Sunday, August 21, 2016


You may remember 'Disappeared" as pleasant little piano ballad from 2014....    No more! Somewhere between then and now it morphed into the crunchy rock anthem newly recorded here.  This thing rocks:

The arrangement of the song has actually changed repeatedly over the past two years, but the recorded version reflects how we (Ascent) play it live.   As I shared down below, this song was primarily written by my subconscious on a long bike ride.   Read that post for the details!  Since I didn't write the song on any instrument, it makes sense that it could be arranged in a million different ways.   

For the new version of the song, I played acoustic drums, bass, and a few layers of electric guitar.  Some of the guitar texture ideas probably draw inspiration from Jimmy Page, but they also reflect me trying to get some of the chord voicings from the piano version in there. 

Christina's vocals reflect two years of singing this song, and all the stylization, personalization and passion she adds to my melodies.  They accrue and compound over time!   You can really hear that by comparing both versions. 

And if you wondered how it used to sound, here you go:


They say these shabby birds were mighty dinosaurs... 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Empty Streets

I'm excited to unveil a new Ascent recording for you, Empty Streets.   It captures the rock sound we've been featuring during our gigs this year.   An upbeat, catchy song about the last survivors of the human race after an epidemic!    Why not?

I wrote this song about two years ago, mostly in my head while out on a long bike ride.   It's gone through several major stylistic changes since then.   As I mentioned on this blog back in 2014, I'd asked Christina to supply me with two random words as inspiration to write lyrics.   In this case it was "Epidemics" and "Oil Drilling."    She was mostly asleep at the time, you see.  You might not imagine these odd topics would lead to any coherent idea, but when I'm "getting away from it all" on my bike, my brain works overtime.  If I focus on an idea long enough, it gains new life.  I've always loved post-apocalyptic fiction - e.g. The Stand, Oryx and Crake, Dog Stars, Walking Dead, many more.   So my mind went right to this idea of a few survivors huddled together by candlelight, thinking back on how they got here.  The past looks beautiful, seen through the eyes of the end.   And no way to get back there from here.  Nature reclaims the city. The ironic setting is a "city of power," where all the oil and electricity used to come from.

As I've said before, writing lyrics usually suggests a melody to me right away, especially when I'm going over and over the words in my mind because I can't write them down at the moment (you need both hands on the handlebars, you know).    And most melodies suggest chord changes.   I've done this enough now I sort of know what the chord changes are without playing them.  So this song basically wrote itself right away.   When I got home, I figured out what the chords were on the piano, and that was that.

The way I originally heard this song, it was strictly a piano-driven thing.   It had subdued drums, and a feel similar to the song "Bad Company" (by Bad Company, from the album Bad Company!).    Maybe some eerie-sounding guitar over top.  I imagined we'd record a version of it that sounded that way.

But when we play gigs, I don't play piano.   I play guitar, electronic drums, samples and a looper pedal.    We first learned to play "Empty Streets" as a slowish acoustic guitar song.  We played it at a coffeeshop gig that way at least once.    When it came time to play it at a bar gig, it needed to be updated to be more upbeat.  Just playing the piano part on guitar sounded boring and repetitive.   So I made up the riff at the start of the song to make it less repetitive.  This worked well for our live arrangement, because I could loop the riff and then play the drums and loop that.   And for some reason I decided to play those little ska-rhythm chords over that.    On the verses, I played a clean chorus sound to simulate the piano part over the drum loop.

Sometime after breaking my collarbone in October 2015, and going through the recovery after that, we reinvented our live sound to be more consistently rock-oriented.   Christina is as responsible for our crunchy sound as I am.  Maybe more so.  A gave her a little guitar power and she demanded more.   So the clean guitar sounds on this song were dispensed with, and it got crunchy.

The recorded version of the song is influenced by the current live version.    It's not exactly the same, because it's not looped.   On the recording, I played acoustic drums and bass, and a few layers of guitars.   No keyboards whatsoever.   I could bore you all day with all the work I put into getting the drum recording to sound good, but I won't.   I'll just say I recorded it in our living room with a whole bunch of microphones, and I did it over and over until I figured out the mic placement that really worked.   I mixed in more overhead mics this time.   The guitar is my PRS, and the guitar amp sounds come from the GT-100.   The effects and amp settings are the same exact ones I use live.

Christina is a monster vocalist.  You can hear her power and passion on full display here.   She knows how to take the melodies I write and make them real.  She puts her own personality on them without fundamentally changing them.   She adds a sense of the blues and a "singerly-ness" (I just made up that word)  I simply don't possess.  I think this one was really easy for her to record, because we've played the song many times and she's got it down to a science. 

I'm very happy with how this recording sounds right now.   I will probably go back and update the mix on Jane Doe and For These Crimes to be closer to this overall sound.  They are so last year!   The rock version of Disappeared is already recorded.   I'll be working on mixing that one down next. 

