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Greetings and hope everyone is well. Sorry to say my blog has been quiet for a time as I’ve been busy teaching on the Oxford Experience summer school. Of the four week-long courses I delivered, two were concerned with music: ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain’ and ‘Scandal in Paris: Stravinsky, Modernism and the Rite of Spring’. In addition I gave an evening talk about the animated version of the Rite created by Stephen Malinowski, two other lectures on British popular music, and a 50-minute set of songs performed with my friend Oxford-based singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. This proved very popular and it is probable we’ll do at least two or three performances next year.
For the gig I used a Roland 30-watt acoustic guitar amp which is a pleasing and compact unit. I’ve been playing it at home. Its reverb helps fill out the acoustic guitar sound if you’re playing in a carpeted, acoustically dead room. Very inspiring, and I’m tempted to get one myself.
These past two weeks I’ve been taking a holiday. But there has been time the past couple of days to revise the four-movement piano piece I mentioned a couple of months ago. I will soon be able to make a new recording of it and put it up on soundcloud. It is striking what six weeks away from a creative project does to freshen your perspective on what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.
I have various creative projects awaiting my attention. It is a question of deciding which one to go with next, and which will fit in with work commitments, such as revising my book Chord Master.
Mention of Stravinsky’s Rite means I should add that a recent CD purchase was a Stravinsky disc recorded by Les Siecles Live (on Harmonia Mundi) which tried to recreate the sound of the Rite and Petrushka by re-assembling the earliest states of the score (i.e.1911, 1913) with period instruments. The results are most enjoyable. I’ve also been listening to Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Chandos SACD of Ravel’s two piano concertos. The slow movement of the Concerto in G is a wonderful fusion of deep emotion elegantly recollected.
Uncut magazine has had some interesting articles in its recent issues. There was a revealing piece on Robert Plant who releases a new album next week which promises to be something out of the ordinary. The current issue has a good Nick Drake article. A book that has come to my attention is David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’ which focuses on popular music in 1970. That is a year which has always interested me – partly for obvious reasons of transition between one era and another, but also as a time when some 60s music came to maturity. I’m thinking in particular of Motown’s releases that year which are amazing.
And talking of amazing …. meanwhile in London Kate Bush has returned to live performance – something many thought unlikely to happen. The broader media coverage has been in part a melancholy warning of the injustice of a songwriter / performer getting trapped by a single song / image. In her case ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978), which has tended to obscure her later achievements (see my earlier blog about Kate’s last album).
It seems that the link I posted yesterday has not taken everyone to the right place on http://www.soundcloud.com. Apologies if you’ve had trouble finding ‘On The Edge’. The link works for me, some have had trouble – though they all report different things. If you go to http://www.soundcloud.com and search on my name and then scroll down the 19 results you’ll find it – once all 19 of my pieces / songs are listed on the screen. I hope this helps.
Today I’ve posted a new piece of music on soundcloud. The link is
You may need to copy and paste it into your browser.
‘On The Edge’ is the first movement of a piano suite titled ‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ which I’ve been working on for about five weeks (when work has allowed). As I mentioned in the previous blog, it began with a single chord – Olivier Messiaen’s ‘chord of resonance’ – which I then composed out in various ways until inspiration took over. After working on it for a week the music took on an identity / title by connecting with my awareness of some famous photographs of JFK taken by Jacques Lowe in Oregon in 1959 (you can see them on Jacque Lowe’s website and they were reproduced in the book edited by his daughter which was published last year for the 50th anniversary. The music goes through many moods over the 7.40 minutes. I hope you’ll give it a listen and enjoy it. Composing it has been a memorable experience, if at times fraught as I’ve had to keep challenging myself not to settle when there were still improvements to make.
I hope to release this with the three other movements on a CD of piano music.
Term-time in Oxford has left little opportunity for much else recently, though I have enjoyed sharing the music of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams with students. I’ve also been pleased to start to get a grip as a listener on Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra which is quite a tough work (an SACD on Chandos).
A listen to French composer Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quartet for the End of Time led me to his ‘chord of resonance’ (C E G Bb D F# G# B) which I used as the basis for a new piano piece. It has three parts and lasts about 14 minutes. I hope to add it to the Black Purple Blue piano pieces I sketched in January and release the music as a CD.
