Category Image Dream Theater Songwriting Contest 


3:49:45 p.m. -- At this moment I am listening to "SoC" by a group called NuClear Dawn. This track is one of about 20 I've collected in the last couple of days, all with titles similar to "S.O.C," and all of which are entries in a songwriting contest put together by the band Dream Theater (contest closed a few days ago, so don't worry scraping together a 10-11 minute instrumental and sending it in).

When the contest was announced a few months ago, I instantly thought it was perhaps the coolest thing ever. The contest rules will give you an idea of why I thought it so great: In the course of writing a song for its upcoming album, Train of Thought, Dream Theater asked fans to write a song based on the formal skeleton of one of the Train of Thought songs, "Stream of Consciousness" (the "Stream of Consciousness" title was not public knowledge at the time the contest began, hence all the "S.O.C" titles). All that was given was a photograph of a small whiteboard with the title "SOC" and a list of the song sections in their unofficial names such as "Eb EVIL DIMEOLA," "BEATLES G# to E," or "CRIMSON SETUP (drum bass)." Many bands write out song sections in this way during composition, and these titles are meant to serve as quick verbal shorthand for specific musical parts. Also given to the eager entrants were keyboardist Jordan Rudess' MIDI sequencer charts detailing the section tempos and the exact measure length for every section (and therefore the entire song). Finally, the band supplied another image summarizing the measure-by-measure listing as the series of sections. And with nothing else save for a note that the song wouldn't have lyrics, the interpretive fun began.

Wow. This contest is a semiotician's dream. Regardless of who "wins" (the prizes are actually kind of cheap -- free tickets to a Dream Theater show and so on) the possibilities realized by the entrants have so much to say about the relationship between music, language, genre, style, etc. As someone who's written songs with a band and used the kind of verbal shorthand that's at the center of this contest, I know how wide open meaning can be when "outsiders" encounter the shorthand. The shorthand itself is an interesting phenomenon: one on hand it's minimal verbal language for describing complex musical sound, on the other hand it's hardly transparent to those outside the compositional process. In other words, Dream Theater wrote a riff that was only later labeled "CRIMSON." Not only does CRIMSON not tell us much of anything, it's not at all useful to anyone but Dream Theater.

And that's what makes the contest so interesting. How might the word CRIMSON be interpreted by the entrants? When I first saw it I thought of "Crimson Sunrise," the name of a section of DT's lengthy "A Change of Seasons." Then I thought it perhaps referred to a section that sounded like it could have been written by the band King Crimson. In both cases language needs to be translated into the complex components of music (texture, pitch, rhythm, instrumentation, timbre, etc.), but in neither case is anything certain. In fact, if one interprets CRIMSON as a reference to King Crimson, the next interpretive question has to be which King Crimson? The mid-1970s strangeness of Red, Larks Tongue, and Starless? Or the minimalism of Discipline? Or something else entirely?

And this situation is even more interesting when you consider the sections labeled with some variation of "BEATLES." So far, these sections have proved to be very difficult for the entrants to get through. By this I mean that the interpretations of BEATLES have usually ended up as much softer, less virtuosic, and far less intense than the surrounding sections. Also, according to the MIDI charts the BEATLES sections are to be played at a much slower tempo than the other sections of the song, thus making their arrivals all the more jarring. Specifically, it's been interesting hearing how the word BEATLES has generally meant diatonic chords, strummed. In one clever case ("Read the Meater") the entrant sang "ooh-la-la-la" over the chord changes, but that's so far been the only significant deviation from the "stummed chords, no distortion == BEATLES" approach. Surrounding the BEATLES section is pretty impressive (so far) progressive metal: odd time signatures, virtuosic soloing, and ensemble precision.

The only thing remaining to be heard is Dream Theater's own interpretation of the words BEATLES, CRIMSON, as well as all of the other titles. Train of Thought is due out in a couple of weeks, so we'll see what happens. The immediate question that I'll have relates to the authority of the "author." Dream Theater's interpretation of the section titles will be just that: interpretations, and the 20-odd fans who also spent hours and hours creating their own interpretations of those titles cannot be said to have been "wrong" once Dream Theater's version is released (of course, the point of the contest was not to be "right"). Still, if Dream Theater really wanted to cede authorial control over the song "Stream of Consciousness," they'd compile the contest entries and include them with the Train of Thought CD.

I'll write back when the album comes out... 

Posted: Monday - October 20, 3 at 03:11 PM