Category Archives: those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush

What Does The Viper Say?

Early this past April, I met with 3 grades worth of musicians from the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra program as part of my time with them as a composer-in-residence. We worked on things old, things new, things borrowed, and some yodels blue, and it was a great pleasure to hear some things I’d written brought to life in their capable hands and under the inspired direction of their teacher, Riley Broach.

I’ll be meeting with them again tomorrow, May 11, to start polishing up the pieces we’ll be performing together at their Spring Concert on Thursday, May 19. I’ve got some questions for them.

But first they’ve got some questions for me, which Mr. Broach was kind enough to pass along. So let me take a stab at answering some of them:

Why do you call yourself the “Viper”?

Ah… the age-old questions. Here’s the quick answer:

The story of The Viper

Do you call yourself “the viper” or “viper”?

Definitely “The Viper.” Otherwise I’m likely to be confused with the 80’s Brazilian heavy metal band “Viper.”


What instruments do you play?

I mostly play plucked string instruments: ukulele, guitar, mandolin. But an instrument’s an instrument: and if I can make noise on something, I like to play it — trumpet, clarinet, suitcase, ceramic jug, piano, washtub bass, harmonica, wax-paper-and-comb. The one thing I’ve found I pretty much can’t do is make any noise that sounds good on a bowed instrument. So I really envy all of you your talent!

How did you learn how to yodel?

I learned from my Mom, who learned from someone that she worked with in a cheese factory in Sheboygan, Co., Wisconsin in the early 1960s. When she’d drive my sisters and I around in the car when we were little, we’d beg her to sing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” until I’m sure she was quite sick of it.

How do you yodel?

You’re really just going back-and-forth between what trained singers (which I’m not) will call your “chest” voice (the one you use for speaking) and your “head” voice (the falsetto one you use to sound like Michael Jackson or Prince).

By thickening or thinning your vocal cords as you sing, you change the speed at which the air vibrates as you force it past your epiglottis, which is the valve in your throat that controls whether your air passage or food passage is open. If the column of air vibrates more slowly, the pitch is lower; if it vibrates more quickly, the pitch is higher. (This is the same way you change pitch on your instruments: a thinner string vibrates the air around it more quickly when bowed. And if you make that string shorter by putting your finger on it along the neck, then it will vibrate even more quickly.)

Then there’s something else that happens when you yodel that I don’t really understand but that involves the epiglottis opening and closing that gives the yodel that distinctive  “click” effect as it goes from the chest voice to the head voice. So at that point, we’ll just say it’s magic.

For more on the technique and history of yodeling, I recommend Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, by Bart Plantenga (New York: Routledge, 2004), or this how-to video.

How to yodel

What’s your favorite music?

Well, the music made by the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North, of course!

Beyond that, I really listen to a little bit of everything, with a particular affection for the popular and vernacular music of the early 20th Century: the jazz of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, or Slim Gaillard; the American Songbook writing of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter; Bob Wills’s Western Swing; jug band and skiffle music by the Mound City Blue Blowers and the Spirits of Rhythm; and the crash-and-burn approach to “serious” music by people like Spike Jones and Carl Stalling (who did the music for Bugs Bunny cartoons).

In fact, I’d say Bugs Bunny was my most important early music influence — you can ask Mr. Broach about the time we performed a version of the classic Chuck Jones take on Richard Wagner, “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Are you a professional performer? Why or why not?

I’m a professional performer in the sense that sometimes I get paid to perform. But mostly I see music as something that I do as a healthy part of a well-balanced life! There aren’t many people who can make a living just making music. But everyone’s lives can be enriched by the challenges, socializing opportunities, and creative outlet that making music provides.

Who have you performed with?

A gentleman named Riley Broach, who I hear is a pretty decent fellow.

But besides my current band, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, some of the other bands I’ve played with were named (and this is roughly in chronological order): The Terrestrials, The Generics, Phlegm, Enzymatic Fly Vomit, My Cousin Kenny, Kissyfish, The Lovebirds, The Andrew Hipp Trio, The Beatles (really: that’s what we called ourselves), Gentlemen Prefer Hank, Half Slab, The Kennett Brothers, The Corn Likkers, The Prairie Mountaineers, The G.E.O. Brass Band, The Ancient Jazz Quartet, The Paint Branch Ramblers, and The Reds and The Blues.

