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The Doghouse NYC

Case Study in Composition

July 22, 2005 | Case Study

Étude in Composing Under Pressure

Sometimes you get stuck. Inspiration is a valuable commodity in our business. But it doesn't always flow when you need it to. When deadlines loom, opportunity knocks, or when you just need to get out of a rut, it sometimes helps to have a few tricks in your bag. It can be all you need to get juices flowing...and fast.

The Meeting

Not long ago, I arranged a meeting with the head of a major record label. I wanted to discuss potentially producing a few of his artists. These were performers on the roster who fell into a pop/jazz vein; along the lines of Nora Jones.

Having assembled a few tracks for this meting, I made the appointment. The appointment was for a Friday morning, but that Wednesday I happened to learn that my plan was suddenly going to change. It seemed that now, in the 11th hour, the record company needed R&B material.

This, in itself, didn't pose a problem. But I was determined to go in prepared. At the time, the only thing I could comfortabley demo was an artist I was currently producing, or an album containing older songs. Unfortunately, neither was ideal: the new tracks were unfinished and still too "raw" for primetime. The other song, although done only a year or two previously, felt dated; a hazard of popular music. It seemed the best option would be to create a song just for the meeting. It might not be a homerun, but at least I would have some control and have it land in the ballpark.

The problem, of course, was that there were only two days to write, record, and mix the track. But I didn't need a miracle. I just needed focus, an angle, and a pinch of inspiration.

Études

When forcing yourself to be creative, sometimes it helps to use an exercise. Arbitrary rules can create order out of the chaos. To my way of thinking, that concept goes to the root of musical expression (and perhaps art in general). The predominance of "études" or "studies" in composition is not an accident. It is a very effective way to inspire new work. With this in mind, I set to the task of turning this challenge into a game.

Simon Says...

This is not to say I would not have preferred to have been struck by my muse, pouring music effortlessly from the depths of my soul onto a disk. But that wasn't happening. Not this time. With nothing particular in mind, I thought back to a simple game I played as a child. Simon. Who wouldn't remember the sequence of colored lights and tones, increasing in complexity with each turn? And if you never played Simon, how about the social exercise in which a circle of people, just having met, take turns remembering names? The first person introduces themselves, the next must remember the first person's name, then add their own name. The following person must then remember two names; the next person, three --then four, and so on, as one goes around the circle.

OK, so where am I going with this? Well, by the time I had taken the analogy farther: a staircase, hopscotch, an upside-down pyramid, you get the idea.... I had most of a song written. Why? Because the hook of a song doesn't need to be a beat, chords, or a melody; it can be the song's structure itself. If I could come up with one simple melody, deconstruct it, then rebuild it upon itself, a little at a time, the song would actually write itself.

the melody

Working backwards, I created a two-bar melodic phrase on the piano that felt like it would be comfortable to sing -just eleven notes. I played the first three notes on the keyboard. So far so good. So I played a little more --the first five. I continued to build: the first three, five, and now six, building a little more each time until the music was half written. Having gotten that far, the rest flowed easily and it was still only one o'clock on Wednesday.

Production

As I feverishly began programming tracks, I picked up the phone, putting out a call to my dear friend and writing partner, Diana Reid Haig. I played her what I had. "How fast could you write me a lyric for this", I asked? "I'll call you right back", she replied. At four o'clock, just as guitarist Allan Burroughs had arrived and started putting down parts to the track I had built, Diana called back with a completed lyric. "How's this", she asked? It was perfect. Diana had understood the structure implicitly.


Thinkin' 'bout

Thinkin' about you

Thinkin' 'bout you and me

Thinkin' 'bout you and me when wer're together


I was astonished, but I wasted no time calling singer Jillian Armsbury who arrived at six, just as Allan was wrapping up. The track was coming together nicely and after a mere few hours of vocals, recording was complete. I mixed the song Thursday morning after a good night's rest and a fresh pair of ears.

The song had been composed, recorded, and mixed all within the span of a day. The result is rite4U which you hear on the right side of this page.

Simon Says "The End"

The meeting a sucess. Because you read this far, I'll reveal that it was with Atlantic founder and CEO, Ahmet Ertegun (but that's a whole other story). And yes, he liked the song. Would it be a hit? Not yet at least, but who can say? But in my opinion it was a great creative and technical achievement.

I hope that sharing the process of writing and producing this song in twenty-four hours will help someone someday. Or I hope, at least, that it will provide a little rainy day inspiration. The only thing I'll never understand is how Diana came up with that lyric so fast? To date, she never let on. But perhaps it will one day find its way into these pages. Stay tuned!

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