Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

“Virtual Bliss” and its Double

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“Virtual Bliss” and its Double

The Dub
It’s interesting to think about the relationship of a song to its dub. I discovered this relationship through listening to Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey and Garvey’s Ghost and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s dubs of many classic reggae songs. Because I was a member of reggae’s white, middle-class audience, I was immediately drawn to the spiritual and political songs and sought them out. Later, I discovered dubs of all those songs and my ongoing fascination was born. It led me to Augustus Pablo, King Tubby, Scientist, Linton Kwesi Johnson and The Dub Band—and on and on. The best explanation of dub is to experience it.

One of my earliest and best experiences of dub was listening to Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Super Ape. All of the dubs are also classic reggae songs—the great body of work of “King Scratchy.” The shift in consciousness that comes through dub took me deeper into the cultural and economic roots of reggae. Like many white middle-class fans, I had discovered reggae and Rastafarianism through the classic spiritual and political music of Bob Marley and others who came to light in Marley’s wake. Dub was different—more abstract, more intellectual, more adventurous—and more challenging to my ear and to my assumptions about the world.

Super Ape expanded my thinking about the possibilities of sound and meaning.

Short History of Dub

The Song
The song emerged from a dream. I was in a hot, noisy hotel room in Lausanne, and hadn’t slept for several nights. When I did sleep, I had a vivid dream. It stuck with me like a shadow for several days. I wrote it into a song and The Karma Refugees recorded it in 2010.

Virtual Bliss (Opitz)
I wanted you yesterday and I want you more today.
It’s a garden of earthly pleasures; won’t you come out and play?
I dreamed you were my inspiration; bold lovers on a midnight ride.
Dreams like this—shadows and mist—dreams that don’t abide.

I dreamed of you yesterday (whoever you might be)
In an earthly paradise where we are free to be free.
But now most of all I miss your kiss and your eyes flashing through the storm.
Dreams like this—Virtual Bliss—clothes that were never worn.

And I dreamed you were my inspiration; bold lovers on a midnight ride.
Dreams like this– ….. …. Iiiii.

Musicians – The Karma Refugees
Song writing, guitars, vocals, production – Mike
Bass, production – Tom
Vocals, production – Kathee
Keyboards – Caitlin

I placed our recording of the song in the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (2013), after remixing the tracks last fall. Even though I liked the song and thought it worked as an element in Dreams and Visions, I thought it lacked something and I forgot about it.

While looking through old files of recordings we had made, I discovered a dub Tom had made of “Virtual Bliss”—an experiment and a forgotten file. This dub serves as the core of this version and also as the inspiration to revisit the song. Just as the discovery of dub expanded my view of the world, so this dub expanded my view of the song. I put the dub and the song together. Caitlin recorded an inspired keyboard line that weaves the song and dub together. Now, for me, the song feels like it has finally emerged.

Shadows and Mist

One thing about metaphoric thought is that the connection goes in both directions. Is a dub the shadow of a song or a song the shadow of a dub? What is the connection between experience and memory or Marcus Garvey and Garvey’s Ghost? Between language and fragments of sound?

The Karma Refugees: Mini Concert

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Karma Refugees Caitlin Brutger and Mike Opitz perform an intimate three song set live in their home studio, The Maltshop. Here they perform three songs from their recent virtual album, Dreams and Visions (2013—available on this website). The video was shot and produced by Adam Konczewski.

Different Lifetime

Murakami Moon

Summer and a Dream

Notes on the writing of “Streets (One Way)” Dreams and Visions

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Notes on the writing of “Streets (One Way)” Dreams and Visions, song 1

One of the aims of this site is to produce songs that are linked to theory that can provide insights into the glut of junk the contemporary consumer world has made for us, and of us.  In that sense, the work of Walter Benjamin provides lucid ideas about the production and distribution of cultural work in the post-modern world.  This work is inspired by Benjamin’s work.

