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Explicating “Exegesis”

Topical Then, Relevant Now … or is it?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

– (generally attributed to) Edmund Burke


Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξήγησις from ἐξηγεῖσθαι ‘to lead out’) is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text.

Quicksilver Night’s 2015 album Reliquary touched upon several subjects that might seem atypical, depending on your personal listening proclivities, and the song “Exegesis” is an example of one such. In general terms the song “Exegesis” is a broad message of warning at our societal predisposition to manipulate the props on the geopolitical stage with all of the attendant jingoism and scapegoating that energizes the process. History plainly shows where this often leads yet we blithely move ahead, unwilling or unable to discern the likely consequences of our meddling.

The first verse speaks to the process by which we look the other way as our civil liberties erode under the steadily rushing stream of “national security” and we compromise our societal values in service to some titular “patriotism”.

So expedient, slowly deviant…
Though subordinate, we all compromise…
Inarticulate, we still recognize
shadows rising…

The second verse refers to the unforeseen consequences of imperialistic meddling with sociopolitical dynamics in an environment where fanatical religious fundamentalism and/or deeply ingrained ethnic and sectarian resentments were suddenly liberated after simmering under decades of systemic oppression. To those unfamiliar with history it might seem that I was solely referring here to the rise of the nominal Islamic State but it goes far beyond that to encompass any number of historic events that can be characterized as having been thusly catalyzed.  For the record here, the Latin Hic sunt dracones (literally “here there are dragons”) is the warning on medieval maps about unknown dangers in an uncharted territory.

Protest innocence, ghosts of ignorance…
Bread on depths obscured, what do we dare bait?
Sinking unobserved, Hic sunt dracones
Pearls cast to swine…

Historically a scapegoat is an animal that would be symbolically burdened with of sins a community and driven away into the wilderness, carrying those transgressions away with it. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Latin for “Who watches the watchmen?” or, perhaps better, “Who guards the guards themselves?” – is indeed the long-standing admonition to be wary of those in positions of unrestrained power.

So vicarious, martyred surrogates…
Drive the goat away (Quis custodiet…)
Blind, the sheep remain (ipsos custodes?)
Bleating the lines…

Marching in time…
Soft chime the bells…
Straight into hell…

I felt a strong desire to add some sort of summarizing paragraph but I sort of think what I’ve already presented here stands on its own and if it doesn’t then, rhetorically, what more could I possibly add anyway?

…except perhaps look around you and consider whether or not it might be happening now.

Non-Musical Elements in Song Production

The Word of the Day is “Ambience” 🙂

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was perhaps the seventh or eighth album I’d ever gotten in my young life (long ago, yes) and had a huge impact on the way I listened to music and my understanding of what popular music could be in terms of content and production. An element of this that I’d long ago internalized was the use of spoken voices and ambient sounds to enhance the message of the music whether this noise is beneath the music, almost subliminal, or if it is prominent enough to obscure the music itself. There are other albums in the Pink Floyd discography that I could use as a reference here – as well as numerous other artists that also have used these techniques to great effect – but I refer here specifically to Pink Floyd primarily because Dark Side of the Moon laid the conceptual foundation in my head and also because I imagine that the music of Pink Floyd is familiar to most people and the best possible touchstone for this blog entry.  I once saw a snippet of video documentary in which Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour said something about how his band mate Roger Waters would not hesitate bury a musical moment underneath factory noises and the like if he thought it served the song.  It has stuck with me ever since.

I’d be a fool to try and deny the Pink Floyd influences across my catalog as Quicksilver Night because it’s self-evident throughout much of it but I think it’s doubly apparent when it comes to the song “Homecoming” from the Presque Vu mini EP. If you listen you’ll likely be struck by an overall gospel-like quality to its main themes – and I hope this is the case because it was intentional – but there comes a point when the tonality shifts to B minor (around 2:39) and the song assumes a deeper melancholy as the plaintive piano sounds while the pastor intones gentle words of hope and comfort. These words and the solo piano are soon overtaken by powerful chording and an insistent solo guitar that fairly drowns out everything else. As composer and producer I meant for a guitar solo – as it is wonderfully played here by Jason Cale – to evoke the sense of mental cacophony that obliterates all the sympathies and words of condolence that are heaped upon us at such times. The first verse lyrically touches upon that same thought; if you’ve ever sat numbly at a memorial service while well-intentioned people offered you half-heard words of consolation then you know exactly what I mean.

