Accompanyments: Singing, speaking, shouting in the woods

Here’s something that’s hard to admit: after starting a family I wrote a whole lot less music. I always needed to be alone to write, to be in a place without any inhibitions about making weird sounds with my voice and searching for secret words. Even before beginning family life, finding time to be alone was a huge difficulty. I’ve never had a space that was all my own. Probably the best situation I ever had, not in terms of happiness or life fulfillment, but in terms of having regular access to solitude, was during college years in Chattanooga, Tennessee — specifically, the years 2005-2008. The 2006-2007 year was particularly interesting because I was a study abroad student in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic. In the dorms there was a music rehearsal room with a piano. You had to ask for a key at the front desk, which I somehow managed to do in Czech. The room was a semi-basement, a cinderblock rectangle with exposed pipes and one high window. I wrote a few of the songs I still sing today there, like Headed Nowhere.

Since I’ve long wished for another situation like the piano room. I know I could have figured this situation out better than I have so far. But that’s not the point of what I want to share with you here. I want to talk about how that problem led me to different ways of writing songs. In 2020, my family and I moved into a small house in rural France, which is where I’m writing from now. It’s a beautiful place in the mountains, full of hiking trails, stones, moss mud, tree roots, streams, ferns, waterfalls, birds, wildflowers… Our house is small, though, no place to be alone there. So I came up with a different way to write a different kind of song. A kind of song I could write outside, while walking.

Being able to create songs while alone outside constitutes the first impulse towards this type of writing, but there are others that go with it. The desire to improvise was another. I’d often been frustrated by the limitations of the singer-songwriter, and envious of the freedom of a jazz musician, who takes the stage with nothing but an instrument, no texts needing memorization. I would love to do that, begin a concert with an empty mind, not knowing what the music will be or where it will take me. The free jazz approach added another cornerstone to this kind of songwriting.

Also, the move from complex chord patterns to modal harmony in 1960s jazz, that greatly expanded the notes available to soloists, found a link with unaccompanied ballad singing – since I couldn’t really carry a guitar around walking, I would sing unaccompanied, completely free of keys and tonality, able to follow the drama of the voice, finding something between singing and speaking, a bit like Harry Partch. The soundscapes of nature, that R. Murray Schafer mapped out like the composer he is, accompany the voice, pulling it with their own subtle gravities.

A third impulse has to do with my observations of how I’ve written songs in the past: I always thought I did better when I searched for sounds with my mouth rather than writing on paper silently. There’s something special about a song born straight from of the breath that’s harder to capture with the mind and the page. And so we make a full circle back to the need to be alone, because it can feel embarrassing to improvise out loud like that in front of other people. I know there must be some people who can do that, and I would like to count myself among them someday.

Like I mentioned earlier, these songs are a bit like the unaccompanied ballads, but they’ve got lots of room for all the poetic invention you can muster. They could be called “unpopular” songs, because they’re rough-hewn, generally un-melodic, the polar opposite of “easy listening,” and absolutely useless as background music. But walking around outside another name came to mind–Accompanyments–misspelled, with a Y. It’s ironic, because there’s no instrumental accompaniment, except for the sounds of flowing water, birds, insects, dogs barking, cars going by. And there’s nobody accompanying me on the recording–I’m all alone. But if you listen to these recordings, my voice can be your company. It’s almost a new genre of song, a new form, at the same time as it is really not so different than anything that came before.

I’m working on a second collection of these songs–Accompanyments 2–that I’ll be adding to Bandcamp within the next couple of weeks. I go out in the woods, now with a Tascam DR-40X recorder, settle into a nice sonic environment, often with my dog these days, and sing. I do pure improvisation and I do different takes on lyrics I’ve been developing. I’m struggling to figure out how they work, what makes them happen, what makes them interesting. It’s really difficult, because it’s all backwoods walking–there’s no pathway to follow. Every time I listen to other songs or read other books, I think, why can’t these songs include so much of the world as that? Why do my songs feel so small? Then I look back and I wonder if they might not be as vast as I can make them. I add some lines, take some out… What is mine to make, but what I’m experiencing right now?

And isn’t it only halfway made until someone listens? If you who are reading this now listen to these songs when they’re released (like wild animals), will you find something vast there? I hope so, more than anything in the world.


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