SWAG 7: “Hypatia”

Hypatia was a renowned female Philosopher/ polymath at the great library of Alexandria. She famously came to a gruesome end when a clash between Religion and Science erupted into violence. This song is all about atmosphere, especially during the quiet passages in the middle of the track where the subtle interaction between Thomas’ electric piano, the building Mellotron strings, and Paul’s percussion touches just reinforce the feeling of quiet contemplation before unstoppable forces are inevitably unleashed.

The song structure is somewhat strange. Amy only sings during what we could call a ‘verse’, only it is multiple chords in length and the vocal melody line Thomas wrote stretches across several repeats. Thomas has deconstructed the original chords in the beginning of this track leaving just the odd electric piano note hinting at chords floating above Brad’s growling bass line. A Chorus, if we could call it that, appears four times and is vocal free. On two occasions, an ebowed guitar plays a slow melody over the Mellotron/ Hammond/ Piano chords. On a third occasion, a lead guitar seemingly takes on the role of a scream of frustration at the injustice of it all. On a fourth, Mellotron brass sounds are stacked to fanfare into a third ‘verse’ and the finale.

Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson, master of the Mellotrons!

There’s an example in the middle of ‘Hypatia’ of what I think people call ‘through composition’, the section where guitar and piano play a melody line in unison. This is all done using a sequencer as your note pad, where three parts are written simultaneously; a melody (the piano) a root note (the bass), and chords (organ, in this case). The exercise is a little like the “taking your pencil for a walk” thing you’d do in Primary school, and is all about freedom of expression. The sequencer is set up to be in 1/8 time. This means that you can easily record notes in any time signature you like, and change it at any point.

You start by writing one line, say the melody, and then follow with a matching chord or root note as inspiration takes you. The third part then follows. One of these parts will then suggest a follow on part, I.e. where it should go next. This might be the chords, so you write that in next and then follow that up with a melody to match, and then a root note to complement both, etc. Since you only refer back to the most recent notes written when searching for the next parts to write, you end up with a carefree walk across the scales, with some nice odd timings and very little formal structure. Of course, you have to tidy this all up a bit … turn root notes into a believable bass line, give the chords some movement, but then you can add drums and make the whole piece swing a little. As much as I love this kind of exercise, there’s always the tricky bit at the end, mainly transcribing your random jottings into a real guitar part, learning it, and then playing it.