Rain whispers softly graveside, mute and yet unrelenting
(Echoes in your head, meaningless and so confused)
And you hear the words spoken from a page (makes no sense at all…)
Lines from an actor on the stage, curtains fall…

Stand in the open doorway; breathe of the dust and shadow
(And then say good bye to the ghosts that fill this room)
With your hand on the lines that marked you grow (turn and walk away…)
Mind on a child you used to know, yesterday…

Paint spatters on the carpet, free by a careless brushstroke
(Searching for a sign of what lies hidden here)
Like new skin covering those old dead scars (layered, buried deep…)
Thin, and you know just where they are, underneath…

As an aside I’d like to add that an acquaintance of mine experienced the loss of a loved one contemporaneously to his hearing this song and it resonated with him enough so that he played it on his podcast and quoted the lyrics with a catch in his throat. I’m still not quite sure how to feel about that; I was unaware of the timing and feel somewhat badly about it in spite of his assurances that no harm was done. Still, admittedly, it seems to me that there’s universality to the experience that I hope I’ve tapped into as a songwriter.

If you’re interested in perhaps checking out other such instances throughout the Quicksilver Night catalog then here’s a list of most (I likely missed something, TBH):

Symmetry (2018)
“The Symmetry Overture” (track 1): children at play
“Quicksilver Night” (track 3): a Sudanese camel market
“The Ship of Theseus” (track 4): waves and wheeling gulls
“Child of Spring” (track 8): ticking clocks

“Exeunt” (single, 2016): traffic

Reliquary (2015)
“Ultima Forsan” (track 1): ticking clocks
“Sojourner” (track 3): footsteps
“Exegesis” (track 4):  rain, distant thunder, church bell, sheep, & birds

Lucent (mini EP, 2012)
“Again the Cusp” (track 3): desolate winds

Some are more original than others, admittedly, while some are almost de rigueur in progressive rock (e.g. a ticking clock to evoke the passage of time, etc.)

A Mid-2019 Update of All Things Quicksilver Night

You know, “Latest News” and all that… 🙂

The “Presque Vu” mini EP is approaching 80K cumulative streams on Spotify but the curve of that approach has largely flattened; it might well hit 100k by the end of the year but unless something else happens to goad things between now and then I don’t expect much more from it as I turn my attentions more fully to the “Asymptote” album.  I intend to submit “October Skies” to Sirius XM for consideration in July but have no expectations in that regard. (Addendum 6/28/2019: I just discovered that Sirius XM bought Pandora, completing the acquisition in February of this year, so I am not sure it makes any sense for me to submit the music separately. I need to do some additional research on the subject. – wcr)

We will record an unplugged version of “October Skies” in July, a version that not only will be based on acoustic guitar but will also feature flute and a traditional Irish drum (bodhrán). For several reasons, some of them administrative, I plan to release this recording as “Meagan Finning” rather than “Quicksilver Night” and we intend to record a performance video to accompany this version of the song as well. I am excited to see how this might develop.  As a footnote here let me remind you that we also might well see an Americana/bluegrass version of “October Skies” from regional favorites the Brackish Water Jamboree this summer.

I’ve been looking into various musical licensing services such as Taxi (https://www.taxi.com) and am thinking of going that route. I’ve read conflicting accounts as to their efficacy and several customer reviews of both Taxi and numerous others but nobody seems to agree on any of these kinds of services so it looks like I’ll just have to pull that trigger and see what happens. Such seems to be the story of my life, doesn’t it? Offhand I think I have two or three vocally-driven songs that might lend themselves well to being included in a movie and a several instrumentals that might work for advertisements or videogames but I’ll never know if I don’t put my foot in the door first, will I?

The “Asymptote” album is shaping up nicely but I’ve decided to change my approach a little; instead of me working on an entire album at once and having all (currently) twelve tracks in varying stages of completion I’m going to try and finish a few at a time before moving on to the next batch. I don’t know if this shift in focus will help me keep things moving more quickly overall but hopefully it will help me achieve a balance between inspiration and burnout on these songs individually. With this in mind I hope to have the final premaster mixes of four of these in the “done” column by September. For the record these are “Mister Wizard” (Jason Cale); “Power Curve” (Jason Cale); “Trompe L’Coeur” (Nazim Chambi); and “Hephaestus the Cuckold” (Farzad Golpayegani).  I already also have the next batch after those mentally “on deck” but there’s no reason to share those here and now.

