A New Song, Both Charming and Scurrilous

Like many of our mothers, mine thinks I’m cleverer than I am. So when she lent me the CD sets pictured below …

highly recommended

… it was with the words “You probably know everything on there anyway.”

I did not. And sometimes I knew things, but Professor Bill Messenger put them in a different light and made me slap my forehead for not seeing them that way myself.

For instance, he points out, while covering the period beginning in the 1890s, that “in Tin Pan Alley, mother songs fell to the earth like ivory snow”, but that “to my knowledge not one mother song has been written during the past fifty years”.

So I thought I’d write one. A modern one. Yes, I’m aware that my own mother’s generosity has led me to writing the following. Like many of our mothers, I think she’ll forgive me:

Oh, you want the sheet music? For piano and voice? Right here.



A Quick Word Before I Tease Some Fundamentalist Christians

Now, before anyone gets offended, let me make one thing clear:

The religion I’m mocking is homophobic, misogynist, theologically ignorant and intellectually dishonest.

If that does not describe your religion then I’m not having a go at your religion.

On the other hand, if that is your religion, well then yeah, I’m mocking it.

As Bill Hicks once said, “So? Forgive me.”

My Fundy Christian Girl

She likes to sing,
Yes she does.
She likes to dance
All night long.
She likes to paint,
You can tell
From her bedroom walls depictin’ single mothers
Burning in Hell.

She’s my fundy Christian girl

She likes to read
Just one Book.
She likes to hold
Just one view.
She helps the poor
When she can
Thank the Lord their misery is part of His
Divine lovin’ plan.

She’s my fundy Christian girl

God says we gotta wait ’til we’re married.
We wait Monday to Friday and then
We do it like bunnies on the weekend,
Get forgiven and the cycle starts all over again.

My friends say that I must be crazy,
How can I stand to be so good?
And then she does all my cooking and my cleaning
Like her fundy book says a fundy woman should.

She’s my fundy Christian girl

And maybe every band she loves
Can’t play for shit or write a decent tune.
Still, I will love her ’til the end of time,
Which she promises is coming soo – oo – ooon,

She’s my fundamental, tub-thumping,
Homophobic, pick and choosing,
Literal interpreter of laws

She’s very, very big on family,
When she says save the family
She means save her family
From yours …

She’s my fundy Christian girl
(Repeat, etc.)

My Song For The Royal Wedding

I don’t want you to think this song happened because I think Australia’s Head of State should be an Australian.

No, I’d feel sorry for the royal couple, and bemused by the hysterical coverage of their wedding, even if I were a fervent loyalist.

Hence this rueful number, in the style of early Elton John:

Look At Us

Look at us, a modern couple.
A Windsor man, and you so normal.
We keep things semi-formal at our place,
Or at least we try.
I’m just some guy
Mucking in with a girl nine-tenths as privileged as I.

And do I love you?
Yes, of course I do.
Like any man, I stand here, proud,
And pledge this love before the crowd,
To you, the intersection of what I want with what I’m allowed.

And am I happy?
Look, the future shines
With throne and church and suits for free,
And stamps and coins that look like me,
As happy as a doomed and a dying institution can be.

Look at us, we’ll raise our children,
Pay tax and keep grace under pressure,
We smile like cats from Cheshire at the rude
stuff that people say,
And we’ll be praised.
Just for doing the things a thousand couples do each day.

Is there a downside?
Oh, my word indeed:
When every blemish on your skin
Becomes your family’s mortal sin,
Reflect that you could choose, and you knew what you were getting going in.

For England needs us.
And what does it say?
How sad and lonely must the people be
To trot out every useless Earl?
What anguish makes them want to see
This mindless social whirl?
How deep must the feelings of inadequacy go
For them to elevate us so?

Look at us, a modern couple.
Look at us.
Look at all this fuss.

Look at us.

This Is How Sunday Mornings Are At My Place

A brief look at highlights in the Sunday morning song canon:

Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down is about being miserable and hungover.

The Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning is a gentle gripe about the world not leaving you alone to be stoned.  But hey, it’s nothing, man.

The Commodores’ Easy is about leaving a lousy girlfriend, and its Sunday morning is figurative (“easy like Sunday morning”).

