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JMT 1.06 Life, Space, Tranquility Base

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 6: Life, Space, Tranquility Base

Have you ever wondered where music fits into your life? Is it a passion or a distraction? Something you take for granted or something you can't live without? From store muzak to soundtracks to satellite radio to car horns, there's little escape in today’s world. And even if there were, you would find nature intruding upon the silence: birds, insects, animals, the changing pitch of wind and wave, the rhythm of leaves rustling in the trees, even your own heartbeat.

I certainly understand the place of useful music, the sound tapestry which enhances our chosen media consumption, and I also understand the need to write or listen to music that expresses our inner feelings. To be honest, we could be having this discussion about great literature or artistic masterpieces. But I still wonder why so many of us are driven to relate the story of events, people, the changing of the seasons, or even night into day - with music. I want to share one of my favourite commemorative pieces with you: the beautifully evocative song by Eric Brace called 'Tranquility Base'.

Eric Brace (bio here) is a multi-talented songwriter, producer, and recording artist; you may know his work with roots-rock band Last Train Home or as half of Eric Brace & Peter Cooper. You may even have caught him on the road with musical buddies Tom Mason and Phil Lee. One evening in the autumn of 2008, he found himself gazing up at the moon thinking 'Wow. Someone walked around up there.' He began reading about astronaut Neil Armstrong and was surprised to discover how little he'd spoken about his experience. By July 2009, a new song commemorating the 40th anniversary of Armstrong's first steps on the moon had been released, accompanied by a video using footage provided by NASA's public affairs office. (You can read the rest of the interview about Eric's song or follow along with the lyrics here.)

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. What I like best about this song is its simplicity. Imagine setting out to convey an epic, cinematic event to someone through music; some might choose a symphony orchestra, others might want a driving rock band or even a Moody Blues combination of the two. Brace chose acoustic guitar, piano, and drums as the primary musical focus to accompany his song, along with a brief bottleneck slide electric guitar solo (at 2 mins). But did you notice that eerie musical effect at the very beginning that drifts in and out of the song? If Brace had chosen primarily electric instruments, that otherworldly sound could easily have gotten lost in the mix. Instead, it's Brace's one nod to the locale of his story, creating an ethereal atmosphere.
  • 2. If you were here for episode 5 on Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five', you might be curious about where the beats fall in this song. Fans of Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing With the Stars will probably know what a waltz is and understand that waltzes are counted in groups of 3. Guess what? 'Tranquility Base' is also counted in groups of 3, and that's why the song has such a lilting feel. Not to worry if dance shows are not your cup of tea; here are some popular songs you might know that are also counted in 3: 'Piano Man' (Billy Joel), 'Annie's Song (John Denver), 'Breakaway' (Kelly Clarkson), and 'Mammas Don't Let Your Babies (Grow Up to be Cowboys)' (Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson).
  • 3. The name of the game with a story song is lyrics, lyrics, lyrics, and usually the story is told in first person. In other words, the song is written from the singer's (narrator's) perspective; they own the story, and the listener sees it happen through their eyes. For me, the absolute genius of this song is the way Eric Brace involves his listening audience. The song begins Tell me Neil, what you were thinking with all of us watching you on the TV; the singer has questions that Neil hasn't answered, and they are questions anyone might have asked. Almost from the beginning the questions the song asks belong to anyone who's ever seen that astonishing footage. Was it glorious, beautiful, frightening or sad? You had the view no one else had. Will Neil Armstrong give us his answers? No, but Brace continues by outlining significant events from the astronaut's life that he might have thought about during his journey, and it's what the listener might have thought about - children, spouse, parents, or career.
  • 4. As a lyricist, Eric Brace saves the best for last in this song. Cue the video to 3.15 to listen to the final (extended) chorus. The lyrics still address Neil Armstrong's feelings, but somehow I have always felt there is a clever subtext that applies to all those who have travelled any distance from the place they call home. Naturally Armstrong had the unique view 'no one else had', but one can be so taken with a place they have visited, that returning home is a disorienting experience. Is Eric longing to return somewhere - or are we, the listener, longing to return somewhere to retrieve something we left behind? That's the beauty of art: interpretation is in the eye/ear/brain of the beholder.
  • 5. Many well-crafted contemporary lyrics no longer fall into strict rhythmic metres in the same way that free poetic verse is no longer the structured metres of Shakespeare. This can make creating a repetitive melody difficult, and yet with tiny adjustments as needed, Brace makes it work. The format is simple: there is an intro, 2 verses (V) and a chorus (C), V+C, V+C, solo, V+V+C (extended), and an outro. By the time someone has heard the song a couple of times, there's a lot of melody that can be anticipated, or is at the very least familiar. Even though the instrumentation is simple, Eric does give us a hint of the cinematic with a soaring melody at the beginning of each chorus with the words 'glorious', 'beautiful', 'frightening', 'you', and 'view'. Listen to the chorus again at 1 minute, and you'll hear the powerful rise and fall of the melody as it takes us to a world found only in the imagination.
  • Postscript: Neil Armstrong died three years later in 2012. NASA created a new video to accompany Eric Brace's tribute on the first anniversary of Armstrong's death in 2013 which you can watch here. NASA released a companion article at the same time: NASA Remembers Neil Armstrong with 'Tranquility Base' Music Video.

Songwriters have commemorated the lives of extraordinary people and historical events for millennia; writing a story song may be easy, but writing a great story song is an art form. 'Tranquility Base' is a brilliant story song.

Find Eric Brace!

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Red Beet Records (Eric's record label)
Extra: bottleneck slides and how to play with one

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