Led Zeppelin have been much in the news recently. A few weeks ago a story spread on the web that they were going to be subjected to a law-suit directed at ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on the grounds of plagiarism from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’. I wrote about this several years ago in an extended essay on ‘Stairway’ for Dave Lewis’ Tight But Loose magazine. Revisiting the story I incline even more strongly now in the negative – that the alleged borrowing has no real substance. But already I have encountered the idea which has spread that this law-suit has caused the delay of the release of the remastered Led Zeppelin IV. I’m pretty sure there is nothing in this at all and the release schedule was planned a long time ago.
As for the remastered albums (Led Zeppelin I-III) from the bits I’ve had a listen to I can say the CD versions certainly sound impressive, and anyone who has never owned these albums can certainly buy with confidence. The deluxe versions come with an additional disc of either live versions (in the case of the debut album) or studio alternate mixes, or one or two previously unreleased songs or covers. These make interesting listening, but are not compelling for the casual listener.
Listening to the band’s debut album the other morning, released in January 1969 and recorded in October 1968, it’s striking how much of a 1960s album it is, with clear reference points to a lot of 60s rock styles. This is not a criticism. I mention it because Zeppelin are generally thought of as a Seventies band. The arrangements on the first album have many fascinating and inventive details which are a joy to pick up. John Paul Jones’ organ intro for ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ always strikes me as the aural equivalent of summer sunlight bursting through opened curtains, a sharp contrast to the subterranean murk of ‘Dazed and Confused’ (which, if you’re familiar with their 27 minute live versions, seems to positively zip by here). ‘Your Time’ of course kicked off the second side of the vinyl.
The additional CDs demonstrate that Zeppelin were not the most prolific of creative teams in terms of quantity of material. This sounds a strange thing to say of a band that released five classic rock albums in as many years from 1969-1973, and it should also be remembered that they spent a huge amount of time on the road. Clearly there is almost nothing left over in the vaults. Also factor in the cover versions and various blues borrowings and this aspect increases. But it must also be said that whenever you play a Zeppelin borrowing next to its original the degree of transformation of that material is always staggering. For this, they can be forgiven much.
It will be very interesting to see what Jimmy Page has in store for the next three releases, and hopefully he will expand Coda to include the various odd things which do belong with I, II and III that have been omitted so far (like ‘Hey Hey What Can I Do’)
In recent weeks I have been busy checking the proofs of the next songwriting book, Songs and Solos. It has now gone to the printers and will be published in September. It runs to about 250 pages with an 84 track CD so it is a pretty hefty book – it never seems quite like that when I’m writing them, but it does at proofing stage. As I mentioned before, the next book to be revised into a new edition will be Chord Master. I’m looking to expand the amount of audio that comes with that book.
I spent two days at the London Book Fair at Earl’s Court in April, talking to various publishers about several book projects. I’ve also been doing a little research on Marc Bolan’s famous Les Paul. I hope at some point to do some writing about that and about his guitar-playing in general. Some articles I published have already been put up on line. You can read one of them here which was originally published in a fanzine Rumblings:
I’ve completed work on an entry about film composer John Barry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
In Oxford the summer term has just started, so I have teaching to do that will curtail my musical activity. But it does include Vaughan Williams and Sibelius and Stravinsky – and I’m always happy to talk about those three great composers.
Mentioning Stravinsky reminds me that I blogged last year about Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal’s amazing animated version of The Rite of Spring. I recently discovered that there is now a high quality version which you can buy for only $1! So get this bargain and forget about the youtube version. The link is:
Last week I watched the Stone Roses film Made of Stone and was amused when at the 46 min mark a fan standing outside their comeback gig in Warrington held up a chord songbook for the band – which happened to be the work of yours truly. As Morrissey once sang, fame, fame, fatal fame …!
I’ve recently been listening to a Chandos CD by the Bekova Sisters of chamber music by the C20th Czech compoer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). It was a fortuitous discovery in a secondhand shop. I know Martinu mainly for his symphonies, of which the last – no.6 – is a firm favourite – wildly fantastical. Several movements open with what sounds like a murmuring of insects, and have passages of rising scales that remind me of gas bubbling from a molten landscape. There is also a syncopated theme that sounds as though it has escaped from some Western like The Magnificant Seven and a beautiful short chorale that closes the symphony. I don’t listen to much chamber music, but Martinu’s name tempted me, and I’m glad it did, because this CD has much to please the ear, especially with Martinu’s colourful harmony. It contains two piano trios, as well as music for cello and piano, or violin and piano.
Though I may not listen to much chamber music, I love writing it, and I found time these past six weeks to fit in some composing which produced a second string quartet of about 22 minutes and a string sextet of about 20 minutes. Writing the sextet was an insight into why this form has never been as popular with composers as the string quartet. To the quartet’s two violins, one viola and one cello you have to add two extra instruments.