Things are moving forward just as they should be and I am content. Let’s hope that I didn’t just jinx that. 🙂

Personal Meaning in Lyrics

… A little bit about the songs “Symmetry” & “October Skies” by way of example.

I sometimes write poetry but it seldom lends itself well as lyrical verse. When I am inspired to write lyrics, however, my process usually leads me to superimpose words over a previously composed melody, sort of like poetry but constrained to fit that pre-existing melody. I’m sure most lyricists do this to some degree or another but I admittedly often do this at an operatic level; in effect I write a lot of instrumental music and sometimes I’ll hear the melody as being performed by a human voice and it’s not uncommon for me to write lyrics with melodies that harmonize with other instruments or even echoes of themselves.

But here’s something that people don’t often seem to notice: my lyrics are often personal, sometimes deeply so. This is probably masked by that fact that I’m not the one singing them and perhaps they’re also obscured by use of metaphor. Let me use “Symmetry” by way of example.  “Symmetry” is what it seems to be at first brush – three discrete voices all sung by the same person, oddly overlapping – but it’s more than that. Sometimes these voices reinforce each other and other times they seem to conflict or even contradict one another. This is because they’re all internalized voices inside the same man’s skull, mine. I’d once replied in an interview that “I was going through a very rough patch in my life at the time” when I first began writing it (around 2000) but that doesn’t begin to encompass the array of health-related, marital, and career issues I was then facing and all of it on the heels of a couple of deaths in the family. I wrote “Symmetry” based on this feeling of ‘I need to face this squarely and I will somehow get through it.’ The song is representative of a head full of doubts, self-recrimination, and yet somehow reassurances all ricocheting around in the same skull. Let’s take a look at these lyrics again and listen now that you know those internal voices are all me trying  to come to terms with a seemingly-unraveling life, now that you know the pronoun ‘you’ in this song is me talking to myself:

“Symmetry”

Cast aside, a sacrifice
You redeemed your pride at such a price to pay
Remembrance in cold rain of a lifetime away
Ancient and bloodstained, a two-sided blade…
I can’t breathe!

Doubts that assail you at every turn
Echoes of failed youth and lessons unlearned yet today
Enduring the old pain, a dream’s promise unclaimed
Naked and unchained, a child again…
I can’t breathe!

Face the darkest night, a man alone, staring into the pyre (I can’t breathe!)
Burning bright, coming home, walking into the fire (I can’t breathe!)
There must be symmetry…

Small comfort in shadows and no peace in the light
In a world without heroes to continue the fight undismayed
Have you forgiven your own naïveté?
And cruel Fate that has dealt you a hand you’ve misplayed?
I can’t dream!

Gently wreathe your head, sins atoned, within a shroud of delusion (I can’t dream!)
Leave the dead, carved in stone, to find their own solutions (I can’t dream!)
There must be symmetry…

I’ve publicly stated several times that the song “October Skies” is about the sense of home as a place where my bones seem to resonate with the landscape. I wrote it to describe my distant childhood home in the Allegheny foothills, the overwhelming feeling of belonging there when I visit and the absolute surety that I will return someday for good. That’s very much true but it’s not quite the entire story.  I’ve done my best to put into words how deeply connected I feel to that area when I’m there, a resonance in my bones, but I always feel as though those words fall short of the mark. A few months back I went to the village graveyard in my hometown to pay my respects at the grave of a recently-deceased uncle (my father’s brother) and the nearby grave of my own brother. I wandered a bit and found myself standing at the foot of much older cenotaph still clearly marked “Warren Russell” – my grandfather’s grandfather – and the weight of our family history in that place was palpable to me. “October Skies” on the surface seems to be about this deep connection I feel to the landscape but it goes beyond that. My second wife Renée, although she has no real connection to those Allegheny foothills beyond her relationship with me, is the truest love of my life but is fourteen years younger than I. The recurring line “Although so far away I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay … but please know before I go, my dear, I love you ever more” speaks of my inevitable death and the fact that I’ll likely leave her behind to live for decades longer after I depart this world but that I love her like no other. There’s emotional pain but also beauty in that thought.