Update: Here's the lyric video for the song:

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I suppose you could call Fifteen "the triumph of the obsessive need to create over pain, broken bones, and inconvenience."  My right arm's been in a sling for a few weeks, after I broke my clavicle in a mountain bike accident, rendering me unable to play any instrument until January.  As miserable as this makes me, I  was able to redirect my energies towards writing music on the computer.  I am nothing if not stubborn and focused.  For those who don't know, I generally write orchestral music like this by writing the notes on screen in standard staff notation (using Cakewalk Sonar) and then manipulate each note's MIDI parameters to adjust velocity, dynamics, etc.   It was slow and painstaking to use my left hand only (I'm right handed!) to write and manipulate all the notes for each of the many individual instruments in my virtual orchestra to play, but I'm happy I stuck with it.  Many of the melodies in the horns and woodwinds I was able to play on keyboard, which helps them to feel more natural.  It's important for me to be able to listen to any of the isolated instruments and have it sound "right" on its own.

Fifteen is not exactly a sequel or a companion to Thirteen, but it's cut from the same cloth.   It explores a variety of different ways to subdivide fifteen beats or fifteen notes.  It goes on a meandering journey to different keys and tempos, and eventually finds a way back.  I had originally started working on this piece earlier in the year.  I had about the first minute done, but I had no idea what else to do with it, and had basically abandoned it.   Fortunately, I had many new ideas when I came back to it with one good arm and too much time on my hands. 

As I've said before, I continue to study and learn how to write more effectively for orchestra.   I'm happy with the orchestral colors I created here, but I'm sure I have a lot more to learn.  For now, I continue to revel in combining flutes and violins, cellos and clarinets, basses and tuba.    The sound libraries I used are LASS, Berlin Woodwinds, and Cinebrass.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Abduction of Jane Doe

Ascent's newest recording is The Abduction of Jane Doe.    It's likely the creepiest, most guitar-heavy song we've ever recorded together.   We've been playing this song live all summer, and we're excited about the positive reaction it's been getting. 

Christina wrote the words, a dark story inspired by the many "true crime" shows she watches, and maybe the movie "The Lovely Bones."   It's all a bit scary! When I first looked at the words, I wanted to write something that would be a cyclical repeating riff, to sound like running away or a heart racing.  

I came up with the 5/8 guitar riff by banging away at the piano until I found something I liked.   I didn't really intend for it be in five, it just came that way.   The song stays in 5/8 or 5/4, depending on your perspective, the whole time.   My favorite part is the second guitar riff that sounds like it might be in 6/8, but it's actually in 5/8.  Again, not intentional, but it works.  Underneath that riff, I'm playing a syncopated pattern on the ride cymbal, potentially confusing the ear further.   That part was on purpose!   But the amazing thing is, it all holds together as a nice groove, and you can dance to it!   (No, really.   I have documented proof of people dancing to this song at two different shows this year). 

It was an especially daunting (and welcome) challenge as a songwriter to be given lyrics for the chorus that just say "Oh No!"   This is not something that naturally inspires melody!     For the longest time, I kept trying to write something that sounded like it should be on an early Black Sabbath record.     It wasn't going to work.  I eventually returned to endless noodling on the piano to come up with the chords and melody you hear.    Christina's "sweet spot" as a singer has inched ever higher, and I formulated the melody to take advantage of that.  In the end, the song is a very effective collaboration between Christina and me.    I would never have written the music if she hadn't written these words.   And the words are intriguing and draw you in.  

The piano sound I sampled from a toy piano Christina's friend bought at a thrift store, long before the song was written.   I sampled each of the keys on the piano and loaded the samples into my HandSonic, thinking the sound would eventually be useful for something.   I mixed the sound together slightly with a marimba sound to improve the tone.  It felt like the right instrument to set the mood for this ominous song.     I've been playing that part on the HandSonic at gigs, and I played it on HandSonic on this recording. 


The drums were recorded in our living room.   Returning to recording live drums after using solely electronics for our last CD has been an adventure in trial and error when it comes to mixing and mic placement, but I'm happy with it.   I'm learning to enhance the right frequencies, eliminate the bad ones, and add the right kinds of compression.   I don't remember if I mentioned I got a new snare drum earlier this year, a Tama S.L.P. G-Bubinga wood snare.  I love it.   I've finally given up on the brass snare I played for 30 years!   The tone is so much easier to record.

As for the guitar, Christina kept pushing me to make it sound heavier, thicker, crunchier.   It's an exciting change for us.  We're just not that polite coffeeshop  act anymore!   Well, at least not all the time.

We hope you like the recording and would love to hear your comments.

Friday, July 3, 2015

For These Crimes

I'm very excited to share a new Ascent song with you, For These Crimes...

