The Story Behind “Song for Brangien”

This essay is the backstory for our song “Song for Brangien,” which you can listen to below or over here.

This week we welcome a special guest essayist: Daniel Spils!

The trumpet was my first instrument. I chose it in grade school because it seemed cool and appropriate for a guy (for the same reason, my default “favorite color” at the time was blue). The mouthpiece was as close to a kiss as I would get for a few years, but the trumpet was never my passion. I liked it but never loved it. It was like going “as friends” to the Sadie Hawkins dance.

But I continued playing trumpet through junior high because I loved being in band — making music with a bunch of kids who didn’t necessarily hang out together, but for that hour were all striving toward the same goal. There’s nothing like the camaraderie and power of a diverse group agreeing to play small musical roles that, together, add up to a huge sound.

Lately, when people ask me what bands I’m listening to, I often start with the Seattle Symphony. I haven’t listened to a ton of symphonic music in my life, but under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, the symphony has captured my attention again. I’ve attended some surprising and expansive performances with Brangien. During the “Untitled” series, held in the symphony lobby, we have laid on pillows on the floor at the feet of musicians playing rarely performed avant-garde material, each instrument straining toward sublime sounds. Something Ludo said resonated with me as we made the final tweaks to our album:

“My feeling is that playing music with a flute or a violin or a trumpet is that you’re just trying to recreate — with a piece of wood or metal — what the human voice does very naturally. We all know that vocabulary, we all know that language enough to link it to some emotions that we’ve lived through.”

I was in high school when I found my own voice, my true love, the piano. I fell hard and fast. There were years when I played daily for hours on end, making up music and losing myself in the visceral pounding of keys and the athletics of scales and runs. That youthful obsession faded over the years until the piano became more of an old friend — one I could rely on for close conversation. This left room to explore other instruments I had previously courted.

In 2013 I posted to Facebook that I wanted to buy a trumpet for $50. Within a few hours I owned a cornet — the smaller, mellower-toned cousin of the trumpet. I immediately went into our basement studio to see what sounds I could make, some 35 years after my last trumpet note rang out in Mr. Pasch’s band class. To my surprise, I was able to hold a convincing note. After a couple hours of recording with my atrophied embouchure, I had pieced together a melody. Next, I layered on the two other instruments of my youth: acoustic piano and the Roland JX-3P synthesizer that, against all odds, is with me today, 34 years after I purchased it at Down Home Guitar in Anchorage.

That recording happened without much thought and with no intention of creating a song I would release to anyone other than Brangien. (In fact, beyond mixing and mastering, no one else has heard it until today.) It was simply a conversation with old friends. I clicked “save as” in the Logic session file menu and named it “Song for Brangien.” This was a placeholder — I knew I would eventually change the title.

But I didn’t.

As I mixed and listened many times over throughout the day, I began to think the tune was appropriately named. “Song for Brangien” is only a minute long but has three movements: a romantic melody (boy meets girl), followed by a bubbling whole-tone middle section (boy marries girl), and ending with a contemplative minor note and tinkling piano (boy and girl stepping forward to face the unknown together). Three instruments, two people, one minute. A love story.

— Daniel

song 7 of 11

The Argument is Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils. Learn more about the band here: How The Argument Started and 1 of My 43 Things.

The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks on Medium. Sign up for new song updates.

Thank you for listening.