Monday, January 30, 2012

Song Bio - Footprints

Round 1 of SpinTunes 4 has completed. The challenge was:

Night Terrors - Write a song about a childhood nightmare. Include significant use of rubato. (2 minute minimum)


My entry, Footprints, is extrapolated from one of the few fragments of childhood dreams that I remember, and probably the closest I've come to a nightmare. I recall being pretty shaken up when I woke up after it. I realize that the challenge doesn't specify that the nightmare has to be one that you actually had, but that is the route I chose to take. It's not your traditional "chased by a monster" type of nightmare -- it was a more subtle, yet still disturbing, dream. In it, I was following these footprints that did illogical things (like stop in mid-track, or pass under walls, or go across the ceiling). I didn't know why I had to follow them, I just did. Obviously, they were impossible to follow.

To flesh this out a bit, I included similar elements from later dream sequences into this basic framework. About a year ago I actually experimented with lucid dreaming, and I realized that a somewhat common disturbing element in many of my dreams was being lost in some type of building with an illogical and un-mappable maze-like geometry. Often I am chasing something or someone, but without ever knowing why (and never finding them). This is similar enough to the childhood memory that I feel justified in using artistic license to combine them here.

The feeling of unease comes not only from the illogicality of the geometry (or the footprints) but also from the uncertainty of what I'm doing (and why), and the feeling that I must continue, though continuing seems impossible. I think of this as a sort of "mental claustrophobia". I've recognized this same feeling in real life, for example, when trying to debug some difficult code, and having no idea where to even start looking for the problem. I think everyone can relate to having a task which they must do, but which they do not know how to perform.

Music Theory Stuff

I needed to depict this restless unease musically. In that respect, this song is similar to my previous SpinTunes entry, Insomniac Lullabye. I even use a similar time signature change in the chorus of this song, although I resisted the urge to use a more complex signature (like 5/8 or 7/8). Of course, I try to use the required rubato to depict this restless feeling as well. I'm not sure how well the rubato turned out, though, due to my inability to play as smoothly as I should have.

But beyond meter and tempo, I'd recently been playing around with the various modes (and other scales), and the relationships between them. So my personal challenge this round was to use at least one mode or exotic scale (something other than major or minor). At one point, I was considering trying Locrian Mode or a Whole Tone scale, but those were a bit too exotic. Instead, I settled on the Phrygian and Lydian modes (specifically, I alternate between E Phrygian and F Lydian).

The reason for picking those two particular modes is that they represent the darkest (Phrygian) and lightest (Lydian) of the traditional modes (excluding Locrian). In fact, except for the 1st and 5th scale degrees, every note in the Phrygian mode is a half step lower than the corresponding note in the Lydian mode. This means that most of my song is in the darker Phrygian mode -- the descending figure in the piano accompaniment was designed around this mode, to showcase it's unique flattened 2nd scale degree. To introduce some contrast, I occasionally switch to the dreamy Lydian mode (in the intro, outro, and the midway point). To highlight the difference between these modes, I inverted the accompaniment into an ascending figure, highlighting the Lydian mode's unique sharpened 4th degree. The way that the piece is largely built from this single motif and it's inversion (with a contrasting upward arpeggio figure in the chorus) probably qualify this piece as being in a "Minimalist" style.

Since the dominant of the Phrygian mode is a diminished chord (B dim), I avoid using it, and replace it with the flat-vii chord instead (D min). I also focus more on the iv chord (A min). Then, in order to increase the ambiguity (to picture being lost in the maze-like halls), my verse phrases somehow ended up modulating down a major third, from E Phrygian, to C Minor, and I use the dominant from this key (G7) to create a half cadence, before unexpectedly jumping right back into E Phrygian. However, there is one point where I chromatically alter the scale to use the actual dominant chord (B7) -- this occurs in the chorus, at the words "I feel compelled". The V-i progression here conveys the feeling of compulsion and forward motion. This doesn't last for long though, since the progression continues (elusively) upward to the bII chord (F), which then forms the basis for repeating the Lydian-based progression from the introduction.

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