had been tossing around for a while, and now that I was standing back and seeing a blank space, I decided that this might be the perfect place for it. I would at least try and see what happens. I had been working for three years on this record, so what would another few months matter? Turns out it only took one.
The idea I’m speaking of started when Scott Wardell sent me a link one day about Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology (The Macaulay Library). They had published an online library of their vast collection of bird sounds.The fact that Scott was the one who sent this is significant for reasons I will get into in a bit. But for the moment let's just say he found it interesting and thought I would too. I checked out the link and it was fascinating. It was filled with very crisp and clean recordings of wonderful bird calls and choruses. Beautiful sounds and spectacular recordings of them. There was this one track (the one I used in the song), called "Dawn Chorus" that really blew me away. I put my headphones on and listened. It was a pretty long track, but it had me hypnotized and I ended up listening to the entire thing. It started off slow, just as the rain forest was waking up, so it seemed… An ever-present but quiet and steady blanket of bird-sounds, tweets, chirps, bleeps, clicks... steadily multiplying and gradually gaining volume. Then a few distinct bird calls back and forth began to dominate the air. Then another call, and another…. Eventually the calls get louder, more varied and frenzied. Really, to be honest, to try and put it into words seems like a concept doomed for failure. Let's just say it builds up to something just so encompassing and hypnotizing, it's hard to escape it. You just have to listen to it yourself (the original recording, I highly recommend it beyond what I did with it in the song) to truly grasp the significance. If you do listen, listen to it closely and let yourself get lost in it for a while, it almost seems as if there is a pattern in it. There is a rhythm. It may not be clearly evident, and maybe not a cyclical rhythm that we are used to… it's an implied rhythm. It's somewhere in there, like some hidden message or code. It can only be heard if you can subconsciously step back and intellectually (or non-intellectually, perhaps) encompass the whole performance, like the paintings or art that you can only view when you are standing far away or from some oblique angle. But what also seems to be there, if you listen long enough, is not just a rhythm but a code, a language. There is no way of knowing what is being communicated, but it something is being transferred... concrete or abstract... primal cries or intelligent banter. Impossible to tell. It can be heard in an bird call you may hear in your backyard. Some way or another some kind of information is being passed. It is not our human place to really ever know what is being said, what files are being transferred, what basic joys, desires, fears or pains are being disseminated. It may not be within the grasp of our humanity to know. Maybe the Macauly Library has insight into this.
(****While writing this, at this point I began to elaborate on some thoughts I had on the importance of an integration between man, nature, and technology, and how music fits into that equation. I liked what I wrote, and the concepts are pertinent to the ideas behind the song... and one day I might expand further on them in another post... but I felt like it began to stray away from the story of the creation of this song. If you would like to read what I wrote about it, please page down or read later the footnote I have included.)
Anyhow, Scott and I chatted back and forth a bit and I mentioned how cool it would be to take the track and add synths and a rhythm to it. To mix them in and attempt to join the chorus. An communion of nature and technology. What I wanted to do was to use our technology to try and climb up and join the choir. This was the basic idea. I put it up on the mental bulletin board as something I would like to attempt one day, although at the time I had no idea how I would achieve it, if it were possible, or when I would do it, if at all.
Flash forward to several years later. There I was with the record maybe 90% finished and a blank space staring at me, and not sure how to fill it.
What follows next here is the difficult part to write about, emotionally, and to keep things brief for this post, I will assume that most people can relate to it and give you the basic details… (I actually want to discuss this further in another post regarding the song “That’s What It Feels Like To Me”, because it actually has more to do with that song than this one)
So, the thing is… The summer where I was almost finishing this record, Scott passed away. My friend, musical inspiration, and probably the one person I most wanted to hear this record completed, was gone. It was sudden and completely unexpected. I was devastated. At the time I was down the beach, on vacation at my parents beach house, which they let me use for the week to get some relaxation time and work on the record. My goal that week was to record the vocals for “That’s What It Feels Like…”. Then I got the news, which stunned me for a day or two. There was no big funeral service for him at home (a request in his will), so I decided to stay down and keep working, intending to visit his family later. I channeled my emotions into the song, pouring into the lyrics and vocals all the feelings, questions, frustrations, and existential perplexities that a loss like this tends to bring out.