The first two songs of the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (The Karma Refugees, 2013) are explorations of Benjamin’s life and work.  The first is loosely based on my experience of reading One Way Street—an experience that is hard to summarize.  I have favorite sections like “To the Planetarium,” or “Caution: Steps,” which says, “Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven” (Benjamin, One Way Street in Reflections 77).  These words serve as a good description of making the songs posted here.  I write a simple folk song for one voice and one guitar.  Tom, Kathee, Caitlin, and many other wonderful, creative people who have collaborated with us over the years, transform the song and build it into a multiple track recording—each track created by the person who records it.  After the tracks are recorded, the long hours of producing a mix of the song by weaving all the multiple tracks and myriad sounds together make a posted song—a bit of cultural material.

The experience of reading One Way Street is like being lost in a city.  Once you find your way—once you start to get it—you feel a certain kind of elation.  Benjamin gives you some sign-posts along the way and you start to navigate.  The song is a metaphoric query about how we navigate through these ruins.  These links provide further details about Benjamin’s life and work–details which provide the sign-posts to the making of these first two songs.

Streets

The first two songs of the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (The Karma Refugees, 2013) are explorations of Benjamin’s life and work. The first is loosely based on my experience of reading One Way Street—an experience that is hard to summarize. I have favorite sections like “To the Planetarium,” or “Caution: Steps,” which says, “Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven” (Benjamin, One Way Street in Reflections 77). These words serve as a good description of making the songs posted here. I write a simple folk song for one voice and one guitar. Tom, Kathee, Caitlin, and many other wonderful, creative people who have collaborated with us over the years, transform the song and build it into a multiple track recording—each track created by the person who records it. After the tracks are recorded, the long hours of producing a mix of the song by weaving all the multiple tracks and myriad sounds together make a posted song—a bit of cultural material.

The experience of reading One Way Street is like being lost in a city. Once you find your way—once you start to get it—you feel a certain kind of elation. Benjamin gives you some sign-posts along the way and you start to navigate. The song is a metaphoric query about how we navigate through these ruins. These links provide further details about Benjamin’s life and work–details which provide the sign-posts to the making of these first two songs.

Film One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin

One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin from dhurjati bhattacharyya on Vimeo.

Brief glossary of Benjamin terms
Walter Benjamin Glossari

Article by JM Coetzee,–critical overview and summary of Benjamin’s work
History of W. Benjamin’s Work

Notes on the writing of “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin),” Dreams and Visions

1.In his classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that the base changes far more rapidly than the superstructure. Following this thought, he notes that history breaks down into images and fragments, not stories. In “The Storyteller” he argues that storytelling is passing from the post-modern world. He writes:

One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness. Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible. With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body. (83-84)

The conditions of life under post-modern forces of production have made storytelling fade into the background. Benjamin continues:

The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing. (86-87)

As the story—a remnant of an aging superstructure– fades in relevance, its counterpart in the age of technological reproduction—information– rises in prominence. Our senses are bombarded with information. Yet information does not contain counsel or wisdom. It comes to us in fragments and fragmentary images.

2.In late July of 2011, a group of musicians who call themselves “The Karma Refugees” gathered at my house for our annual recording session.  The 8-10 day session also involves a lot of jamming as we evolve new songs to record.  This year, the first song we addressed was originally entitled “Suitcases.”  Then it changed its name to “Benjamin,” and finally became known as “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin).”  While this song emerges out of a deep structure of reading a large amount of Benjamin’s work, it centers on an image.  The image is that of a suitcase.  This image gives rise to other images—guarded borders, travellers, an ominous gathering storm, and “the tiny fragile human body.”

I think that Benjamin is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.  His multi-faceted work provides a complex and nuanced mapping of life under the conditions of late commodity capitalism.  In September of 1940, he travelled with a group of refugees to the border town of Portbou on the border between France and Spain.  As a German Jew, he knew the fate that awaited him had he been captured by pursuing Nazi agents.  The passage was difficult and Benjamin’s heart condition made the journey especially hard.  According to his guide, Lisa Fittko, he refused to abandon a heavy suitcase.  She reported that he told her it contained a manuscript that he very much wanted to protect.  When the border was closed, and the party was informed that they would be arrested the following day, Benjamin took morphine and committed suicide.