U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday is about a massacre that occurred late on a Sunday afternoon, so it’s probably, strictly, a Monday morning song (“I can’t believe the news today”).

No Doubt’s On Sunday Morning is about a breakup recollected, as it were, in tranquillity.

Maroon 5’s Sunday Morning is about having a nice lie-in with your loved one.

Joe Jackson’s Sunday Papers is about the joys of tabloid gossip, and it counts, I think, because its papers are delivered through the door.  That traditionally happens in the morning.

None of these are about my Sunday mornings.  This is my Sunday morning:

Sunday Morning

Sunday morning.
It’s 6am and there’s a lawn to mow –
No, wait, it’s raining.
School uniforms
Will need to be dried
Inside today.

Kids, whose coat is this?
Well, who on earth is Jack?
We’re out of milk, and
I could use the UHT, but
Why have coffee just to make it taste like – ?

Shit, that birthday party,
When does it? – ah, not ’til 10 –
We’ll need to buy a present and a card,
We’ll get the gift bag that kid gave to us
And give it back to him again,
On Sunday morning.

What’s that outside?
Is that a dog?  That’s not the neighbour’s dog.
No, I don’t know why
The remote’s not working.
Try blowing on the batteries,
I’ll go get milk.

The servo should be open,
No, the chemist’s will still be closed
On Sunday morning,
How the driveway floods these days.
Cement would cost a thousand, fifteen hundred, maybe more, and
The same again for the garage door,

It’s time to trim the plum tree
Before it fruits all over Sonia’s car
Like it did last year.

The paper says the economy’s wrecked,
based off these numbers –
“based off”, that isn’t grammar –
Well, not grammar I respect,
I mean, for which I have respect,
Goddamn that plum tree.

Hi, I’m back with milk.
I’ll get hayfever tablets when the shops aren’t closed.
Well, it’s Sunday morning,
So, I guess at 10 –

Shit, that birthday starts at 10.
Well, I dunno, how old is he, eight?
He’s not my friend. Does he like books?
Would he like one of yours?
Well, you know a new one?
Cash in an envelope it is again,
on Sunday morning

Is that dog still there?
I’ll put the uniforms on to wash.
I’m not sure about the bacon,
It was old last week.
You can’t wear that to a party,
Because it’s raining, that’s why.
No, it is – well, it will be –
Try your jeans.
They might, just try.
Those aren’t your jeans.
Alright, alright, you’re dressed,
But with a jacket,
No, no, with a jacket,
It was not a request,
On Sunday morning.

Some other batteries might work.
There are three inside the race car,
Rechargeables, I think.
I charged them up last Sunday morning.

God, yes, a coffee, thank you.
Oh, that hits the spot.
I’m glad we didn’t use the UHT.
I’ll do the lawn next week.
The coat? Apparently it’s Jack’s.
Can’t wait to get to work tomorrow morning
And relax.

An Original Christmas Song, For Your Delectation

I was at the back of the express lane at Woolies, Calwell, around the middle of December 2008, and the guy in front of me realised he’d forgotten something.  He left the queue to fetch it.  When he got back, the following exchange occurred:

Me:  It’s alright, just go back in front of me.

Him:  Really?

Me:  Yeah, it’s fine, I’m not in a hurry.

Him:  OK.

Woman at checkout:  Wow!  You don’t see much of that at this time of year!


At Christmas Time

Let the song be sung,
Let us all revere
The man who kept his manners
Throughout this time of year.

He said, “After you, excuse me,
No worries, not at all.”
No kicking other people’s children
When at the shopping mall.

So we make him immortal in music.
We celebrate his deeds in rhyme.
The man who was not a dick
At Christmas time.

Let the tale be told,
Let the bards relate
Of she who finished eating
With food upon her plate.
She said, “I am full, no really,
I’ve reached my Plimsoll line.”
A miracle, she called it quits at
Her second glass of wine.

So we make her immortal in music.
We celebrate her deeds in rhyme.
The girl who was not a pig
At Christmas time.

