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.