Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Ivory Stepping Stone - Lyrics, Composition, Gear...The Lowdown

“The Ivory Stepping Stone” is the 8th track on our debut album, Within a Reverie, and, despite its seeming simplicity, it has plenty to offer those who like their music a step removed from normal. Including everything from odd subject matter, to quirky harmony and catchy odd time signatures, this tune has plenty to discuss!


Yes, I wrote a song about higher education. At the time it seemed like a good idea, okay? And you know what, I am still happy with the message!

The title “The Ivory Stepping Stone” is a play on the idea of “the ivory tower,” which, as most are aware, is a reference to a person’s separation from the “real world” and used in particular reference to the non-pragmatism of academia. That being said, the gist of these lyrics is that what once may have been an “ivory tower” for the intellectual elite is now merely an empty symbol of what it once was, and, moreover, used as stepping stone for many people to get a “higher” education as a means to an unrelated end, or just because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” So, all in all, the lyrics really address the various issues with the way people abuse/uphold/glorify higher education.

Before I start, I should disclose that I have relatively close ties to many people who work in higher education, as well as those who never had the opportunity to attend. While this is song is undoubtedly a critique of some of the issues pertaining to higher education in general, it is not a critique of all people who are or are not involved in it. So, any references to those in attendance or those administering, are made with the understanding that no single mold describes every student or professor. This song was written from the perspective of unsettling trends in the academic system that really should not be a mystery to anyone, and that should be addressed with objectivity and resolve.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Take for granted a precious gift, it’s your life right?
You take a tool and abuse it, now justify
The reason for being here is not based much on learning
Praised for tradition, my institute of higher earning

The first verse, quoted above, refers to those who enter this phase of their life merely because of the promise of financial gain. This isn’t meant as a critique of people who desire to improve their financial situation—especially through education—but, speaking from experience, I’m sure most people have met those students that make you think, “what are you doing here?” because of their utter lack of regard for the beauty of bettering oneself through learning; that is, those who are there to get a degree, but not there to do what earning that degree should entail.

Locked out from your tower
The disqualified seek their place
To them, your prison is
But a stepping stone

The first chorus sets the imagery of the title in motion, while preparing the listener for a reversal of perspective in the second verse. The reference to “tower” is obvious, but by “the disqualified” I am referring to two groups. The “disqualified” in this song refers mostly to those who are accepted into higher education but lack the desire or ability to reach the level of the “ivory tower,”[1] but also to those who do not have the academic ability to be admitted into an institution in the first place.[2] For those who don’t ever get the benefit of attending college, the “tower” is an alienating force to be sure, and one that engenders resentment. For those who actually get the opportunity bestowed upon them but abuse it and not live up to its potential, the oft-hallowed “ivory tower” becomes merely a transitory stage (“stepping stone”) in their life, where if one scrapes by with intentional (or sometimes just ignorant) neglect, they still receive the same degree of accomplishment as the classmates that truly engaged with the opportunities before them.

Your pale fortress crumbles down right before your eyes
So much for higher worth, this you cannot disguise
The reason for being here is not based much on teaching
Praised for tradition, my institute now never reaching

One of the saddest things I have encountered in my own past experience are those professors who have become alienated by some aspect of their profession, only to take it out on their students (or, in the very least, develop an apathy toward their students’ well being). The first two lines of the second verse describes how that estrangement disintegrates the façade of higher education “worth”—that is, the idea that to be better or achieve higher, one needs their service. The second couplet refers, again, to reasons for participating in the charade not being what they seem, and the failure of institutions to truly reach out to many of those they have convinced need their enlightenment.

Locked out from your tower
The disqualified seek their place
To them, your prison is
But a stepping stone
            Open you door to
            The outside and let it flow in
            Succession of towers
            And of stepping stones

The second chorus, an extended one, carries in its first half the same lyrics as the first chorus. The second half of this chorus is a prediction. When writing these lyrics, I could not escape the imagery of an ivory tower being trampled upon by countless initiates as they climbed the tower only to abandon it after reaching the top or forcing their way through in some other manner. In the end (this image actually played out like a daydream many times), the tower was worn down into a stepping stone—crushing those inside of it who simultaneously tried to glorify the “worth” of the institution while laying the groundwork for its demise by admitting hordes of uncaring people, and becoming something that no longer offers the power it once did. It had become a simple momentary tool, a stepping stone, rather than a stronghold for enlightenment. As I saw this image over and over, the word “succession” continually came to me. But it is in the environmental sense that I use the word, which for me carries the image of that gradual change that is almost unperceivable, but so devastatingly powerful in its effect. Eventually, because of its state, both the “tower” and the “stepping stone” that it is becoming, will weather away.