Christina and I have reinvented and updated our sound a few times over since we first started playing music together, all the way back in 1998.   This recording represents the start of our newest, more "rock" oriented direction.   In part, that direction comes from our live sound, where we're intentionally putting out a high-energy, propulsive show, the two of us transformed into a full rock band through the power of live looping and electronics.   The sound also comes from my new guitar, a PRS Tremonti (FYI, I'm not necessarily a huge fan of Mr. Tremonti's music, but I absolutely love the guitar), leading to crisper, harder sounds.   On our newest recordings, I'm using my acoustic drum kit again, after spending the past year or more learning how to record it better.  We plan to feature both acoustic and electronic drums on our upcoming CD. 

Christina wrote the words to this song sometime during the past year.   Christina is a tireless champion for human rights, and these lyrics were inspired by her work with the LGBT community, including protesting against Prop 8 in California.   Christina is truly someone who puts her money, energy, and time where her mouth is when it comes to being an advocate for others.        

My interpretation of the song is that it speaks for almost anyone who has been labelled, denied, ousted by the community at large.   That idea speaks to both Christina and me, as we have both been labelled and felt like outsiders for different reasons at different times during our lives.

The music was very easy for me to write.   My recollection is the melody "wrote itself" in my head when I read the words.    The chord progression is very typically me, but a bit more major key.   I originally was thinking of the song as dreamy/washy/echoey sounding, and in fact we played it that way for a while.  When I started to work on the recording, it sounded that way, with layers of Ebow and bubbling synths.  After Christina suggested the song should be more angry and edgy, it morphed into the much more anthemic and effective version you hear now.   

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Long Overdue Update - New Music Aplenty

Hello Again!

It's been a while!   In fact, it's been since May of last year since I updated this blog.  Some might assume it's because I haven't been obsessively working on music.   Wrong!   In fact, I have written many new songs and various pieces of music since "Thirteen."   Here was my mistake with the blog: I was thinking the next big orchestral piece would magically start to write itself in my head, and this blog would be a good place for just the orchestral and instrumental music.  But...

If there's one thing I should know by now about my creative process, it's that I really only have a minimal say in what I'm going to work on next.   My creative brain does what it wants to, when it wants to.  So, although I'm excited about writing orchestral music and applying everything I've learned to date, the needed kernel of a suitably grand idea hasn't yet sprouted in my head, and I've been spending my creative energies primarily on writing new songs and practicing various instruments.   

Songwriting experiments, piano playing and cycling

I've been trying some new things when it comes to songwriting.   For one thing, I've been playing piano a lot more regularly.   Since I'm less competent on piano than on guitar, it causes me to think about music a little differently and to play chord sequences I'd never think to play on a guitar.   I don't necessarily have muscle memory around certain note patterns like I do with the guitar.

For another thing, I've been focusing more on writing music and lyrics in my head.   It's an idea I've always been interested in.   I'm one of those people who always has music playing in his head.  I've spent a lot of my creative life trying to get that music out of my head and into some kind of usable format.   The challenge in the past has always been picking up an instrument and playing the music I was imagining without it turning into something else while I tried to figure out the notes.  I've really only recently gotten to the point where the finished product sounds like the original song in my head.

Another development in my life has been spending a lot more time on a bicycle.  I've ridden more than a thousand miles already this year.   I especially gravitate to mountain biking, because I love to be out in the wilderness interacting with the wildlife.    I realized over many long rides that my brain works overtime while I'm riding.  Unless I intentionally focus myself on a topic, I'll tend to think about work and other topics I don't want to spend my free time on.   So at some point, I decided to focus on writing lyrics while on my bike.   Staying focused on something like that is easy for me.   The lyrics go around and around in my head while I figure them out, and then I get a verse or two finished and I dictate them into my cell phone before I forget them!  

War and Love

The trouble for me with lyrics tend to be getting started.   I need a basic idea to build upon.   Sometime late last year, as I was leaving on a long bike ride, I asked Christina to give me a topic to write about.  Her quick answer was "Love."   Well, that's all fine and good, but I don't tend to write love songs, do I?   I asked for another topic... "War," she said.    I decided to combine the two topics, and I wrote the lyrics to "War and Love" on that bike ride.   I tried to imagine how I'd feel if I were a soldier fighting in a war, and how much I'd rather be home safe in the loving arms of my wife.   It worked!  The funny thing was that as I was writing those lyrics, repeating them over and over in my head to get to the next line, I was singing a melody in my head that went with them.   For weeks after that, as I tried to turn the lyrics into a 'real' song, the melody came back to me relentlessly.  In the end, I decided not to fight it!   I just figured out chords around the melody, and that was that.   I like the song.   We've played "War and Love' at one of our coffeehouse shows, but we haven't recorded it yet.   I think we'll play it at our next Ascent gig. 


