Category Archives: Music

It’s Recess(ional) Time, Children!

Recess. To cess again. Creator of the Peanut Butter Cup. Magic words to children and congressmen alike.

Recess.

It’s a kind of interesting word:

1530s, “act of receding,” from L. recessus “a going back, retreat,” from recessum, pp. of recedere “to recede.” Meaning “hidden or remote part” first recorded 1610s; that of “period of stopping from usual work” is from 1620s, probably from parliamentary notion of “recessing” into private chambers.

It also happens to be the word that Jessica and I decided to use with Wynette to indicate that she’s free to go. On walks with her, for instance, she has to sit and hear us say “recess!” before she can go explore and sniff a patch of grass. Similarly, when we arrive home from a walk, she has to sit while we take off her leash, and then she can’t go off into the house to chew on our socks until we say the magic word. Early on in our training I wanted to use the word break! but Jessica liked recess, and she won somehow. I’m pretty sure that was the first and only time she’s ever won an argument or disagreement of any kind. Yeah.

Anyway, it’s related to the word recession, possibly related to cesspool (through a linguistic process called aphesis), and is most certainly related to recessional. Look at that, we got to my point! Welcome to my point. I hope you enjoy your stay.

On Sunday, I spent the day at my good pal John’s place, recording music for the recessional at my wedding.

It certainly comes in handy having a great friend who (1) is extremely generous, (2) has a magical basement filled with wonder, delight, and unicorn puppies (and a giant movie screen and recording studio), (3) wants to help with music for my wedding, and I should also mention (4) is extremely generous. I know that (4) was a repeat, but look,  he shared one of these bad boys with me:

That right there is a barrel-aged version of what is already perhaps my favorite beer, Old Stock Ale, from North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg (near Mendocino). It’s fairly hard to fin, tastes like a crazy combination of bourbon and beer and moonbeams, and it’s 13% alcohol and just forget about it. If you ever see one of these bottles, grab hold of it and don’t let it go. Don’t let go.

So, we spent the day recording an original tune of mine for the recessional at my wedding. It’s a jaunty, happy little folksy number, with a strummy rhythm guitar played on a steelstring and a fingerpicky lead guitar played on a classical, with occasional little banjo accents. When we were satisfied with those tracks, John laid down a nice little baseline whilst I manned the controls:

Then we decided to get a little crazy and call up John’s friend John, still known in some circles as Big John because of a time when we were younger when there were more Johns than we knew what to do with, and he came over to lay down a rippin’ solo on the end of the tune:

The thinking was, by the end of the tune, we’d want to inject some energy into the wedding as a means of indicating “Ceremony Over, Reception Beginning,” which we all know is best accomplished with some hott guitar licks.

It was a great time, and it felt especially great to be doing something creative and personal for the ceremony. My original plan of writing pieces for every conceivable moment of the wedding may have been a bit ambitious, but a little of that will still survive, and I’m extremely grateful to have all the help I’m getting for it.

A huge thanks to John (and also John) for always being so generous with his time, talent, and friendship. I owe him a lot.

The Random Loveliness Of The Internet

In August 2009, I received a really wonderful email through a community blog that I love and participate in regularly called MetaFilter. There is a subset of the site where users post their original music, and receive feedback from other users – I’ve posted a good amount of my music on the site and it’s one of my very favorite little communities on the Internet. It’s kind, encouraging, constructive, and extremely supportive.

The email came from a user who’d heard a song I’d posted – an acoustic cover of the Pixies’ Here Comes Your Man – and wanted to let me know that he had used it in a really special way:

Howdy,

Just wanted to drop a line to let you know that my fiancee and I liked your cover version so much that we used it as our first dance at our wedding last month. The Pixies are one of my favorite bands and I put Here Comes Your Man on the first mixtape that I made for my fiancee, way back when. Your version was perfect and watching our friends identify it as the song progressed was awesome (and the older relative set could also enjoy it). When the song picks up a little in the second verse we kicked into a little jig and grabbed all of our siblings and parents to dance on the stage with us.  It was completely awesome. Thanks for making awesome music.

Here is the song: [Click to listen]

This was, by the way, several months before I got engaged, and so at the time my reaction was “Wow, that’s so cool!” but didn’t activate my Wedding-dar as it would now. I tucked it aside and forgot about it.

Now, as I plan my own wedding and am considering options for where I want music in the ceremony and reception, what songs I might want, and in general how I want to incorporate music into the whole affair, I find myself even more touched by this note.

