May 18, 2017
I’m Not Blacking Out, I’m Breaking Through
By Scott Taylor
#6: 'Look Away'
Wow. I just realized its half way through the month and I haven’t done one of these things yet, shame on me! I need to post something soon, thus my sophisticated process for deciding this month’s feature. I’m sitting here thinking to myself, “Well, let’s see it’s May. Hmm…what rhymes with May? Ooh, I know – 'Look Away'! Yeah, that works. So, for the May edition of ‘I’m Not Blacking Out, I’m Breaking Through’ I’m gonna roll with this one. I think it’s one of the best songs off our first album, Only If…And Even Then (2008). Here’s how it went down.
Since I began this little whatever you wanna call it where I talk about my songs, we have explored several ways in which I’ve experienced the songwriting process. I’ve told you about episodes when inspiration struck seemingly out of thin air, occasionally resulting in a nearly complete song unfurling itself in my head. Then there are the instances whereby a song develops/evolves on its own time until I fit all the pieces together just how I like. Another fun thing to reminisce about was collaboration via the mystery of throwing together random ideas, fragments and phrases to construct a song. This time around I’d like to reflect on a song that for the most part flowed out in one sitting whilst holed up inside my house during a snow spell in January 2004.
After a time the sun is gonna shine
We don’t get white winters too often in Olympia (at least not for prolonged periods) but this particular snow blast lasted a couple days and lucky me I got few songs out of the deal! I can still picture the snowflakes falling silently outside my living room window. Incense was burning as I sat there in the middle of the afternoon, my only light the lustrous blanket enveloping the landscape. While strumming my acoustic guitar, humming little spontaneous meandering melodies that popped into my head, this mellow ditty floated out of the ether. The mystery melody revealed itself to be a plaintive, relatively simple little song. This was basically me singing to myself all by myself. I felt pretty lonely and was as usual sullenly seeking solace in the only thing that’s ever made sense to me: music.
Now let’s jump forward. Around the end of 2006 just prior to the formation of The Hard Way, Tim and I had been doing a lot jamming together. We set about coming up with a list of songs to start out with and a good chunk of them were selected from already existing material of mine. Both of us really liked ‘Look Away’, but I wasn’t sure it was complete. I didn’t know exactly what I thought I was looking for at that point, just that it felt kinda brief and like it needed an extra dash of, well…something.
Also at this time I had recently enrolled at The Evergreen State College and was adjusting to academic life again after about a decade’s absence. The first program I participated in covered a ton of music history. A particularly invaluable exercise was when we were handed assignments to compose various kinds of musical forms, such as rounds, canons, fugues, etc. in conjunction with our focus on music theory. My favorite instance involved a little piece that I composed, a prelude inspired directly from Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Prelude No. 1 in C Major’ (The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, 1722).
In Bach’s day the German word Clavier was a broad term for keyboards, generally harpsichord or clavichord and sometimes organ. A prelude is a short musical motif often precluding a larger work. My modest attempt was essentially one big continuous arpeggio not unlike ‘Prelude No. 1 in C Major’. I chose A Major so it wouldn’t be too close to Bach’s piece. Boy, playing for my class sure helped me dust off the rust on my playing skills, I tell ya what! The reason being that in order to execute this groovy thing I made up in my head I needed both hands to cooperate through, what was for me at the time, a slightly tricky series of maneuvers.
Somehow I managed to rehearse myself up enough to get through playing it for my class. I explained where I got the idea from and how I was inspired to experiment and try out my own variation. For those of you out there still scratching your noggins going “What the heck is he talking about with all this musical jargon"?! here’s the salient point I’m getting at. I was fascinated at how Bach ostensibly created his preludes to be exercises for demonstrating the advantages of what is known as ‘equal temperament’ tuning. This was a recent advent at the time which made it possible to play in every key while avoiding intervals that were out of tune. Bach showed how it worked in all 24 major and minor keys. He envisioned it in his words, "For the use and practice of musical youth eager to learn and for the amusement of those already skilled in this study” (WTC I, 1722). But what really got me was how something initially intended as a more or less clinical demonstration could wind up as beautifully haunting as ‘Prelude in C Major’.