No one knows what happened to the suitcase.  Many have speculated that a final draft of The Arcades, Benjamin’s life-long project, made up the contents of the mysterious suitcase.  This sad story collapses into a central image—that of a refugee carrying a suitcase which potentially contains one’s life’s work.  The image gives rise to a speculation grown ripe throughout history; how does the control of boundaries and borders stop masterpieces from circulating and becoming known?  What if a masterpiece is incomplete?  What happens to unfinished lives or works?

Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)

3.The flash of image that initiates the song “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)” is this suitcase—possibly containing the work of a lifetime.  Beginning with the image of a mysterious lost suitcase, the fragmentary narrative of the song expands into other images—patrolled and closed borders, boundaries that cannot be crossed, refugees fleeing horrible death camps and the ultimate impossibility of escape.  Thrown into this conflagration of events, “all the knowledge in the universe”—the work of a lifetime—isn’t enough.  Refugees are caught “in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions,” and their possessions are lost.

The melody of the song and the chord progression was intended for a different song.  Tom Daddesio noted on the first morning of our recording session, that we had a good melody and chord progression.  His idea was to return to an old chord progression and try new words.  We played the song several times and recorded a first take with vocals, guitar and bass.  While I worked on refining the words, Tom searched the Mixcraft loop library for a good drum loop.

We had a recorded version—a first vocal track called a “guide track”—meaning that it will ultimately be erased but in early recordings serves to guide the other parts of the song.  We had a drum track, and bass.  When Kathee arrived later in the evening, we had a good start on the song-writing process.

The next step was to hang out and play live music.  Around midnight, we turned on the microphone and recorded a live version with K on vocals.  This step was important as she tried out vocal ideas and made creative choices.

The next day, Kathee spent several hours recording her lead vocals and harmony tracks.  That afternoon, Norb Jost—former saxophone player on The 1 Drop album, added harmonica tracks to the song.  Later in the evening, Caitlin Brutger added keyboard tracks, and I added some guitar tracks.  We had a song with four keyboard tracks (chords and melody), five guitar tracks, four vocal tracks, bass, drum loops and two harmonica tracks.  The following Saturday, Anna Wigtil—one of the video artists who shot the podcast—added three violin tracks to the song.  At the end of the week, we had a song of 18 tracks.  After he returned to Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, Tom discovered a Celtic drum beat that sounds like a heart-beat in the song.  We added that beat well after the other tracks were recorded.

All of these tracks are part of the composition process.  They illustrate the point that each contributor “authored” various verbal or sonic aspects of the song.  In this way, the “writing” of a song expands to fill the medium of technologically reproduced works of art.  The concept of a solitary writer making a finished work is the product of an older superstructure built upon a base that has already changed.  Foucault’s question, “What is an Author?” reveals it’s meaning in this process.  In this case, the author function happens through collaboration on multiple levels.

The final step in making “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)” happened over many nights of listening and mixing the 20 or so recorded tracks.  The sounds can be blended and altered in countless ways to give a final recorded song.  I did this mixing for about a week—working several hours each night—sometimes making very small alterations in the recorded sound—sometimes cutting a track completely or using it for a part of the song.  This process produced the mix that is posted on this website.  However, the point here is that I (or anyone else with access to the tracks) could add, change or subtract material from the song at any time.  This makes my final point.  In the age of technological reproducibility, the concept of a “finished” work is called into question.  A recorded song may be mixed into a stereo song—but as long as the tracks still exist, that production is never final.

Here again, Benjamin’s suitcase comes to mind.  Literary theorist, Susan Buck-Morss argues that Benjamin never would have finished his Arcades Project.  The post-modern world of commodity fetishisms assaults our senses with a constant parade of fragmentary products and shards of information.  One of Benjamin’s subtitles for The Arcades was “a dialectical fairyland.”  The idea of a finished work of “genius”—a “masterpiece” seems lost in this world.  Our best hope under this regime of truth is not the finished work, but the constantly evolving project.