Based on the success of starting with two topics and turning it into a song, I repeated this formula a few more times.   I would get two unrelated topics or ideas and just start thinking of words.  And the words would somehow create their own melody through repetition in my head.  The next two topics I got from Christina were "Evolution" and "Drug-Induced Coma."  No kidding.  Somehow, I accepted these topics and started thinking of words....  

Well, the subconscious is a powerful thing.   The words and melody of "Disappeared" wrote themselves very quickly.  I don't think I realized what I was really writing about until I was already two verses in.   I'm not going to reveal that here, but I suspect those closest to me will figure it out.

The other crazy thing here is that the melody I wrote while mountain biking was really good.  I didn't even consciously think about it.  It just happened.   Since I've been spending so much time at the piano, I sat down at the piano with that melody in my head and played chords to go with it.

Christina picked up the verse melody very naturally and easily.   When she sings my melodies, she applies style, substance, and detail to them the way an artist does with a fine brush.  There's still a thrill for me in hearing my melody sung so well by a real singer. 

Empty Streets

"Empty Streets" is another song I wrote in a similar manner to "Disappeared."   The topics were "Epidemics" and "Oil Drilling."    So, as a longtime fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, I naturally wrote a song about survivors in an abandoned Alaskan city after the great plague has wiped out humanity.  Oh yeah.  And it's a good song!  It's another piano song.  We are working on this one.

Bearing Witness

Christina wrote the (heartbreaking) words to Bearing Witness about our beloved dog, Berkeley, who passed away last year.   Her words are powerful and personal.  In his final months, Berkeley spent a lot of time lying by the piano while I played, trying to figure new ideas out.   I intentionally wrote the music for Christina's lyrics around one of the tunes I'd been playing a lot while Berkeley was listening. 

And Many More

Oh yes, there are several more new songs where those came from, but I'll just keep you wondering for now.  Hopefully, they will all show up on a new Ascent CD in the next year or so. 

Oh, by the way

In case you missed it, there was one new orchestral piece last year, which was Heroic Theme .    I posted the music on this site but never wrote about it.     It think it could have a separate life as the theme for a movie or a grandiose TV commercial, but it's still searching for a home.   I was lucky enough to find a couple of licensing deals for it, but not quite lucky enough for those deals to follow through to fruition. 


Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Thirteen is a short orchestral piece I wrote during the past several months. Year after year, I continue to read, listen, study and learn about how orchestral sounds interact, and how to apply the tricks my favorite composers relied on. I've spent many long hours applying everything I've learned about writing for orchestra, and forcing it it to come to life with the wonders of modern technology. I've expanded my palate compositionally and sonically. Thirteen reflects my current state of knowledge and the most realistic sounds I can apply right now. Thirteen is about numbers, but it's also about rhythm, structure, and melody.

Back in 2012, when the news was filled with ill-conceived predictions based on third-hand misunderstandings of the Mayan calendar, I remember thinking ... 2013 is actually the year we should all be talking about. After all, our society has been taught to avoid the number thirteen at all costs. We won't put a thirteen in an elevator, a street address, or a flight number. We're taught that thirteen has some kind of black magical power, and now we're stuck saying it and writing it for a full year. Awesome. And now that we're nearly halfway through the year, I've noticed hardly anyone mentions it, as if we're just closing our eyes and waiting for it to pass.
I actually think thirteen is a truly interesting number. It has a unique character and a symmetry all its own. It breaks into into interesting parts like seven and six... or five, five and three... or three, three, three, and four.... Okay, I admit it, sometimes my obsessive personality extends from music into numbers (and vice versa). I especially love prime numbers, and I tend to notice them as they occur around me. I've been known to emphasize fives and sevens in my music... I feel like it's time to give thirteen its due. If you listen closely to this music you'll hear patterns of thirteen beats or thirteen notes divided in many ways. You'll also hear some of my other favorite numbers like seventeen, seven, and five. You might not know it, but you'll hear them.

But the numbers in the music are just the subtext. The main themes are melodies with their own personalities, and they are the star of the show. As I often do, I put my melodies through the wringer in this piece, putting them in different harmonic or rhythmic settings, and gradually changing them.
When I was in my early twenties and first getting serious about writing music, my father would say, "that sounds like music a drummer would write." At the time, I flatly rejected and took offense to his comment, much as I rejected the majority of his comments. Looking back at much of my music now, my father's comments ring true. Growing up with drums as my primary focus in life, I can't help but emphasize the rhythmic elements of music, whether it has drums in it or not. Thirteen is a piece only a drummer would write. There's a pulse running through this piece that's kind of like an irregular heartbeat. The longer I spent with this music, the more that irregular pulse stared to feel entirely natural. My hope is that the uncommon rhythms here will also begin to feel natural to the listener. Because fours are sooooo overrated.