That’s a lot of bands! And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of them.

Why the ukulele?

Why a duck?

Groucho and Chico Marx say why

What did you do in middle school? (Musically)

From 4th grade to 9th grade, I played trombone. Don’t hold it against me.

Where did you grow up?

My Dad was in the Navy, so I grew up in a few places: Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Great Lakes, Illinois; Newport, Rhode Island; and Libertyville, Illinois.

Do you have kids/are you married?

Yes and yes. My wife is named Ann and she’s a librarian. My daughter is named Irene, and she’s a Sixth-Grader who plays a mean violin. I used her to test out the parts I wrote for all of you! Here’s what she sounds like:

Irene Vipersdottir

Have any pets?

A really horrible little dog name Louisiana, aka Loup Garou, or just Loup for short. Here’s what she looks like.

Loup Garou and friends

I also have a tank full of platys, neon tetras, zebra danios, algae-eating shrimp, and snail-eating “assassin” snails. But no one else in my family but me considers those pets.

Has your stage name always been “the viper”?

For about 20 years now. But in my high school band, The Generics, I was known as “Guitar.” In the Beatles, I was “John Lennon.” And in The Kennett Brothers, I was “Earl Wayne Kennett.” I hope to start a honky tonk band some day called Earl Wayne Kennett and the Rural Electrification Project.

Why did you write heartbreak?

The basic melody you all play in “Heartbreak for Beginners” is from way back in the early 1990s, and I originally imagined it being played with a slide on an electric guitar. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with this little melody until a couple of years ago when I had the idea of writing a song that would be a kind of a play in which the singer, feeling heartbroken and stuck in his own head about it, would be offered words of comfort by his band, and just the fact that they were there would make him feel better about it. And it really does make me feel better when I sing it with other people. So thanks!

There’s a songwriter named Jonathan Richman who has these little funny conversations-in-music with his band (and the rhythm and chord changes of “Heartbreak” are very Jonathan Richman-y).

But even more, I was probably thinking of the routine that the great soul singer James Brown would do at the end of his set. He’d pretend to be exhausted, and one of the people in his band would come out and put a robe on him and gently try to lead him off stage — but J.B. would just keep shaking off the robe and going back to the mic to sing. You have to see it! The routine starts about 50 seconds into the clip below, and goes on for the rest of the 6 minutes. It will change your life!

James Brown, “Please Please Please”

Have you met any famous musicians?

I suppose it depends what you mean by famous. But the musician I was most excited to meet was a drummer named Mo Tucker who used to be in a group called The Velvet Underground, who had played at Andy Warhol’s Factory “happenings” in the 1960s. My college band opened for her band, and I brought my trombone — don’t hold it against me — and had her paint her name on it at the show. She seemed a little confused by the request, but she was gracious enough to do it, and it still makes me feel great to see it.

Any other hobbies?

Right now, in my spare time I’m learning how to do linear regression, logistic regression, and classification and regression trees. Does that count as a hobby?

Do you play a sport?

When I was your age, I played a lot of soccer — outdoor and indoor, though just in recreational leagues. Now, I ride around on a bicycle a lot. That’s not really a sport, except when I pretend all the potholes on the streets of Milwaukee are really an obstacle course and I can win it.

What other places have you lived?

You already heard about Sheboygan, Great Lakes, Newport, and Libertyville in my answer to the where-did-you-grow-up question. After growing up — sort of — I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and then graduate school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. That’s where I met Mr. Broach and the rest of the Famous Orchestra.

Then I abandoned them and moved to Ankara, Turkey for a few years while I was teaching American Literature at Bilkent University there. After that, I lived for a while in Washington, D.C., and Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland before I finally came to my senses and came back to the Midwest to live in Milwaukee.

This is where I plan to stay; and it’s a good thing, too, because it means I can get to Lake Zurich in time for 9:05 orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday. See you then

Lake Zurich, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Come Wednesday morning, while hale Helios wends his way across dawn’s sky-road, I’ll be shanksnagging it down highway 45 to Lake Zurich, Illinois for a 9:05 rendevous with destiny.