For those that might wonder why I chose Meagan to sing it rather than a male it is quite simply that I felt that her beautiful voice fit the subject matter. The song isn’t gender-specific.

“October Skies”

The foothills of my home sing clear, calling to my bones…
Fields of darkened loam lie there, waiting for the snows…
And although so far away, I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay…
But please know before I go, my dear, I love you ever more…

The hillsides burn so bright, they stay, dancing in my eyes…
Lurid autumn light, gold flames coloring the sky…
And although so far away, I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay…
Sure as coldest winter nights give way to warm days in due time…           

The pine and hardwood stands, above, looking down below
Running through my hands, the blood of the river flows
And although so far away, I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay…
But please know before I go, my dear, I love you ever more…

I love you, ever more…

The top picture hints at the autumn landscape of which I speak in “October Skies”. This picture was taken at Allegheny State Park; I don’t know when or by whom or I’d credit it accordingly. I found it on the ASP facebook page a few years ago and downloaded a copy. I haven’t doctored the colors or contrast at all and although I can’t speak for the original I can honestly say it often looks just like this. In fact this picture doesn’t really do it justice; sometimes it’s absolutely breathtaking.

Songwriter First, Guitarist Second

Good Music Transcends Genre

Bottom line upfront: “Cool! Another Band is finally going to cover my music!”

I’m sitting here looking at the nearly 80K Spotify streams of the “Presque Vu” mini EP since its release 28 days ago and reflecting on just how little that actually means in one respect but how cool it is in another. We’re looking at producing a video for the EP’s second track “October Skies” and I’m still pursuing other opportunities for the songs on the EP but I have to admit a large part of my mind is already fully engaged in thinking about the next album project. Still…

My official job description for most of my twenty three years in the US Army was Guitar Player. Sure, I did a lot more than that (I could tell you stories) but at the core of things my job was Guitar Player. I was a fair enough hand with it but I wasn’t comfortable in describing my own playing as anything beyond “adequate” or “competent”; it wasn’t false humility on my part because I worked directly with a lot of people that were better at it than I on almost every appreciable level. (I still do, in fact.) My strength – my passion, actually – lay in my ability to compose and to arrange music for ensemble work. I truly began to identify myself as a composer/arranger first and a guitar player second throughout the second half of my career even as I began slowly building a catalog of my original works.

I joined ASCAP as a publisher member in 2002, a few years after I signed up as a songwriter, and I began looking heavily into copyrights and royalties and things of that nature because I’d decided I was going to record my original music with the intention of shopping it around to other bands. Following deployment/re-deployment and a series of health issues I finally ended up recording nine songs in 2007 using local singers to record my lyrics over my music and it was satisfactory for its intended purpose as a demo recording. (You might be interested to note that this demo contained the song “Presque Vu” now part of my 2019 mini EP of the same name and “Invocation” from my 2018 CD “Symmetry” as well as a pair of others that will see new life on an upcoming album project of mine.)

I was unable to garner any interest in anyone recording my music at the time and quickly realized that I needed to do it myself and so, long story short, I began networking with guitarists and singers and slowly cobbling together a catalog as “Quicksilver Night” along the way. Remember MySpace? It seems quaint now but I managed to establish a few long-term musical relationships there. Milt Gore is one of several that immediately comes to mind with our collaborative “Mönster” in 2011; in a nutshell my message to him was basically “Hey I wrote this music and here’s the written melody and a demo recording; could you double and ornament the melody and then solo your ass off where I wrote virgules?” and his reply was essentially “Sure, why not?” There’s more that story and more similar stories but I think you get the gist of things.

Now here it is 2019 and I have currently have 29 songs commercially-available as Quicksilver Night plus twelve more with various other groups but I’d still yet to get another band to perform my original music … until now. I’ve said it often enough, “good songwriting transcends genre” and I have reached out to Paul Bidanset of local bluegrass favorites Brackish Water Jamboree. (Grab a look and a listen here http://brackishwaterjamboree.com) Paul and I are currently in talks about them performing and perhaps recording their own version of “October Skies”; he’s amenable to the idea and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I greatly look forward to hearing their treatment of the song sometime soon. I will provide additional updates as they become available.