Friday, June 19, 2009

The Beats of Different Drummers

More proclamations from the Royal Wii.

There are various versions of the story about how the musical odyssey began at Chateau Keifus. Was it the failed attempt at violin lessons? The short-scale mandolin that Dad managed to foist off on us one day? C.'s kiddie music class? All of these things certainly happened six or seven years ago as parts of a sort of uneven group awakening, one of those creeping gestalt dealies after which we began to see ourselves as a musical family for some reason (and without much evidence). All of the variations are about equally true if we're looking to plot out the beginning of a chapter in the family saga, and with that in mind, I've got to go with the drum set as the beginning of it all.

I know that I've told this story before (to hipparchia if I recall), buried down some thread or other. My wife had been interested in playing drums for years, and so on her birthday--or maybe it was Mother's Day, or Valentine's, but you get the idea--and lacking funds to purchase a drum kit outright (and, I admit, anticipating certain outcomes enough to be cautious about a big investment), I rented out an unladen snare and purchased an instructional video for my sweetheart. Naturally enough, the video recommended a more complete arrangement, with at least a high-hat and a bass drum to occupy the other hand and the feet, and better to work on the basic backbeat pattern that will get you farthest when trying to fake American music. A couple of toms and a crash cymbal are also obviously necessary because they sound cool. A careful observer may note that my initial cash outlay contained none of these things, and rather than hurry back to the music shop, I instead thought it more romantic to cobble together various approximations of these devices. In the photo, the multipurpose cymbal is a trash can lid, painstakingly and lovingly mounted, and you bet that random plastic vessels made fine toms. I regret that my foot pedal, which never did leave the base of the trash can (because where else would the sound come from?), doesn't show up in the picture as well. It had already been removed with extreme prejudice, I guess. The experiment didn't work as a musical instrument, but all in all, I feel it was funny enough to make it worth it.

Playing pretend music better suits our talent level anyway. Fast-forwarding half a decade to my daughter's birthday, we had more disposable income than in the single-drum times (and wisely, we didn't rely exclusively on my personal version of thoughtfulness), and sprang for Rock Band 2, complete with USB mike, plastic Stratocaster, and, of course, drum pads. (We have also a tambourine, a real one, so that whoever's stuck fourth, can at least be a backup singer or just keep time.) My little angel--yes, that same thoughtful wee poet you may have met a few days ago--enjoys certain mildly inappropriate tunes (guilty!) and we'd been eyeing the game as a potential family outlet for awhile now. It took the timely coincidence of her duodecannual and the release of the AC/DC trackpack with her to put us all over the edge. [And it's another thing entirely to sing along with the printed karaoke, isn't it? MTV games (surely a bad sign) mutes the curses ("you can say 'poop' if you want to, dear"), but there's metric tons of suggestion in there, which is a lot more unnerving than a "shit" or two. I'm hardly sure I'm doing the right thing here, but I'm thinking it's a safe place to explore somewhat controversial ideas, and at twelve, you're starting to learn that your traitor body is discovering suggestions all its own, like a walking innuendo. Moreover, if the thought does take her to rebel, here's the stuff she'll be rejecting. The eight-year-old, meanwhile, remains happily clueless.] If you were thinking about purchasing the game, be aware that this post officially makes it not cool anymore.

Rock Band is immensely fun. It's as if that air guitar you carried around since you were twelve somehow acquired a kickass amp connected, and without actually learning how to do very much, you can sound like you've spent countless hours in your bedroom learning the basics and mastering every famous riff. Playing together as a group, you do get some sensation of feedback, or, if someone isn't keeping up their part, of collective failure. (And when the tambourine is off time, we really hear it.) We were all doing our living room rock moves before very long--it just felt natural. After the first week, we'd all stayed up past our bedtimes every single night, unlocking half the tour, and we shambled around during the day like zombies, night creatures out of our element, nursing the wounds we suffered in the name of our imitation art. Junior lost her voice for a while. My wife's shoulder and kick-pedal leg got sore. My damn finger went numb--the counterfeit guitar doesn't have nicely sanded and careworn surfaces a real one does, and the injection-molded neck evidently has been digging into the base of my fragile pointer, but the show must go on. It was fun to make rocker versions of ourselves too, to which the game gives the characters convincing band mannerisms, and the video bits synch up impressively with the music. I'm pretty sure I've caught the Keifus avatar lusting after the cartoon drummer.

My conclusion about drumming back then, incidentally, was that's it's fucking hard. Too many body parts acting completely independently--walking and chewing gum, but also waving, and being sure to count the cracks. It takes a certain type, I think. Out of all the ersatz equipment, Rock Band only pretends that the drum pads are anything approaching a real instrument, and there's a drum jam tool buried in there somewhere--might even work with old training DVD. I guess they have a sufficient number of things to hit at the appropriate moments, representing all of a basic kit. As for the guitar, it only has one "string," and since the fret buttons are only loosely associated with the notes the recorded guitarist is playing, there's no knowledge of music that will help you very much, and if your hand is in the wrong position there's no immediate feedback (wrong note), even if it's obvious you're doing something that's not right (no sound at all). On the easier settings the sham guitar is pretty pointless beyond informing you a little of the fundamental shape of a song. On the harder settings (or at least on the harder settings on the easier songs), you fret most of the notes that are played, and if you're willing to suspend disbelief, you can almost convince yourself that those great sounds are coming from you. Which rules.

My imaginary music playing is cutting into my actual music playing time. (And much as I love the thing, a mandolin doesn't substitute a good electric guitar. It's like when you just want a good burger, already.) When I get my reduced time on the little mando, I surprise myself to find that I'm not any worse for the lack of practice. Even if my pretend guitar playing is meaningless pitch-wise, it does force me to keep a good rhythm, which hasn't ever been my strong point, which is something of a problem when you're playing a rhythm instrument. As for the quasi-fretted notes, I have the same issues, actually. Poor accuracy, and there's a speed threshold I can't generally surpass. I have never been able to gradually ramp it up to sneak my way into a faster tempo. At some bpm, my fingers just go from "adept" to "flail."

Since C. is summoning me to play, I need to wrap this up, and indeed, here's where I originally intended to end it, but I learned this morning that they have published an expansion pack of a certain Canadian progressive rock trio (shut up! that's why!). Which is badass. I figure I have to do better at it than these guys:


artandsoul said...

My kids play Rock Band too -- until the wee (or is it Wii) hours of the morning.

Some of the funniest stuff are the pictures they take of themselves rocking out to the Wii music.

Rather hilarious, and makes me love Wii. Worth every penny.

Sorry I've been neglectful of blog stalking! Road-tripping is exhausting!

Keifus said...

I love the idea of videotaping our rock moves. That's brilliant.

(I'm neglectful now too, incidentlally. On vacay, but at least I have time to read books now. I'd hate for anyone who comes across my nonsense to think of it as an obligation.)

artandsoul said...

As for books have you read "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell?

I'm 1/4 of the way in, hubby is nearly done ... we're both gripped. It is excellent!