This webpage is such a project.

My Grandmother and the “Bandit”: Two Songs About Marietta Marcolini

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My Grandmother and the “Bandit”: Two Songs About Marietta Marcolini
My grandmother, Marietta Marcolini, was born in rural northern Italy and came to New York as a very young, naïve woman. She came for an arranged marriage to a much older man, who soon died and left her a single mother. Thus began her descent into America—a place where she never felt welcome or at home. I think the greatest sadness of her life was that she was never financially able to return to Italy for a visit—as she said it—“To see my mama, again.” When I was a child, I sat at her feet holding skeins of yarn while she rolled it into balls. As she rolled yarn, she told me stories. One memorable story was about a bandit who had escaped from the prison near her hometown of Belluno. These stories and my childhood with her are the basis for these songs.

I find it surprising and also not so surprising that I would write two songs about my grandmother. The first of these songs was recorded by The One Drop and is included here. I wrote “Harbor” while walking around in the moonlit kitchen of our house in Rice playing my guitar. I played the Em-A progression over and over while thinking about young Marietta Marcolini. She had found herself alone in New York as a teenager. She had been sent there to meet and marry a man who was a stranger to her. When I was a child, she told me that before she came to America, she had only left her home in rural northern Italy once before for a trip to Venice. It is certain that she was victimized. A year later, she found herself a widow with a child. Since my grandmother lived with us when I was growing up, I heard her stories—spoken in broken English with great feeling and few words. The sorrow of her life was that she could never return to Italy. She had a lot of “nervous breakdowns.”

Harbor

“Harbor,” The 1 Drop (Ubberaffe Records, 1998. Produced by Gary Neyers)

What if when you wake up
You don’t know where you are,
And when you wake up
You don’t know who you are.
And when you wake up
You don’t know what you are.

You find yourself alone in a multitude.
Your situation is rearranged.
Your context is abused.
You look around you.
They took away everything that you do
You find yourself adrift on a ship of fools

Chorus:
And your harbor is where
The sailors put you off.
Your harbor is in the sign of the cross.
Your harbor is where
The pirates put you off.
Your harbor is in the heart of Babylon.

One day I woke up
I did not know where I was.
One day I woke up
I did not know who I was.
One day I woke up
I did not know what I was.

I found myself alone in a multitude.
My situation was rearranged.
My context was abused.
I looked around me–
“Who are all these people?”

By: The One Drop is:

Mike Opitz songwriting and guitar
Kathleen (Regan) Downes vocals
Jeremy Corey guitar and vocal
Corey Rickheim keyboard
Jason Hastings bass
Gary Neyers drums and production of the track

While playing the chord progression and writing the words, I also thought of a dialog between my emerging song and one of my first favorite reggae songs,

“Rivers of Babylon,” by The Melodians. One of many biblical reggae songs.

I imagined waking up in a strange land where I did not know the language—as she and countless other displaced people have done. The meditative repetition of the chord progression carried my thoughts to other displacements—to slavery in Babylon—the great theme of reggae music. One of the greatest questions ever posed in a pop song—“How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?” Nevertheless, blues, jazz, rock, reggae, samba, salsa, soca and more are all exactly that. “Rivers of Babylon” explains the wealth of bold and vibrant music descended from African slaves. It sings of: “How the wicked carried us away into captivity/ Required of us a song.” .

The word “pirates” is a common reggae word for slave traders in the sense that Bob Marley uses it in “Redemption Song.” I thought of Marley’s use of the word and chose to echo his word—“old pirates.”

Bob Marley, “Redemption Song,” live in Dortmund.

