Stumbling ahead on the way to fame
Since spring this year, I’ve been thinking about ways to become a world-famous rock star. Oh wait – did I say rock star? No, actually I mean I’m going to found a chamber orchestra that will bring a new sound to this world, and in turn become world-celebrated. You think I’m kidding? No, I’m not, but I’m probably exaggerating quite a bit. Or even over-egging the pudding a heck of a lot of a bit. 🙂
Anyway, slowly but steadily I’ve started preparing and implementing a few things that will help me get there, and I’m planning to post a series of articles on this blog on what I’m doing as I move ahead. In this article, let me start with the core basics, that is, the underlying ideas and reasoning of why I’m doing all the stuff I’ll be doing.
When I was seven, I started playing the violin. I practiced for more than six years, but when I became a teenager I happened to be in the middle of the glitter years, and those years were much more about electric guitars than about violins. So, to the deep disappointment of my parents, I let go of the violin and bought an electric guitar. Years later, I dreamed of becoming a sound technician, and started studying that subject at university. For the entrance exam, I was required to play the piano, so I took piano lessons for about one year. At some point, I realized that I wasn’t particularly good at any of the instruments I (had) played: On the piano, I had barely started playing Bach’s inventions, I hadn’t touched the violin for over five years, and I had never become good at playing the electric guitar. So I gave up my dream, and went to roam the world.
Wherever I went, physically or mentally, there was always a guitar with me, though. For mere practical reasons, I had switched to playing acoustic guitars, however, since it was too challenging to carry amplifiers and stuff in a rucksack. Thinking back, a violin might have been a better choice for traveling, but a steel string acoustic guitar was still easier to carry than an electric guitar with all necessary equipment, or even a piano. So, in the end, I’ve been playing steel string guitars for thirty years. In 1993, I bought a black Fender acoustic guitar, which I’ve been playing until today.
In 2008, just before I turned 50, a neighbor gave me a piano as a present, and I’ve been practicing the piano ever since, focusing on my favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (his wife) is great for practicing as a beginner, but from experience my advice to anyone would be this: Start playing the piano well before you turn 50. It’s not impossible to learn mastering it at that age, but it’s by factors easier when you’re young.
Playing the piano has given me lots of ideas, though, both about sound and music in general as well as about composing songs for voice and guitar. I bought myself a Christmas present in 2008, Oliver Sacks’s wonderful book on music and the brain, which reaffirmed me that music isn’t a question of age. Granted, most of the famous musicians of our days are in their twenties, but there are people out there publishing their first record after they’ve turned 60. So there’s hope.
During the course of my musical „career“, I’ve written many songs for vocals and guitar, starting with pre-punk hippie songs, punk songs, post-punk songs, folk songs, any-kind-of songs. Some of them I still consider quite good, or even outstanding, compared to the popular and successful songs of the respective era, but I’ve never felt like I should preserve them for biographical or future-reference reasons. They were the songs of the eras they were written in. Those eras are gone, and those songs are gone. I’ve never shed tears about the fact that they were never recorded, and have thus gone away forever. Some of the material is still in my head: This may be a guitar chord, a snippet from a melody, or simply a „feeling“ about sound. So the songs are gone, yes, but they’re not gone entirely.
Regarding music composed by others, I have a rather extremist view: I love rock music and Baroque music. Any other musical flavor I view with skepticism, or even straightforward disappreciation. So, for me, it’s all about Vivaldi, Corelli, Telemann, and Bach, and the Beatles, the (early) Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and REM, although I make exceptions: I really enjoy some works of Dvorák, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Mozart, and of course Beethoven. Also, I like Turkish music. Stuff I don’t like includes Jazz and most of Blues, and Wagner scares the hell out of me. But, although I’m a musical extremist, I’m not determined to any particular style of music: I listen to any sound that comes around, and if I like it, I like it. An example is that I normally detest music by Verdi, but I absolutely love the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from the opera Nabucco. I just realize that I could go on and on with a list of examples and counter-examples, so I’ll stop here.
