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Take That China!
The Continuous Descent Into Madness
You've Been Cancelled
Sort Yourself Out eBayers
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Give Me Your Voice
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Saturday, January 31

Funny For How Long?

When you are just starting out as a comedian, you only get a short set. Five minutes or so is the norm. There are good reasons for this. Who wants the newbie stinking the room out for too long? More importantly, can the comedian get to the point and also bake in detail and variation in a short amount of time? If not then their sets will be dull. It is good discipline to be able to do a tight five minute set. Longer sets should have some tight fives in them... In general.

Putting a five minute set in the context of one's night as a performer, though, it is a lot of effort to go through to attend a gig for only five minutes' stage time. There is travel - I've round tripped 300 miles for short sets in my time. There is the time waiting to go on, where the pulse is racing and time changes pace. Then there the post gig come down. All for a few seconds (300) in front of an audience. It can be soul destroying, but it must be done.

It can be worth it. A nicely run gig with a nice audience is decent pay back for your efforts.

Tonight, in front of a warm up for it crowd, I saw 6 of the night's 8 acts do their 8 minute sets before it was my turn to go on. I don't see them as the obstacle to my taking to the stage by the way. They were just literally ahead of me on the bill. I enjoyed watching them. I saw them constrained by their shorter set length, but similarly given room to breathe in the time they were allotted.

The night was notionally a competition. Not to me, but for the other acts. I would hate to be issued with a winner or loser status after my efforts. The fact that there was an audience vote and a winner clearly took its toll on the acts, but it was also friendly and lovely enough not to feel like a fight for superiority. The additional nerves rubbed off a little on me as I watched.

I found myself looking at these acts, whom I'd not seen before, and thinking how great they were. How could I follow the freshness of writing and approach? I had better raise my game...

I am not here to review anyone's performance, least of all my own. I will say this: on any other night with any other audience what I did and said, in the way I did and said them, would have had less a response than I received and pretty much milked. I was using the gig to get some cheer back into my soul at the end of a challenging week and it worked for me.

Unconstrained by time, I felt free to wander on and off the script and to play with the moments that happen naturally in a room full of people. This is what comedy needs to have when live, and you can't set out to do that in a five minute short set. It is odd to have to unlearn the constraints you need to master to get started in order to be able to progress.

In short, I had a good time, however long that turned out to take.

Friday, January 23

Space Theme From Outer Space

I've put a bit of time recently into the question of how to write a space theme. This has led me to a couple of interesting places. Firstly, all John Williams soundtracks are using the same tricks. This is a phenomenal discovery which now makes me laugh when I hear his music. That said, I love John Williams' music - it's just I can see through the tricks. These are the tricks of "write a hollywood blockbuster epic score" and in fact, there's not exclusive to Mr Williams - he just writes largely in them.

For those interested, this most amazing YouTube clip about how to write an epic score was a good way to clarify what I'd already worked out.

The second place this journey has led me is into the world of sampled instruments. I'm using Acoustica Mixcraft as my sequencer and DAW of choice. This may not be the most featuresome DAW out there, but I know how to use it and it does a number of things very easily.

If you want your own private orchestra on your PC, then I can't recommend Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra enough. It's free and it sounds pretty good. It has its limitations, but I'm really happy with using it. The SFZ player I used to play its samples via the VSTi plugin to my DAW was Alchemy Player by Camel Audio. This does exactly what it says on the tin.

For those people wanting to pay money, it looks like the Kontakt software by Native Instruments is pretty good and there's a free Orchestra sounds set for it called Total Composure. The free version of Kontakt player cannot play the free Orchestra for more than a few minutes before it starts demanding upgrade fees. Shame.

So what are John Williams' tricks?

  • Fundamentally the song is orchestrated as though a brass band piece - lots of fanfares
  • The tune will switch instrument to keep you on your toes
  • Flutes will swoop
  • The rhythm section is bashing out messages in morse code
  • Strings will swell
  • The glockenspiel will sit at the top end of the track secretly emphasising bits of the tune it likes
  • The timpani will be busy
If you boiled every John Williams track down to a glockenspiel and timpani arrangement, you'd realise how much they add to the piece.

The side effect of writing music
The track I wrote - "Space theme from outer space" is based on a single repeating chord sequence. It goes round and round with different voicings and the use of a counter melody when things start to get dull. It was going well, but I couldn't work out how to end it, and it was stuck in a loop in my head. I usually get my own compositions stuck in my head, but this one was especially bad.

I found the answer tonight while finishing the piece. I could never find an ending because of the looping chord structure which modulate from C to Bb then Bb to Ab and then via a couple of chords back to C via its dominant chord - G. This progression could only loop me round again and again. Every time I thought of a musical variation, it took me back to the start.

This is a secret of a catchy song, the need of the end of the verse to give you the start of the verse again. See This Love by Maroon 5 if you want an example.

Tonight I discovered that the various modulations and key changes were flirting with a total key change of the piece from its initial key of C major into Eb major. A raise in key of a minor third. My trick to get back into the right key after the modulations was preventing the natural rise in key that the chords would have given me (or at least, it felt that way). When I let the tune actually change key, it brought itself to the exact climax I was looking for.

It ended with a crash of cymbals and a big grin.

Does anyone have an orchestra and a choir I can borrow? And a glockenspiel...

Monday, January 12

Steps have been taken

I was out and about today, taking my daughter swimming. The step into the swimming place was new and made of paving slabs.

It felt a bit funny though, like it had some movement in it. So I pondered how the slabs might be secured...

I believe that's a screw...

This is because...

The slabs are laid on a timber frame!!!

Saturday, January 10

Back in the driving seat

Tonight isn't the first night I have gigged since our baby son was born, but it is the start of my return to stand up after a period of paternity leave and what's best described as abstinence from my comedic craft. I enjoyed myself on a longish distance gig. It was 170 miles each way or thereabouts, and I was in Scunthorpe, a place which has been surprisingly good to me comedy wise.

I hadn't forgotten what the nights on the road entail, but I feel like I have been reintroduced to some old friends.

Let's hear it for motorway service station branded coffee, late night trips to Tesco, swollen feet, the absence of a toilet for 90 miles, hours of podcast listening, long 50mph limits on big roads, the dashboard light, the muted voice of the Sat Nav slightly mispronouncing things, the baffling local roads and the chance for the mind to wander. That's what happens outside of the gig. The gig itself is a complex uncertainty, an oasis of fun, and a serious commitment to oneself and the booker.

I am glad to have more of this to look forward to.


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