Making Oskar
Part 2: In the Soviet Union

Come with me this week, if you will, to my little studio in Nakameguro, where we'll roll up our sleeves, sit cross-legged on the floor, and examine in detail the building blocks of song construction. Heads out of the clouds, please; this time it's all very practical. 'Truth', said Brecht, 'is concrete'. Walter Gropius put it this way: 'You should be bold. You should have the courage to be Utopian. And this goal should be reached in a very practical, direct way; do everything step by step realistically.'

So, this week we're looking at the methodology of magic, the slow, sane construction of beautiful, mad things. Let us begin!

1: Ideas

If you were paying attention last time you'll know that we already have a lot of song ideas in notebooks, all carefully transcribed into TextEdit and jumbled in a list -- a kind of silent Ginsbergian howl -- on the white screen of our iBook. We also have vague guiding principles. We want to make something lefthanded, something Germanic, we want to apply electronics to vaudeville.

The first thing to do this morning is pull on a T shirt with some random German phrases on it. This in itself will put you in a certain mood, ready for bold obscurities, for ultra-rational evasions of the rational mind. Yes, a good start! Gobbledygook in the world's most precise language, a nice paradox.

But nothing really dictates exactly what fish will bite today. Why should we execute one idea rather than another? A sense of duty won't swing it. To get started on the rather tedious business of sequencing we need something more.

Time for some drugs.

2: Drugs

Japanese green tea is your drug of choice. You make some. As you sip it you're procrastinating, surfing the web. You live at the centre of a 100 metre radius data cloud. DSL is broadcast wirelessly through an Airport base station. The web is always on, and you're almost always on it, researching, listening to French radio, following appalling geopolitical developments on Google News (the news service 'generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors').

One of your recent delights has been automatic web translation. Thanks to services like Babelfish and Amikai, you can now read foreign language web pages in English. The really fun thing is just how surreal the results are. No matter how banal the contents of the page, Amikai and Babelfish render it into a kind of Dadaist poetry. You often copy into your lyric files for future use phrases as suggestively nonsensical as: 'The junior soleil knight of the blue room uses too much oak' or 'It is the soap of handmade thank you'. Not only was this form of automatic writing unknown to the Surrealists or the Beats, it won't be available for very much longer. Machine translation will get better and better, and as it does the inexplicable gems will disappear. Rationality is always encroaching on our subversive pleasures.

Today you're reading Emi Necozawa's web diary. She's recently moved to Paris, and you're eager to find out how she's doing there. Babelfish gives you an agreeably blurry sense of her adventures. She's checking out language schools in different parts of Paris. Of one school she says 'Something the high Soviet Union it is feeling.'

That makes your heart leap. The Soviet Union! It no longer exists, but its spirit lives on furtively in certain buildings, streets and hearts. Suddenly, sick to death of Bush and his sabre-rattling, you feel a huge wave of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, an experimental society which perished before it had a chance to refine itself, an 'official opposition' to capitalism which, now it's been replaced in that capacity by a befuddled fundamentalist Islam, looks pretty enlightened. (Since Modernism is a key concern of 'Oskar Tennis Champion', it doesn't escape your notice that the Soviet Union is also the state we can map most neatly to the Modernist period, from its formalist beginnings in 1917 to its death in the 1980s, right in the heady heyday of PoMo.)

You're not going to roll up your sleeves and get in the ring with Martin Amis. No, your nostalgia will power something much more oblique, lefthanded and rightbrained than a simple vindication or damnation of a dead system. You will sing your song from the perspective of a caretaker looking after the abandoned Soviet Union, keeping it clean and habitable until such time as people decide to come back to it. The last communist.

3: Word Processor

So you sit down with TextEdit. The first line comes immediately. 'Would the last communist out switch off the lights?' After that, it's pretty easy. You have a character, the caretaker. You have a location, 'the Soviet Union' -- represented, in your mind, by an abandoned school at night. Your character is nuts, of course, but he's an idealist. He believes the world of the Soviet Union is better than the world of unbridled capitalism outside, and he believes that people will come back to join him. Until they do, he is lonely and eccentric. He stalks the corridors, making funny faces in the bathroom mirror with a torch to amuse himself. He rails against the American system.

Here you run into problems. You feel bad just making an angry rant against America, which is how your first draft reads. You want something more ambiguous. This is the section of the lyric you rewrite the most. Only days later do you come up with something with the right mixture of anti-capitalist zeal and surreal language. You don't want the 'fuzzy status' of the characters and objects in your song -- the caretaker, America, the Soviet Union -- compromised.

4: Sequencer

When you have the song mapped out in words, you turn to your ancient Performa, the computer you bought this year for $35 in Akihabara because no modern machine would run the ancient sequencer you favour, EZ Vision. (Why do you like it? Because you know your way around it. Because it's ultra-simple and frees you up to think about composition. Because it just works.)

So you set a tempo which seems to fit the speed of the words, get a metronome running from your tiny multitimbral synth (the Roland PMA 5, your 'personal music assistant') and start sketching in a bassline and a melody with inflections and developments that match the way the thoughts of the text inflect and develop. You speak the lyric onto a microcassette recorder and extrapolate a melody from the rising and falling pitch of the spoken words.

But your first try renders a complicated and difficult melody, something like Charles Ives or Hans Eisler. When you're half way through this rather joyless tune, a friend visits and seems befuddled. 'Does the whole album sound like this, or are there some pop songs?' she asks. 'Oh, it'll change,' you assure her.