Then one day, I was working and looked up from my computer to notice that there was an extraordinary sunset happening outside. It looked like one I shouldn’t miss, so I decided to take a break. I was alone and tired from working and needed to reflect on things, so I went outside to the deck overlooking the bay and bordering state park, to smoke a joint, and relaxed with my thoughts. It was one of those sunsets that just completely stops you. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you were doing, you are just compelled to stop and look, if only for a moment, if not for the duration. Everything was washed in a deep red and pink, clouds lined with fire, and gold glittering on the surface of the water. And it was unusually quiet. It is not a very busy neighborhood, but at that point of the summer "on-season" you expect to hear some kind of activity. But all you could hear was the water, the breeze, and some birdsong. It was as if everyone in the area was feeling and experiencing the same awe as I was. I was spellbound by the moment, began to feel very relaxed, and I just sat, watched, and listened.
Now, I don’t really and truly 100% believe in this kind of thing but it felt real at the time, and whether or not it was real, it’s not the point. The point is that it happened and that’s how I perceived it, sitting on that chair, witnessing this beautiful sunset, and feeling how I was feeling. This is what happened: Off the deck, just off the property in the wide space between our house and the state park the house borders on, there were a few birds nearby, chirping away in the pine trees. At first I found the chirping a bit distracting. But I relented, knowing I had no choice. So I listened. As I sat there listening, now focusing on the sound, I was also thinking about Scott, just trying to wrap my mind around the fact that he was gone. Gradually, as I thought about this, and listened to my small feathered neighbors, I began to hear a oddly timed pattern in what these birds were saying to each other. Similar to the recording I described before, there was an implied rhythm, one that doubled and tripled over itself, like an gyroscopic ellipse, if it were to be graphed three-dimensionally. Imagine a computer-generated randomness all put on a grid so the beats matched perfectly to the increments of time, and all of the math added up even if the placement was random and the pattern was anachronistic. In a very real way, it made me think about the music that Scott would create. He had a very unique sense of rhythm, and he would make this music that had very curious time signatures and little rhythms and patterns within rhythms and patterns. It’s hard to explain. But as I was listening to these birds I heard his music, his signature, in a very subtle kind of way. It was something that he would enjoy to hear or maybe even something he could have written, had we been able to decipher and translate that incomprehensible bird code and language.
So... considering where my head was at the moment, and the sublime natural exposition I was engulfed in at the time, it felt to me as if it maybe it was Scott trying to communicate, or nature itself acting as ambassador and mouthpiece for a message from him on the other side. Not a specific message, but just a reminder of presence, that despite the pain of separation, the distance was less than imagined. I know it sounds crazy, and again, I’m not sure if I believe in that sort of thing, but I do think it's within the realm of possibility.... regardless of my beliefs, I do not want to go any further on that subject (That could be entirely different lengthy discussion, and one that I would prefer to engage in with a voluntarily audience, not side-swiped into a music journal) What I do keep from this experience, however, is how it rang true at the time. This was how it felt like at that particular moment, and it moved me. Maybe it was him, maybe it wasn’t. The actuality is irrelevant... The result is significant.
Also, it occurs to me as I write this, that this occurrence also adds to the significance of the title of the song I was working on at the time.. “That’s What It Feels Like To Me”, which I had came up with years before when starting to write the song.
The result, for the purposes of this tale, is that it brought back the idea of the birdsong/synthesizer track that Scott and I had talked about. All of a sudden it became clear, that I would try and bring that idea to fruition and incorporate it on the album. I felt that I needed to do it, partially as a tribute to Scott, in a way, and almost because I felt like I was being instructed to do it. Or nudged to do it. Some cosmic wink and elbow. It suddenly felt the perfect thing for that blank space, and a perfect time to try and capture the idea. And once I began to create it, I realized it was important to the album itself, as a whole piece. It became this instrumental centerpiece that would help break up the album and give it a better linear flow.
Before I could do anything I first I needed to get the bird track, in it’s entirety, the same one I had heard before, with best audio quality available, and I wanted to obtain it legally. I had to search for a while on the Macaulay Library at Cornell University website to find it. When I did I contacted them and asked if I could license it. They were very helpful and once I explained my basic intentions, and they agreed to license it for at a very affordable price. So, now that I had the track, what next?
