Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

Acoustic Jam



I make a great deal of music using software synthesizers into which I can conveniently sample sound files and in which I can easily diagram "piano roll" sheet music. Lately my Last.fm listener base has been slowly growing, and I was thrilled a week or two ago when
a Dutch TV show by some friends in Amsterdam and the Hague played on the Netherlands "midnight movie", because one of my ambient pieces is on the soundtrack. If one runs the search term "Gurdonark" through Youtube or Vimeo or Blip.TV, then a pleasing number of home videos featuring my work can be located, created by fun folks all over the world.

All that said, I never imagine that I am really a musician. I took years of piano, which taught me to read music surprisingly passably, but did not leave with me any ability to actually play. I sang off-key in choirs. I taught myself to play the autoharp in college. A number of years ago I began to attend a monthly mountain dulcimer group in nearby Denton, where, in return for extremely modest monthly dues, I could learn from really solid dulcimer players how to play that instrument. The can-jo is a form of one-string dulcimer with a soft drink can "resonator", so I can also play that instrument. My repertoire of "memorized" songs, however, runs to the folk standards and beginner pieces "Boil them Cabbage Down" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie", as well as a workable version of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" and a nearly-listenable "Amazing Grace". I can also play about 7 notes on the nose flute, and it's fun to realize how many and how few songs require 7 notes to play.

I usually use my instruments to create samples to put in my 35 dollar software synthesizer, Sawcutter 2.0.
My most recent free-to-download release, Seven Virtues,
featured melodies sequenced from the sound of ornamental crystal. Suffice it to say that I consider myself a non-musician.

I was amused, therefore, when a great guy on twitter, thauser777, sent me an evite to an acoustic jam at Cafe Bohemia, a small coffee shop in nearby Plano, with a note to "bring my dulcimer". Despite my very limited skills, I decided to go and at least listen.

This evening, I found myself loading my car with an arsenal of musical instruments:
A. My mountain dulcimer, a gorgeous Appalachian instrument with walnut shell inlays I won in an eBay auction from a fine east coast music store a few years ago;
B. My latest can-jo (I tend to buy them and give a lot of them away), featuring a mountain dew canon and an annoying buzz on the zero string;
C. a nose flute; and
D. two percussion mallets with superball heads, on the theory that if all else failed, I could play the tabletop.

I arrived just before 8 p.m., and Tim, the organizer, and a really nice guy, welcomed me to the function. I pulled up a chair, introduced myself to the other fellows, put my mountain dulcimer and my can-jo in my lap, rested my nose flute upon the dulcimer, and joined the fun. An audience of a dozen or two sat in for the session, along with the 7 to 9 people jamming.

Although I read music in a manner of speaking passably well, I do not have a great ear for hearing a chord and defining its pitch. I get better at that as the years go on, so I know that practice makes a difference in this as in so many things. I wondered if I would be able to join in at all, but often the person leading each song would describe what chords were to be played. This let me choose notes on the dulcimer or the can-jo which, in the main, worked with the song. Sometimes I had to not play at all, for want of being able to complement the song. Other times, I had to experiment a bit and wince at mistakes. But amazingly often, I could find a series of notes, or even just the root keynote for the song, to permit me to join in the song without offending the Muse of music. I am sure that being drowned out some of the time helped, but I was pleased that I seemed to fit in okay, thanks to the graciousness of the really talented people about having a talentless fellow like me along for the ride.

The fellow who sold me the can-jo I now play chatted with me by IM once, years ago. He told me that he had once had a frustrated customer who was a violinist. She was concerned, because she had perfect pitch, and she could not get the can-jo to hold its tuning. Despite her expertise as a musician, she did not know something I was virtually born knowing--you don't control the pitch of a can-jo. Instead you control your own expectations.

This proved to be a real bonus during the blues songs. A mountain dulcimer is a diatonic instrument, with no flats or sharps, though the later versions feature the innovative 6 1/2 string, usually a B flat, which adds a number of bluesy melodies to the mountain dulcimer songbook. Thus, I could play my dulcimer for a number of the notes on the Eagles' "Peaceful, Easy Feeling", less as a melody than as a set of complementary drone strings to the chords. But on the old-time blues song, the naturally flat and rampaging nature of the can-jo, with its challenged tuning, suited those songs to the ground.

I am glad that no special spy microphone could pick up my own musical contributions and magnify them, but I am pleased to report that the ace guitarist next to me did not wince, and during the Chuck Berry song the wolf-whistle kinda thing on the nose flute seemed to work. People in the audience asked me what was my instrument, and seemed to enjoy the story of the can-jo.

These things work in circles--everyone gets a turn to lead a song. I passed on most of my turns, but did do my "boil them cabbage down", and would have done "go tell Aunt Rhodie" had we circled another time. The other fellows were amazing. The two accordionists were sublime, and the guitarists, bassist and the one percussionist were all great. I don't live under the illusion that I can really play after such an evening, but I did have a lot of fun. It went from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. before I knew it.

I'm not a very analog guy about this kind of thing. I still prefer to use my nose flute to make synthesizer songs, like this song. But it was fun to meet so many nice people--and to sit in, limited though I be at this kind of thing. It was my first time to ever play with other folks, except for the kind women who do the dulcimer classes.

I hope to have my "She's Lost Control" down pat on the can-jo by the next time I attend.
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