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Underarm Recording Studios

A couple of weeks ago I invested in a new piece of musical equipment: a Tascam DP32SD recorder:tascam dp32sd

Tascam have been making portastudios for several decades now, in varying sizes. The portastudio brought multi-track recording within the reach of amateur songwriters and musicians, and became a useful tool for professionals to make demos of ideas prior to recording a single or album in a fully-equipped studio.

It is a remarkable unit, and measures only 13 inches by 20. It does multi-track recording (up to 32 tracks it seems) and also has some useful effects processing built-in, including reverb, compression, and eq. You can make a recording, mix it down and make a master file all within the Tascam. In the past these tasks often involved separate hardware.

Originally, the various stages of making a recording were represented by individual physical units: a recording device (magnetic tape once, then digital hard drive, and now SD micro cards in the DP32), a mixing desk, a number of sound processors such as a reverb / delay, compression, etc, and a second recorder on which to capture the stereo mix. In the domestic audio market the decades have seen increasing miniaturisation. I got this Tascam to create space in my music room and to have a recorder with minimal setting up, since creative time is hard to find. It’s early days with the Tascam but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how straight-forward the basic operations seem to be.

The acquisition has brought back fond memories of my purchase back in the late 1980s of one of Tascam’s first such recorders – the Porta One:

Tascam Porta One

This analogue recorder taught many people the basics of recording. It only recorded four tracks onto a cassette tape, so the sound quality was not great (the DP32SD can record at 24bit / 48khz – better than CD quality). It was possible to make a basic guitar band demo by recording drums and rhythm guitar, then bass guitar, on tracks 1-3. The drums and bass could be bounced onto track 4, freeing 1 and 3. A second guitar could go on track 3 and a vocal on track 1. When the recording was mixed down into stereo that meant there would be a guitar on left and right and everything else in the middle. The limits of four-track recording meant you had to be disciplined about making creative decisions that could not be fixed later. And the cost? In the late 80s this tape cassette portastudio would cost what in today’s money would be about £1000. The Tascam DP32SD can be found for about a third of that!

About a strange young man named Bowie …

I hope everyone had a good holiday break and I send best wishes for 2016.

January has recently developed a habit of springing nasty surprises, and did it again this year with the death of David Bowie. I’ve been reflecting on this event and the response to it. Bowie has had a lot of coverage and I think on the whole this is merited. It is hard to think of a comparably major figure in British popular music from the late 60s / 70s who could compare in terms of influence. I’m not sure that the emphasis in his career on image and necessary reinvention has always been a good thing for popular music as music, but it has certainly had an impact.

For a few years in the early to mid-70s he made a lot of music I really enjoyed and most of it still sounds great.  The songwriting on Hunky Dory is agile and intelligent (the title of this blog alludes to the LP’s song for Dylan); Ziggy Stardust was a blast; and Aladdin Sane a heady cocktail of apocalypse and decadence. There were some great singles too, such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’. I was too much into rock music at that time to have much sympathy for his swerve into plastic soul on Young Americans, but liked ‘Golden Years’ and very much ‘TVC15’. Much later I properly got into Station To Station. The Berlin period didn’t connect and neither did much of his music in the 80s, though ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was compelling in its haunting revisiting of Major Tom (and who could resist that sardonic, knowing voice answering the lead vocal at various points?).

Bowie was not a one-man band and some of his achievement depends upon the contributions of others. Mention should be made of the wonderful guitar riffs and tone that Mick Ronson brought to Bowie’s music. Even after all these years there is something still exciting about strapping on a Les Paul, clicking on the right distortion, and attacking the guitar parts on  ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’ and ‘Jean Genie’. Dirty sweet glam riffola. I think also of producer Tony Visconti’s input.

Three other songs I’d mention: I’ve always loved the early ‘Letter For Hermione’. ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a song which brilliantly captures the generational divide between the 60s and the 70s the way ‘My Generation’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘San Francisco’ did in their time. One of Bowie’s greatest moments as a lyricist is the lines: ‘Well my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got off on that revolution stuff / What a drag … too many snags …’ The division runs right through the family.

One thing that I have not seen written about is that in 1972-73 rock critics were actually divided about Bowie specifically and glam rock generally. Some of them felt that this was a betrayal of the counter-cultural force of rock music. Glam was too show-bizzy and trivial and apolitical. The authenticity of rock was being undermined by artifice, by dressing-up, by pretence. You can see how a figure like Bowie pretending to be Ziggy Stardust would be a nexus point for this argument. Of course with hindsight we can see that certain aspects of glam were political, just in a different arena to the one the hippies had focused on.