Without going into all the finer details, let’s just say it took some time, but one I got started it really came quickly. I listened to the track and tried to find large chunks where the bird-song was at the height of it’s intensity. I listened to these sections for the implied rhythms. I isolated these sections. Then I listened even closer for smaller sections that had rhythms I could loop. I found some choice ones, and set them aside. I would end up using these loop at the end section of the song.
Next I cued up a synth bass sound from Logic and just played the first thing that came to mind as I was listening to the rhythms I was hearing or imagining. For this bass line I was thinking of a style somewhere within Fela Kuti or Weather Report realm. Then I built the drums and percussion around this, using all the mistakes and making new parts out of them... then some kalimba and mallet kind of sounds, some plucky guitar sounds... stir and mix.
I tried to keep it simple though. When working with midi-synths, and composing within a midi grid, I will start with recording a basic performance, focusing more on the emotive aspects, the attack, more than accuracy of the notes. Then I will go in, open the grid and start enhance or elaborate, playing with it, writing around and inside what I had recorded. I clean up the mistakes, and compose whole new ideas based off of what was originally played. Even the mistakes, the mis-cues and the stops/starts... these I may try to incorporate into the song. Maybe they work, maybe they don't. It ends up being more a matter of composition than a performance, but I try and keep the original feeling intact. Wayne Shorter, saxophonist and one of my favorite jazz players and composers said, "Composition is just improvisation slowed down, and improvisation is just composition sped up.". I believe in that and I think this concept applies here.
Purists may challenge it’s authenticity, since it compromises the idea of inspirational spontaneity, and some of it admittedly may be difficult to reproduce, but I do it so that it is not impossible. I keep in mind that piano players only have five fingers per hand, drummers have only two arms/two feet, etc. And some of it may fall a bit out of reach of my actual playing ability, in the moment at least, without practice or study. But the right musician could do it. I realize that in a way I paint myself into a corner with this method (The same corner I find myself in as the writer and performer of most of the tracks and ideas on the record, without a band to play these songs, as of the present moment). But I still contend that it is the inspiration that counts, not the actual “performance” per se. I would attribute this philosophy to a performance on the other side of the spectrum, e.g. a sloppy guitar solo that has passion vs. a sterile perfect one.
What is most important to me here, with this song, is the adherence to the original idea of an attempt at synthesis and an artistic representation of an imagined balance of nature and technology. I felt that this song needed to be entirely “in the box” or without actual drums, guitars, etc. and only use the synth sounds I had at hand in the Logic recording software. To take a diametrically opposed medium, the ultimate tech-gadget instrumentation and to try and weave it seamlessly with the Earth's indigenous music, these birds and their mysterious conversation.
After I had it alI laid it out, the result was this intense mixture of Afro-beat (definition), jazz fusion, electronica, with a hint of Asian or Middle-Eastern influence. There is some really unusual and unexpected, unplanned stuff that happened once I pressed "play". Between the notes and rhythms and the birds, it took on a shape of it's own. I did it quickly to not overthink it and a lot of the feel comes from the original performance, but a lot of it was just experimentation. I must admit, in order to get some of the louder bird-calls to match up with the hits, the beat, and the changes in the song, I had to nudge them a little left or right to match up... but not by much. There really kind of was a bit of a rhythm there. It wasn't perfect of course, but once I lined it up with a time-sequenced grid, a lot of the louder chirps and calls came pretty close to being on point. (Most bands don't come that close!) In the final section of the song, I dropped the bird-loops I mentioned before and added some delay on top. Pay close attention to the bird calls and how they repeat. There were three or four different loops, all increasing with intensity as the song progresses. The song begins with technology trying to court nature, and the end, with the loops, nature courts technology, picking up the rhythm, learning from us as we have learned from it. By the end, there is union, communion, a marriage of worlds. Nothing added or subtracted. Nothing created or destroyed. Nature, and Mankind (and it's Technology), co-existing together in profound symbiosis. Just as it should, and could, be.
**** What follows is my expanded thoughts on this union. Please read on, but it has little to do with the music or the song, but I hope you enjoy. If you want to continue on to the next song, page down and click "next"!
