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Joel Roston Composer | Instrumentalist
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EP Number 3

26 Jul 2016

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Today, I’m releasing the third EP in what has been a July of EP releases.

Last week, I released the two companion-EPs All the Wingless Angels (Narrative Riff-splosion for Electric Guitar and Voice) and We Are Meaning-Making Machines (Five New Pieces for Solo Guitar).

Today’s EP, Domain Vol. 1 (Electronic Fun-rangements of Civil War Songs) is, itself, one half of what will be a two-part release.

I took a deep-ish dive into Civil War music a couple of years ago when I was hired to arrange two or three songs for a Princeton University video. Interestingly, just after getting the job, I attended a film-screening which was accompanied by a live pianist who, after introducing myself post-film, I learned was an MIT Music Professor and Civil War Music scholar. A trip to his office the next week and a short chat over tea introduced me to two recordings and a collection of scores which set me on my way.

The first recording was Songs of the Civil War (which I had to buy on CD due to the fact that it was only available to purchase digitally in ENGLAND, for some reason). The second was The Civil War: Its Music and Its Sounds, which, like, when they say “sounds,” they mean “sounds.” Apart from actual songs, there’s narration and backstory to provide context, whole tracks with the sounds of firearms and explosives used during the war, and a collection of different bugle signals.

The score collection, which put it all together for me, was Dover’s “The Civil War Songbook” — a collection of thirty-seven Civil War Songs presented in the original notation (with the cool, original sheet music covers).

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After finishing up the Princeton project, I was left just sort of infected with an urge to further explore the music of the era. In particular, I found the juxtaposition of the [to my modern ears] fairly consonant, upbeat music with the utterly dark/desperately melancholy lyrics to be both fascinating and unsettling.

“Mother is the Battle Over” presents like a tired, taxed child simply asking how much longer the fighting will last, but is, in all actuality, a son or daughter asking their mother when their father will return from fighting and learning that he’s been killed.

“All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night” is titled the way it is because the picket is dead.

The last line of the harmless-enough-sounding “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground,” is “Dying on the old camp ground.”

“The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” is an account of the last seconds before a boy died on the battle field — his prayers and the exaltations of his fellow soldiers.

The narrator of “Weeping Sad and Lonely (or When This Cruel War is Over)” is writing a letter to their dearest love and cataloging all of the terrible things that are going through their mind about his potential death.

This is all to say that, while the versions I’ve included on Domain Vol. 1 are fun, upbeat, instrumental arrangements, my hope is that the purpose of these songs and the utter horror they represent aren’t forgotten.

My process for putting these songs together was twenty-percent arduous and one-hundred-and-fifty percent fun. As a baseline, I programmed the notation into MIDI exactly how it looked in the original scores (which are all piano/vocal arrangements), chose textures for the vocal melody and the piano’s right and left hands, and then composed/added new parts and textures that I thought brought the songs to life in a fun way. For instance, I added drums and percussion, wrote bass lines, composed new melodies to support or counter the melody of a given song, filled out the harmony with larger chords and/or smaller melodic figures — whatever I thought the jam needed. At their root, however, each of these songs contains the exact original piano/vocal score as presented by each’s* composer.

I decided to limit each arrangement to two verses. While some of the songs are definitely short and concise, others are built to tell a much longer story. “All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night,” with its five-verses, for example, is almost getting into “Greensleeves” territory.

Lastly, if you’re interested in exactly what I added, how these songs sound in their “elemental” form, or the actual lyrics, I highly encourage anyone and everyone to pick up a copy of the Dover book. If nothing else, every time you see it on your shelf, it’ll make you feel like you’re the kind of person who’s interested in [at least certain aspects of] history.

*I think it’s maybe just my writing style, but at least once a week I find myself in a situation wherein “each’s” would be perfect — I’m just going to start going with it.

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