A line-up of three violins, two violas and a cello runs the risk of sounding top-heavy; the combination of two violins, two violas and two cellos runs the risk of being bottom-heavy. In the former the third violin, viola and cello will each be pushed a little toward the lower parts of their ranges to anchor and spread the music out. In the latter combination you need to do the reverse and make sure the first viola doesn’t come too low. It was this 2+2+2 line-up that I chose. One immediate advantage of the string sextet is that it makes possible five or six-note chords without the players having to use double-stopping (where two notes are held down at once) – so one can work in extended harmony.
The composing reminded me of something important about creativity which relates to songwriting on the guitar. Very recently one of my guitar students complained that when he tried to put chords together it sounded like things he had already heard or wasn’t inspiring. I reassured him on the first point by saying (and this will be discussed in a future songwriting book) that there is an important sense in which you have to operate as though when you play a G chord on the guitar it is as if no-one has ever done it before. But what I have also understood is that when people writing on guitar listlessly strum round the chords they know, trying to write a song and feeling that nothing is happening, some of the reason is because until each chord has a defined voicing, duration, tempo, timbre, etc it lacks the energy that may inspire the music.
When I sat down to write the second string quartet I had no musical ideas at all. I chose a key, a time signature, a tempo, and wrote four bars of a generic introductory gesture to set up the arrival of the home key chord, E minor. I then laid out a highly rhythmic E minor chord idea. Within about six bars I had an idea with sufficient creative energy to set me off. Working with notation has the effect of forcing you to make choices about how the chords / melody is to be played that side-step the problem that arises strumming chords on guitar. For songwriting guitarists an equivalent technique would be to work with a drum machine or loop.
I had an interesting comment posted recently about George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ways of playing it. The song begins with an F#m-B barre chord change at fret II; later on the song changes key up a tone. Most people start with a capo at the II fret which removes some of the barres until the key-change and creates a more resonant sound. However, it has been suggested that another way to approximate the sound is to play on a 12-string detuned by three semitones. F#m-B would then be fingered with open string Am and D shapes. I haven’t tried it myself, but from what I know about detuning I’m sure this would produce a very effective result and might well approximate what is heard on the record. But it might not be what was done on the session.
The sound on the record was created by multiple acoustic guitars. Whether or not any of them were 12-strings at standard pitch I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised – if you’re trying to get a big acoustic sound it makes sense to use a 12-string in addition to the 6-strings. Not only George Harrison, but Peter Frampton and members of Badfinger also played guitar on the track. I remember Peter Frampton describing this when I did a phone interview with him back in the late 90s. The result was a big acoustic sound.
The lesson of this is that imitating a guitar part from a recording as it was done may not be the way to get the sound if you’re trying to copy a multi-track recording. So in this case, it could be that there is no 12-string on ‘My Sweet Lord’ which has been detuned by three semitones – but if you happen to have a 12-string and can detune it it may give you a great resemblance if you’re singing the song on your own. Many years ago I worked out a way of playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on a six-string which added as many octaves as I could finger to the basic progressions in the middle in order to mimic the sound of a 12-string on the recording / live version.
More generally on the subject of detuning, tuning down by a semitone is a common hard rock / blues practice – Hendrix did it quite a bit, as did Thin Lizzy. Strings are easier to bend and vocalists can sing in the guitar’s E or Em chord shapes easier (the pitch is actually Eb). Riffs sound heavier. But it also works on acoustic, producing a deeper tone at one, two or three steps down. You may need to go to a heavier guage string if you go that far down. The critical point is what pitch the eight master-shapes will produce when you do this – this enables you to work out how to use it as a second guitar to a standard guitar that may have a capo on. Here are the master-shapes with their actual pitch at 1, 2 and 3 semitones down
Std A C D E G Am Dm Em
-1 G# B C# D# F# G#m C#m D#m or Ab Cb Db Eb Gb Abm Dbm Ebm
-2 G Bb C D F Gm Cm Dm
-3 F# A B C# E F#m Am Bm
I hope this is useful.
I remember trying to work out how to play All About Eve’s hit ‘Martha’s Harbour’. The chords that produced the right ringing arpeggios didn’t seem possible in standard tuning but I knew their pitch was right. A capo wouldn’t fix it either. I got to ask the band’s guitarist Tim Bricheno how it was done and it explained the acoustic was detuned by a tone. As soon as I did it all the chord shapes worked.