The Internet works in mysterious ways. There’s a lot of bad, a lot of callousness, a lot of hiding behind anonymity to spout hatred and bigotry in relative safety. But there’s a lot of good, too. Simply by creating and maintaining this blog, for instance, has connected me to a network of people I’ve never met – and may never meet as long as I live – that I somehow feel comfortable with, even trust. Other wedding bloggers who read and comment on my posts, and whose posts I comment on, are people I know only through a series of pixels on a screen, and yet I appreciate their encouragement and support more than they know. The relationships people form over the internet, I feel, are becoming more and more “valid” over time, as we come to understand how to better use the internet as a social tool and as we learn how to navigate its treacherous – but rewarding – waters.

And in cases like this one, where a complete stranger plucked a piece of myself off the internet and plugged into a very special spot in their own life, well, it’s meaningful to me. In the life story of these two people who fell in love and got married, there’s a short chapter that involves a song found online and worked into a celebration of their life and their love.

Pretty damn cool.

Yesterday, Jessica suggested that Here Comes Your Man might be a perfect tune to play as I walk down the aisle. So who knows, maybe we’ll work that in. Maybe I’ll even carry my guitar with me and belt it out as I stroll towards her, echoing over the sloping lawn into the trees of Tilden Park.

Oh, and a PS – on Sunday, we spent the afternoon taking engagement photos. We had a blast, and we’re entirely certain they’re going to be fantastic.

Tales From Fishers Island, Part III: Stranger In A Strange Land

When Mary and I were in college together at Pomona, we used to spend hours making up songs together, as well as singing some of our favorite folk songs. Sometimes I’d just sit in her room and play while she did her work; sometimes we’d go sit out on the quad. And what’s more “college-y” than playing guitar on the quad? Besides cheap beer, all-nighters, hacky-sacking, and mixing sprite and coke in the dining hall soda machine, nothing. Playing guitar has always been very meditative for me, a way of zoning out the outside world for a while, and Mary’s presence has always been welcome.

The day of her wedding, I arrived early to help set up and to practice the processional music. Mary, who was remarkably calm and composed, invited me up to her room to serenade her and her bridesmaids as they got ready.

Mary and Dominick didn’t hire an official photographer – instead, they asked friends to split up the day into shifts and take pictures for a couple hours at a time. It’s a truism of wedding planning that the one thing you don’t want to outsource to friends is photography, and I’d imagine that for the most part that’s very wise – but if the photos I’ve seen so far are any indication, in this case it worked really well. Mary’s good friend Izzi had the first shift, and she popped into the dressing room and snapped off a few shots, some of which I’ve posted below.

It was an honor to be there with Mary as she got ready for her wedding. She told me the music helped keep her calm, which obviously went to my head and now I have a huuuuuge ego. Huge. I mostly just diddled around, fingerpicky-styles, until finally I was kicked out when crunch time was approaching and talk turned to boobs and stuff like that.

I’ll leave you with a few photos:

Tales From Fishers Island, Part II: The Music, Man

The other day, Jessica said to me: “I can’t wait to spend my life with you!”
“But,” I said, “you’re already doing that!”
“Oh yeah!” she said.


The "Big House," where the ceremony was held

Though I’d played music for two weddings prior to Mary’s, I’d never played anything classical – it was always “Hey Bret, you know that fingerpicky stuff you do where your fingers go all crazytimes on the strings? Do that!” and of course I happily obliged. This time, although I did do a sort of hybrid strumming + Travis picking during the recessional, I was asked to fake my way through some classical music during the processional, acting mostly as the rhythm instrument while the recorder and violin handled the melodies.

The pieces had names like Lorelei, Anglaise, Minuet, and Lindenbaum. Those are not the types of titles that typically grace my music sheets, which are more like Banty Rooster, Buck Dancer’s Choice, and Stonewall Street Blues. Or, you know, the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel and the like. Dominick’s father had sent me eight or nine music sheets and corresponding tempo markings, and as someone whose sight-reading abilities rank just below my skills as an auctioneer, I was a little daunted. Mary reassured me over the phone (yeah, she was the one getting married and I was the one needing reassurances) that as long as I held the guitar, smiled on occasion, didn’t fart too loud or pull a The Graduate-style wedding interruption, and strummed something vaguely related to the music, all would be well.

And whaddaya know – all was well!

Me and Greg, on the recorder, playing the Anglaise for the processional, and looking dapper as clams. Dapper clams.

In this photo that Jessica took, below, I’ve got a mild scowl on my face. Now, in reality, it’s likely due to a combination of reasons – it was sunny, bright, and I was having trouble getting the music to stay on the stand. Or, the photo just caught a moment; like maybe I just cleared my throat or was about to sneeze or something. But the caption that pops into my mind is “Bret tries to play classical music, results in durrrrrrrr.”

