The Ghosts in the Machine
Songwriter Sue Casson takes advantage of technical advances as she explores the mysteries of music transcription.
Today I took out my original manuscript of Two Tigers - an imperfect collection of yellowing leaves, some in my spidery scrawl, others in the confident hand of Nigel*, my arranger. There are instrumental parts, whole scores, and some original piano copies - the first notation after a song was written. After the last Edinburgh show I heaped what I had into a brown paper bag, intending to sort it later. I obviously didn’t think I’d leave it till now. When I think about how I’ve moved about since I shuffled those pages in there 30 years ago, it’s pretty amazing I’ve got them at all.
As I pull the papers out of the bag, seeing what’s there, dreading what’s not, a host of ghosts and memories float out with them. But today, I am to start the job of translating these shreds from a former life into a neat and serviceable score with the aid of computer software, pulling it gently into the 21st century. This hand-written, tippexed collection will emerge from this process new born – without its’ attitude and personality, but a whole lot easier to read.
Music or Words?
As a singer songwriter I’m often asked – ‘Which comes first, the words or the music?’ Glibly perhaps, I reply that with the best songs the two often come together. Or at least, a phrase that has inspired the song dictates the shape of the accompanying tune; and the music may take on its’ own life from there because music also seems to have a progression of its’ own. But by then the atmosphere of the song is set, even if I go back to write more words to develop the idea that inspired it all in the first place. I don’t think I’ve ever written a tune that has stayed with me, to which I’ve subsequently grafted on words.
Words have a meaning that is answered by the music. They set the mood and dictate a rhythm. The more you explore that, the more you come to see that there is a musicality about language, 'the rhythm of... native woodnotes wild' as GB Shaw put it.
For Katherine Mansfield, as regular readers know, the musicality of what she wrote was integral. As well as providing a soundtrack to her stories, where a heightened awareness of background noise often frames a scene, she constructs them with a firm structure like a song. As I’ve said, this parallel with the songwriter's craft is one of the things that first drew me to her as a musical subject. She describes her creation of Miss Brill in a letter to Richard Murry in terms of sound, rise and fall, and concludes:
‘After I’d written it I read it aloud – numbers of times – just as one would play a musical composition.’
KM never went to university, which although she read widely meant she had no preconceived ideas about ‘literature’ and ‘writing’. Formal study can, by its’ expectations sometimes constrain creativity. I chose literature over music at university for just this reason. Melody is a mysterious gift and I didn’t want the mystery knocked out of me with too many rules and regulations. Which is fine when I’m sitting at a piano, master of my own destiny. But when it comes to passing a song on, to an arranger, or musical director, I am outside my comfort zone.
How transcription has changed
Technical advances in computer programming were only just beginning to make the laborious process of music transcription by hand a thing of the past as I first wrote this score. As Two Tigers was staged in 1988, a man called Phil Farrand was developing the very first version of Finale, the software I'm now using, for Coda Music. I bought my first copy in the early 1990s.
How much easier has it made life since then! Where once I sat at the piano noting the shape of my hand on the keys to painstakingly transfer the notes, midi does it for me in the twinkling of an eye. Timing is still a challenge. Often swung or irregular to accommodate the phrasing of the words, back then I’d have to bang my leg to transcribe each dot and tie.
Even now, computers are not natural jazzers (!) But with the playback tool – ah the playback tool – the score stirs, and gently breathes again. The piano player in the machine may sound as if he has a wooden leg – the inarticulate singers may sing every phrase like an owl – ooooh - at least I get an idea of how accurate my transcription of the rhythm is, and I can adjust accordingly. No need for an eraser. (Or Tippex.)
As the mechanical score grows, the ideas that spawned the original will begin to spring to life, and gradually take on a new shape. I’ll be able to hear those grey algorithmic instrumentalists play along well before the parts are handed out. It turns out the ghosts in the paper bag are bringing to life a set of ghosts of the future – with the help of ghosts in a machine.
Join me for my next Mansfield Musing to see how my re-imagined Two Tigers is progressing. Add your email at the top and subscribe to get a reminder direct to your inbox!
*Arranger Nigel Lillicrap, was then a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music, I have since lost touch with him.