5: Sampler

It does. As soon as your friend leaves you abandon the 'difficult' music and start afresh. This time you have a little conceptual breakthrough. You decide to make the song sound like early 80s synthpop -- 'Being Boiled' by the Human League, 'We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thing' by Heaven 17. You load into your Akai S2800 a bunch of samples you've made from 80s Fairlight pop. Snare hits and hat rushes from Telex and Yellow Magic Orchestra completely transform the song. The Soviet Union, too, is part of our nostalgia for the 80s.

You make a new chord sequence using a Rhodes piano sound. The A section is a Bach-like cycle of fifths. B is a zigzagging phrase of minor chords resolved into a staggering descent of fat naked bass notes. Then C is a call and response section with an ever-ascending bass line -- a kind of MC Escher trick which builds tension (first once, then twice) then returns to the home chord with its big funk synth line and crashing synclavier percussion.

Because it's fun, the hours (and in fact days) you spend on this arrangement, playing the track over and over again, seem to go quickly. You queue arrangement ideas in your head. At any given time there are at least two musical ideas scheduled in your mind to try. Your concentration is unwavering. Sometimes you remember to eat too.

6: Singer

Is it the same day or another day? You've completely lost track of time. It's probably morning. Your arrangement was finished late last night, and you took a two-track mix of it out of your master mixer, your Roland M12E, and recorded it left and right to the first two tracks of your digital recorder, your Korg D12. Today you plug in your black VTL tube mike and start singing the lead vocal onto track 3. The first couple of takes are uncertain in tone. Then you hit your stride. You remember how everyone in the 80s was trying to sing like Iggy Pop, with that swaggering, ironic-romantic baritone Iggy used on records like 'The Idiot'. An ensemble effect from the D12's internal effects unit adds a sheen of invulnerability. You really are Paul Haig, Phil Oakey, Iggy now, playing this caretaker stuck in the Soviet Union.

You add no fewer than seven tracks of backing vocals. High falsettos, low baritones. You're using backing vocals like bolds and italics in a text, to bring certain lines out.

7: Mixing

When it's all sounding good and you've got the moves on your mix down -- remember to switch on the ring modulation on section C, then make sure you dip that falsetto backing vocal behind the lead vocal at the end of bridge 2! -- you record the track onto the Performa, where it's captured as a stereo AIFF file in SoundEdit 16. Like the sequencer, this is ancient software. Better the devil you know. (Especially when it's the devil you got free somewhere...)

When you have three finished files -- the whole mixed song, a lead vocal-free instrumental for live performance, and the vocals on their own for John Fashion Flesh, the album's master mangler, to resplice to his remixed version -- you're almost finished. Then it's just a question of fiddling with Zip disks, bringing the big files across to the iBook.

Here they're finessed. You top and tail them, adding fades. You normalise, optimising the levels. You might mess around with the tempo, because that makes the stereo go crazy in an interesting way. You might splice a better ending on. You might make a patchwork of all the best bits of the various mixes you've done, and you might even add some new arrangement elements, even at this late stage. A drone, a snatch of Walter Gropius from the Real Audio archives on the BBC 4 website. Whatever.

When you're happy, it only remains to crunch the song file down into mp3 format and send it by DSL to your comrades and co-workers all over the world for feedback. Song workers of the world, unite!

8,9,10: Begin Again

Time to start a new song! The whole process begins again. The task would be Sisyphusian if it weren't so often surreal, surprising... and so damned satisfying.

PS: Misunderstanding

After I'd finished this little masterclass, a couple of people extended my ruminations on the joys of misunderstanding. Or, to be a bit more grand about it, misunderstanding as a kind of drug, a creative stimulant, and particularly the relationship of misunderstanding to nascent technologies.

My Tokyo 'japtopper' friend Robert Duckworth sent me the URL of a fascinating page of early maps of Japan.

It struck me that the charm of these maps, which 'misunderstand' the Japanese coastline, is the same as the charm I see in the wooden and bizarre mistranslations of Amikai and Babelfish. The wonders of technology ensure that there's a relatively brief period of fuzzy knowledge (between the discovery of Japan and its accurate mapping, or between the invention of machine translation and its perfection) in which a sort of poetry can emerge.

Although we wouldn't want to navigate by it, the poetry of early Japanese cartography, like the poetry of absurdly mistranslated sentences, resides, I think, in the fact that language seems enriched, not impoverished, when we don't quite know what it's getting at. Rather than plunging us into the abyss of unreason, it makes our rational minds work harder. Which is a pleasure! There's also a utopian element to misunderstanding. Misheard lyrics are always the lines we want to hear rather than the ones actually being sung. To know that even something as fixed as the shape of an island might be changeable, at least in our perception, is very liberating. Our 'interpretative mistakes' liberate us from the lumpen, stolid, stubborn 'facts' that surround us, and encourage us to consider fresh propositions, try new ways of thinking.

My bilingual Californian-Japanese friend Ellie cleared up the mystery of the 'high Soviet Union' phrase in a message she posted to

'Curious to see what it actually said, I took a look at Emi's diary. I found the phrase that the translation must have come from. The mix-up comes from the term "haiso." It's sort of a slang term, an abbreviation for "high society." (The Soviet Union is often abbreviated as "soren," where "so" is for "Soviet.") So she was actually saying that the place seems "high society"-esque.

'I hope I didn't ruin the fun, but I thought I'd mention it in case anyone wanted to know...'

Thanks, Ellie, fascinating confirmation that the whole song was based on a misunderstanding! Precisely the sort of intriguing misunderstanding that gets people sitting down to their sequencers and their sewing machines, spinning yarns.

Read part 1 of the album diary, Tati and Me.
Part 3, The Reproducer, is here.

Part 4 is about The One That Got Away.

Thoughts Index