December 11th, 2012

10 Years of Creative Commons

By Bart J Helms

This month marks the tenth anniversary for the Creative Commons license and their push for standarization of language and legal defensibility in open content licenses. Having previously scrawled copyleft messages in work for years, I made the switch to CC shortly after the EFF’s endorsement and continue to use CC licenses with my compositions.

You can read stories from the past ten years at the CC site, which they’ll be updating all week.

Writing music that is informed by 100 years of tradition, an open license just seems obvious to me. Jazz would have gone nowhere without the decades of inventive composers, arrangers, and soloists who ripped apart standards and sewed the pieces together into new works of art. When an artist releases a creative work to the public, they are saying “I want this work to affect people” or “I want this work to become a part of other peoples’ lives.” When I use a CC license, I view it a promise that I won’t try to claim a right over peoples’ experiences and interpretations.

May 18th, 2012

Sound Sound Sound: Writing Geeky Songs without the Novelty

By Bart J Helms

I like clever songs. Silly songs. Novelty songs. I’ve attempted to write many such songs. I believe making someone laugh is one of the most important things you can do in life. But at some point in the last few years, sitting at the piano to pull together a new song began to feel weighty. If we were going to perform it night after night, it felt essential that each song mean something.

The two traditional routes were out. I’ve never been a fan of confessional songwriting, and End Times is a diverse bunch politically. But there is at least one thing we do all stand behind: science. Not just as a collection of facts about cool things, but as Ann Druyan put it:

It is a great tragedy that science, this wonderful process for finding out what is true, has ceded the spiritual uplift of its central revelations: the vastness of the universe, the immensity of time, the relatedness of all life, and life’s preciousness on our tiny planet.

Take a look at this Hubble ultra deep field photo.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field
To the naked eye, that patch of sky is a void between visible stars, one tiny patch of black in the sky, but when you look closer you find countless worlds. This is the world we live in. How can that not affect your views? Yet it’s difficult to find songs that express this.

That’s the realization that struck while I was struggling with a song about the more harmful branches of pseudoscience (the anti-vaccination movement in particular). I’d hoped to write something clever, but it was hard to shake off my rage and keep it light. On my coffee table was a copy of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It made me think about the great statement attributed to Sagan (though apparently unsourced): “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” I decided I was having trouble because I wasn’t saying what I meant: that the world is far more interesting and worthy of exploration than most of the drama we invent.

Here’s an mp3 of us playing it live on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special back in March. The lyrics are below.

Sound Sound Sound (live)

We’ve been playing “Sound” live since December, but we’re still polishing it. I hope you enjoy this take, and maybe some day we’ll have a studio version.

Thanks for reading this. I hope to write more song explications like this as we begin to work them into the live set and make demos.

Sound Sound Sound

The world speaks as you and I speak
The starry seas, the tidal leaves parley together.
Syllable by syllable its coda repeats
Through peaceful eves or stormy weather.
So why does the music of last month’s newspapers
Pull on your heartstrings so much greater?
Put down that megaphone I do insist
And turn, yes, turn upon the abyss of…

Sound, sound everywhere
And not a drop of meaning,
Chitchat shed with idle care
While donning profound seeming.
Somewhere something incredible
Is waiting to be known,
Signals lost within the lull
Uncertain, faint, alone.

Listen to the stars
On the backyard radio.
Their blips and squeals have meaning
Above, beyond “Hello.”

Someone’s whispers interfere
With unattended thoughts.
Nonsense flitters lips to ear,
And great unknowns are lost.

This accelerating world
Will leave you trembling, pale.
There’s no escape from dreaming
When you let go of the stale.

Someone’s whispers interfere
With unattended thoughts.
Nonsense flitters lips to ear,
And great unknowns are lost.

Whereof one can’t speak,
Silent one must be

October 30th, 2011

Three Tools We Use

By Bart

Even as the band’s computer geek, I didn’t join a 20s/30s-inspired jazz band expecting to draw on that knowledge. A linguist with computational interests, I assumed I’d shelve those skills along with my other academic interests while I took some time to focus on music. Yet the problems of managing a band where multiple members are involved on the business side turn out to be very similar to the problems faced by a team of software developers, and one of the more admirable things about programmers is that they like to solve problems. Consequently, we’ve adopted a few geeky tools to help us coordinate and divide the tasks that make the band function. Here’s three of them.

Once upon a time. learning new music meant making copies of a demo CD, printing out copies of lyric and chord sheets, and doing it all over again when the first round were inevitably lost. Dropbox is a way to share files computer-to-computer or person-to-person via each computer’s file system. Now whenever I complete a demo, I add it to our shared folder and it appears on Lyndsy, Zach, and Eric’s computers the next time they connect to the internet. We now have access to everything related to the band, from finance statements to poster art, wherever we take our laptops (which is everywhere). This has been useful on the road for set lists and contracts.

(Now if only Dropbox for iOS would implement an Open Document reader.)

The name disguises an excellent list-making tool that’s hard to describe. So here’s a 45 second video.

We use Workflowy for a dozen tasks small and large, from basic to-do lists (press kits to mail, gear to buy, stuff to do at practice) to a fairly detailed calendar where we note cities and venues we’d like to play, when to do it, and who we’ve already contacted. We’ve actually divided up a lot of tasks so that each person is doing a small, easy-to-manage chunk. Workflowy lets each of us concentrate on just our part without being overwhelmed by how complicated the entire business of running a band actually is. We probably wouldn’t be able to run as smoothly as we do now if  we returned to bouncing emails back-and-forth.

Google Calendar
Once a show is confirmed, the details go into our Google calendar which syncs with my phone’s calendar. We know a number of other bands use Calendar to note days they have other commitments or to power their website’s tour schedule. We used to do both, but found we prefer Workflowy for the former (despite the lack of native calendar) and wrote our own code for the second. Still, pulling up the day in my phone’s calendar and being able to click on the address or phone number of the venue is incredibly useful and certainly scales up better than a paper daily planner.

August 24th, 2009


By Bart

A few songs before the debut of “Wake Up Bix” last week, we played another song live for the first time: “Medea.” Here’s a video that explains the first verse:

Peter Ward’s TEDTalk on mass extinctions:

Why write songs about extinction events? The only things I can think of that are more dramatic than that are star formation and star death. Like a good creation myth, the oxygen catastrophe is a story of why we’re here and why there’s suffering in the world.

For how the third verse ties in, I recommend you look up the Lars von Trier film Medea over any starring Tyler Perry.

A long long time before you were even here
Before your ancestors landed on these shores
The whole world suffocated on something in the air
But it overtook them so slowly they kept on making more
There were green things and brown things growing endlessly
Spilling out their toxins into air and into sea
Every word I’m telling you is true
So please believe me when I say that all of this created you

You can’t divide everything without leaving a remainder
You can’t boil cabbage without splitting a few heads
There’s just so much that you can wrap around your brain, dear
So few hours we aren’t asleep inside our beds
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re the precipitate
Even if you swear to change, the hour’s growing late
Every word I’m telling you is true
So please believe me when I say that this applies you

In ancient Greece there was a man who had a golden fleece
He had a wife and kids but decided to send them back
The first wife she wept and wailed and couldn’t find no peace
For revenge she took her kids aside for a fade to black
The people speak in horror of this woman going mad
But deep inside each one of us is a Medea who’s been had
Every word I’m telling you is true
So believe me when I say that this could happen to you