There was an “interlude,” wherein Greg and Dominick’s father shredded a couple of gorgeous duets, while I set my axe down and took a few photos:

Then it was time for the recessional:

Let me just say I put the “recess” back into “recessional,” because it felt like 15 minutes of free play out on the courtyard, with hopscotch and monkeybars and tetherball. I had originally intended to do some light & fluffy picking, but since we were outside and I wasn’t hooked up to an amp, for the sake of volume I went with a more strummy approach. My instructions were simply to begin playing as soon and Mary & Dominick’s lips parted after their kiss, and that’s just what I did. Everyone walked out slowly, the guests stood and cheered, and a really beautiful ceremony came to a close.

Next time on Tales From Fishers Island: A dude* gets a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the bride & bridesmaids’ dressing quarters as he serenades them in a corner.

*Me.

Adventures In Cake Songwriting

onight I saw my sister Katy and we watched an old X-Files episode while her cats acted like loonies and crawled around the apartment. The episode we watched involved a speeding train and a mysterious NSA agent (maybe) and a possible alien-human hybrid who also may have been a leper or some sort of unfortunate human experiment, while Scully was running around with a subcutaneous implant in her neck finding mass graveyards of big-skulled mutants and a whole colony of lepers underground. Really nice, friendly lepers with a terrible story to tell. What a great show – every time I watch an episode here and there I’m reminded of how well-made, funny, twisted, dark, and amazingly solid that show was. We used to watch it as a family on Sunday nights; my dad always claimed to dislike the episodes “with bugs crawling out of peoples’ eyes” (ie every episode), but I knew he secretly liked it. Which is why I once bought him an ugly X-Files t-shirt as a present.

As I drove home, I was listening to The Wolf (a local country station that plays the same 7 or 8 pop country hits twenty times a day each) fairly loudly, as I sometimes do when I wanna really feel the road beneath me, and I reached over to the radio to shut it off. I was hit with a sudden urge to try and write lyrics to the cake-cutting song, which is a tune I am considering writing for when it’s time for me and Jessica to cut the cake. I came out with a sort of chorus or possibly part of a verse:

we all want a slice
we all need a break
so not cuttin’ that cake
would be a giant mistake

we’re gonna cut that cake
cut it clean through
so go grab us a knife, baby
cut it straight and true

you’ll feed me a piece
and I’ll feed one to you
we’re gonna cut that cake
just me and you

As I sang it I imagined Jessica singing background vocals, echoing my words, panned left with some lovely reverb on her lovely voice. I imagined a smooth country drumbeat, some banjo, some twangy guitars, and as much Southern sass to my voice as I could muster.

When I got home I sat down immediately to get the lyrics down before they escaped from my head and then invited Jessica over to play it to her. I picked a basic chord progression and strummed it home. She began to dance a bit and snapped her fingers and got into a pretty good groove there for a second.

“You like it?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. I then played it again, but with a quicker, rollicking, fingerpicking bluegrass lick this time. It took her a second, but she found the rhythm and soon our messy little hallway was a hoedown, for a few fleeting moments.

“Every song you write, baby, for the wedding,” she said, “we’ll do a test where you play it and then we’ll see if I can dance to it!”

“But baby,” I said, “this is the cake-cutting song!”

She gave me a look. You know, one of those looks. “Bret,” she said, “our wedding is going to be one long nonstop dance party. You better believe we’re dancing to the cake-cutting song.”

“Oh yeah!” I said, remembering.

I’m getting excited about writing a cake-cutting song, and perhaps even figuring out if there are any other opportunities to slip in a homemade tune. For some reason I can’t entirely wrap my mind around, it has become clear to me that the cake-cutting tune needs to be a country song, or at least a tune with some twang.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress, dear readers, as I know you await news with bated breath and wobbly knees.

Love,

Bret

The Music, Man

I’ve decided I’m going to post more of my music on my blog. I mean, let’s be honest: I loves me the music. It’s in my veins, man. It flows deep within me. I had my blood surgically replaced with music some years back and I’ve generally been excellent health-wise since then. My heart pumps tunes through me, supplying my muscle fiber with musical nutrients. Music is the cream cheese on my bagel, the nicotine in the cigarettes I don’t smoke, and a three-run homer down by two in the 9th in a crucial late-season game with wild card implications.

Plus, I had to pay WordPress a premium so I could upload music files when I did Oh Greg. So I might as well take full advantage of all that space I purchased on the internet. By the way, Greg, you’re getting the bill for that one. Expect it shortly.

I’ve been in a drought, though, musically speaking. My creativity comes and goes, as I imagine it does for most mortals, but it has waxed and waned so reliably that I no longer have freakouts when the muses aren’t there. During dry spells I used to wonder, sometimes openly and dramatically, if the burning passion would ever return or if I was doomed to walk the remainder of my days inspiration-free.