In this clip, Marley introduces the song as “Old pirates, yes they rob I. / Sold I to the merchant ships.” Like so many Marley lines, this one resonates on multiple levels. It evokes the human horror of the African Diaspora (cf. Marcus Redikker, The Slave Ship), the robbery inherent in the origins of capitalism, and the rapid evolution of slavery into wage slavery. Through Marley’s Rasta “I,” (Eye) this all becomes personal and visionary. Now we all find ourselves on “the merchant ship.” The thought process of the song evokes a powerful constellation of ideas: ideology (Marx), hegemony (Gramsci), myth (Barthes) and ultimately all of Benjamin’s work on “the human sensorium” under the conditions of mass information culture. Marley says “Liberate yourself from mental slavery.” Once you start doing that—start peeling away the layers of ideology you have grown up with, you wake up—on “the merchant ship”—sailing in Babylon

“Babylon” is a common Rastafarian term for the culture of the enslavers. The version of “Harbor” included here was recorded by The 1 Drop and produced by Gary Neyers. We recorded the tracks in Gary’s basement laundry room in St. Louis Park. We lined the walls of a little broom closet with a mattress and created a somewhat sound-proof space for recording vocals. This was our “studio” for The 1 Drop album. Norb Jost added an array of saxophone tracks that Gary mixed and arranged. Kathee contributed creative and insightful singing. Again, Gary crafted all the tracks. This version of “Harbor” illustrates the collaborative nature of this genre as well as Gary’s brilliance as a producer—incorporating dub elements into the structure of the song. When I wrote a metaphoric meditation on my grandmother’s life, I could never have imagined THIS.

Harbor revisited
One night, The 1 Drop played at a small, college-town bar while a blizzard raged outside. Every time anyone opened the door, it blew open. Few opened the door that night. The manager was upset. He said, “I thought you had a following!”

At that moment, an unruly group who could well have been our “following” came rolling in—wearing costumes for some reason. They had been partying somewhere else, but now they were our “following.” We had been playing dubbed out version of “Harbor.” For some reason, in response to this motley group of people we knew, I yelled, “All Right! It’s story time!” while the band kept the groove. We had not done this before, and I did not know what I was going to say over this groove. I decided ( if this is a decision at all) to tell a story of one of our first gigs—on a night that also had a snowstorm—in a dingy basement in a small, college town.

I want to tell you a story happened many years ago
When the 1 Drop band played reggae
Down in Old St. Joe.

Down in a basement party– playing our songs
Songs like “Downpresser Man,”– but nobody was listening
Everyone was playing that Downpresser game
Nobody was listening they were living
That Downpressor Fan Ta See.

Suddenly out of the corner of my eye
What did I see?– a beautiful woman in red leather pants
Looking right at me. Well I was looking at her
Looking at me, looking at her, looking at me
Said, “Whose fantasy is this? Whose Fan Ta See?”

Said, “Babylon child, drove me wild. Babylon child.”
See I’m a Babylon man in a Babylon band
Playing Babylon songs in Babylon land!
Whose fantasy is this?

Our harbor is where
The sailors put us off.
Our harbor is in the sign of the cross.
Our harbor is where
The sailors put us off
Our harbor is in the heart of Babylon.

Song writing, vocals, production Mike
Bass Tom
Keyboards Caitlin

I had no conscious idea of saying those words when I started the “story time” bit. I don’t know why I remembered a particular desultory basement party “Down in old St. Joe” from our earliest and roughest gigs. I think I just wanted the people dancing in costumes to stay.

The track posted here is another form of a guide track. Caitlin, Tom and I recorded these parts so we could remember what to play when we make a better recording of this song. This is how the draft sounds now. Also, this is the first time I have written out these words that have curiously become a part of “Harbor.” They emerge from the oral tradition of Saturday night band improvisations into the world of digitally (in Benjamin’s terms, “technologically”) reproduced information. For years, these words were told by me as a way of telling a story of The 1 Drop band. As such, the images and metaphors provided information about “the storyteller.” In Benjamin’s terms, this information provides context for the story and valuable links to whatever “wisdom” a story may provide. These revised lyrics have remained only in the “oral tradition” for many years—repeated in coffee shops and jam sessions with friends.