Amn’t I?

Why, you ask? Why not, I answer? With a question, even.

Why not? When it means I’ll get to meet for the first time Lake Zurich Middle School North’s Chamber Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra, and Prima Musica ensemble as their Spring 2016 Composer-In-Residence (under the direction of Riley Broach, bassist for another, more Famous Orchestra)?

It’s a great chance to workshop and then perform Viper music with some young musicians who can teach me a thing or two and, maybe, even lend a little class to the organization.

Up until this point, that burden has fallen largely on Mr. Broach, who has been coaching the students in learning some existing melodies by ear — “Last Call Waltz,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls” — then transcribing them onto paper and working out some basic orchestral arrangements.

Heartbreak for Beginners

Heartbreak for Beginners (detail)
Play along!

The “learning outcome” is that these long-hairs get a taste of how most music in its vernacular form gets put together: “head arrangements” of a songs learned hand-to-hand.

When I meet with them, we’ll put it all together, polish it up, and get it ready for performance on May 19, 2016. (See more info here, along with Riley Broach’s take on the whole thing.)

I’m also pretty excited to hear something new I’ve written just for these students, played for the first time by humans, rather than the midi’ed “oohs” and “aahs” of my composing software that I’m used to hearing in my waking nightmares.

That’s right, y’all: it’s the world premieres of “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”: a meditation on the fleeting nature of time, the seasons, life on this mortal coil, and proper pet care. And Lake Zurich gets to hear it first!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk with the students about how this piece came together, and we’ll use it to explore the idea of how music tells a story: not the lyrics, the music itself — sometimes (as is the case here) telling a story quite different than the one the lyrics would have you believe.

Wait. YOU want to hear my little ol’ story? Well, all right. Settle in, and I’ll tell it like it happened.

What had happened was this. It all started last Summer, shortly after Riley had talked to me about a plan to have The Viper work with his Middle School ensembles. Aside from having a string player or two join us onstage now and then, I’d never “written” for an orchestra. So I was feeling a little out of my element.

That week, I happened to go an outdoor performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen from 1692 (a mini-opera-slash-masque-slash-who-knows-what adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). This was a really cool and interactive production put on last June in Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden by the Danceworks Performance Company and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, performed by an all-ages, all-sized, all-skilled cast who led us into the woods, over hill, dale, and stream, and in and around the sculptures to different “stations” where scenes would be played to an audience who could stand, sit, or lie down anywhere they wanted to watch, and who could take in the scenes and the play’s overall chronology forward or backward! It was awesome!

Dance 1 (1)
See more photos from this production at Lynden artist in residence Eddee Daniel’s Arts Without Borders blog.


As is my usual process, I take my inspiration where I can find it. That is to say, I steal it, and then get it wrong: voilà! New song.

At this performance, one song opened with what I thought was a line that went “Let not life far from these fingers flee.” It didn’t, and I’ve searched in vain for the real lyrics (though my best guess is it was a song from Act IV called “Let the Fifes and Clarions”). Then the scene launched into a masque bit where performers from 7 to 77 years of age presented a song for each of life’s four seasons.

And I thought, a ha! I’ll write a nice little baroque-y song about what I thought that first line had said, stop time in its tracks by freezing it into the measured counterpoint of a potentially eternal song, and then perform it with some youths who will be amazed by it’s gravity and wisdom!

And then I thought, a ha! Again, a ha! What could be lamer than that! What could sound less wise to a 7th grader than some old Polonius (I know, wrong play) nattering on about the slide from cradle to grave and overcompensating for his ukulele-ness by trying to sound like a string quartet? Tempus fugit? Tempus fidgets! I’m fidgeting right now just thinling about it.

But there was one final a ha! yet to come. Taking note of the whole ukulele “fleas” and “fingers” connection (the name is Hawaiian, and “ukulele” translates roughly “as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers,” or so Wikipedia says), I realized we could make this a story about a story that falls apart in the telling.