The out-pouring of emotion for Bowie from those old enough to remember those days is also clearly about the way it reminds them (us) of our mortality. This generation has clung more to youth than early ones, and has had this reinforced partly by the recycling of albums from that era, and also by living in a culture in which youth remains everything. There is no counterbalancing force celebrating the second half of life. To us it feels as though there is something fundamentally wrong with a universe in which Bowie is not physically present. And we feel this at present even if he has meant little to us musically for a very long time.

I’ve left one song unmentioned, one which I blogged about in 2013: ‘Where Are We Now’. Much of what I’ve felt this week I felt on its release. Ironically, it is wonderfully authentic in its evocation of personal memories for Bowie and has a haunting video with it.

 

 

As the Winter Solstice approaches

As we approach the end of 2015 I have been reflecting on a year of listening to symphonies – well over 300 now – on the home straight I’m picking my way through the Russian Miaskovsky’s 27 (bought as a box-set sometime back). I continue to find every now and then an inspiring new work in the genre. Last week I heard a live radio broadcast from London which included Alan Hovhaness’ Second, titled ‘the Mysterious Mountain’. Earlier in the year I listened to two of his later symphonies (he wrote 67! far too many!) and didn’t enjoy them, but no.2 got through, even if I’m not sure how truly symphonic it is. It is the sort of piece I would recommend to someone new to the classical field – melodious, wonderful harmonies, not too long. You can find it on youtube:

All of these experiences will feed into my book on the symphony.

I enjoyed the Beatles remastered One CD/blu-ray when that was released awhile back. I also found a stunning performance of ‘Little Girl Blue’ by Janis Joplin on youtube on the Tom Jones TV show from 1969. This was always one of my favourite Joplin tracks on CD and to watch her do a live performance which is so touching was great. The link is

Notice how different her demeanour is to the singers of today – tentative to start, something slightly awkward and gauche – yet those are the very things that make her so affecting. The phrase that always chokes me up is at the end of the second verse where she suddenly exclaims ‘Ooh I know you’re unhappy!’. Then she really opens out and goes up a gear for the last verse. Only the very last sign-off line doesn’t quite match the sweetness of the studio cut, but otherwise … how moving.

For something different in the way of Christmas music try Arnold Bax’s On Christmas Eve tone poem or Kate Bush’s ‘December Will Be Magic Again’.

I hope you all have a magical Christmas and thanks for subscribing to this blog through 2015.

Latest news

I’m pleased to report that I have completed my work on the revised edition of the book Chord Master which will be published hopefully in the spring of 2016. The main change is the addition of a new beginners’ section consisting of 20 new audio / chord progression examples that I hope will be of use to people trying the guitar for the first time. The idea for them came from my increasing awareness as a guitar teacher that standard chord shapes are not always easy for people to take in their stride. The book also has some chord boxes for a tuning not included in my book How To Write Songs in Altered Guitar Tunings. The chord progressions (forty in all) are being reset in a simple musical notation that makes them easier to read than in the old edition. As I may have mentioned before there is a possibility that I will work on a new edition of Melody. But before that I have my book on Marc Bolan to complete.

Other stuff going on includes re-organizing my music room to make more space and make it a room more conducive to writing and recording in. I’ve been sorting things and have been reminded of the hundred or so songs I have recorded which I would like to release – so there is going to be some work done on those hopefully. I have six albums of songs, each with their own musical identity, to go with my album of guitar music released in 2013.

My symphathon (listening to a different symphony each day) is still going, although there have been three days when I didn’t manage one. I console myself with the thought there have been other days when I’ve heard two or three. I’m shaping my thoughts on this experience for a possible article. It was interesting to see Scottish composer James Macmillan writing on the symphony in a positive way in the UK magazine Standpoint recently.

The majority of the new ones I hear (new to me) do not make me want to hear them again. But it has been a delight to find others which I do want to get to know. I can recommend at the relatively easy listening end of the symphonic repertoire Yoshimatsu’s Symphony 4 on Chandos from about 2001. It was consciously written as an ode to innocence, spring and childhood, and uses an elegant and very approachable idiom, and lasts 28 minutes. I know some would dismiss it as lightweight, but there’s a place for this music too when it is done as well and with a good spirit.

Otherwise I have enjoyed the new release of The Beatles 1 with remastered sound and video and am currently reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, reminding me in part of days long ago when, in a room high above the Atlantic, I would happily wile away several hours singing my way through most of sea-washed Quadrophenia and more of the Who’s greatest.

Music, silence and horrible Mr Bravo!

