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Writing Your Own Tunes


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It's an interesting speculation in David Barnert's notes from the Button Box workshops, which I think deserves its own Topic.


Jody Kruskal's "Composition and New Tunes" workshop.


Much talk about what to think about while writing a tune, less about how to actually go about doing it (probably no way to talk about that).

There are many ways -- or at least "tricks" or "techniques" which can substantially assist the process, -- though in the end it still depends on having a feel for what sounds good and what doesn't. (Time to write that book I've been thinking about for years?) I have tunes that are entirely "constructed" and others where I started out with one idea and ended up with a completely different one, because the "feel" took on a life of its own. Of course, different people have different tastes, and even my own results can differ significantly, depending on my mood at the time.


Jody played several of his own tunes and we began to write a tune together from a fragment that Jody had thought up while walking. It started out as a Jig, but was in the process of becoming a waltz when time ran out and we didn't have a chance to finish it.

I did a similar workshop at NOMAD in 1992. The result is here in the Tune-O-Tron.


I've learned a lot since then, and how and what I would teach if I were giving a workshop would depend a great deal on the time available. What I'd really like to do is teach a multi-session "course", in which each "student" would write several tunes, using different techniques, as well as collaborating with others.


But in that particular workshop there were folks with various instruments -- I definitely remember fiddle, mandolin, concertina, and guitar, and I think there was at least one whistle or flute and one person with no instrument, -- and they collaborated on a single tune. I guided the process, and I wrote down the tune as it developed, but I carefully avoided any influence on the tune itself. Each step in the process required agreement of all concerned before continuing. It was a little surprising how easy that was. Here's how it went:


First I had them decide what type of tune they were going to compose, i.e., the rhythm/time signature. Then I asked for suggestions for the first few notes. A few proposals were put forth by various individuals, and the group decided (everything went by general agreement; there were no votes) which they wanted. Then we took suggestions for a few more notes (each piece, as I recall, was about a measure long), but with the author of the first bit excluded. We continued in this fashion, trying to insure that everyone who wanted to contribute did so, and that no two consecutive pieces had the same author. But of course, each extension had to be accepted by the whole group. As I recall, there was no backtracking -- going back to modify earlier sections, -- though that's something I often do when writing my own tunes.


Eventually, we completed the A section of the tune, only to discover that we'd used far more than half the time. It looked like we had no chance of completing a B part before the time ran out. But then someone suggested that for the B part we first decide on a chord structure as a framework, and then fill it in with details. "A great idea!" said I, or something to that effect. :) Of course, the "one piece, one person" rule went out the window, but it was still the entire group that discussed and decided what chords to use, and -- aware of the need for haste -- they quickly came to agreement. You can see the different structure and style in the second part. The melody itself consists almost entirely of broken chords, with repetition of both individual measures and the contour within the measures. But it was finished in time, and we enjoyed playing the result.


At first I had reservations about the disparate styles of the two different parts, but on playing the tune through several times, I found I like the shifting back and forth between the two styles. An interesting footnote is that the A part was composed entirely without any discussion or apparent awareness of chords. The chords in the Tune-O-Tron copy are something I added later, at the request of a piano-playing friend, and I was both surprised and pleased to discover that the chords which seemed natural to me in the second half of the A part form a descending bass run: Gm-F-Eb-D-Cm. This in a tune which had arisen in seeming anarchy. B)


Sometime in the next few days I should try to record this for the Tune Links page. I don't think a mechanical MIDI rendition does it justice. (And in fact, right now the Tune-O-Tron tells me it can't find the MIDI file for The Camel.)

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Well done Jim. Write the book. And while at it put out that collection of your compositions. Put me down for one each.


I fear myself incapable of writing a good tune. Took the classes at concervatory but everything I produced was shlock while others seemingly poured forth effortlessly ideas that were attractive and pleasant.


Really enjoyed how you did the group. That I would have enjoyed. Bravo.

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I have written a lot of tunes over the years (although admittedly mostly on the harp) and many of those have evolved out improvising or just mucking around. I'd find a bar or two that I really liked and then explored where it could go from there.


Unfortuantely most of them don't translate well from the harp to the concertina, or one or two did slip through :D

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