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Happy New Year! Here's the gift of Radiohead

The snow is falling, the temperature is plummeting and I've been slipping into hibernation mode a bit these days. As this year draws to a close and the next begins, I find myself coming back to writing original music for various projects (and for myself as well). Becoming a good arranger is something I've put a lot of energy into lately, but now the pull of new things is too hard to ignore. Plus, people want to pay me for it, so hey! With that in mind, I'd like to share some piano/vocal arrangements I've worked on over the past 10 years or so, and perhaps let go a bit of my hold on interpretation now that I'm moving back into creation.

I realize this is probably very 2002 of me, but these are just for fun and have served as a bit of a palette cleanser over the years, to help keep me motivated, as well as developing some different skills on the piano.  My hope is that they come across and interesting arrangements and not just simple covers.  I certainly hope you enjoy them for what they are.  Lord knows, I just love doing stuff for the hell of it.

Disclaimer: Sorry for the crappy quality they look super cheesy and are recorded on a craptastic radioshack mic with lame midi sounds since my audio interface is a piece of $*@^ and died so I had to add all these dumb effects so it isn't nauseating also I have probably mangled some lyrics and I don't own any of these songs just the arrangements

So without further ado, here are some songs. Most of them are up a step or two to accommodate the lady vocals.  If you just want to hear the audio without dealing with the videos, you can find them here.

15 Step

There was a Pitchfork review back when In Rainbows came out that compared this song with a Nina Simone cover – I assume they must have been thinking about Sinner Man, and I could see the comparison. A driving, static accompaniment with a minor pentatonic melody on top, soulful vocals. I thought, yeah, someone should do this song like Nina might. Someone like me!

All I Need

So, basically, this was to see how coordinated I could get with these octave shifts. And then – can you do a counter-melody on top of that? And sing? Sure you can, Maria. And hey, rocking out at the end is too fun.

Exit Music for a Film

This is like the most melodramatic of the melodramatic, and boy do I love that. It always reminds me of the episode of Father Ted where the happy priest is thrown into despair when this song comes on the radio. That probably shouldn't be funny. Anyway, I thought, how can I make this MORE melodramatic? Rachmaninoff swoops and stompy chords! Mission accomplished.


When coming up with accompaniment patterns on the piano, I oftentimes find myself channeling different art song composers. That will probably become glaringly obvious over the course of these. In the original, the guitar has an ascending/descending pattern that outlines the chords which is pretty common in R&B. This is super reminiscent of like, Schubert's Ave Maria. So I totally ripped that off. I kept screwing up the video (first I chopped my head off, then it was blurry, then I chopped my head off) and finally gave up. So here's some audio instead.

How to Disappear Completely

This song is so therapeutic and so heartbreaking all at once. I'm not sure how successful this arrangement is, though – part of the appeal of the original is the gorgeous and creepy strings, so the challenge was to maintain the bass pulse and still accomplish the “crazy” with just the punchy chords in the right hand. I think the crazy was accomplished – hopefully it's still beautiful.

Lotus Flower

This kind of screamed jazz standard to me for some reason. Just the groovy bass line, I guess. And the (b)9 chords. I did arrange this for a small band, but haven't had a chance to record it yet.


I really wanted to preserve the meditative, other-worldy quality of this song, so I start out setting the tone with an out-of-time repetition of the accompaniment pattern before I kick into the song. It was kind of hard translating the acoustic guitar to piano, but I wanted to see if I could do it convincingly and still keep the accents in the right place. That took some coordination – especially since I think I learned it wrong the first time, oops. Then I threw some sweepy Ravel-ish piano into the bridge. This has to be one of my very favorite songs, it's so epic and spiritual.

Street Spirit

This song is magic. I didn't do too much except combine parts (and change a couple harmonies I happened to like). Go on, immerse yourself in love.

There are of course a few others (Wolf at the Door – who really needs to hear me awkardly singing swear words - Last Flowers which no one probably knows, and Everything in its Right Place which is awesome but not so much on piano, Subterannean Homesick Alien, which I do on accordion these days). But how much is too much Radiohead covers? I think we'll leave it here for now.  So, onwards and upwards!  Here's to 2014 and all the new creativity and beauty it brings. 


Cabaret in October

The past few months, I've learned a lot about Terezín - a ghetto during WWII that held a large number of artists and performers.  In June, I performed in a recital of songs with Jenny Lee Mitchell and Rebecca Joy Fletcher that were written by artists living in Terezín, and some of which were even performed at the camp itself.

Sunday, October 20 at 3PM, Jenny and I will be revisiting a few of these songs at the book launch for "Performing Captivity, Performing Escape", by Lisa Peschel.  Edward Einhorn has assembled an amazing cast of actors to recreate some original skits from the camp, while Jenny and I perform a few cabaret songs.  Editor Lisa Peschel will talk about her book and describe how the scripts came to light so many decades after the war.  The event will take place at The Center For Jewish History and is free (but reserve tickets here).

