Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Skullcrusher Mountain

Photo by brylyn
Dan and Kris do a Danthem for a beautiful Jonathan Coulton song about love and monsters.

Jonathan Coulton is a wonderful songwriter and musician; his music somehow manages to be comical and heartfelt at the same time. For some reason, his music seems to appeal to improvisers. Peter C Hayward suggested on The Dan Exercise post that we apply it to a Jonathan Coulton song, and voila - here you go, Peter.

A quick recap on the "rules" of Danthem. Singer takes a real song that the musician has never heard before, and sings it once through. Musician provides accompaniment, improvising music to match the melody and feel. No rehearsal, no pre-listen. The singer should generally try and remain faithful to the original melody and structure, and not use those impro skills to match the accompaniment.

The Danthem

This was the very first time we tried recording a Danthem, in a session for the Impro Mafia podcast And Time. I think it went rather well.

Listen to Skullcrusher Mountain (or download it)
Dan kicks it off (as you do) with unaccompanied vocals, and I join in after a few seconds once I think I've found it. I really get lost at the start, rhythmically, finding and losing the beat, until a little light goes off right about when Dan gets to the word "crazy". The recovery isn't really complete until the end of the first chorus.

The second verse worked pretty well; we didn't have much of a set chord progression from the first verse to build on, so it was a little unstructured. At least that let us play with the progression to match the lyric. Right at the end of the first verse, the build around "making a gift for you" is lovely; Dan's singing became more intense, and the accompaniment matched it.

Start of second chorus, oops, why did I go there? Quick recovery. Phew.

It sounds like I thought the song was over after that second chorus, but suddenly a bridge appeared. As always, the bridge's job is to lift out of the song for a little while, using a different progression or feel.

The final verse was pretty straightforward again, right up until the end with a little variation leading in to the last chorus. That variation got a bit excited and took over the chorus for a little bit. Aside from that little hiccup, the third and final chorus went very well indeed; the melody had finally cemented itself in my head, so the accompaniment was more confident and established harmonies and shadowing.

Right at the end of the chorus, a repeated last sentence leads the music, so the chorus finishes pretty smoothly.

What did I learn?

Much like Pinch Me, one of the things that made this song a good candidate was the lyric leading the beat quite often. That can confuse the timing if you don't see what's going on, but once you're locked in to the rhythm, the melody can lead you around quite nicely.

One of the things that confused me in the Danthem (but is crystal clear in the original) is that the last line of each of the verses is twice the length of the others. So just when you think you've got the rhythm sorted, surprise, that variation kicks in. Dan uses that technique well in proper improvised songs, so I should have been ready for it.

Again it's good to see that a singer can push a musician around using light and shade in their voice. I was playing facing away from Dan, so I lost any chance of watching him to get cued in on changes; next time we'll do that differently.

Want to hear the original? Go to Jonathan Coulton's site; you can preview his music, and spend some money to download DRM-free tracks from his collection. I love every one I've listened to, but I'm holding back from listening to more so we can give them the Danthem treatment in the future. (I need to spend some money there, both for my own enjoyment, and to apologise for butchering his song...)


Gavin said...

I absolutely loved it! Well done to both of you, it sounded lovely.

Peter C. Hayward said...

Ooh, this was really interesting. You should, once you've reached the end of the song and nailed the accompaniment, re-record it with the new music.

Have you sent this to JC himself? I think he'd get a real kick out of it.

Anonymous said...

Nice article Kris!

Kris said...

Thanks guys - I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Peter: Yeah, I've wondered about variations, like doing the song a few times to cement the accompaniment. I do really like listening to the panic and mistakes and eventual successes of an improvised one though.

And, yep, I might email JC, and see if he is indeed horrified ;)

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