More on guitar tones later.
I’ve recently been listening to ‘Silver Springs’, a Fleetwood Mac ballad from their mid-70s era. It contains a good example of how displacing chord I into the middle of a sequence can create a strong feeling of momentum. This happens in the song’s final sequence, the effect strengthened by a first inversion and a rising bass line (Am-G/B-C-F-G). The chord progression keeps sailing past the key chord of C and spending two bars on G at the end of each phrase.
Written by Stevie Nicks it was part of the sessions for the album Rumours but was left off, apparently because there wasn’t enough room on the vinyl. The 2004 double-CD reissue of Rumours places the song as track 7, coming after ‘Songbird’ (which ended side 1 of the vinyl LP) and before ‘The Chain’. The second disc of bonus material includes a demo version. There is a slower, weightier live version included on The Dance (1997).
This set me thinking about tracks that should have been included on an album but were left off, either kept back or released as stand-alone singles. Possibly the most famous is the Beatles’ double A-side ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from early in 1967. These songs originated in a project to write a set of songs based on the Liverpool childhoods of John and Paul. This eventually changed into Sgt Pepper, but these two songs never made it to the album, instead being released months before (they were eventually collected on the Magical Mystery Tour album).
It shows that sometimes great songs get left off albums. Another one that’s come to my attention recently is David Bowie’s ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ which belongs with the Aladdin Sane songs (1973) but came out as a single. This is mentioned in a book by Clinton Heylin, All the Madmen, with the unwieldy but explanatory subtitle ‘Barrett, Bowie, Drake, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who and a journey to the dark side of British rock’. It’s an interesting read if you’re into any of those acts or that period (1968-73) of British rock. It does exhibit some of the underlying tensions that I often find in rock criticism – mostly connected with an unarticulated conflict about the value and status of the subject (litany of failure or litany of success?).
Another track that was left off an album was T.Rex’s ‘Ride A White Swan’. This was recorded during sessions for what became the album T.Rex (December 1970), known to its devotees as the ‘brown’ album because of the sleeve, the last made as a duo before T Rex expanded into a quartet and launched glam rock in 1971. ‘Swan’ preceded the album by several months and became a hit single. Universal have just released a ‘Deluxe’ edition of this album, and the one that preceded it Beard of Stars, with additional CDs of bonus material. The T.Rex album’s first disc includes ‘Swan’ and its B-side. I’ve not had a chance to listen to these properly yet. My first impression of the original album is that this is the best remaster to date, despite what sound like some rapid fades (possibly encouraged by high levels of tape-hiss and guitar effects noise on the sessions). For those who heard these records at an impressionable age these songs have lost none of their enchantment. It is just clearer how rare a commodity it is.
I’d be interested to hear from readers of this blog of any tracks they know and love which were left off albums, perhaps reunited on more recent CD releases and expanded editions. I’ll report back on these in a future blog.
Several people have asked me when to expect the next songwriting book. Songs & Solos is due to be published early this September. Other news on my books: it looks like there could be a French edition of How To Write Songs On Guitar, and there are plans for a new expanded edition of Chord Master.
Anyone interested in guitar lessons or help with songwriting who lives near Oxford can contact me by registering on the site and then leaving a comment on the Guitar Lessons Oxford page. I am also considering offering long-distance advice and mentoring for aspiring songwriters. If anyone is interested let me know.
My own musical activity so far this year has been focused on opening some of my ‘classical’ scores and revising them – both in terms of the composition and playback. It takes time to get back in touch with the two software packages I use – Sibelius notation and the Vienna Symphonic Library, but after several weeks the familiarity is back. This is a prelude to doing some new composing. In late January I did sketch some piano music using octatonic scales.
The headline of this blog alludes to an unintentionally funny (and also depressing) press release I received concerning an exhibition shortly opening in Aylesbury looking at the history of a local rock venue which once hosted many leading live bands of the 1970s. It was there that David Bowie first unveiled his Ziggy Stardust character. This aspect is highlighted in the breathless prose of the press release which reaches new heights of absurd hyperbole. The key passage is this:
The birthplace of one of the UK’s most culturally significant icons, a section of Stardust’s satin sequined shirt, which was ripped-off by overzealous fans during the concert, will be on show at the exhibition. Vivian Symonds, one such fan who managed to come away with a piece of Bowie’s shirt, will be at the opening night of the exhibition. Ms Symonds is also available for interview.