So why am I telling this? Right, it’s about the reasons and the ideas I have about the music I will record, and eventually publish. While I’m writing this, I’m being distracted by music playing in my head (read Oliver Sacks’s book referred to above to understand what this is about). It’s my music that’s playing in my head, music that is deeply influenced by more than four decades of listening to and producing music. Sometimes it’s getting somewhat scary, when the music is there all the time, steadily refusing to go away, or at least withdrawing a bit, so I can do my daily work. I guess it’s trying to tell me to record it on hard disk, and then share it with others. When done, it will be out in the world, and likely out of my head to some extent. And, yes, that’s what I’m going to do.
What will this music be like? Well, that’s hard to describe, and probably somewhat pointless, particularly considering that it will be out there at some point, and, as the saying goes, a (musical) picture tells more than a thousand words. Stay tuned, so to speak. It will be acoustic music, although for a „preview“ version I’ll also use electronic instruments, since I can’t afford to buy a complete set of the instruments that the sound will consist of, and even if I could, I wouldn’t be capable of even vaguely mastering all of them. Even worse, I can’t tell exactly which instruments I’ll be using. Here’s a tentative list:
- Guitar (acoustic steel string guitar)
- Drums (current plans are for a regular set of rock music drums)
- Bass (I’d like to keep that one acoustic, too, so that would be double bass)
- Cello, viola, violin
- Recorded „real life“ sounds
As you might guess from „vocals“ (and what I said above), I’m thinking of classical rock song arrangements, although the instrument set will be much different from a classical rock music setup. Naturally, that different instrument set will also influence the songs, so they likely won’t sound like classical rock songs. But still, the intention is to play (mostly) rock music, albeit heavily influenced by Baroque elements (not just because of the instrument set, which isn’t particularly Baroque, anyway, but bears some analogies). I can’t wait to see if the music in my head will, from a standpoint of ideas, survive contact with (instrumental) reality.
Vocals need lyrics. In November 2008, while I was driving home from a business meeting, I listened to DLF, a German radio station, covering a story about gypsies in Europe, and particularly in Romania. They were heavily citing from a book published by a Romanian gypsy author, Luminiţa Cioabă. I had a hard time purchasing that book, but finally succeeded around Easter 2009. It’s called Poems of Yesterday and Today, and has become one of my favorite books of all times. The original poems are in Romani, and the book includes translations to Romanian, German, and English. Unfortunately, the English translation is the worst (from what I can tell; I can’t understand Romanian, but I can at least guess because it’s so close to Latin). I’ve spent many hours trying to deduce the true meaning of the Romani poems from the Romanian and the German translations, and turn that into something I’d consider proper English. (I’ll ask a friend who’s a native speaker to perform a sanity check.)
While reading Luminiţa’s poems, I’ve cried a river. She’s from the same generation as I am, but has of course grown up and lived in a completely different society and environment (Romania, socialism). Still, her poems strike a chord with me, and I’d say they strike that chord with a sledgehammer. As family tale goes, one of my ancestors was a gipsy, and judging from my sister, my cousins, and myself, that’s a pretty good explanation for much of the weird stuff we’ve been doing in our lives. 🙂 But that’s an aside – even if Luminiţa’s poems have nothing to do with my family history, they’re far above anything I’ve seen in contemporary poetry. From a quality standpoint, I’d compare them with Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, a poem for which I started to learn French long ago, for the sole reason of being able to grasp the meaning without having to rely on the German translation. Because of Luminiţa’s poems, I’ve started to look at Romanian and even Romani, to be able to at least partially understand what her poems are about. Plans are to use her poems, and nothing but her poems, for the lyrics of the songs I’m going to compose.
So far, I have three and a half song ready. Here are the titles, without further explanation (which I hope to convey in a future article, though):
- Sibiu and I
- The root of the Earth
- Trees, flowers, grass, a source
This concludes today’s article. As said, stay tuned.