If someone were to ask me "What was one of the greatest challenges mankind faces… Besides saving itself from destroying itself with war, corruption, politics, lies, theft, murder, religion, advertising, ... and a population out of control… Besides this, what is the second strongest, thickest (and heavily intertwined with the first) vine of flaws that is slowly wrapping around, clutching, climbing and choking the life out of us?" If someone asked me that (not verbatim… that would be strange), I would have to answer that it is man's inability to find a functional harmony between itself, technology and nature. In other words, the challenge is for mankind to improve itself to a point where it can live comfortably and respectfully in both nature and with technology, and improve technology to the point where it (and it's human counterpoint) does not disrupt nature. In fact I think that this challenge would drastically reduce our simple in-bred human problems, if not erase them entirely. A harmonic balance between nature, technology, and humanity would solve all social, economic, and political problems, either directly or indirectly.
I believe in the importance of technology and science. I am in awe of the power and beauty of nature. I have cleansed myself of adherence to any one religion and philosophy, and as far as I am concerned, the natural world is what I consider to be the direct doorway to ,or even direct representation of, God. I believe that all you have to do is look at the world, at the Earth and the Universe, and all that is in it and outside of it… whether you view it presently or afar, aesthetically, spiritually, abstractly… or zoom in with a microscope or telescope, to see it is to understand it is some kind of proof of design, a proof just by virtue of it's existence obviates the need for a name, face or agenda. Almost impossible in it's existence (Vegas odds), it is something special to behold, and to recognize
… and at the very least, when it comes to the Earth that we live on, it is our duty and responsibility to care for it. I am not writing this as some heavily politicized argument or some new age declaration. I just think it is a matter of respect, decency, duty, etiquette, and responsibility.
And it doesn't really matter how it got to be the way it is today, except to know how it happened and to infer from this what needs to be stopped or adjusted, what changes need to be implemented. There is no point in arguing blame. Things happened as they happened and we can't change the past. The industrialists and engineers through the ages did not have either the information or the foresight to see the impact the human race would make upon the earth. The science hasn't even caught up now, in some cases. They might not have ever expected just how fast the world would shrink, or how quickly the population would grow. They built, destroyed, invented, explored, envisioned and achieved to ultimately improve life… even if there was profit motive, glory, and/or ego involved. They just severely underestimated the repercussions. In many case they had no idea. I know this may sound naive, but I am trying to have a bit of faith in man, to not always side with my cynical half. I know that many times they just simply did not care. And many don't today. But in the beginning of this game, I think for the most part it was a lack of insight and perspective. Human health and the preservation of nature has often lost to profit and greed, of this we can all be certain. Many would argue that capitalism has ruined the earth. I would only amend that it was the abuse, misinterpretation and misappropriation of capitalism… these are the culprits. True capitalists would protect their investments, their property, their resources. The fact is, however the cause, humankind is dependent on the technology it created, because it's creation has allowed our race to expand to a size where the technology is necessary to sustain it. And besides this, these abuses (which are obvious things which must be dealt with harshly) are not exactly what I am talking about. I think I'm trying to look deeper into the physical, mental, metaphysical and even emotional understanding of nature and how we should be relating to it, living within, around and among it. Which is, I believe, the definition of science, in it's purest, most noble form.
I think there is another sub-category of disharmony that is worth bringing up at this juncture, maybe to help me prove my point (and hopefully not confuse the issue, not sure, but here it goes:). This is the disharmony between religion (or spirituality) and science. I believe that any good theologian can at least accept the facts that humans have observed enough phenomena and proven enough theories to maybe accept at least some of it as true, and possibly understand that the building blocks of life and concepts of the scientific world do not negate the concept of God. If God can make a bird, tree or human, He can also make a cell, atom, or light particle. If you believe that God can manipulate hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, then He can manipulate fission, fusion, DNA mutation… and if you can believe that God can set forth a chain of events that may affect your life and possibly determine your fate, than he can start the chain of events that require a fitter species to survive. Conversely, I believe that any good scientist should at least have some room in his or her mind for some sort of metaphysical quantity… just by virtue of the fact at the end of every line of inquiry, that once you break and boil everything down to the very last equation, when everything is ultimately reduced, that you will inevitably hit the firewall of the unexplained. This alone should give even the hardest lines of thought a reason to pause, step back and be amazed and in awe of something, whether you call it a god or not. And something you have that amount of respect and amazement for you must, by instinct, feel the need to protect it, to care and nurture it, like a child, a home, or the first man-made flame. To be able to understand without appropriating. To be able to utilize without abusing. To be able to take what you need and move on, to leave the abundance that remains in conditions good and well for the next man, woman, child, or generation to follow. And to be able to live within and around what has been bestowed to us, in a way that allows these bestowments to live and breathe around us and within us, and continue to bear it's fruits.