But now, as digitally recorded and mixed bits of information that we hear as “sound,”—and with very little conscious purpose on the part of the author (improviser) (me)—these words become part of the dialog between “Redemption Song” and “Harbor” that formed the basis of this montage. Somehow, surprisingly, my thoughts about the life of my grandmother became a meditation on the many and various forms of “mental slavery.” “What if when you wake up,” when “You don’t know who you are” becomes the time you grow to understand that “none but ourselves can free our mind.”

Bandit
The song “Bandit” is the second song I wrote about my grandmother. I am still surprised that out of a lifetime filled with commodities called “memories,” that I should pick this one and make it into a song.

One of my grandmother’s stories was about a bandit who escaped from the prison in the town of Belluno. She and her best friend had to work at night, and they were scared of him. But he was said to be handsome. I invented games with blocks and marbles in which the bandit escaped, rolled across the living room floor and got away. “The Bandit” was my best marble; I always wanted him to get away.

This thought led me to songs about outlaws—a rich theme in blues and rock—as well as reggae music. Here are a couple versions of the bandit theme that I thought about in writing this song.

The Clash, “Bankrobber”

The Clash, “I Fought the Law.”

Bob Marley, “I Shot the Sheriff.” One of my all-time favorite performances.

And, my favorite of them all; Jimmy Cliff, “The Harder They Come” both film and song.

There are a million more—but I consciously consulted these songs by playing and singing them. The I Drop had played all of these songs in previous years so they were familiar to me.

Memories
I have a very vivid memory and after reading Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” I wonder what that means. My memory is primarily a memory of a sound. As a little kid coming home from school, I heard it at least a block away from my house, and as I got closer, I understood that it was coming from my house. It sounded like wailing and screaming combined. I found it scary. My grandmother and her Italian friends were sitting on the bed, hugging and wailing. I learned later that they were keening over the death of my grandmother’s childhood friend. I knew of Zia Severina because she sent us packages of Swiss chocolate. Later when I grew old enough to hold skeins of yarn for my grandmother, she told me the stories that provide the background for the song, “Bandit.” How she was scared of the bandit—how all kids should be scared that something might “get them.”

My fantasy of what my grandmother’s life might have been like also provides a background for the song. Some years ago, I visited the “green and grassy” fields around Belluno and Feltre, and I also thought of that place when I wrote the song.

Bandit

They say the bandit was a handsome man
A devil may care, bank robbing man
And one dark and stormy evening
He bid his jailers goodbye.

He made his escape through the underbrush
His path was narrow and wide
He cast a thousand stories
Into the wind that night.

(play through chorus without singing it)

Marietta and Severina—a country road
Miles from where the bandit fled
They called each other sister
As they walked to work at the mill.

Two peasant girls, barely 15 years old
They’d lived together all their lives.
They worked the night shift
All their teenage years.

Chorus

I wouldn’t say if I knew (2X)
If fantasies come true (2X)

That night, every sound in the howling wind
And the rain beating on the window sill
Conjured visions of the bandit
Who could have been prowling round the mill.

A branch would crack, the girls would scream
Then laugh and hug each other tight
Fantasy visions danced
In the dark and stormy night.

Chorus

The nightshift passed
The work was done.
The bandit was captured and later hung
And the girls said goodbye not knowing that their new lives had begun.
Severina was married and sent to Switzerland
To live a life of service and of pain,
Mairetta was shipped to America
Land of the greedy and the vain.

Chorus

A young boy walked home from the second grade
Found his grandmother weeping on the bed
A letter from Italy had told her
That her best friend was dead.

Now I can imagine two peasant girls
Walking through a green and grassy land
Their girlish dreams and visions
Never really had a chance.

Chorus.

Song writing, guitars, vocals Mike Opitz
Bass, production of track Tom Daddesio
Vocals, Kathleen (Regan) Downes
Violin Stephanie Franzen

Different Lifetime

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Romance in a Different Lifetime
There was grace and mystery in her
attitude as if she were a symbol of
something. He asked himself what is
a woman standing on the stairs in the
shadow, listening to distant music,
a symbol of.
James Joyce, “The Dead.”