Uncover your eyes
Sure all the technical stuff about it is neat, but mathematical details aside the piece has always inexplicably moved me in the most melancholy way. Why? To this day I marvel at and contemplate what exactly it is about music that provokes such strong emotion in people. The manner in which various combinations of notes and chords and frequencies and vibrations color our lives is mind-blowing. What is lurking within the music that elicits joy, sadness, anger, confusion? Furthermore, music is a subjective experience; I consider it fifty percent the artist/performer and fifty percent the listener. Why does Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys, 1966) feel so glorious to me, but may be little more than elevator music to someone else? The answer is I have no answer. Perhaps we’re somehow metabolically or environmentally predisposed, I don’t know. I guess the mystery is part of the magic. Stevie Wonder once stated most eloquently, “You can feel it all over” (‘Sir Duke,’ 1976). Maybe that’s all that matters?
Cut to the next scene. It’s early 2007 and The Hard Way are a baby band just learning to crawl. One of the first songs we took a crack at was ‘Look Away’ and I was still looking for that elusive something to really make it click for me. Not long after the classroom performance I wondered what my prelude might sound like with a harmony. One evening before band rehearsal I was messing with it some more on the piano and I unexpectedly connected the dots in my dilemma. Through sheer serendipity I had a sudden flash that my left hand could be one guitar part and my right hand the other. This is when that thing you’ve heard me refer to before as ‘guitarmonies’ all started. Elizabeth I think coined that term! Bonus: my prelude was in the key of A major, the same as ‘Look Away’ so it wouldn’t be hard to try tagging it on at the end and see how it sounded. Just like that my prelude moved to the back of the song when I decided this could be an epic guitarmony coda, propelling the song to an explosive finish. Similar to the endings of ‘Layla’ (Derek & the Dominos, 1970) and ‘Hey Jude’ (The Beatles, 1968) it adds more strength and length, comprising a good chunk of the song. But then, the end section of ‘Layla’ has always been my favorite part!
This is where it gets tricky. In order to execute this properly we had to learn how to play it on guitar, not to mention figure out what was to be the harmony/2nd guitar part. So, what we did was real quick like I nailed down precisely the way I wanted the higher part (right hand) to go on the piano. I then gave Tim the notation I had written for both my original melody line and the new harmony. He took it home, deciphered the parts individually on guitar then taught my own part back to me. He took the right hand part and I handled the left one. It took forever for me to play it smoothly; I’m still psyched whenever we play it live and I don’t mess up! Tim of course played it flawlessly. I feel very fortunate to have had the pleasure of playing with two top flight guitarists in this band. Tim and Skyler, you guys both kick serious ass.
Recently Tim joined us for an encore at a show and we played ‘Look Away’, this time with a triple guitar assault! Yeah, it rocked. At one point I glanced over at Tim and he smiled back. I thought about the outings he, Liz and I used to take, just hanging out and having fun. My favorite time was one sunny Sunday afternoon in spring time when we just started driving and wound up at Mt. St. Helens. We listened to Tonight’s the Night (Neil Young, 1975) and All Things Must Pass (George Harrison, 1970) in my old minivan and talked about rock n’ roll. As we three gazed out over the landscape at the infamous mountain I was astounded at the resilience of nature. What a great day that was.
As I write this I’m pondering my own resilience. Funny how this all stemmed from reminiscing about a little tune that found me one snowy day long ago. ‘Look Away’ is a gift to me from me; a message from the past to the present. It’s a light in the darkness reassuring me that I’ve come this far and I can keep going.
When you’re hurting real bad it only seems like it will never end. What you do with that hurt is up to you.
Just don’t forget to breathe and you’ll be okay
Listen and compare the coda at the end of 'Look Away' with 'Prelude No. 1 in C Major' and see what you think:
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