Words With Friends

Words With Friends, Calligraphy & a Mystery

I recently started playing “Words With Friends,” the hit online game that got Alec Baldwin in so much trouble. A high school classmate challenged me to a game, and since it was the holidays, I thought, “Why not?”

I was astonished to learn that it is a direct ripoff of Scrabble. The bonus squares are laid out on the board differently; some of the letters have different point scores; and you can’t bluff or challenge (the computer just rejects any word not in its dictionary). Other than that—identical. Presumably, just different enough to avoid a lawsuit. So the question immediately arose: why has this game so thoroughly outpaced the online version of Scrabble?

Having now played both a few times, both on a computer and on my phone, I can report that Words With Friends has a noticeably better playing experience. Rearranging tiles is easy (and well-animated) in WWF, difficult in Scrabble. The chat interface in WWF works as you’d intuitively expect it to; the iPhone’s Scrabble app is the only text-using app I’ve encountered that doesn’t use the iPhone’s autocorrect feature, and scrolls your chat comment out of the single-line text field as you’re typing it. Frustrating! (Scrabble does get a point for allowing you to turn the sound effects off.)

All that—plus marketing—probably explains the old stalwart’s defeat at the hands of the challenger. Structurally, they’re nearly identical as games. The surface is different though, and a more appealing surface will beat out a lesser one any day. I would rather listen to any given piece of music performed by a string orchestra than, say, a kazoo choir, no matter how gifted the kazooists.

I have been working on structuring my music more consciously; I’m currently half-way through a sonata-shaped piece in four movements for cello and piano, and I think the whole piece is going to revolve around tension between B and C, with the different movements having different tonal centers in relation to those two pitches. I’m quite happy about this scheme, because it gives me a way to tie the whole piece together, gives an arc to it, and lays down something I can push against to get restarted when I get stuck writing it. But I’m trying to keep in mind that that’s unlikely to be at all noticeable to the vast majority of listeners who don’t have perfect pitch. That can’t be what the piece is about, in other words. The structure has to be taken for granted from the listener’s point of view, as though the piece were a building. “Wow! I sure appreciate the way the walls hold up the roof!” is not something an architect expects to hear.

By way of further illustration, I’m offering the piece below, Calligraphy Circle, my submission to a competition for one-minute pieces  for clarinet and piano (a MIDI realization). The competition specified that the pieces should in some way be about Japan.

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Hopefully something like the spirit of the image to the left came across. Knowing that the clarinet part uses the five notes of a Japanese pentatonic scale, transposed all the way through the circle of 5ths from the beginning of the piece to the end, and the piano part does the same thing backwards, doesn’t make the piece sound better, does it? Now, the fact that the rhythms in the clarinet part gradually change from very short and very long notes at the beginning of the piece to middle-duration notes in the middle and then back, that you might have heard and appreciated. (If so, thank you! I put that there.)



On an unrelated note—looking at my website’s statistics for the year, I notice that my song “Our Lady of the Interstate” (from Dreamhousewords by Barbara DeCesare) has been streamed more than eight times as much as its next nearest competitor. Eight times!  That’s not quite going viral, at this level—going vaguely bacterial, maybe—but I’m desperately curious to know what that’s all about. Why that song? Who are these hundreds of people who have listened to this song? Or is it one person who’s listened to it hundreds of times? (In case anyone other than that one person is curious, here it is below:)

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