The song began on a cold January day in 2011. My daughter had brought me her Casio keyboard to keep me company while she and her mother traveled in India. I love the preset rhythms on the old Casio and remember the time when it was the only drummer of our neophyte reggae band. As in the old days, I amplified the keyboard rhythm and played through our old One Drop PA system. I started playing with the rhythm and this song started to happen. It seemed a good time to make a song about romance and lifetimes. I know I was looking at a wind-swept snowscape when I imagined a warmer planet, “closer to the sun.” This is the first song Caitlin played on. One of her friends had cajoled her to volunteer to play on my recordings. I’ve been grateful to him ever since. This song was written in the dead of winter. I remember picking her up on one of the coldest days.

Caitlin

We played in a cold room. I knew very little about recording technology and made a lot of mistakes. Only one speaker on the keyboard worked. Still, Caitlin’s inventive piano parts shaped the song from the beginning.

Different Lifetime
In a different lifetime, I wrote a paper, “Romance and Marriage in ‘The Dead,’” for Professor Naomi Scheman’s philosophy seminar at the U. My paper focusses on the half-hidden image of a woman on a stair listening to distant music. Joyce invokes this symbol. The man at the bottom of the stair sees the beautiful woman standing there and desires her. He then finds out that she is indeed his wife. For her part, she is inclining toward the music because it carries the memory of her lost lover. Thus one of our symbols drawn from “the romance paradigm” emerges. Joyce’s main character imagines painting the scene, calling it “Distant Music.”

I tried writing the words out in prose form as many song writers do these days. One particular favorite, John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, was the immediate inspiration to try this style.

Different Lifetime

Musicians
Mike Opitz: songwriting, vocals, guitar,and production
Caitlin Brutger: keyboard and vocals
Tom Daddesio: bass

Wish I knew you in a different lifetime, different from this one. Wish I met you on another planet, closer to the sun. The heat would rise from our bodies and melt into the air, ecological convergence, a bi-symmetrical pair. Wish I knew you in a different way than gender and despair.

Wish we had a different story with a different kind of plot. Wish we had some different meanings than the fucked up ones we’ve got. Where ancient connections find ways to be known. The aesthetic of being alive flowers and grows. Wish I knew you in a different time when it was possible to hope.

Wish we had a different symbol when I saw you on the stair. You were just seventeen, “you know what I mean when I saw you standing there.” Ah the dream-like figures half-hidden in the dark. Like unacted desire lifetimes miss their mark. Wish I knew you in a different way. Wish I loved you with a different heart

The Process of Making “Summer and a Dream”

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The Process of Making “Summer and a Dream”

Documenting

Caitlin said that she loves to document things. This seems to conflict with my avoidance of documenting things. I rarely even take pictures, and like to scratch lines on the beach that the tide will wash away at high tide. Through some strange path of personal reasoning, that reminds me of the Doomtree line, “We’re not a legend/ we’re the third set of footprints (“Knives on Fire,” False Hopes).” The thought of leaving a trace—perhaps making a map—collides in my mind with one of my oldest ideas—hatched when I was a sophomore Theater major. My favorite part of a production was always the “strike”– when after the last show, the whole production is torn down and vanishes. The remnants—photos, old programs, scraps of the set or costumes, memories—evoke a sense of nostalgia that gives a fleeting, fragmentary glimpse at the ruins of the production. I’ve discussed this with Caitlin and find that we both have always thought that live performance was “better than” recorded performance. Maybe it retains an “aura” because it vanishes. Still, I see Caitlin’s point about documenting things now. Sometimes things don’t have to vanish; they can grow and develop.

As I’ve become more aware of possibilities and impact of contemporary technologies for recording and distributing sounds and images, I’ve come to see the value of documenting and recording. Not in the sense of making a commodity—a thing that could be sold and perhaps be called a “legend” –but rather of leaving footprints for others to follow—of making a map.