While I’m getting all serious and playing my ukulele like a chamber instrument, the Middle School players would keep interrupting to turn their instruments to the side, strum them like ukuleles, and sing “My dog has fleas!” Yeah, we’re all going to be food for worms, and ain’t that a peach!

First shot at lyrics to “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”

Over the next few days, I rode my bike to my job enough times to work out the melody and lyrics (a lot of songs get written while I’m on a bicycle, behind a vaccuum cleaner, under a shower head, mowing the lawn, or feeding pets). And then I went out and bought this “I’m So Fly” notebook you’re seeing in these images, and I more or less sketched out how the plot would work.

The plot – plus a couple of bonus fingers.

After that, it was on to the 99% perspiration part of the process. But THAT’S a story for another time.

The Viper leads workshops at Lake Zurich Middle School North all the livelong day on April 6 and May 4, and then joins the LZMSN Orchestra for their Spring Concert on May 19, 2016.

I’m Here to Steal Your Song

While you slept the sleep of the dead and contented, I used the cover of last night’s darkness to steal another song from the void/cultural commons and to register it for my own use with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Socialize the work; privatize the profit — that’s always been my motto.

The song is called “I’m Here to Steal Your Song” (ASCAP work id# 887682747).

Here’s what it sounds like:

And here’s what it looks like (download it if you’d like):I'm Here to Steal Your Song  p1

I'm Here to Steal Your Song  p2

While I was at it, I also registered “Dopamine” (aka “Let the Dopamine Be,” work id# 887682868). I also took the opportunity to register Riley Broach’s new composition, “By Your Lonesome (It’s Time to Jam)” (work id# 887684085), because 1) it was just that easy, and 2) because Riley wouldn’t return my e-mail for the interview about his new song that was SUPPOSED to occupy this spot on the Viper blog.

Shh! Don’t tell Riley! Or do tell him. See if I care!

We’ll be playing both songs tonight at our 8:00 show at Anodyne in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee (with Mississippi Sawyer).

Using MuseScore to create lead sheets

As I noted in an earlier post, I recently purchased Finale NotePad, the cheap-o version of this music notation software. I needed it to create some basic lead sheets for some new material that The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will be debuting at our summer shows for 2009. Lead sheets are a practice tool for bands working in a vernacular tradition — they typically include just a simplified version of the “head” melody of a song written out on a treble-clef staff, with chord symbols written above the staff (like what you’d find in a fakebook).

As a notation project, a lead sheet is a pretty simple creature and doesn’t require all the bells and whistles that someone doing, say, a full orchestral score would need from software. And I found NotePad pretty easy to figure out to quickly get a line of music down on paper. But because lead sheets are created for musicians who need it mostly as spot-check reference tool for practicing, and for musicians who may or may not be skilled readers of music, they do create there own demands on someone notating the music — mostly, demands for simplicity.

Some of these demands I found hard to meet with Finale NotePad. Most notably, I found I couldn’t get the line to break where I wanted it so that there’d be a nice, round, easy-to-read four measures per line  on the page. This doesn’t sound like a big deal – but it makes a lead sheet infinitely more useful as a practice tool if it can be set up this way.

On my earlier post, I noted this issue with NotePad and mentioned that I was going to be trying out an alternative, free and open source program called MuseScore. Well, within less than a day, I’d been contacted by two separate boosters of MuseScore with helpful advice and more. A David Bolton commented on my post, saying “MuseScore can add grace notes and double bar lines plus many more things that NotePad can’t do.” And then some superhero known only as “Lasconic” emailed me out of the blue, having voluntarily taken on the project of himself or herself inputting my lead sheet for “Heyse Latke” into MuseScore. As he/she writes:

I created a musicXML file from your pdf with an OMR software and open the musicXML with musescore. Then I modify it. The most recent prerelease of musescore has a plugin to break every 4 measures automatically. You can break where you want too of course. You can label the part with rehearsal marks, and use double barlines. I didn’t put any appogiatura, but it’s also possible. Not sure you’re playing a mandolin, I thought it was a ukulele. I didn’t change it neither but it’s possible as well. The result looks cleaner and beautiful, at least for my taste. Hope you like it! Tell me what you think and try musescore! It will be great to have your feedback on the forum:

And he/she is right: it is cleaner and beautiful. Take a look at:

Or the musescore file at:

I haven’t yet properly thanked Lasconic or written to the forum. But I have begun using MuseScore and am finding it to be absolutely perfect for my purposes. There are some issues with needing to download a supplementary midi pack to be able to play back some of the fuller, multi-staff scores I’m now also creating with it. But for creating basic lead sheets, it’s an easy-to-learn, simple-to-use program for creating very usable, professional looking stuff. I’m very impressed and happy with it.

