Monday, 1 December 2008

Mission Statement

24 songs in 24 keys for the guitar - A kind of X-mas calendar

I am an amateur guitar player, born in Harstad, Norway in1968, and currently living in Trondheim, Norway. Welcome to my blog!

Mission statement in two parts: On Christmas, and on music.


I celebrate Christmas, and I don't...

I've been asking myself why I celebrate Christmas. I give (although modestly) and receive gifts (not always so modestly). We decorate the house with a tree and other seasonal paraphernalia. Although I have to say that I don't parttake (sic) too much in the decorating, the missus handles that for the most part. I enjoy the seasonal food. I enjoy spending time with my family and having time off. But I am not a religious man. I'm not really sure what to call myself, you could say that I'm either an atheist or an agnostic, but the important thing for me is that I don't live my life adhering to any belief in God. That is not to say that I flat out deny any such existence, it's just that it's not a part of my life. Without going into the depths of it, I guess I am a sort of humanist, because I believe that we as humans are equipped with the ability to do good. That also means that we have the ability to do bad, but I believe that people CAN be good, and that it is people's choice of being good that gives meaning to life, and even sustains life. So I believe that we, as humans, have a responsibility, and that it takes humans to save our planet. It is within our power. You could say that this belief in humans is no more rational or provable than believing in some higher deity, and as such, it doesn't really make that much of a difference. But there you have it, that is what I BELIEVE in.

Then there is Christmas. Why do I even observe Christmas, when I don't believe in Christ? This question has been popping up in my mind for the last few years. Maybe it's because I became a father some three years ago that I started thinking about how to explain this to my boy when he comes of age. Maybe it's because I need to make sense of it for myself.

One very big part of the answer is of course tradition. I grew up with Christmas festivities, and it surely was one of the high points of the year. One big reason was of course the anticipation of the gifts. For many years, we used to go to my grandparents farm in the country for x-mas dinner, and I loved my grandparents. I didn't think so much about religion back then, I don't think I ever believed in God actually, it was just like a necessary backdrop to the occasion. We never went to church on X-mas Eve, and we never said table prayers or anything. My father, coming from a baptist family, was never baptized himself, so we had a very casual relationship with the church. It was not like we disowned it, it was just something we didn't participate in.

So, all these things by themselves should be plenty good reason to keep celebrating Christmas, and don't worry too much about it. But when I started asking myself the question, “why?”, I found some pretty interesting things, and I have in fact only scratched the surface of Christmas history. Christmas, as it is commonly observed by a majority of people in the western world, is a real hodge-podge of pagan and religious traditions. The most prominent example of this is the way Christmas coincides rather closely with winter solstice. I've read the argument that the church actually chose to place Christmas at this time, so that the old tradition of solstice celebration, called Saturnalia in Rome, and Yule in Scandinavia, could be carried on, just with the addition of the figure of Christ. This was a way to sell Christmas to the pagans. Now, I don't know enough about history to decide whether this is true or not, but it seems very plausible to me. It certainly explains why so many decidedly non-Christian items such as the Christmas tree have been officially endorsed by the church.


With all of these thoughts in the back of my mind, I was pondering the idea of doing a musical Christmas calendar. 24 new songs, one for each day, given away for free on the web. Then I started thinking about how the number 24 keeps occurring in many different ways in our lives, and in music. Christmas Eve, which is what we celebrate in Norway, occurs on the 24th. Then there's the way we divide the day in 24 hours, which really isn't significant for this project. But what does the number 24 mean in musical terms? Well, there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale, going from C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb all the way up to B before it starts repeating from C again. In western music, we have a tradition of dividing music into two different types of keys: major and minor. For every chromatic note, there is a corresponding major and minor key. Now, this is of course a simplification of matters, because there is so much more to music than simple major and minor keys. But if you accept the classical western system, you will have 12 major and 12 minor keys, adding up to the number – 24!

So my project is to write and record 24 different tunes, one for each major and minor key. I started tinkering with this idea sometime in November, and decided I liked the challenge. The ultimate way of doing it would of course be to write and record a new song each day, but that's a little bit too much! So I've been toying with ideas, and by December 1st, I've got three songs “in the can”, a few that I've finished writing, but still have to record, some loose ends, and then some totally blank pages.

I don't even know if I will be able to follow this project through, and how much I will have to cheat along the way. I've already used some ideas that I started on long before this idea came to mind, and I'll probably be digging up some more unfinished stuff.

But the idea really appeals to me. On the guitar, every key has a sound of its own. (If you start tuning your guitar in non-standard ways, things get even more complicated...) It's obvious that a song in E will sound different from a song in Eb, because in E you have access to the big fat sound of the open 6th bass string, while in Eb you're “limited” to the wimpier sound of Eb on the 4th or 5th string, almost one octave higher than low E. So the range of the instrument definitely means different keys sound different. Also, some keys on the guitar give you access to lots of open strings, which sound quite different from fretted notes. In jazz, it is customary to avoid open strings anyway, but if you're playing solo fingerstyle guitar in almost any style, classical, jazz or blues, open strings influence the sound of your arrangement a lot. For example, in A major, the open bass strings E, A and D all are the bass notes of three very important chords in that key. Also, you can play an E minor or a C major scale using a lot of open strings, which give you opportunities for playing wide stretches of harmony without stretching your fingers. You can also use open strings for drones, which is something I am rather fond of. All these devices shape the idea and the sound of a solo guitar tune.

To hopefully bring out the different sounds of different keys, I have decided to try to do as many of tunes as I can as solo guitar arrangements, with a few added duets. I will have to see what kind of ideas I come up with as I go along, maybe I'll delve into non-standard tunings on my guitar, maybe I need to dig out my accordion (which I can't play) or my banjo (which I can barely play) for some of the tunes.... I'll be using nylon string, steel string and electric instruments throughout for variety. At the end of the day, it's all about the creative challenge of coming up with something new every day... Wish me luck! I'll soon be posting the first tune...

1 comment:

Per said...

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