You couldn’t make it up. Is there an ‘icon’ that isn’t ‘culturally significant’? A perfect case study in fetishism medieval in its symbolism. An actual piece of the Holy One’s shirt! This struck me all the more because I have noticed in recent years how Ziggy-era Bowie in particular has become the focus of some drastically exaggerated projections of significance. An earlier press release that came to me fetishized the phone box that appears on the rear sleeve of the Ziggy Stardust album. There is also the constant and tedious recounting of the moment Bowie put his arm around Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops miming to ‘Starman’. This has been placed on a level of social significance matching an outbreak of war or a coronation. Well, I was there in 1972 reading the NME and Melody Maker each week and can report that Ziggy was merely one of a number of ripples on the pond of British music at that time, and furthermore received a good deal of hostile coverage from rock critics who thought Bowie was being inauthentic and superficial.
The weakness of Ziggy worship is really the paper-thin content of Bowie’s creation. Ziggy was never a coherent or rounded character and was only an implied narrative over side 2 of a single LP. That’s very little to support such enormous claims. And yes I think it’s a good rock album and has stood the test of time – though the follow-up Aladdin Sane has a more muscular sound and an equally strong set of songs. If it means anything it is a demonstration that once upon a time if you wanted to be a rock’n’roll star the best thing you could do would be to sing about it (a trick Oasis replicated on their debut album with the song ‘Rock and Roll Star’).
I’ve just started reading Peter Doggett’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On (2007) which is subtitled ‘revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture’ which gives a good idea of its focus. So far it is a compelling account of the tensions within the 60s counter-culture, and a useful corrective for anyone who tends to have a more rose-tinted view of the period. Not for the first time, it seems that some of the best aspects of the idealistic 1960s survive in the music itself – flowers growing out of mud, transcending the messy human realities of their origin. (Oh what a big topic the 60s are …) Scott Mackenzie’s ‘San Francisco’ survives as a place in the human imagination which always transcended the reality of Haight Ashbury in 1966-67.
This set me thinking about some favourite books on music. Staying with popular music, I would certainly recommend Revolution In The Head – Ian MacDonald’s famous study of The Beatles – and his collection of essays The People’s Music (2003) which contains a number of memorable essays, including a landmark one on Nick Drake. At the time of his death (a suicide) MacDonald was working on a book on Bowie. I suspect his premature death robbed rock criticism of several more classic books. Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and post-war pop (1989) is a fine, thoughtful study which raised the bar for rock criticism and has been reprinted several times. Both MacDonald and Murray bring a broader perspective to their subjects and write as if they mattered. Murray’s collection of essays Shots From The Hip which reprints many pieces from the New Musical Express is also hugely entertaining.
Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicles (1992) is an enormously detailed coffee-table book which follows the career of the Fab Four on the road, on TV, on the radio, in the studio. Martin Millar’s novel Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me (2002) is a funny but accurate recreation of teenage rock fandom back in the early 1970s. If you want to know what it was like to be a young male obsessed with Led Zeppelin and anticipating them coming to your city, read this.
I’ll use another novel to link into a few classical music books. Chris Greenhalgh’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2002) is an entertaining and mostly well-written account of the affair between these two cultural figures of the early jazz age. It was made into an equally entertaining film, Coco & Igor. For endless hours of browsing try Third Ear’s massive Classical Music The Listener’s Companion guide edited by Alexander J Morin (2002), which reviews thousands of recordings by hundreds of composers, helping you choose between multiple recordings of a single work.
Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music: Cultural Choice and Musical Value (2002) is an important discussion of a deeply unfashionable topic: the idea that some music might be ‘better’ than other types. It’s an inspiring book, because it ascribes a much greater value to music than the current dominant notion that music is mere entertainment. Its great limitation is that Johnson is at his least intelligent when dealing with popular music, and he makes some crass comparisons. But the book is redeemed by much.
My next recommendation is the Cambridhe Music Handbook series. These are detailed but compact studies of important single musical works, exclusively classical (with the notable exception of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). I have several, including those on Nielsen 5 and Sibelius 5, which are great. Some of the chapters are full of very technical analysis, but the more general chapters are usually worth the price for the general reader.
Finally, the book I jokingly think of as ‘the bible’ for a symphony obsessive: Robert Layton’s A Guide to the Symphony (pb 1995), a wonderful multi-suthor survey of the symphony. This book has led me to much superb music. I shall also mention Wilfrid Mellers’ Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion (1997) which is a profound and idiosyncratic response to the music of the great English composer, full of spirituality and connections from Vaughan Williams to a broader English culture. And you will certainly never think about keys in the same way after reading this.