Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bonobos Wonder LilyPond

I'd like to walk you through the the process whereby I came to grok in fullness one of the songs in the Bonobos Convergence repitoire. The song is called Wonder and it begins with an up-Latin feel in A minor. The melody line in this section is a series of increasingly more complex runs. The last one being truly insane.

wonder-run.mp3 (1.31MB)

The initial thing was to make sure I had all of the notes down, and Pete and I had several emails back-and-forth to make sure that we were both playing the same thing. After we got that worked out I spent an hour or two figuring out the best position on the fretboard to play it and then practicing it against the recording.

One of the things I really like about playing in this trio (and in Yeti for that matter) is that everyone reads music. So, if you have a question or problem, or need to clarify something, we don't need to spend half an hour trying to explain it - we can just write it down and all questions are answered. Personally, I have always felt that the best way to really learn the ins and outs of a piece of music is to transcribe it. Until very recently, I was using Cakewalk to do all my transcriptions, but it wasn't up to the task this time. I couldn't get the metric information correct. So I tried the free version of Finale. It was better but still not everything I needed.

Happily, I discovered an open source music engraving program called LilyPond. This has been one of the best finds ever. This program is capable of doing just about anything with music you can think of. The one and only downside is that there is no point-and-click interface for the program. LilyPond accepts a specially formatted text file containing a description of the music to be engraved, and can output in a number of formats, including PDF, PNG, and PostScript. For example, the following input:

\score { \layout {raggedright = ##t} \relative c'{c4 d e f g a b c} }

results in the following output:

So, not exactly intuitive, but very powerful. If you have ever done any programming or even HTML, it won't take you long to get the hang of the input language. Within a week I was creating percussion staves, tablature, nested tuplets, and all manner of stuff which would have been impossible in Cakewalk or Finale Notepad.

Now, back to our story. The trick is, I wanted to transpose this tricky run in Wonder. Once I got the power to do the transcription exactly the way it should be, I discovered that there are subtle rhythmic differences in the runs, even though the notes are the same. The one that is played prior to the drum break has the six accent notes played on a rhythm of 2 dotted 8th and an 8th, like this:

while the rhythm after the drum break (the big ornate one) is accented against quarter note triplets, like this:

Armed with this, I could then appropriately transcribe both parts. Here are the results in standard notation and tab. I also included the rhythmic cues so you can see how the groupings are arranged in time. (click for larger versions)

(pre-break version)

(post-break version)

Now some notes on performance. If you look at the tab, you'll see that the run starts on the 16th fret of the E string and proceeds downward to 8th fret. That's quite a stretch. I've found that if you tap the initial G# with the right hand, then play the F E D with the ring, middle, index fingers, you are nicely positioned to start the next group of 4 notes by playing the F E D C with ring, middle, index, then slide the index back 2 frets to the C. The rest of the run can be handled easily from that position.

By the way, this makes a great exercise in left-hand, right-hand coordination. In performances, the tempo is about 144 bpm.



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