[Postcard from Finland no.4] While I was away at the Sibelius music festival I ordered the latest issue of Finnish Music Quarterly, an English-language journal, a special Sibelius issue. Among the articles one by Lotta Wennakoski titled ‘Content with content’ caught my eye. In it she writes at one point of the magic of a live acoustic concert:

It is a quite unique experience, to be in an audience together yet alone. And the unbroken silence immediately before and after the music is most eloquent … I also believe … that the magic of acoustic music that I referred to above will persist even amid the oceans of digital sound that overwhelms us. Live concerts, with their magical silences, will possibly become an even more valuable everyday luxury in the future.

This spoke to me strongly. Before each Sibelius piece performed in Lahti, the conductor would wait for a minute, even two, with the orchestra and the audience, in near silence, before the music began. This sets a boundary and clears a space in which the first strands of the music emerge without being in competition with anything else, and in which everyone has symbolically made it the priority. Similarly, when the last notes have died away ten, fifteen, twenty, maybe forty minutes later, there is another silence. This silence is highly-charged, full of emotion and meaning and the sense of a journey and an arrival and of being changed. Sometimes it is a moment of triumph; sometimes a quieter radiance.

Every time I have heard Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, for example, it is only with a great reluctance that anyone breaks the silence at the end, because no-one wants to return from that astonishing place where the music finishes. Having only attended rock concerts until about 17 years ago, this has been a new experience and a delightful one too.

But sadly such silences are easily spoilt. So a poison bouquet for horrible Mr Bravo! who at the end of two of the Lahti concerts, shouted within a second of the last note, thus robbing everyone else of that rich moment of silent fullness. It is as if such characters have to demonstrate their cultural superiority. Bravo! comes the shout. What it really means is: I have judged this a good performance, the rest of you may now follow with your clapping. The final chord becomes a winning goal in a cup final.

But fortunately he (and it is almost invariably a ‘he’) can’t be everywhere …

 

Postcard from Finland no.3

One of the legendary stories associated with Jean Sibelius is that which concerns the non-appearance and fate of his Eighth symphony. Sibelius produced no finished major orchestral works after the end of the 1920s (his last being the Seventh symphony and the suite of music for a production of The Tempest). He embarked on an Eighth symphony and in the early 1930s there was an international hope that it would shortly be performed. At this time Sibelius’ popularity as a composer was very high and there was huge anticipation for another symphony. Unfortunately it never materialized, and in the mid-1940s we know that he burned a number of manuscripts and it is thought the Eighth was one of the works. Even after this he occasionally mentioned to close friends that he was working on another symphony, though whether this was ever on paper is doubtful (Sibelius often composed in his mind before he wrote anything down). So the Eighth is regarded as one of the great lost works of the C20th.

When I was at the Sibelius Festival I had the chance to chat with Timo Virtanen, who has been working on and editing Sibelius for a long time. He made it possible for a few fragments of unperformed music to be recorded by the BIS label on a CD called The Unknown Sibelius. These fragments last about 3 minutes. They might be part of the Eighth’s composition or not – we don’t know. They are late Sibelius. Timo published an interesting article on the status of some of the manuscript drafts Sibelius left, partly as a reply to an article by another scholar Nors Josephson who created something of a wave by claiming that the Eighth could be reconstructed. Timo told me that this created a number of enquiries from both composers and conductors around the world who wanted to know if this was true and whether they could have the task of completing it or conducting the premiere! Timo had to point out that this wasn’t possible from the scraps and drafts that are left. Whether anything else will turn up remains to be seen.

He also told me that many composers had thanked him for the three minutes of fragments because they found them inspiring for their own work. That I can certainly understand, as they are quite haunting.

The writer Julian Barnes wrote about the relative silence of Sibelius’ final 30 years in a short fiction piece called ‘The Silence’ published in the magazine Granta vol76 Winter 2001 – a special issue dedicated to music.

Postcard from Finland no.2

Here are some links from the Lahti Sibelius Festival. The Finnish broadcaster YLE filmed all the concerts and broadcast them live in Finland. You can watch some of them on their website for the next couple of weeks. This link brings up ‘The Oceanides’ tone poem:

http://yle.fi/aihe/tapahtuma/2015/08/31/sinfonia-lahti-sibelius-festivaali-2015-318-592015

Most nights I was sitting in the choir section behind and above the orchestra, in the middle. You can see that’s pretty close.