I'm extremely excited to be putting together a great late-night cabaret at The Brick Theater on October 25th at 11pm.  A bit of an early birthday present to myself, I'm getting a great band together to play some cabaret classics (and modern re-interpretations), sung by some wonderful singers including Moira Stone, Andrianna Smela, Amanda Renee Baker, and of course Jenny Lee Mitchell.  We'll be doing plenty of Brecht/Weill songs, Brel songs, songs sung by Piaf - and we'll have a few special guests as well, including Katarina Briggler (who will be sharing some amazing Czech cabaret songs with us) and Desmond Dutcher, who specializes in the songs of Charles Trenet.  Not to be missed!


Accordion Musings

The majority of my life has been spent not knowing how to play the accordion, and that's a shame.  My desire to learn stemmed from a few things - Weird Al (of course), Kurt Weill, tango, and an overwhelming desire to accompany myself on a portable instrument.  I've had a few friends over the years who played well (and have accomplished a lot on the instrument), so it wasn't a completely crazy idea to pick it up.  I casually mentioned one day to my instrument-enthusiast parents that I was interested, and next thing I knew, they'd purchased one for me at a local music store. It was old, moldy and unwieldy, but it was beautiful, and it was mine.

I taught myself this instrument (as with many other instruments) by picking out things I wanted to play and figuring out how to play them.  This wasn't an easy feat - although the keyboard on the right hand is pretty straight-forward, there's no relying on a sustain pedal, so things get choppy quickly unless you master sliding your fingers around as you would on an organ.  In addition, the buttons on the left side are based on the circle of 5ths - which is great if you are playing the blues or a polka, but not so great if you want to play modern music that isn't I-IV-V.  A lot of music I tend to be drawn to has chordal movements that go down a third or even up a half step, and that is something I've had to learn through muscle memory, just getting a feel for how far away certain intervals are from each other.  The good news is, even if you think you don't know what you are doing, some part of your brain eventually catches on.   That's probably not a very good pedagogical technique.

When I approach a song to learn, I think about it in terms of arrangement.  If it's being sung, then I can either play bass notes and chords on the left side with a melodic accompaniment on the right, or if the bass part is more complicated and melodic, I just use bass notes on the left with outlining chords on the right.  There's no right answer, it just depends on the song.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is, ironically, a song my dad and I used to play together.  It's a spiritual arranged by one H.T. Burleigh that I'd found the sheet music to in high school.  Back then, I'd play the piano and dad would play obbligato trumpet.   The lulling back and forth accompaniment felt really good with the push/pull of the accordion, so I worked it up as an accordion/vocal arrangement.

The big challenge with this song is that although the lyrics are simple, the accompaniment is quite tricky harmonically.  The right hand and left hand are outlining different chords:  on the right, I'm going back and forth up top between Dm and Am, while in the left I'm outlining an F major chord.  Basically, you're switching between 6th and 7th chords, but the way it's voiced, it was easier for me to think of it as minor chords on top of a major chord.  Why?  Who knows.  Because there's a giant plastic thing separating my left and right hands, I guess.  The other hard part is many of the left hand chords are inverted, so the minor third is the bass note, but the chord is four buttons away.  That's a bit of a reach!  

Of course, I wouldn't be Maria Dessena if I didn't try to play at least 10 Radiohead songs on the accordion.  Why I've spent hours working up piano/accordion/vocal arrangements of half their catalog is beyond me, aside from the fact that it's a fun and musically therapeutic challenge, I guess.  Here's a B-side from King of Limbs called Daily Mail.

It's always fun to go rant crazy in the middle of a song.  I probably screwed up the lyrics, but it's nice to feel like you are sticking it to the man while rocking out on your accordion.  Maybe it's just me.  Anyway, good ol' Thom Yorke plays this on the piano, but the live arrangement has some killer brass that kick in half-way through.  I thought this song fit well with the accordion because the sound can get really big once you switch the bass octave on, and the notes can sustain as long as your arms can reach.  As I've said to a few folks, it's a thin line between reedy accordions and reedy synths.  I really think modern music lends itself really well to the accordion for this reason, as well as the variety of accompaniment options you get with different stops, depending on how complex your instrument is. 

IN SUMMATION, something that I once thought of as a kitschy, silly instrument has completely opened my musical horizons and really challenged the way I think about and learn music.  Have any thoughts or requests?  Let me know!



Accordions Around the World

NY1 has a special on the Bryant Park Accordion Festival today!  Tune into NY1 all day to catch me and some other great performers plugging the festival.

If you are in the NY area, come catch us every Thursday at Bryant Park all throughout the summer, from 5-7pm.  I'll be playing on:

July 4
July 18
August 1

Shoot me some requests!  I'll be playing a bunch of eclectic stuff - 80s hits (Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, The Cure, INXS, Kate Bush, The Police, Talking Heads), a bunch of crazy Led Zepplin covers and of course, tons of Radiohead.  Hear hear for the accordion!

The official website for the festival is here.  See you guys at the park!


Beck's Song Reader at the Brick

In January, The Brick Theater hosted an event for Beck's Song Reader project, a songbook of original Beck tunes that have been left up to the fans to record and perform. They were kind enough to let me do the number "Eyes That Say 'I Love You'" for vocals and accordion.


The Mass Has Ended

After working on this project for well over a year, I am sad to see Mass end. Opera singers became rock singers, rock musicians became theater musicians, and we all learned a great deal from each other (and hopefully had a blast in the mean time). Thank you, Brick, for putting on fearless, beautiful theater and letting me add my small contribution.