Friday, 6 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 7


How much more simple than this can you get?

One chord, one rhythm, one nine note motif, and chimes. In theory, it sounds banal, empty, dull. In practice, it sounds... um... well, I personally think the song sounds a lot better in practice than in theory. And, in fact, its position in the album is quite convenient, because it follows three rather non-trivial songs. So, it stands as a sort of small "oasis" of simplicity and charm. And, after all, that's pretty much what Tiny represents on the cartoon. It's true that, as the main character and only character present in every single episode, Tiny can be perhaps a little TOO perfect and nice. He usually has The Right Things to Say, but I wonder if we really can blame them. After all, Tiny's greatest disadvantage is exactly what his name indicates. Every day he struggles to switch on the Day and Night Machine, and the more physical tasks are almost always beyond his reach, However, he compensates it with his skills with tools (stored in his head, which works like a lid he can open and close with a button on his belly), building and mending, and of course, his smarts.

As industrious and diligent as he can be, though, the aspect of his personality that really grabs me is his joy of living -- the sheer delight he gets from looking at the robots' world and seeing everything is fine, and the pure happiness he feels by just being there. It's pretty much the child's outlook of the world: it's a nice place to live in! Even though there are problems to fix and issues to resolve, it's great to be a live! Tiny shows this very often, and I wanted to transport that into the song. Thus, I wanted something inherently simple, catchy, perhaps a little bit quirky, but absolutely obvious and down-to-Earth. If you observe, the tempo and rhythm of the song is the same as that of Stretchy, but there are no drums. Thus, you have the momentum, but not the mechanic repetition, the endless clockwork motion; it remains suspended, hovering, and the meandering pad synthesizers are meant to be just like that. The only thing that actually keeps the rhythm is the bass, always alternating between two notes.

The melody was a very early idea, and it was very easy to come up with. I started simply with the A → E interval, an absolutely trivial and cliché interval, moved to the fairly unexpected A → G♯ interval, and tried to build a motif that would lead back to the beginning and, OF COURSE, like a good prog rock influenced musician would do, break into a 7/8 measure and twist the rhythm around a bit. It was fairly easy to come by. And from there, the final, badly needed descent through the keys of G, F, E and D were only a natural conclusion, and keeping the melody always on the same key is what really creates that "motion" in it. Also, if you observe, there is a string ensemble that arrives near the ending, and though they follow the descending chords, the pad synths remain in A major. That's why you get that strange dissonance.

Now, believe me or not, the tricky part here were the chimes. Like I already complained here before, this is some of that annoying manual, repetitive and uncreative work that slows me down. After all, writing it was more like making a painting rather than making music. It was all a matter of putting in the notes in a way they'd create interesting harmonies without repeating notes too often, AND also increasing their frequency steadily until they'd be playing in every single beat by the end. It's sort of mathematical and geometrical thing, and frankly, not very fun to do. And the chimes you hear were the first and only attempt I made of it. Since it took me several days to complete all the instruments (a celesta, a harp, a glockenspiel, a vibraphone and a dulcimer), once I made them all, I never dared to touch them again and just left them alone. This had an ill effect, though: if you notice, JUST as the bass arrives, the chimes echo the flute. It seems perfectly timed and intentional, but it was accidental. I only noticed it after it was done, and was too bored to change it.

And the annoying thing is that, while those chimes appear in two other songs, in Tiny, they appear OVER THE ENTIRE SONG. What a boring thing to make. But yeah, that's my modus operandi: if I have an idea in my head, I WILL do it, no matter how much it bores me. I just think of the final result and get on with it. Tiny wasn't what I'd call a challenging song to write. But hearing the final product, I quite like it. For a song so simple, I think it works. And if you wanna know, my favourite part is the intro, which was made by gradually fading in four notes in slow succession: A, E, D and B. I have no idea what that chord is called (probably something ugly and bizarre like Aadd9sus11), but I think it's beautiful, and the way it is resolved when the B finally moves down to A has quite a soothing effect. I have always been fond of those humming, electronic drone sounds. They remind me of sounds I loved hearing as a child, like the fan spinning and slowly moving from side to side, or the electric dryer in the bathroom. I think the intro and the finale, in fact, are what really make the song. The "middle" portion is simply something organic which grows out of the pad notes and slowly evolves and develops and builds the tension for the finale. You know, that ending in D? It's sort of deceiving, isn't it? Not only does it leave a feeling of tension unresolved, but it slams you straight into Messy. Does it sound melancholy? Hopeful? Dreamy? Sad? AMBIGUITY! Haha! Emotions are not absolute! See? To me, personally, it's sort of gazing absent-mindedly into the distance, with a feeling of joy, but also of wonder, curiosity for the unknown. But if it sounds sad to some people, I won't think it's wrong. There are slightly sad undertones to Tiny's character, and if the song unintentionally reflects that, it only goes to show how much is much more exciting when people don't try to enforce their own interpretation into others. I don't think music has to be absolute, and Tiny is a good composition to express that. Listen with your own ears and enjoy!

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