Rachel and Steve's Fourth Anniversary


I don't know about you, but I was pretty wiped after our third anniversary, and I didn't get around to planning the fourth for a bit. Besides, Rachel and I had a lot on our minds at the time. We had taken drastic steps to induce PhD withdrawal: beginning our job search.

So, painful months of tuning research and teaching statements crawled by in a haze of em dash vs. en dash1 and that vs. which2 arguments. What could be more crucial for securing an academic post in Computer Science than mastering the dusty minutiæ of English grammar and orthography? Don't knock it: we got jobs!

So, sometime between posting our pæans of self-praise to colleges and universities around (a very limited portion of) the world and actually heading out on the interview circuit, I got the idea of writing a song. After all, I had plenty of experience writing songs already.. well, experience writing parody songs, anyway. Unfortunately, I wasn't convinced that a parody song was going to cut it here:

What did you think, honey?
Um.. wasn't that Iron Maiden's 'Long Distance Runner'?
Well.. yes. But, instead of the expressing the plight of the native population of the Americas, the new words reflect my feelings for you.
That's sweet. When did you find time to get the piercings?

Expert assistance was called for. Fortunately, I had in my very own research group a member of the internationally renowned Depeche Module: Ken Yasuhara, lead3 guitarist and singer.

Ken and I met in a secure location — the sixth floor balcony overlooking the Allen Center atrium — and laid the initial groundwork. I explained to Ken that I wanted to write a song for Rachel for our anniversary: a whole song, from scratch, lyrics plus music. After all, I had written several parody songs and taken a few years of piano at the start of elementary school. I was reasonably certain that I could still tell a bass clef from a treble, and I played a mean Axel F (right hand only).

Oh, and I wanted to write the song in 3. 3 time. Three-quarters time. Whatever you call that. Anyway, threes are important4.

Throughout the discussion, Ken never once expressed doubt in my ability to accomplish this task, which must have taken the kind of iron willpower usually reserved for flashback scenes from "Kung Fu". After eliminating the more plausible alternatives — existing love song, parody song, 4/4 time, flowers — Ken agreed to offer aide. (Plus, it turns out that he was actually interested in playing with alternate meters as well.)

We started with a brief lesson in pop music structure — verse, chorus, and the ever-mysterious "bridge" — and a list of songs in unusual meters. Despite my limited musical tastes (Sting and Billy Joel), we were able to find an artist I collected who used a variety of meters (Sting5).

Ken recommended I listen to my Sting and, assuming my antenna was still tunable to non-NPR frequencies, take in plenty of music on the radio. My job was to find sounds I liked and start riffing on them, creating new tunes and new lyrics and writing them down. As I put together pieces I liked, I would run them by Ken for grooming and advice.

To enact this plan I needed substantial stretches of time during which I could engage in "active listening" without arousing Rachel's suspicions. In the course of early sessions, I discovered that "active listening" meant yelling along with the lyrics at the top of my lungs and flailing my limbs in time, which imposed the additional requirement that these sessions be conducted deep underground in a disused missile silo in North Dakota.

Well, the next best thing to a missile silo is a rental car someone else is paying for on highways you've never driven before and probably never will again. Fortunately, the job search supplies these in plenty and, in January and February of 2004, I exploited a series of psychologically soundproofed rental cars to develop lyrics. Even that temptress Terry Gross couldn't make me come up for Fresh Air since I didn't know the frequency for NPR.

With my venue for musical invention nailed down, I needed only the means to record my ideas. I felt constrained by traditional musical notations; so, I developed my own flexible and powerful scheme called "Caveman Musical Scratchings". Basically, you draw a little dot for the first note. Then, if the next note is higher-pitched, you draw the next dot a bit above the first dot. If it's, for example, a whole lot lower pitched, you'd draw the next dot way below the current dot. Varying duration and slides are naturally represented using scribbly bits, and chords are depicted (primarily accidentally) in pizza sauce.

The big problem with the scheme is remembering what pitch that first dot is at. Fortunately, at some point Ken taught me about setting the same song in different keys.