To follow this religious/scientific idea with an allegory from an actual religious mythology, one that I think really represents the advent of human thought, I want to delve into Christian concept of The Garden Of Eden. (I am going to be assuming the mindset of a believer, using the word "He", referring to "God", although I am not claiming to believe or disbelieve in this posting… I am just following the analogy for simplicity and to facilitate the illustration of the point). As I interpret it, The Garden, and it's two human inhabitants, Adam and Eve, is a representation of man's innocence or animal origins, with no reference to moral or ethical debate, just existing in the bliss of pure instinct and a timeless consciousness. The Tree Of Knowledge represents the potential for human thought. Then, enter the snake, The Divider. If you follow the story, God did not have to include the tree of knowledge in His garden. Nor did he have to allow the snake into His sanctuary and play tempter to His "children. It would be safe to assume that He would have top-notch security there, now wouldn't He? Ok, so why? I think the allegory means to say that within everyone is a thirst for knowledge, one that is a priori, included within the human's genetic makeup. This is the snake, something that exists within the garden of innocence. It is there to tempt. In other words… it's a set up. Why, you ask? Because it was never God's intention to have us humans wallowing in childish pleasure in the garden forever. It is an enclosed system and could never sustain the inevitable growth. He wants us to be on our own, with the knowledge of how to build and grow a society that can sustain itself without divine intervention, and no one would ever leave on their own volition, into the wasteland, if not forced to. (Let's face it. God is/was/and was never dead, nor is He apathetic, or cruel. He just wanted us to move out of the house so he could watch the game in peace) He put the tree there, and knew that eventually they would get into the stuff. But it couldn't be given freely, or the knowledge would have been squandered. It had to be sought, and they had to be tempted. And the consequences had to be owned, the expulsion from The Garden was the best thing to happen, because without knowing about the harsh realities of life on the outside, they would have never knew how good they had it. And the eternal quest to find our way back in, or create our own Garden, is probably the central plot point to every positive human endeavor, when boiled down (and filtered through this mythology). This is the advent of human responsibility, the tools necessary to survive, fight, and evolve.
And the tool he gave us, dripping within the fruit of the Tree, was our Reason. Reason is a method of quantification and compartmentalization. It reveals itself as the first time-stamp on our consciousness, to give it measure, to break up the singularity of a consciousness only aware of short periods of time… such as the memory of animals, like how a dog acts like you've been gone for days when you just walked back in to get your keys. Reason puts the first mark, so there is a "this" and a "that" to divide time so we have a distinct concept of it. This is the first thing, and it happens in the mind of every child. Let there be light (and space/time). Then from there comes the distinction of objects as separate and different things used for different activities and accomplishments. Then people, language, math and on up as far as we've come now. It is this tool which helps us to build things, other tools, weapons to survive, houses to shelter, fires to keep warm, cook, to see at night. It helps us develop a sense of ethics and morality, social contracts. It enables exploration of frontiers, from jungles and arctic glaciers, to the moon, and far off planets.
But Reason has gotten in the way too. The snake is still there with us, not to be left behind in the paradise of simplicity. It tempts us to take what is not ours, destroy that which is not needed to destroy, to compromise for a personal gain not necessary to have at the cost of others. Science, industry, capitalism, etc. are not the evils, but it is man's tendency to misuse them that is the evil. Just as a hammer, saw and nails can be used to build a house or torture and destroy life, it all depends on who is wielding the tool. And so it is our charge to respect this tool, and all the tools that come from it, to respect it's capacity for great peace and great calamity, to harness it's power so that we can be what we are truly meant to be, the caretakers, the guardians, the keepers of this planet, this Earth, this Garden, this Home, that we live in but haven't yet fully understood how to make it work. Maybe we will at some point. Maybe we can make it back, and whoever is above watching us can see that they have done right in giving us the responsibility, that they haven't made a mistake, and they can visit freely, when it is finally a place worth visiting.