As stated up front, I am very enthusiastic about this subject (I guess I’d have to be to want to write a song about it!), but from a strictly critical standpoint, I still find that there is something to be desired in these lyrics. To be clear, I actually think the lyrics are well-written, but they suffer from one thing that many lyrics are afflicted by, which his that they attempt to summarize a subject that is far too nuanced for a song that is only a few minutes in length. In all honesty, this would be a great topic for concept album!

I love the imagery, I love the symmetry between verses, and I love it when choruses get extended with new lyrics (it won’t the last time you hear that from us)! BUT, I have to admit that the lyrics tend to gloss over the specific problematics within higher education’s functionality that I wished to state with more clarity. So there ya go.


Okay, I have wanted to talk about the composition of this song for ages. “The Ivory Stepping Stone” encompasses many of the things that I try to incorporate into every song—odd time signatures that groove smoothly despite frequent changes, altogether weird tonality that doesn’t seem off when all the parts hold each other together, variations on themes, and lots of lead work despite the absence of solos!

Since the song begins with what remains a predominant theme, let’s start there!  Written in 6/4, this theme is both catchy (almost obnoxious) in its melody and interesting in its song-long evolution. What I find most refreshing about the theme is that the variations it goes through are almost totally variations in technique, rather than variations in melody, which is what most would expect in a “variation on a theme.” It goes from straight-picked eighth notes to bent eighth notes, then from alternating phrases of raunchy dyads on each guitar (rather than the harmony split between them beforehand) to trills (which is the one exception to the melody being constant, although it does seem to come across as the same melody because of how it ends).

After the opening theme, the time signature shifts with Andy’s tasty fill, which sets the stage, but doesn’t quite prepare the listener, for verses that operate predominantly in 5/4 (with an added beat at the end: so 5/4, 5/4, 6/4). The bass line that holds down the verse is one of my favorite ever—fun to play, catchy, and it proves that “anything/4” is groove-able time if you compose hard enough! In addition to the bass line, the vocal melodies (both lead and supporting) do a great deal in terms of holding the feel together.

Lastly, the chorus: I love this chorus for so many reasons. Not only does it showcase more than a little disregard for diatonic music, it demonstrates that it can be done without overt dissonance. It begins innocently enough, but by the 3rd bar, shenanigans ensue with the introduction of the Bb5 chord. I suppose mixing Bb5 and F5 into Eminor was inspired by the thrash stuff I listened to in my younger days, but this use varies entirely. Here, the Bb5 is distinct in both its extended emphasis in a key to which it does not “belong” and in its beauty, which is no doubt due in part to the melody that floats above it. 

Additionally, the emphasis on the C, B, and A power chords in such proximity to the Bb, lends the flavor of melodic chromaticism to the section. Another instance of this can be found in the vocal melody that occurs during a surprising bar of 3/4 during the otherwise completely 4/4 chorus. During the lines “but a stepping” and “and of stepping” I took advantage of the ambiguity of power chords’ tonality (as I did throughout the chorus) and treated the C5 as if it were a minor chord, rather than a major chord, as the key of E minor would typically dictate. The result is a haunting melody that tugs at the listener’s ears much in the same way the melody over the Bb5 does earlier in the chorus, but with a little added darkness to it. What I love most about this song, on a general level, is that despite its quirkiness, and all the things that might derail it, it works. And in “working” despite these traits that are abnormal to rock, one of its greatest attractions, for me, is its originality.

Fun Facts for Musicians and Audiophiles:

-Standard tuning one half-step down

-Key: Predominantly Eb minor, with a lot of exceptions!

[1] Those who would, quite honestly, probably not have made it into university-level studies based on merit a few generations ago.
[2] I personally believe that, barring any sort of intentional atrocities, human dignity is inalienable and universal. I have, for most of my life, been appalled by people who assume that another person is stupid simply because they did not attend a university or college. Aside from the huge number of history-making “uneducated” people, common-sense should be all that’s required in discerning not only the plurality of “sorts” of intelligence, but also in seeing the fallacy in arbitrarily and non-empirically attributing stupidity to people one has never met.

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