Letter Game – songwriting

This song was written in 2011 (as far as I can tell).

Letter Game was initially written as the baritone ukulele part you can hear in the final recording. I like writing on the ukulele because it has only four strings, quite widely spaced, so quite easy to play and lending itself to finger-picking; and because I don’t generally know what notes I’m playing, so presents a different cognitive activity to writing on the piano, where I can ‘see’ instantly what I’m playing, and thus have a tendency to analyse as I go. The uke blocks this analytical tendency, so I go more by ear.

After the ukulele part, the melody was then added, so that I could sing and play the uke at the same time. We can note how this constraint of having to be able to play and sing at the same time affects the actual melody: e.g. in the verse, the uke part is hard to play, so the sung melody is simple and on the beat. In the bridge the uke part is more regular and easy to play, and the melody thus has more syncopation, slides and a wider compass. The chorus melody has lots of space and pushes tends to accompany pushes on the uke.

This written melody then provides a rhythmic structure for the lyrics. The lyrics to this song are an Oulipo style letter game. Like a very small version of Georges Perec’s La disparition (1969), a 300 page novel without a single instance of the letter ‘E’ (extremely difficult to do in French), Letter Game avoids the letter ‘O’. The verses are self-referential, discussing the game itself. The bridges and choruses pit Joni Mitchell against Britney Spears – either by adapting lines from their own songs to an ‘O’-less universe (‘help me Mitchell I’m falling in heart with thee’) or by comparing them in some way (‘in between my princess and the chart machine’). Joni and Britney appear because there is a part of the bridge melody that sounded like songs by both of them (though I now can’t remember which bit of melody or which of their songs). The whole thing is rather silly, but fun.