But when I decided to compose and record the music for our first dance at our wedding, I got excited again. I had an actual project, rather than the vague self-imposed pressures of aimless creativity. The timing wasn’t all that great; Jessica and I are in the latter stages of a move in which we cleared out of our old place, stored everything in my parents’ garage for a few weeks, and have now moved (nearly) everything into our new place – and this new place, though fantastic, is not going to be the best place to record music for a little while.

No matter, though. For one, I’m excited to set up my new space, and for two, I’m not in a rush. I’m going to ease into it, like I’d ease into a new pair of pants, which by the way I now have. Two pairs, actually. Nice pants. Levis. And some shirts. A combination of Loehmann’s, H&M, and Target. Jessica says I look pretty good. But she always says that. That’s part of the reason I’m marrying her.

I have things I sometimes do to try and jump-start the creative process. If there’s one thing I can do reliably, it’s compose little instrumental tunes – I call them “ditties,” though it occurred to me that calling them that might belittle them a bit – that are invariably sentimental, flowy, perhaps a little sappy, heavy on the fingerpickin’ and the banjoin’, and usually the same tempo. For example (click to play):

♫ Harpy go lurky ♫

*[You like those little musical notes? I just learned how to do those. On a PC, it’s alt-14. Alt-13 gives you a single note like ♪.]

I feel like music of this type might find itself a nice home somewhere in our wedding; it may not be quite right for the first dance, since it’s a little quick, but perhaps something like it could work. I don’t think we have any recessional music yet, either, and so something of that ilk might fit there too.

This next one, for example, sounds like it could be ripe for a recessional – though don’t tell anyone that I originally wrote this for a commercial my film company made for a Berkeley-based, eco-friendly dishwasher & laundry detergent company. It’s pretty  jaunty, and I can envision nicely-dressed people scurrying off lightly towards the reception room with this playing:

♫ Handlebars ♫

I’ve got a lot of these. There was a time when I’d sit down in my “studio,” open up a naked Pro Tools file, grab my guitar, and swear to myself up and down that I was going to compose something new this time. Something different. Something un-Bret. Something dark, or poppy, or weird, or unusual. And then a few hours later, I’d sit back, hit Play, and realize I’d done it again: another sappy, flowy, sentimental ditty. And I’d be like: “Well, shit.”

But, I’m OK with that. It’s still my goal to try to create something new, and I know I can get there. I’ve even done it, to some degree, though those experiments remain hidden within the recesses on my hard drive. But I’ve found a lot of uses for these pieces, in videos, for events, and the like. And now maybe for my wedding.

The other thing I do when I need to get back into the fickle grooves of Mistress Creativity is to cover a favorite song – and thus I will leave you with this rendition of a classic Beatles tune that I did on my day off yesterday. Be gentle.

♫ Norwegian Wood ♫

Dance First, Ask Questions Later, Then Dance More

I write and record music. I suppose you could call me a musician if you felt so inclined. In fact, you could even lean on something if you felt so inclined. Get it? You do get it. You’re sharp. It’s why I like you so.

As it happens, the fact of creating music – and recording it on my own – has fundamentally altered my relationship with it. I listen for the bassline, for the little guitar riffs, I pay close attention to production, to melody lines, to harmony, to mistakes. I recognize that Taylor Swift is a legitimately talented songwriter even as she irritates me sometimes with her cutesiness, for instance. I see songs as a complex tapestry of moving parts, of all the little pieces that need to fit together to make a great tune.

Well then – that was pretentious. I apologize for that. My intention was just to elucidate my experience with music, and I ended up gettin’ all snitty on you.

I recently upgraded my home recording situation, going from the free Garageband that comes on every Mac to Pro Tools, a lighter version of the program that is used in many (most?) recording studios. For, like, real musicians. It’s vastly more complex and powerful than Garageband, and my learning curve has been steep; for the first couple weeks, I’d often find myself in a situation where I’d click on one little thing, then everything would stop working, and I’d spend an entire day trying to figure out just what I clicked. It was deeply frustrating, as anyone who’s ever tried to learn a complicated computer program can attest. I’d troll all the gear messageboards, call my friend John, and pray to Gods I don’t believe in just to alleviate my mounting anger. “BRET ANGRY!” I would say in a deep voice, pretending to rip off my shirt, Hulk-style. Jessica pretends not to like it when I do that but I know she loves it. Don’t you baby.

Me, in the throes of a hott jam

Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like a kid in a candy store – a store filled with very complicated candy that seems overwhelming to try and figure out how to eat. Weird, unintuitive candy that looks beautiful but tastes foul; candy on the higher shelves that will only be attainable once I can fashion a structure of footstools and boxes.  Candy with strange Asian hieroglyphics, beautiful saturated colors, intoxicating aromas but a deadly poison center.

Um… what?

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