My seafaring lassie will smile on the Bard of Armagh

"Bard of Armagh" ballad sheet
"Bard of Armagh" ballad sheet

In putting together 5 shows for the summer that will require two complete sets, and doing it with an Orchestra that resides, Famously, in 6 different cities in 3 different states, I’m spending a lot of quality archive time digging through old file folders (manila and electronic) and old hard hard drives to dredge up or create reference material — lyric sheets, chord sheets, lead sheets, arrangement notes, scratch recordings, etc. — that I can pass on to everyone else via email and, now, via the wiki I’ve started putting together for the summer for just this purpose.

Thankfully, the rest of the Famous Orchestra appears to suffer from the same archive fever that I do. And now all kinds of great material is starting to show up on the wiki: lyrics to Tre-P’s “Drunk Bus” contributed by Ed Burch, chord changes for “Winnebago Bay” and other songs contributed by Riley Broach. And this: a page of sprawling handwritten notes for “My Seafaring Lassie,” developed in situe as we were pulling together this then very fresh piece of hardtack for a couple of shows during the summer of 2002 (I’d finished writing the song on the treadmill on the cargo ship on which my wife and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean on our move back from Turkey just weeks before).

Here’s the notes:


And, just for reference, here’s a recording of “My Seafaring Lassie” from a solo show I did in December 2008 at the Home Grown Coffee House in Accokeek, Maryland:
(click here to download the mp3)

The contributor of the notes is Rob Henn, as will be apparent from what he calls the “admittedly trombone-centric (but still helpful!)” transcription of this arrangement. What I really like is the economy of these notes — there’s a lot being recorded here, and it’s a little bit of a fly thing all on one page: everything from the basic structure of the song, to snatches of lyrics, notes on vocal harmonies and punctuation, built-in contingencies for live playing (all those question marks!), bits of melody transcription, and references to inside jokes (such as our use of the “Picardy 3rd” to end the song).

At the tail end of the piece, you’ll also see:

Assorted phrases, Irish brogue talkin’, whatever…
— On my signal, I sing, “And she’ll smile on the bard of Armeagh! (Armeagh!)”
All, very lock-step in rhythm, “And she’ll smile on the bard of Armeagh!”

This was about as inside as jokes get. It could be excused only by the vaguely Irish (though, truthfully, English West Country) feel of the song. And the joke was basically this: Rob Henn had once had a dream in which, I think, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra were playing; and we either had to sing, or were watching, some Irish music performance in which the “bard of Armeagh” line cited in the “Seafarin’ Lassie” notes were sung. Rob had vividly remembered the lyrics, the melody, and the end-of-chorus turnaround from his dream, and so was sufficiently astounded some weeks later, while at the Hideout in Chicago, to discover a flyer for an upcoming performance BY the Bard of Armagh, which turned out to be the moniker sometimes applied to the late and great, hearty and hellish Tommy Makem — though I can’t believe it was actually Tommy Makem who was coming to the Hideout.*

So — to rip off Peter Stampfel here — we put it in the song! And sang it! And closed the song with it! Hurrah for The Viper and His Famous Orchestra! Hurrah for Rob Henn! Hurrah for Isaac the Bartender! And Hurrah for the Bard of Armeagh!

* Though a quick search turns up that Tommy Makem was, in fact, scheduled to play in Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Festival in July of 2002. And, in fact, “The Bard of Armagh” turns out to be an actual Irish ballad about a travelling 17th-century harper named  Phelim Brady, recorded at least once by Tommy Makem, and — the resonances start to pile up pretty thick here — set to the tune used by a song occasionally performed by The Viper, “The Streets of Laredo,” though there is no “smiling upon” going on in either song)