Friday, April 5, 2024

The Rise of Madame Biplane - A Closer Look

Rise! This year I participated in February Album Writing Month (FAWM), and I took that opportunity to finally lay down music based on a story premise I've had in my head for years. The result is The Rise of Madame Biplane, my first album since 2014. 

It all began with a cover art generator I used years ago, before ChatGPT and other things were around. It randomly plucked a photo from a repository like Flickr, and then slapped a random artist name and album title over it. From that outputted image came my idea of doing a concept album telling the story of the life of a character. I still have that image file to this day. Here it is alongside the cover art of my completed album.
When I discovered FAWM in 2024, I finally wrote the music. I initially considered telling the story with only ten songs, but the "14 songs in 28 days" slogan led me to reconsider the structure of the album as a whole. So I ended up titling all 14 songs before I actually composed anything, and used those titles as prompts as well as a way to keep track of where I was in the narrative. In some cases I changed the proposed title to something catchier from the lyric itself, after I wrote the song. In the spirit of FAWM, I incorporated some of the prompts and challenges from the site as they came in. Since I had also made a concept album in 2014, I decided to have my 2024 album share continuity with it by way of an overlapping character. Overall, each song demo took about a day to make.

So my album is 14 songs, which can be subdivided as: Prologue (one song) - Act 1 (four songs) - Act 2 (four songs) - Act 3 (four songs) - Epilogue (one song). That being said, the album can still be enjoyed as individual tracks. The following is a track-by-track breakdown that further elaborates on my process.

01 Madame Biplane - This album is inspired by musicals, so I felt obligated to have some opening fanfare before going into the title song proper. Like most of my demos written during FAWM, I initially presented the song as a simple piano-and-vocals arrangement. I would go back and flesh out all of the demos in March after the album writing challenge ended. Both this prologue and the following song include an octave leap in the melody, in response to a writing prompt from FAWM.


02 Bouncing Back - The second song of my concept album takes us to Madame Biplane as a young girl, years before she gained her famous moniker. The idea of her on a trampoline and enamored of the sky is directly inspired by the cover art generator. As far as the music itself, here's where I started experimenting with multiple time signatures and keys within a song. The verse is in 4/4 while the chorus is a very heavily syncopated 7/4, occasionally straightening out to 4/4 by placing an extra beat into the measure.


03 Song and Dance - This one visits the formative experience that would bring our young protagonist closer to becoming Madame Biplane. The title presented itself after I'd written the lyrics. The temporary title in the project file was simply "At the Circus". To evoke the perspective of a child seeing a traveling circus for the first time, I went with a 3/4 waltz and employed the use of borrowed chords. The intended result is the feeling of being spun into an unknown and magical world.


04 Practically Normal - Our protagonist meets two characters of the traveling troupe. The title is drawn from the cover art generator. Because the lyrics mention specific instrumentation, there were more elements here than my previous demos. Specifically the organ would go on to feature in three other tracks to represent the circus. There is also some more experimentation with multiple time signatures, this time 5/4 and 4/4. I wanted the progression to be warm, but weird. Hence the use of an added-ninth chord, and a seventh chord. The seventh chords are also drawn out after each character's surprise twist is revealed. When the album's title character gets her verse, the added-ninth and seventh are absent. 


05 Running Away - Our protagonist makes her big choice, thus concluding Act 1. In response to a FAWM prompt, I went with chords in Db Lydian. The song starts with a major six chord, then goes into 6/4 time, and some other time signatures. You'd think this would be track six in the running order, but no. To evoke the circus in a different way, I included a calliope-like sound during the pivotal final sections. The oboe soundfont also heard here is one I've had for over 15 years.


06 The Captain - The start of Act 2 introduces a key figure in the life of our young protagonist. This character was going to be introduced in "Practically Normal", but I split him off into his own song. He is the result of me wanting to split "Captain Biplane" from the cover art generator into two people: the Captain and Madame Biplane. I wanted his theme to be as anthemic as the opening song, but with a circus feel.


07 Double Act - Our protagonist reaches the halfway point of her journey with her would-be mentor and business partner. I wrote this as a duet, but I wasn't able to secure a vocal partner for the demo until March. Thank you colorado weeks for your guest vocals. This song is my answer to a prompt where I could only use the chords A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The partial walk around the circle of fifths gives the sense that the key is constantly shifting during the verse and chorus. The instrumentation also reflects the characters, with the steady piano representing the seasoned Captain, and the airy pipe organ accompanying the protagonist's naiveté.


08 Unsurpassed - Our protagonist gains her title of Madame Biplane. This song answers a FAWM prompt to "rip off Pachelbel". So I stayed true to the chords of Pachelbel's Canon, but in 5/4 with each chord lasting five beats (aside from breaks). Comments under my previous FAWM song demos led to me to research biplane-related literature, which inspired the Captain's backstory. The instrumentation is also inspired by a film I saw, once. I won't say which film it is, except I already did. As a result, this is one of the rare instances where a FAWM demo ended up being the final version.


09 Falling Out - I like songs with literal opening lines. Madame Biplane confronts whether or not she earned her name, thus concluding Act 2. I had originally envisioned the album as a ten-track story, but this song is when I figured out how to expand the narrative to 14 tracks. The choice of incorporating a tango style came from my love of musicals. 


10 On the Road - The start of Act 3 has our protagonist hiking and looking for solace. In the A-section, I almost went with the chord progression I-V-vi-IV used in a million pop songs, but I swerved with I-V-vi-iii instead. The instrumentation still nods toward a certain 1960s song that I shall leave unnamed. It may seem familiar, but I guess we'll have to let that be. The B-section has a borrowed chord to avoid resolution at the word "dreams", until finally the motif resolves at the very end of the song. 


11 The Bus Driver - Genre-wise, we're jumping from the 1960s to the 1950s. This song intersects with a song from my 2014 album Fun Escape, both narratively and musically. The story of "Lady Hitchhiker" is now told from the perspective of Madame Biplane, the hitchhiker herself, including a quote from that song to drive the point home of shared continuity.


12 Rebuilding - This one is pretty much a metaphor for me making this album. It shows us how Madame Biplane literally made her way. The song also answers a FAWM challenge to include multiple time signatures, which at that point I had already done in other songs without prompting. There's some 6/8, 7/4, and 4/4. This is perhaps the broadest use of piano in the album, starting at the lower end of the keys and gradually moving up as Madame Biplane reaches her goal.


13 Grandest Flight - The penultimate song brings us to the climax of the story, and the end of Act 3. I had originally intended to do a reprise of my title track "Madame Biplane", but in the spirit of doing 14 distinct songs, I avoided doubles. The melody and chords are based an old draft of mine that I never felt was quite right. Swapping out the original lyrics about romantic love and putting in words about the love between the audience and the performer finally made it work for me. Some phrases from the previous version remain, recontextualized.


14 Farewell - This epilogue catches up with Madame Biplane and the folks she's met in her life. The song partially includes a reprise of my 2014 song "Fun Escape". In response to a FAWM prompt to include something in the public domain, I also interpreted Chopin's √Čtude Op. 10, No. 3, sometimes fittingly referred to as "L'Adieu" among other things. I want to give a big thanks to the FAWM community for their encouragement and feedback throughout February. It is the reason my album was finally made.

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