Was not a pig, (was not a pig),
Was not a dick, (was not a dick),
Was not a pig, (was not a pig),
Was not a fatty, fatty boomstick.
Guts, (was not a guts),
Was not a dick, (was not a dick),
Was not a guts, was not a dick, not a pig, was not a prick.

So let the shrines be built,
One for every spot
Where people bought things only
With money what they got.

Salute the folks who – just once –
Didn’t turn into a bunch of selfish …

And we make them immortal in music.
We celebrate their deeds in rhyme.
The people who were modest,well-mannered,
Who were happy
At Christmas time.

Incidentally, this is only in three parts, except for the final cadence.  It sounds like more than three because of the reverb and chorus effects lavished upon it.  It is Christmas, after all.

And We’ll Be Fine …

Many, many years ago I played piano at the Tilbury Hotel for a show of Kander and Ebb songs, performed by Jacqui Rae, called My Own Space.  Partly because the song is professionally written, and because Jacqui performed it so well, I didn’t realise at the time what a stunningly up-yourself number the title song was.  Is.

Once I’d heard Liza Minnelli’s version, from The Act, where the song originated, its impressive self-love became more apparent. But then, that entire show is one colossal ego-stroke.

What, I’ve wondered ever since, would be like to write my own version of this kind of song?  How would a man phrase such sentiments? A man who could never sing the result like Liza, and shouldn’t try?

Incidentally, this is the kind of cabaret song you shouldn’t pre-announce by its title.  ‘Cos it’s the punchline.

Make Me Happy

Everybody hungers for the secret
Of a love that burns forever,
Of an eternal first kiss.
And all this time I think I’ve known the secret.
It’s simple, my darling, it’s this:

Make me happy.
Every time we wake
Let’s devote the day
To finding some new way to make me happy.

Since human life began,
No higher calling than
To make me happy.

You, you’re always saying
You need a purpose
And you do.
You, you need a purpose
And I need someone who

Can make me happy, happy.
Bend your dreams to mine.
Make me happy, my love,
And we’ll be fine.

Questions, little questions, you have questions yes, I know,
But watch this trick: three magic words,
and poof! There they go.

Make me happy,
For our future’s sake.
Life goes in a rush,
So tell yourself to shush
And make me happy.

Your wand’ring years are done,
Now you’re the lucky one
To make me happy.

You, you’re such a giver,
You’re there for others,
Staunch and true.
You, you’re there for others,
So I’ll be here for you

To make me happy, happy.
No joy more profound
Than to watch me from the ground.
Make me happy, my love,
Your turn to fly, my love,
Is maybe
Next time around.

A Nice, Hummable 32-Bar Standard about Foreplay

I was waiting at the coffee window at Tilley’s, and heard this coming from the speaker above me:

something something bark
What a perfect something park
something no moon
would you like sugars with that?

How lovely, I thought. Someone has written a whole song about the quaint custom of necking in cars. That should have been me.  I must look it up when I get home.

So I did, and it was Doris Day doing No Moon At All, written by Redd Evans and Dave Mann.  It’s more of a celebration of darkness in general, and its value to kissing couples, and only mentions necking in cars very briefly:

Don’t make a sound, it’s so dark
Even Fido is afraid to bark
What a perfect chance to park
And there’s no moon at all

A-ha, I thought. So the whole song about parking is still fair game. And off I went and wrote one.

Evans and Mann were smart, because making the whole song about parking means you need rhymes for “park”, and if you are being traditional about these things (as I am), you can’t repeat a rhyme once you’ve used it.  That means, if you use “bark”, you can’t use “embark”, or “disembark”. This may sound fussy, but it’s how some great, great songs were written.  Seek what the masters sought and all that.

I picture this one being done late, maybe last in the set, by a woman – or man – with confidence, wit and a tempting neck:

Now, at the tail-end of the evening,
Might I make a casual remark?
It’s far too late to stay and much too soon to go home,
So let’s park
Ooh, baby, let’s park

You drive, I’ll provide the navigation,
But, Captain, before we embark,
The course I’ve charted has one little stop on the way:
Let’s park
Ooh, baby,

Right there, secluded and inviting,
Or there, where all the lights are low.
And there, there’s even lower lighting.
Hey, you talk a lot, and the time for talk
Was over long ago
So, baby,

Now, as this story’s resolution
Completes our emotional arc,
The mandatory high-point hasn’t happened, not quite,
And if a thing’s worth doing, I am worth doing right,
With just a little temperature, we two could ignite
A spark
Ooh, baby, let’s park

For an especially Aussie touch, check out the magpie in the background at about 1:06!

