Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 3


I've always been a bit miffed by the question of "emotion" in music, because I've been more and more convinced that emotion cannot reside in the music. Emotion arises from how people interpret sounds and music, and in theory, this interpretation is entirely subjective. However, possibly evolutive and adaptative issues, as well as social tendencies, lead people to associate certain melodies and harmonies with certain emotions. This means that when it comes to film scores, for example, people are being "manipulated" by people who have vast knowledge on how music can affect emotions. But that eventually means that music, as a form of art, is being restricted, by turning it into a language: with grammar, syntax, semantics and everything else. This is why I've become extremely cautious with the intentional use of "emotion" in music. I think it's a little discomforting to use music as a means of communication and expression, because in the end, nothing guarantees that people will get exactly what you mean; and on the other side, nothing guarantees that the music is an exact representation of its artist. After all, we're not in a shortage of people using music to acquire sympathy and affection they don't deserve and wouldn't get any other way: isn't that what Emo has become?

Stripy, as a song, sticks out like a sore thumb from the album so far. Like Spotty, it was intended to represent the character's personality somewhat accurately, but also vaguely. I'm of course biased to say that, but I'm not able to pin down one EXACT mood for each portion of the song. Even though minor chords are generally preferred to express sadness and melancholia, Stripy is entirely in the keys of A major and E major; and yet, some bits seem to betray a tinge of solitude, a tinge of pessimism, a sparkle of positivity, a bit of naïvety and so on. As I was writing the song, I intentionally kept myself away from trying to emphasize specific parts of his personality, and was mainly guided by my impression of the character as a whole -- which can be different from the impression other people have, and that's exactly the effect I tried to create here. In other words: your milleage may vary.

Stripy, the little robot, has a big, blocky, angular build, but his personality is better represented by the colourful stripes that form his body. He's imaginative, thoughtful and introspective, but his slow movements and low tone of voice give him a clumsy, clunky appearance, which end up making his true essence a sort of "hidden treasure". Stripy knows he has a lot to show, but is often unable to do so; this results in the other characters sometimes ignoring him, but other times being positively surprised by him. His most trustful companion is Teddy, a metallic teddy bear, that he talks to and takes care of, just like his garden of flowers. With the song, I tried not to be excessively "sympathetic" and corny to him, but I tried to hide a sort of poignant beauty, and contrast them with lonely, drawn-out passages devoid of melody, awkward chord changes and radical dynamic contrasts.

The song was born out of the piano line at the start, with the guitar parts and the clarinet melody almost growing naturally out of it. The "chorus" is built around the acoustic guitar line, and from then on, the song practically wrote itself. The passage with the clarinet solo was made to be intentionally confusing, with the time signature varying wildly and the chords being almost arbitrary, and I tried to make the clarinet solo not perfectly synched with the rest of the band. So yes, folks, I'm being quite frank: there's nothing "complex" in that passage, there's no underlying theory, and any sort of surprising conclusions reached with analysis of the chords and rhythmic twists will be accidental. I made up that part as I went, using only my ears and my sense of beauty to guide it. If you listen closely, I've only used major chords, and no complex modal tricks are used. The most tricky thing are the augmented chords that lead to that part, which ended up sounding a lot more dissonant than I expected, and thus a lot more satisfying.

The next parts were pretty much isolated ideas. The chimes are a combination of glockenspiel, harp, celesta and vibraphone MIDI patches, and they were supposed to represent Teddy, Stripy's companion, as well as the more childlike and positive vision of the world around him. And contrasting with it, the clarinet solo part is repeated, sans clarinet, and with a loud distorted guitar borrowed directly from Mogwai. One "accidental" thing happened here, when I was mixing the part, and felt the lack of something to smooth down the roughness of the guitars. I ended up sketching an "improvised" pad part that's somewhat buried on the mix, but that gave a very beautiful result. Myself, I was very surprised with how well it turned out to be, considering it was something sketched on the spot.

The ending of the song leaves only the chimes, that end up in a sort of circular figure. The chimes modulate from B major to A major, and originally, they'd modulate again to G major and segué into the next song. But then, things changed, for the better. Overall, Stripy is one song I'm quite fond of. As much as it's deceivingly simple and cobbled together, the finished product is pleasant and touching to me. Somehow, I feel I achieved just the result I wanted. Oh, and of course: that slow, tangled fabric of piano and guitars ended up becoming something of a personal cliché of mine. And the chimes would become a "leitmotif" for the album, but that's for later!

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