EMC Funk

I wrote a funk piece! I have been wanting to write a non-solo composition for a long time, but with so much going on (day job, working on Chartopia, running events) it’s difficult to just sit down and write.

What happened is that Rubber Monkey, the audio visual store whom I’ve spent a fair chunk of my pocket money, held a composition competition for NZ Music Month. The basic rule was that the piece had to have at least one real instrument (excluding voice so as to not turn it into a singing comp), and a recording; either audio or video. It could have between written at any time in the last year, but I was going to try and pull it off in two weeks.

I thought about writing a clarinet or saxophone solo piece because I’ve been wanting to make a decent length piece that can be played by students for high school level performances, but fortuitously, my work colleagues have a covers band (drums, guitars, bass, vocals). Why not write a funk piece!

I really like classic funk for reasons I can’t explain. Maybe I respond well to its groove, especially bass lines. That’s how I started this compositional endeavour. I came up with a couple of cool bass line and started to form up a structure for a piece that would go for about 3 mins. This wasn’t to be 7 minutes of improvisation, this was to be a well formed piece with some structure, and be something that could be easily reproduced by anyone who wanted to play it.

With the bass line down, I sat at the keyboard and tried some chords that sat well with the bass line. It looked like I’d settled on C minor, so after a bass groove intro, the drums (playing a funky rhythm) join in with a lead-in fill, along with the guitar playing Cm7 rhythms. We’re off.

There’s no vocalist for this, because I’m no poet and I’m no James Brown, so it’s up to the saxophone to play the melodically interesting role. Bass intro, drums plus guitar, then the saxophone is off. We’re now at bar 10, so for a 3 minute or so piece at the tempo I’m after, we’re about a 6th of the way through. 60 or so bars to go.

Chords have to change, or else the music is a bit boring after a while. Rhythm can only sustain interest for so long when there’s no lyrics to listen to, so I needed another chord. For some reason, I settled on Bmaj7 at bar 6 of an 8 bar phrase and wow, that was a happy musical accident because it sounded great.

So that’s taken the music to bar 18, with an 8 bar melodic line established. Now for some development, but, why not pad this up: enter the 2 bar bass solo followed by 2 bar drum solo, and now we’re off to part 2. It’s the saxophone’s time to unleash and the bass line changes to something new. Now we’re alternating between Cm7 and Fm7 with a new cool bass line and I’ve sketched out some melodic ideas for the saxophone. 8 bars is enough, so I gave the bass another 4 bar solo to take us into another section. A new bass line and now we’re alternating between Cm7 and Dm. I quite liked the bass line for this one.

20 bars of saxophone led melodic interest, then I had the bass take a 4 bar “turnaround” to take us into a progressively busier 8 bars of Cm7 with the saxophone screaming some notes out to the finish. Boom done.

This is where I admit that the above didn’t happen in one go.

In fact, the idea of writing a composition was half baked when I wrote down some funky bass lines with some chords then took it to a Wednesday 4pm jam session with the guys in the EMC lab. I didn’t know whether or not a funk piece would even work, so I jotted down the ideas in Dorico after hammering out ideaa on the keyboard, printed it out and gave it to the guys. The drummer put down the beat, the bass player toiled away at my bass lines and the guitarist put down some funky rhythms with all my Cm7 chords. Meanwhile, I improvised on top, but trying to keep it as tuneful as possible. I didn’t want to go into crazy town with this.

I recorded everything on my refurbished iPhone 8 using the memos app, and lo and behold, the mics on cellphones have gotten so good now, that there’s no clipping when the drums are playing away.

I had a bunch of recordings that proved that this was going to work, it was just up to me to simplify the chords (I had some exotic ones in there that weren’t necessary) and write out some better saxophone lines. I didn’t want to improvise this thing, because it needed to be reproducible. I loaded the recordings into Audacity and proceeded to transcribe as much of the good stuff as possible.

I had a week to get the structure sorted, so the following Wednesday, we gave it a good shot. The guitarist knew his chords, the bass player relished his challenge and the drummer was super clued in. We did some run throughs and during it all, another work colleague recorded us via mics and a mixer, and filmed us on his phone camera.

As good as it was, it was still rough as guts, but everyone was keen to give it one last shot two days later, and the comp closed the following Tuesday. With the mixer recordings loaded into Audacity I had a better idea of what was working and what needed some tweaks. I extended some sections that had more to say, simplified more chords and wrote simpler bass lines toward the end. I took some of my improvised saxophone lines and transcribed the best motifs into the music to ‘set it in stone’. By request, I also gave a midi recording to the guitar player so he was sure he was getting the general idea (yes, we’re amateurs after all).

Eight takes later on Friday, we had something. Well done team. With a bit of Da Vinci Resolve smoke and mirrors, the rehearsal video recording of Wednesday was edited with the final take from the Friday session.

In case anyone is wondering, EMC stands for Electromagnetic Compatibility, which is something that is tested in the labs and Navico. It also doubles as the Salty Dogs‘ rehearsal venue.


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