Canon For Cool Kids

Whew! How does a month go by so fast? In the blog world, a month between posts is inexcusable. I throw myself at your mercy, dear reader, and beg your forgiveness. I've been recording a demo of the songs from the musical and it's kept me away from the blog. Also, I made some important revisions as well. My good friend who's an actress read the script and she had some wonderful suggestions about changes I could make. I'll discuss them in turn, but for now, I hope I have your forgiveness. Alright, no more cloying: to the blog.

This song Canon for Cool Kids started out as a concept. The musical Guys & dolls opens with the Fugue for Tinhorns: three gangster guys standing around singing about betting on the races. I wanted to write an opening that alluded to that opening, so I thought, what icons from contemporary life could I open the show with? Naturally, since the play is about art, hipsters sprang to mind. Originally I wanted to have a whole group of hipsters, nine, to be exact. And they would all be in a big group standing around ragging on the art. I imagined them all pantomiming talking, and one of them at a time yells out his opinion, so that little melodies would pop in and out of this chattering noise. That was my original concept.

So, to write the lyrics, I went to the internet and read tons of different art reviews, good and bad. I started collecting different short phrases, naturally gravitating toward the most pretentious stuff, like "the subtext is overbearing," and, "contradictorially repressed." Even some of the most articulate, reputable publications wrote things like "he's reliant on classical tropes." I also searched record review sites, like, where I found a veritable gold mine of pretentious reviews and sloppy journalism. So I just made a giant list of all this artcriticspeak, and viola: I had my lyrics!

The music wasn't quite as easy. I wanted it to be a canon, because the Fugue for Tinhorns is, well, a Fugue. (Fugues and canons are both contrapuntal forms) Originally, I wrote one big long melody and tried to get it to wrap around itself, but that didn't work. So I chopped it up, and after a lot of sketching, I gave up. So after a few days of taking long walks, I went back to my lyrics and tried to build a little melody off of the little phrases I had found. I started by building a little melody on the rhythm from the phrase "Who is this gallery kidding?". I liked it, so I matched up all the artcriticspeak phrases that matched that rhythm. You would be amazed how many I found, real beauties too, like, "The subtext is overbearing", "It's reliant on classical tropes", "Abyss of consumerist culture", etc. So I wrote a little tiny melody, in fact, only a 3 note melody (f, e-flat, and g), repeated it four times (to comply with good phrase structure), and that became the first melodic part of the canon.

Here I had to pause, because the canon needed harmonic structure. I went to Fugue for Tinhorns and discovered that it was really only the V and the I chords repeated over and over again. That made my job a little easier.

So, for the second part, then, I started on a d above f, so I could outline the V chord (in Eb, V is Bb), and ended it on an e-flat (the I). I chose longer notes that matched the rhythm of the phrase "His lines are too confining" (I swear, these are all from actual art reviews!) and went on from there, again, repeating the snippet four times. For the third part I aimed lower, again so the parts would be distinct and contrasting, and since the first melody started on f, and the second on d, I chose b-flat to complete the V triad. I needed to end the third part on g, because the other two end on e-flat, and that creates the I chord. Again I chose different rhythms and used really crazy phrases like "He throws the paint haphazzardly" and "complete inscrutability".

Now I had all three parts, and it was just a matter of laying them out together. Most contrapuntal compositions expose all the material straight away, so I opened the piece with each melody alone, and then staggered the entrances so gradually they'd layer on top of each other.There had to be places where the parts come together, so as to break up the craziness of the counterpoint, so I had them all periodically sing "Someone burn his art degree!" in 3 part harmony.

Here, I should mention that my original concept changed. I suppose I was trying to avoid having the opening be too much like Guys & Dolls, so I avoided just having 3 hipsters sing the whole thing. But then I thought it would be really great if my character Timothy, who is the community in the play's tastemaker, had a little gaggle of 3 followers that he could sing with in a barbershop style. So eventually the crowd of hipsters I had originally envisioned became only 3. So now, the musical opens with a trio of male hipsters singing the canon, and they're later joined by Timothy in juicy barbershop style. And that, folks, is the Canon for Cool Kids.

The revised (and final so far) version of the song can be found here. More later!