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Six

On Friday morning, Horti Hall was being gussied up for everyone’s run-through:

Later, it was even spiffier, in time for an audience that included several dozen impeccably behaved senior schoolkids.

Here’s how Sandy France and Helen Nourse’s Playing With Fire looked on Saturday, for an audience member with few photographic skills.  Chris Dench (composer of WE) is on the left, chin on hand, and the silver-maned Music Director of the Victorian opera, Richard Gill, is on the right.

Eamonn Kelly has already written in The Australian on NOVA, and Australia’s history of spreading seeds of opera upon fertile ground, which is not an illustrious one.  He was also kind enough to say kind things about most of the five NOVA efforts.  In fact, thanks to him and the slippery nature of publicity blurbs, I can now legitimately say this:

The Devil Builds a Chapel
“dripping with neo-gothic, psycho-sexual delight”
                                                            The Australian


“humour, catchy Broadway elements and 1960s popular music flourishes”

The first of those isn’t strictly true; Kelly may have been referring to the delights of supernatural fantasies themselves, rather than to my and David Stanhope’s work in particular.  But I choose not to be fussy.

Here’s the fun thing that happened as we all heard the excerpts over and over again.  At first, mine, The Un-Dead and Playing with Fire were clearly the most immediately accessible pieces (by this, I mean largely tonal, with discrete arias/duets).  I even began to find parts of mine a little banal by the fifth or sixth time I heard them.  Meanwhile, Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Kevin March’s Razing Hypatia, which everyone agreed was a real challenge, and difficult to pull off in only a week, just grew and grew on me.  The finale, in which the heroine spends several pages repeating “it takes a long time to die”, while everything falls apart around her, is just terrific.

Dustine Barnes and Chris Dench’s WE was ten minutes of free atonality, scored in proportional notation (which gave the musicians a nice workout).  Dench explained that he had an animated work in mind, an opera written for the screen.  His music makes me think of a late-night SBS stark visual style, heavy on the black outlines, and I think it would work a treat.  Writing directly for the screen is a wonderful idea, and we should all do more of it; it is getting, as Dench pointed out, cheaper and easier than the stage.

David Stanhope’s The Un-Dead is finished, David said, in a score for full orchestra and an adaptation for chamber ensemble.  So why hasn’t it been seen yet?  It has Dracula, good parts of Stoker’s original dialogue, and a line I can already sing along with (“The children of the night”).  Oh, and three hot vampire chicks who visit you in bed and sing progressively higher ninth chords!  What’s not to like?

Sandy France expressed concern in rehearsal about a rhythmically complicated part of Playing with Fire (two men are arguing about abandoning their houses in the face of a bushfire), and I watched two singers work very hard to master it.  By Saturday, I could have sung along with them, and as I write this (a week later), I can’t get the tune out of my head.  “If we stay-ay, hold our ground …”

All of which underlines the importance of repetition when we’re hearing a new piece.  Obviously, I’m a trained muso, and the circumstances made me listen really, really hard, but there’s a good argument in last week’s experience for the 19th century model of new opera: write it, prepare the orchestral suite from its music, get singers to plant bits in their recitals, and have hotel orchestras play medleys prior to opening night.

The 21st century equivalents of these would be free video and audio on the website, rehearsals on YouTube, music excerpts available before the opening (especially for critics), and interstitials on TV and radio.

In fact, just imagine if you could get your forbidding new music planted in a video game.  There’s some repetition.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Five

Here’s what conversations sounded like on Tuesday and Wednesday:

“David, that last beat of bar 79, I have it marked mp.”

“Yes, but still you should die away on the end of the note, so as not to cover the voice.”

“How far do you want me to die away?  To pp?”

“What do you think, Peter?”

“I’m not sure until I hear it with the voice, but let’s try pp for now.”

