Last night I pulled out the 1878 Methodist Episcopal hymnal I bought some time ago to use as a resource for public domain melodies. The hymnal has a name printed on it, which I erroneously assumed was the woman who edited it, but instead, I realized, was the parishioner who once owned that hymnal. I wonder how she enjoyed it in the 19th Century, and how she used it.
My goal in pulling out the hymnal was to begin a project with holiday intentions. The netlabel Darkwinter is putting together a complilation of holiday songs done in dark ambient style. I wanted to find a hymn I could alter for a submission to that project.
I use a little 25 dollar stand-alone software synthesizer, Sawcutter 2.0, to make a lot of my music these days. I carefully took the melody line of the hymn and keyed it into the little piano roll sequencer provided by that synthesizer. I was so pleased when I had logged the entire verse and refrain into the sequencer, so that I could just punch a button and it would play back. Soon I had a jaunty 40 second version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" pouring forth from the synthesizer.
Then I began the task of choosing what "voices" to use for the four instruments of the synthesizer. One advantage of Sawcutter 2.0 is that it functions not only as a synthesizer but also as as rudimentary sampler. This means that instead of just allowing me to define parameters the program will use to play back melodies, the program actually lets me load in wave files and tell the synthesizer to use the loaded in file as the "voice" of the melody.
I began to try out voices. I first tried a faux theremin sound that I created by taking a bitmap of a friend's photograph and rendering it into sound using the freeware program Coagula Light. This sounded pretty good, but I wanted something else. Then I tried a nose flute sound I had on hand, which also worked all right, but not quite what I had in mind. I then tried a synthesizer "instrument" I had designed myself, which sounds a bit like a bad Vincent Price horror movie imitation of a harpsichord. This gave the piece a certain 1960s Don Knotts movie flair, but was not quite the thing, either.
I finally hit upon a "voice" I found interesting for the synthesizer to use to play the song. I took one of the Calendar Songs a capella tracks ("May") and used it to play back the song. This made a nice, melodic and yet mildly ominous sound. Imagine, if you will, an ominously cheerful chorus.
This was all well and good, but my goal was something darker. So I added some additonal sounds in, and then loaded the results in Slicer, a curious freeware program which slices up sound samples and allows one to manipulate the pitch and pan of the components.
Soon I had created an angelic chorus that was both ponderously slow and an endless drone--rather like a mildly sweeter version of one's least favorite algebra teacher, at the
most humorlessly carried-off holiday party choir recital one could imagine. I thought the result was amusing. I sent it off to the singer, because it is such a change of pace from the original material. I got back the useful comment that those angels were "Blake-ian".
I like dawns, because their early light not only makes one proud to see rockets glaring, but also gives one a keen appreciation of what should be bound for the cutting-room floor. This version of the "Hark the Herald Angels" experiment shall not be submitted for potential release, but instead shall join stray copies of "Huckleberry Finn" and
"Tropic of Cancer" in willful suppression. I tabled the song like a controversial motion about planting-past-their-due-date-iris-bulb at a garden club executive committee meeting, with vigor but a sure desire to keep the inner peace.
I like that failures are part of successes (though, having resigned a couple of postal chess games this morning, I'd like for successes to be part of successes). I like that sometimes a song can be something to try to share, and sometimes it is right for just one creator and one listener. I love my cutting-room floor, on which virtually all my best ideas often land.
I'm eager to try again with "Hark the Herald Angels", but this time I picture minimalism, a jaunty melody, and angels somewhat less discordant on high. But the good memory of this rather bad song endures, and that's perhaps a positive of this