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RPM Challenge February 10, 2015

Another February is upon us and so thoughts turn to the RPM challenge.

I’ve signed up for it most of the last 6 years, but I never finish it. I wasn’t planning to attempt it this year, but then I got the welcoming e-mail from RPM that included the statement:

"Whether you're gearing up for your 10th RPM album, or wallowing in 10 years of sordid failure... RPM 2015 needs you!"

Which made me feel a lot better about all my failures, and I figured, what the heck, and signed up again.

The most successful I have ever been was in 2008, the first year I signed up. We had a rehearsal space that we were sharing with a number of people, all of whom were interested in RPM. A few days before February We held a tutorial to familiarize everyone with how the recording gear at the jam space worked. He had everyone lay down a short drum track, a bass track, a guitar track and a vocal track in order to see how each instrument needed to be recorded. Of course no one did this to an actual song, we just laid something down, and the outcome of that tutorial was so delightful, that we all agreed to meet every week-end throughout February to do it again.

As the month progressed, we came up with different rules each time to jog our creative juices. One week we had to use some acoustic instruments. One week the songs had to be 2 minutes long. Another week we each had a total of 20 minutes to record a song no more. We always kept a few books around the jam space to use as lyrics for improvising, and so there were songs about math, French erotica, Alan Ginsburg, the route 45 schedule etc. There was a mollusc poster in the space, so that factored in as well. Neil Conway showed up in town at one point and participated in a few. He started writing lyrics on the bus to the jam space, so he’s got the best lyrics. We culminated with a big group piece inspired by overhearing someone’s room mate playing World of War craft.

None of us recorded a solo album, but by the end of February we had a pretty awesome group project. And did we burn it off and send it in? Nope. So my most successful RPM isn’t even properly documented.

I always set out to record a solo guitar album for RPM. My main problem is that it takes me so long to write music. I’m not bad at improvising, but I always want to record something a little more composed. Last year I decided to come up with a scheme that would help me write faster.

The plan was to write a Dungeons and Dragons inspired album with the help of some D&D dice. I made myself the musical equivalent of a Dungeon Master’s Screen and character sheets, and used the set of dice to roll up song skeletons. I rolled a 12 sided die(aka d12) for my root note, a d8 and a d6 for scales and modes. 1-7 on the eight sided die were the standard church modes, and 8 meant I had to roll the d6 which gave me some other jazz, blues, folk and rock scales. I generated my time signature with a d10 for the top note and a d4 for the bottom. (And no, this is not the method Molt uses to write music.) I had the sides of the 4 sided die linked to 16/8/4/2, and breathed a sigh of relief every time it came up 4 or 8. Let me tell you, 10/2 is a pretty unwieldy time signature, but themes the breaks. To choose my axe I used a d4. 1 and 4 for electric, two and three for steel string acoustic and classical respectively. I had a d10 to see how many sections a song should have, and 2 d20s to pick how many bars each section could be.

If I got stuck for ideas, I rolled a handful of 8s, 6s, and 10s to get scale degrees which I could use either as chord progressions or themes. I didn’t do that for whole songs, just here and there to help get the creative juices flowing. Being able to do anything tends to make you do the same sorts of things you’ve done already. So I rolled up a handful of songs, and got really excited about playing D&D. And did I record a single solitary note? Nope. Not one. I spent too long writing very ornate compositions that I never would have had the time to learn, let alone play well enough to record in 28 days.

I began this year off with the skeletons from last year and started to write new progressions. The first likely derailment made itself immediately apparent as I had rolled a Whole Tone scale starting in A. I wrote 2 bars of music, and decided to take them for Molt instead. I’ve long believed that super groups tend to be so boring because everyone wants to keep their best stuff for their main projects and I’m proving myself right.

I had planned to write out some chord progressions, type them up on Lilypond, and use the midi output as a backing track for guitar improvisations, but that took a long time, it was impossible to lay a suitable bass track quickly to the full midi chords, and after spending waay too much time on song one, I ended up with a bunch more stuff that I wanted to pilfer for Molt.

I realized I needed to simplify even more. The character sheets I made to capture the output of the dice rolling had boxes for 5 sections of a song, so I’m taking what I have and cutting everything after 5 sections. Before writing anything new, I’m using the chord progressions I wrote out last year, and laying down very simple bass lines. I thought I’d improvise over them, to which I’ve had some successes, and some abject, I’m quitting RPM failures. I thought about adding some hand percussion or other musical elements as well, or some (gasp!) fake drums. I recall a previous RPM where I decided to use a drum sequencer and was defeated by the learning curve. We have a Zoom recording thing now with such abilities which should be easier to use, so maybe I’ll try that. Maybe I’ll just make an album of backing tracks for guitarists to solo over!

Whatever happens, I’ll come out the other end of February either with a completed RPM album, or with a whole bunch of new riffs for Molt (and Endearing Perversion, and Tea & Bread, and Kyla Tilley.) Either way, I come out ahead.

— Kyla
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