We were all very arty on Tuesday and Wednesday, very much thinking about nuance and subtlety and finesse.

Here’s what conversations sounded like yesterday morning:

“How long is yours, Peter?”

“Should be seventeen minutes.”

“You sure?”

“It might have stretched out a bit, but definitely less than twenty.”

“Good.  We need a maximum of twenty.”

Yes, practicality reigned by Friday.  And later still …

“What are you planning to wear?”

“I dunno.  A notch up from this, probably.”

“There’s wine afterwards, right?”

“There better be.”

The performances themselves?  I’ll post about the two of them together.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Three

Sandy France is the composer of Playing With Fire, also receiving a workshop this week.  We know each other a little from Canberra, where we both teach and rail against the wilful ignorance of youth.

We immediately extended a mutual open invitation, to attend rehearsals, give feedback etc.  We’ve been hovering a bit around the other composers when we see them (OK, just me doing the hovering), hoping they’ll invite us along too, but perhaps they’re equally nervous and self-deprecating.

The music calls are happening in an intimate room with an upright piano, and in the main hall, which looks like this:


With these essential operatic supplies laid out:


Much of Sandy’s session, like mine yesterday, was concerned with learning, and re-learning new material.  Sometimes, for example, singers know their parts in a duet individually, but once they have to sing with each other, they feel as if they never learned it at all.  This frustrates them, because note-bashing is dull, and they don’t want to be doing it at the expense of higher musical values, like actually running the thing.  It frustrates composers too, because note-bashing is dull, and they want to know if the piece works as a whole.  

Composers should either grow a thick skin or stay away from note-bashing sessions.  You need a thick skin, because …

What the Singer Says Is

“It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.”

And What the Singer Means Is

“It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.”

But What the Composer Hears Is

“You can’t write for voices.  You have no idea.  Go home.”

Afterwards, Sandy and I went for Tom Kha nearby, discussed the above matters, our sneaking fondness for tunes and basic triads, and my fanboy love of the Flower Duet from Lakmé.

Highlight From Day Two

Opera singers, it turns out, are as human as the rest of us.  I say this because I thought they could sing anything.  You know, with all those scary bang-on-a-can, throw-the-plates-at-the-audience, sing-into-a-dead-goose, modern operas floating around, that today’s singers had seen and done everything, and nothing could faze them any more.

Then, in my afternoon session, we spent half an hour note-bashing a couple of bars of waltz time I wrote back in 2009.  It is pretty tricky, that part, and although the three female voices all land on the same A by the end, it’s a little hairy until they get there.

I have a pretty thick skin, as per my own recommendation, but this is what my head does to me when singers find something difficult.  The singers, by the way, are saying things like “It’s hard because of the length of the phrase.” 

Stage OneWell, that’s not what I wrote yet.  I’ll wait until it’s what I wrote.

Stage TwoThat’s closer.  Maybe what I wrote isn’t good …

Stage ThreeWow, this is really hard.  Why did I write it to be so hard?  What was I thinking?  I must have had a reason; I don’t write hard just for the sake of it, do I? 

Stage FourMaybe they could all sing the same part?  Would that be worse?

Stage FiveOK, in five minutes I’m gonna suggest we cut it.

Stage SixWait, that was nearly it!  Now I remember: it’s to contrast with the next part!  The next part is a great relief after all this tension – that’s what I was thinking!

Stage Seven Yeah, that’s it!  There’s that A!  Hell, yeah!  And you all sound great!  And I AM A GOD.  On your knees, all of you.

What Pride Goeth Before

Tomorrow’s call makes me nervous.  Tomorrow’s call is the first orchestra call, and I think I know my way around a voice and a piano, and I can handle a big band just fine, and I can orchestrate for a Broadway-style pit orchestra without too much stress.  But this is a little chamber ensemble, seven instruments, and I just know I will have made some very, very amateurish mistakes.  I just know that the French Horn player will politely call me over, point to a bar, and say, “See this note?  You can’t really play this note at that dynamic.  It’s not the right register for the instrument.  You can’t write for horns.  You have no idea.  Go home.”

I may not get beyond Stage Five tomorrow.