So here is a documentation of the process of making “Summer and a Dream.” The song was written during our recording session this year.

Background

I saw Cyril Pahinui play at a small club in Honolulu and met him at intermission. I left with an avid interest Hawaiian slack key guitar playing and singing. In the months leading up to writing the song, I was playing simple variations in the “taro patch” tuning (G tuning). I tried this with different rhythm tracks. This was an inspiration for the song—on a level of sound. I liked the sound and even the vibration of the guitar when plucked.

Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon, “Waialae.”

Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon, “Waikiki Hula.”

Cyril Pahinui, “Hi’lawe”

As I entertained myself playing around in the G tuning, I found the sounds to be beautiful and I started playing more slowly—thinking of ocean waves and kinds of love.

A Place in the Heart?

Michael Dennis Browne has noted that a poem—the verbal part of a song—comes from a “place in the heart.” Well—maybe—but for me it is more like a fragmentary illumination of something that lies just beyond visibility. At any rate, like many works of art and transformation, this song has a personal and even private inspiration. Many words in the lyric of the song are drawn from the well of inspiration on this level as the personal dream emerges into language.

Imagery

Tom arrived on a Sunday afternoon and we started playing around with the slack key progression. Since Tom is a scholar of Flamenco, we have talked about the imagery and construction of a Flamenco song. My understanding—though not an expert one—is that the imagery of each verse may be unrelated, but that each verse evokes a depth of feeling that carries the song. So I was consciously trying to make the images and similes fragmentary but evocative. The words emerged by Monday—playing the chord progression led to an arrangement and a rhythm that resulted in the writing of the words. The minimalist feel of the playing suggested a lyrical structure. The structure is made of fragments. It is a fragment itself.

A Joyful Moment

By Tuesday, we played the song with Caitlin on keyboards and Tom trying different bass lines. We recorded a version of “Summer and a Dream” with my vocals as a “guide track”—a kind of sonic blue print for later versions of the song. The moment, when the song “comes together” is a joyful one. Sometimes it makes me want to dance and shout!

Thursday night when Kathee arrived we had a jam session in The Maltshop—Tom on bass, Caitlin on keyboards, Kathee working on vocal arrangements and trying things, and me on guitar. We amped everything a little and just used one mic to record the results. The song started to take its shape.

Most of the night, we jammed on another emerging song, “Midnight in Triana” but recorded a couple of versions of “Summer and a Dream.”

By the next day, Kathee had thought through some vocal parts and recorded several. Kathee is very thoughtful about the vocals she designs, and also very critical of her own work. We always love everything she does, so we have learned to pay close attention to Kathee’s critique. Critique is a feedback loop in this process. After some listening and editing, we settled on keeping three vocal tracks. We all fixed up our parts and wound up with some (insert) tracks fit for mixing. Some of these tracks will be rerecorded before the “final” mix (which really need not be “final”).

First Mix

Tom did the first edit and the major amount of work on the mix. We had 4 vocal tracks, 1 keyboard, 1 gamelan (found by playing around on the keyboard), 1 bass, 1 guitar track with a plan to add more, a click track, a couple of punch-ins, and a maraca track have not used so far. He then sent me the tracks on a CD and I did this 1st version of the song.

Imagine the first sound-makers sending visions into the wind. Each sound is a node on a map, each map a path through the world. Then words can become documents and somehow we can know the words that were spoken at The Globe Theater in 1603. And each document creates and reflects a world that wants to last. The staggering thought is that we can now do this to sound. This is a document.

New Album – Dreams and Visions

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Streets
Suitcases for Walter Benjamin
Midnight in Triana
Bandit
Different Lifetime
Boom
Soca for Soul Reprise Remake of One Drop Song
Lost Cause Beck
Summer and a Dream
Virtual Bliss
What a Shame Trad Blues
Murakami Moon from Haruki Murakami 1Q84
Summer and a Dream (live in the Maltshop)
Angel from Montgomery (John Prine Live at the Malthshop)