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Let's Write a Christmas Song!

Writing a song is lot like cooking to me. It depends upon the tasteful and sensitive use of the suitable ingredients and spices. But just like cooking, the old adage that too many cooks can spoil the soup, the real fun of composing comes when I can work on my own. A recipe surely is a good starting point - but nothing more, so it is not my aim to dictate an accurate set of instructions, or anything of that sort. Instead I'd like to talk about how my last composition evolved and in this way address some rather general thoughts.

For cooking as well as for composing you usually will need more than one tool in order to get the job done, in fact, you will probably need at least several tools. Which tools one uses of course depends upon skill, taste and individual preferences. I, for example, am a keyboardist and like having those black and white keys in front of me, but can absolutely not get used to fretboards. The upside of today's keyboards is that you can use the power of MIDI in order to connect them and let them "talk" to each other. Unfortunately MIDI always sounds so cheesy and cheese doesn't fit my meal so well. But does MIDI always have to sound like cheese? Isn't cheese an ingredient instead of a tool? Right, MIDI is a tool, a wooden spoon for example. But a wooden spoon doesn't make the taste of a meal, only how it is used. So from my experience I can say that MIDI employed with the right tone generator doesn't sound cheesy at all. On the contrary it always surprises me how good it can actually sound.

Well, a wooden spoon in and of itself is no Christmas pudding. We also need pots, bowls, dishes, an oven… Or in order to write a song paper and pen, inspiration and possibly a good dose of humor and later on we might find we need a computer. Admittedly the computer actually is superfluous but since I only have two hands the computer shall have to serve as the other hands. It shall become my accompaniment band.

Now that we're done with those preparations the next question arises: Which ingredients do we need, anyway? Bang, we're already in the process of creating - the act of composing. At the beginning there's always the idea or the direction respectively. My aim was to write a nice Christmas song. Well, what belongs to a Christmas song? It seems one would have to know some Christmas songs if you want to answer this question. On the one hand there are traditional songs like Jingle Bells, Silent Night or Oh Christmas Tree. On the other hand I remember songs like Feliz Navidad from José Feliciano [or Ritchie Valens! --ed. ] or Last Christmas from George Micheal alias Wham. Than there are the gospel/spiritual bent songs. They all have their charms. Because I didn't want to define an absolute direction I simply thought about what components there are that make the songs what they are, and perhaps more importantly, how I could combine these ingredients.

Christmas carols are most often sung. As Leroy Anderson demonstrated so well, the use of sleighbells in the percussion section can immediately suggest Christmas. The chord structures shouldn't be too complicated but offer potential for extensions and so on. Such thoughts went through my head for some days before I played any note. Than one day it happened. I sat at the keyboard and what I played (only a half measure) captured me immediately. I knew, this is how the beginning of my Christmas song will sound. This was real serendippity, an accident turned into a good idea. An idea which painted a whole picture during the next weekend. Step after step new ideas came, I wrote them down, tried them out, erased them, tried again. Even my not-so-musically-inclined girl friend was pressed into service, her job was to play the sleighbells. At the end I was really proud - the frame made of chords and a few melody lines was built. But - and this is the point - up to this point I had yet to write a song. The analagoy to cooking here (remember the cooking?) is that I had prepared a batter but had yet to bake a cake.

This was when the computer was brought into play. Unlike many great composers who have the ability to create whole songs within their head, a gift I'm constantly practicing, I'm not able to do so just yet. So I did what I always do instead: I turned the computer on, opened XG-Works and programmed a somewhat sporadic drum line and began to play on my keyboard to that mini loop as it played back. Several detours later I also learned that the true time signature of my song is not 4/4 but 2/4. Okay, so its simple duple instead of compound. All that not stopping me much, next came a few trial recordings. I guess because I really wanted to know which direction the song wanted to go, much like the chef who puts his finger into the mixture in order to taste it. I have to say I was overwhelmed by the possibilities at this point.

Since up to this point all I really had was a framework, it was now time to practice filling that frame with some actual musical content. Some bass here, some guitar there. Take this melody over here. The frame was built and fleshed out in small bits and pieces at a time - the act of composing went on. But it is important to mention that I didn't merely fill. I also "emptied". A sparse arrangement doesn't have to be a bad arrangement. A full blown arrangement on the other hand doesn't have to be a good arrangement. But first, what really constitutes a sparse arrangement? All I can tell you, while sparse in nature, it's not one of those monotone arrangements, either, because if you remember, right from the beginning I tried to involve changes within the content of a "nice Christmas song". A rule of thumb I always remember reads: "The best part of a song is the part the listener anxiously waits for." As much as I might like my little guitar solo, two times is the absolute maximum. Hmm, perhaps it is indeed possible to imitate a nice guitar sound using MIDI after all...

The project has been progressing rather well, and at the time of this writing I can at least say that I have written a Christmas song which includes lyrics and a rather complete arrangement including an Intro. There's also a MIDI sequence created of it now, and I'm about to dot the i's and cross the t's on this one. Certain details of the MIDI sequence aren't yet satisfying enough, some editing and addition of a few controllers for spice are in order, then of course I will have to convert those MIDI tracks to AUDIO tracks, record the vocals and mix this project before it is "in the can". So what does this creation taste, er, sound like? I spent too much time thinking about whether to provide some parts of my song as a reference what I'm talking about but came to the conclusion that at this point things wouldn't make much sense at all. After all I want you to write your own Christmas song, too. But I assure you as soon as the tracking is finished I'll provide it on my website as well as on the review board. Just give me some time to put the frosting on this Christmas "cake", please.

Yours, Dennis


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