Set Theory

This is the story of a late middle-aged storyteller teaching himself how to tell his story with his songs.

While fans and audiences think in terms of songs, performers parse their experience differently—into sets. A set might be most readily understood as a collection of songs, but it’s much, much more than that. Properly devised, a set works like a story, linking individual songs into an indivisible whole. Like within a song, where verse builds to chorus, chorus to bridge, bridge to close, a set develops a plot line using individual melodies.

The maturation of a songwriter begins with the shatteringly intermittent ability to pull songs out of the ether. Whether one chooses (or is chosen) to pull the lyrics before or after the melody, the sequence of creation never really matters. Ultimately, it’s a push-me/pull-you affair. I’m still fine-tuning songs I clocked as finished decades ago.

But finishing a song doesn’t leave anyone even halfway done. What does one do with a finished song? I store ‘em as lyric sheets in the bottom of my guitar case until called to perform. “David, you will be playing a few songs for our dinner guests, won’t you?”

Well, sure I will. But there are deeper questions. What tunes fit this situation? In what order should I choose to play them? How might I relate these songs to the conversations we held over supper? To what purpose will I perform?

These are set questions. I will select from the thin catalogue of songs I’m currently practiced up on. From these half-dozen, I’ll sort for the right one to start and the proper one to end with. I will buck up my introversion into floating eye contact and hope for the best. However well-practiced the guitar playing and the singing, I’ll judge myself more on the quality of the encapsulation: the introducing story, the threads between songs, and the bigness of the finish. And in that after supper half hour, I will perform a cobbled-together set of songs.

I’ve been performing like this for most of my life and I still hold deep questions and even deeper misgivings about my skill. I know I’m no musician. Sure, I play my guitar and sing my own songs, but I accomplish this without virtuosity. I have no complete idea what the real chord names are, and communicate these to myself in my own curious language. I do not play the chords properly, either. I seem incapable of fluently reading notation, and have failed innumerable times to correctly transcribe. Music theory remains abstract theory and not my practice.

I might be more intuition than musician. Music seems an extension of my native intuition, of which I have an abundance. It’s a form of expression like speaking or writing. I’m no grammarian, either, but rely upon my nose, my developing sense of proper structure, rather than a remembered rule set.

Still, I have written songs which have remained more or less stabile over long years, and can recreate them pretty much at will. I have no similar intuition about sets. I remain blind to the possibilities, like choosing marbles out of an opaque bag, when I set about creating a set of songs.

The notion eventually emerges: what would my set sound like? Where would I begin? Where would I end? And what path would I choose to get there if I was really choosing? Now that the songs are written, how should I string them together and to what larger-than-individual-tune purpose?

When I was twenty five, I decided to get out of the music business, go to university, and get a real job. Of course, every piece of this chosen different path smugly mirrored the business I said I was leaving behind. I didn’t write as many melodies but drew from the same intuition to compose project plans. My life in the business world involved playing a different shaped guitar. Other than that inconsequential distinction, it was the same.

Later, as a consultant, I found myself writing songs again, this time in the guise of models. These, I’d string into reasonable sequences and perform as workshops. Even later, I started writing about my experiences and found that same progression. I’d write the vignette then string it together with other ones to make a coherent story.

Only in my background music world, it seems, have I somehow managed to stiff-arm stringing together my work into coherent sets. And it’s now past time. I feel moved now to attempt this meta creation. To take that pile of lyrics mouldering in the bottom of my guitar case and pull them together into an indivisible story. I should not wonder how I’ll do that with this different-shaped guitar, but I do. Perhaps that mystery is an inescapable element in the design of every nascent whole.

The end product will be a performance. One evening set aside to properly tell the story with a set of songs. I will invite my friends. I will record the result. Later, I’ll (at Amy’s insistence) step into a studio and let a real audio technician condition the performance set into real recording, which I will share.

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