The Tracks

As a bit of a music geek, I like reading about the background of compositions, whether it is theoretical or inspirational. This page is for anyone else who is like me in this respect. Kind of like the extended liner notes that would have appeared if the album had a 20-page booklet.

In any case, feel free to read if you like. Or just listen to the music.

Apple of My Mind's Eye

This simple tune started as a guzheng solo, but the addition of violin and bass clarinet (on #1) really fills out the sound, as well as providing an intriguing combination of tone colors. For #2, the guzheng was subjected to a variety of electronic manipulations, but no other instruments were used. I was wanting to do something crazy with the guzheng, so one evening when I had it set up at Steve Fisk's studio, we ran the output from its pickup into the ARP 2600 modular synthesizer. He set it up and gave me some suggestions as to which knobs to twiddle, then started recording. Much later, I listened through the long take and picked out some bits which were then edited together as backing to two passes playing the guzheng through fuzz and other pedals. No looping was involved.

Incidentally, I have a #3 which hasn't yet been recorded, arranged for guzheng and string quartet in 7/4. Maybe next album...

Torture Chamber of Commerce

This is one of the first of what I think of as my very Stick-like bass parts, the kind of thing that is not really idiomatic of a bass guitar. It started as a finger exercise and gradually acquired more and more layers. Most of it fit into a diminished scale, but I didn't confine the notes strictly.

Once I had the bass part, I programmed a drum part to go with it, and Randy based his part on what I programmed. There were a few places where he said, "No drummer would have come up with that part," so I told him I was open to changes, but he said he liked it that way.

It should be noted that when you tell Alicia to "go crazy" on the violin solo, you're going to get something really crazy.

Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted

The idea for this piece came to me after listening to the Japanese band OOIOO, though it ended up sounding nothing like them. It's about the simplest composition on the album, consisting of a circular melody with a shifting metric backing totaling 43 beats. Each repetition of the melody is treated differently, whether in instrumentation or backing.

As for the title, check out Wikipedia if you're unfamiliar with the term.

Tunnel at the End of the Light

This piece is features two very distinct sections which alternate. It starts out with a free-form jam based on these instructions: "Randy keep the high hat going, anything else you want for accents or meter is fine. Everyone else, we're in G lydian dominant. Let the bass lead, provide sparse support." I mentioned Bitches Brew as a reference. Then we go into a composed section that changes meter frequently. The second free section is same as the first except violin takes the lead, with Alicia turning in some really insane stuff. We couldn't resist panning it around in the mix. Then the composed section again with an added 5/4 bit at the end. The third free section is guitar in the forefront, going atonal and heavily effected. We finish it off with a third go through the composed section with the ending 5/4 riff repeated to provide a big ending. I liked this riff so much that I've borrowed it for a Super Z Attack Team piece that will see the light of day eventually.

Hydraulic Fracas

This was the last piece composed for the album, and displaced one called "Quotations of Chairman Meow" (which will have to wait for a future album). But it came to me pretty quickly, and I knew it was too good to not include. Apparently I have a fondness for 6/4 (see also "Tunnel at the End of the Light") — the bass part of the main section (after the flute solo) is what came to me first, and it fell into the six beat pattern. At first it bothered me that the 12-bar pattern had a somewhat awkward feel, but my philosophy of composition is that avoiding awkwardness leads to predictable music. Can't have that! For the B section, it seemed sensible to switch the feel from 6/4 to 3/4 and really lean on the power chords. Those chords give Dennis the chance to go wild with a kind of twisted blues feeling. The introductory flute solo section was only added after we'd already worked out the main part of the piece. Jim turns in a stunning flute solo, and I love the journey covered over the whole piece, from meditative to intense.

Half-Remembered Drowning Dream

This is a directed improvisation based around the idea of being underwater, with the looped guzheng (played with little mallets) providing a sparkling sheen over the top. We had worked out a little set that goes from "Apple of My Mind's Eye 1" to "Sleepwalking the Dog" (both of which feature Jim on the bass clarinet) by way of an improvisation. I liked the flow of that, so I wanted to reproduce it for the album. Free improvisation can be risky, so I knew going in that I might have to abandon or modify the plan, but luckily everyone came through with amazingly sensitive performances.

Sleepwalking the Dog

This slight detour into space rock is based around a bass line that is pretty solid on its B pedal tone and 7/4 rhythm, but pretty flexible about the tonality above that. It was originally written with just one melody line on the violin, but after the band was formed as a five-piece, I added a second melody for the bass clarinet. The two melodies intertwine, trading places, then the rhythmic feel doubles up for a wah-wah orgy on both violin and bass clarinet. I was fortunate to get access to a Mellotron during the overdubs — I always planned on a keyboard part, but it's all the more special for having this instead of ordinary synthetic strings. It was Randy's idea to go into a spacy part after the double-time sections, and that makes for a nice flow and another great Rea guitar spot.

Wanderland Wonderlust

Many musicians have noted that most traditional Chinese music uses pentatonic scales, much like American blues music. This piece plays off that similarity, with a melody written on the guzheng that bends notes in ways more characteristic of blues than Chinese music. Neither traditional Chinese music nor the blues is generally done in 10/4, however. The polyphony is also a slight departure from tradition. The acoustic guitar part was originally done on electric, but when we overdubbed the resonator, the combination of its tone with the guzheng sounded so great we blew away the original guitar part, at least for the first half of the piece.

Cat Hair All over It / MBBL

"Cat Hair" is another directed improvisation, this time on the theme of a cat pouncing on a keyboard, or maybe five cats pouncing on five different musical instruments. It sets the mood for "MBBL," which is the most technically difficult piece on the album. The fast 13/8 rhythm took a long time to get the hang of, but we played it often enough that interaction between the bass and drums is really solid. I think of it as kind of an electric interpretation of a fast bebop feel, with the ominous bass riff taking the place of a walking bass part. For the slow, floating melody, I was inspired by listening to some old George Russell recordings, but where it goes after that is my own insanity. It was originally written with a trumpet in mind, but that part was only added much later in the overdubs.

I still remember when I was first programming the demo and locked in a good drum part with the hypnotic bass part, then added the fast melody section where the lead instruments go chromatic voiced in stacked fifths. It was glorious, but a massive bitch to pull off with real players. The melody line consists of long strings of eighth notes with accents that don't line up with the accents going on in the rhythm section. I can't even count the number of times we repeated it in rehearsals. The 13/8 meter is used in a different way for the guitar solo, along with a switch to a more standard blues tonality to provide a little respite from the aggressive chromaticism of the rest of the piece.

All Food Comes from China

Another directed improvisation, this one anchored with a cloud of bowed guzheng. We had some time left in the studio, so we had Steve start it rolling, and it turned out so well we put it on the album. Its serene mood is the perfect antidote to the chaos of "MBBL," a meditative finish to a sometimes-strenuous workout. At times, the feeling reminds me of Jade Warrior's mid-70s recordings, which is a happy accident.