Shimura Curves

Thursday, December 17, 2009


This is an old, old song. Not one of the first songs I ever wrote, but certainly dating back to 1992. I wrote it originally during the total mental breakdown that resulted in my being arrested, and sentenced to a 28 day rehab program that caused such an utter collapse to my precarious mental state that I was transferred from rehab to a mental hospital. Which was where I wrote this song.

It was also one of the first batch of songs I re-recorded using my laptop, while I was still learning how to use Reason and Cubase with songs I had sitting around. I swear there was no reason in particular for picking this song, other than that I liked the melody - one of those cases of odd prescience where one's "creativity" seems to be one step ahead of one's conscious mind in terms of what's going on in your life.

The eponymous Harriet was my roommate in the nuthutch, a 50 year old career schizophrenic who used to keep me up half the night shouting at god and the devil. Considering the number of times I was hospitalised between the ages of 15 and 22, I was used to this kind of thing, and to be honest, more annoyed than disturbed or anything. The staff didn't like the patients wandering the halls at night, so I'd go to the patient lounge where there was an ancient, badly tuned piano, which proved my greatest joy and consolation for those 28 days.

That piano kept me entertained for hours. I'd grown up always having a piano in the house, though I wasn't fond enough of practicing to justify proper lessons after the age of about 12. It died shortly after we moved upstate. My parents decided to sand and re-polish the ballroom floor, and instead of lifting it up into the parlour, my dad simply rolled it out onto the porch overnight. Of course, it rained, and the piano was ruined. So my father got an axe and a crowbar, and together we smashed the thing into pieces. The soundboard (with strings still attached) and the striking mechanism, however, we kept - my father later turned it into a "sculpture" in the ballroom, complete with hanging plant and bust of Beethoven. My sisX0r and I spent hours of fun banging the strings with mallets and metal spoons and things and recording the results with our 4-track. (I wish I still had tapes of these tracks - my favourite is still one where she threw a mic into the freezer and made a rhythm track out of the sound of shutting the seal on a bag of peas.)

Anyway, whacked out on more drugs (legal ones, prescribed by doctors) than I'd ever consumed to get me into rehab, I used to spend the nights banging away on this old piano, my forehead pressed against the wood - or better yet, with my head inside the case if there were no staff around to check on me - writing these endless repetitive Philip Glass style compositions that sounded just fantastic on heavy tranquilisers and 3 hours sleep. I'd sleep during the daytime, when my roommate was out at therapy. Since I didn't smoke, the staff were utterly at a loss for any means to get me out of bed, as threatening to revoke my ward-leaving privileges did nothing to move me. (Funny how no one ever thought to revoke my piano-playing privileges - I think those were sacrosanct as some kind of "art therapy".)

Harriet was one of the whole raft of proper songs that came out of that time, the clanging piano noises cleaned up and made nice-nice and turned into pop songs. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the cycling 4-note melody underneath all the noisy guitars. (It's really just the chord progression from "Boys Don't Cry" with a couple of minor modulations.) The vocal melody uses a trick, a sort of audio version of an optical illusion (as much favoured by Bach) to make it seem as if the song is continually rising in pitch, up, up, floating up and away.

I changed the last verse - mainly because I couldn't remember the original last few lines, which adds a sweet ending to a song which was originally totally bittersweet. It's about disengagement, alienation, the constant restrain of "leave me alone" - the irony being, of course, that the song was actually a reflection of my state of mind at the point in time I revived. I'd been living with the Soundartist for nearly a year, and things were dragging badly.

Really, I just wanted to be left alone to carry on the sort of bohemian existence I'd scratched out. I'd burned out on my posh advertising job in the wake of the crash. My band had splintered under pressure and I wanted to be done with the music industry. All I really wanted was to be left alone to record my weird symphonies in my bedroom, and work a part time temp job to pay for the groceries.

The soundartist - although he was living almost exactly the same lifestyle (i.e. minus the temp job and plus a trust fund, a flat in Bloomsbury his mum had bought him and an Arts Council grant to cover his expenses) simply didn't think this was enough for me. He hounded me to "do something" with these songs I was recording, and not in a supportive way, either, but in a "you're worthless without a record contract" way. I responded by withdrawing further, moving my studio into the spare room and sleeping in there, instead of in our bedroom, between recording bouts.

He confessed to me later, in a sort of drunken moment, that it was because he was actually jealous. Despite having carved a career as a professional Sound Artist, music was not something that came naturally to him. It took him weeks to get anything out of the music generation software we had, and when he did, it was highly cerebral and required explanation. For me, it's always been completely effortless, writing catchy melodies. It's odd, how much time we spent being jealous of one another's talents - perhaps why artists should never have romantic relationships? He was jealous of my ability to pull something accessible and "pop" out of almost anything, while I was jealous of his ability to make abstract, intellectual, experimental... noise. I have always wanted to make unlistenably *weird* music, and have never succeeded.

He couldn't understand that for me, the joy of music was in *making* it, not in displaying it to others and getting cold hard cash for it. His relationship with Art, indeed, always seemed to me, to be purely commercial on a simple transactional level. Not that there's anything wrong with getting paid - but it was more like, he never did it for the simple joy of it, the play of it. If there wasn't cash or coverage to be had, he wasn't interested in making it.

The irony being, of course, within a year of his dumping me, I started Shimura Curves, and we had more ostensible Success (radio play, magazine coverage, being on the telly) than the Soundartist ever had or likely ever will.

I recorded this song before we broke up, rather than during the process. Listening back to it now, it's stunningly obvious what was going on, but I was oblivious at the time.



At 8:25 PM GMT, Blogger Alexa said...

Oh I should put this blog on my following list because I didn't know about it - I really like how this entry is like a chapter of a memoir, the intricate detail you put into this story really struck me. (I thought I was the only person who put my head against the wood / inside the case when playing piano!) I quite like the song too.

At 10:09 AM GMT, Blogger Kimberly Gibson said...

I think that supporting songwriters too is an important aspect of supporting the music industry as a whole. I recently read Learn Song Marketing From Book Authors and found it quite insightful.

At 5:49 AM GMT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always marvel at how full of shit you are. Do you truly believe this mythology you've created about yourself? You write fan fiction about yourself. Wow.


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