There is an audio interview with Jon Anderson of the rock band Yes. He was present for the whole festival (a couple of minutes after someone told me that I walked straight past him in the foyer).

http://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2015/09/05/sibeliuksen-musiikki-ja-taru-sormusten-herrasta-sisaltavat-samaa-energiaa

(I think you will have to copy this addresses into your browser – they’re not coming up as automatic links.) Other features can be found here:

http://yle.fi/aihe/klassinen/jean-sibelius-150v#section-73194

Several evenings we came out of the concert hall at about 9.30pm to fantastic sunsets over the lake:

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=lahti+sibelius+150+sunset&biw=1280&bih=884&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAmoVChMIy_mfz9_nxwIVgW0eCh0WwAsG#imgrc=4Vu4ptIEb9zlJM%3A

During a late afternoon reception hosted by the Finnish Sibelius Society we were told that the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth is being celebrated by over 1500 concerts around the world!

You can find out more about Sibelius by visiting the webpage of the UK group Sibelius One.

 

 

Postcard from Finland no.1

I’ve just spent a wonderful musical week at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a small city about 100km north of Helsinki and located on the shore of a very big lake. Right by the lake is the Sibelius Hall, a beautiful structure which melds an old industrial brick building with a brand-new glass box in which is housed a modern wooden concert hall with superb acoustics. The two are joined by the Forest Hall foyer which has enormous glass frontage through which you can see the lake and sky, and staircases that look like trees branching upward.

The Sibelius Festival is held every year and usually lasts about three and a half days (three evening concerts, several chamber concerts in the day and some talks). It is entirely dedicated to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who is Finland’s national composer. This year the Festival ran for seven days to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. I’ve been twice before, but this year’s was unmissable.

During the week we heard all seven symphonies, the 75 minute choral epic Kullervo, the violin concerto, the Lemminkainen suite, The Wood Nymph, Luonnatar and the tone poems Tapiola, The Bard, The Oceanides, Pohjola’s Daughter, and En Saga, and several shorter pieces. If you don’t know Sibelius’ music the tone poems are a good place to start as they are generally between 8-20 minutes long and in a single movement. They’re all highly atmospheric.

More stories from the Festival in the next few days.

The jangle of Django

It has been awhile since I posted due to work leading up to and on the Oxford Experience summer school, my 18th I think since I started teaching on the programme. This year I taught week-long courses on the Battle of Britain, Symbolist art and literature (with reference to Sibelius, Nielsen and Yeats), and the ever-popular Beatles course. I also gave four lectures and two musical performances – the latter with my musical partner guitarist / songwriter Roger Dalrymple.

With all that out of the way for another year it’s time to catch-up with other things, including upgrading some of my composing software. I will shortly be working on a revised version of my book Chord Master. Before that I will write a long essay on the Led Zeppelin track ‘Achilles Last Stand’ for the Tight But Loose magazine. That magazine published my piece on Zeppelin at Earl’s Court in May 1975. I also have my Marc Bolan research to pick up and I am contemplating a book connected with the Beatles.

Recently I bought a compilation of Django Reinhardt’s recordings. To the uninitiated they have a strong cultural ambience – bohemian Parisian cafes in 1937 – and / or making you feel as though you’ve suddenly stepped into a Woody Allen film. It’s quite good driving music, and obviously the guitar-playing is special, but after awhile the incessant gritty tramp of the Hot Club’s 2/4 rhythm becomes monotonous. Likewise, the chromatic jazz harmony also palls – the rule seems to be never use a straight major or minor when you can squeeze in a 13b5#9 – evoking a brittle and frivolous emotional range. But then I’m not a jazz fan. But it made me feel that perhaps the ‘year zero’ of primitive three-chord rock’n’roll in the mid-50s was a necessary simplifying and purefying of popular music to burn the crop and sow the soil for the achievements of the 1960s and beyond. This is interesting, because there are parallels with what happened in classical music at the turn of the century when it purged itself of an elaborate chromatic romantic language.

My symphony-a-day is still going, so I must have passed the 200 mark now. I continue to make some pleasing discoveries – yesterday for example Rautavaara Symphony 5 which has a remarkable final few minutes that I must investigate more. If you’re unfamiliar with the Finnish composer, try his atmospheric Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for birds and orchestra) on Naxos.

The reel thing

A week ago I had a memorable day at the offices of a music publisher in London. It was the research I’ve been doing on Marc Bolan (T Rex) which took me there. I was permitted to have a look at the company’s library of tapes.

For an hour and more I handled the original multi-track reels on which Marc Bolan recorded his songs 45 years ago and garnered some useful information about the recordings from the notes written on the back of the boxes. I have in the past heard people say how magical it is to hold the original tape of a celebrated song and have never considered whether I might find it so also. But I confess I did.

It was both thrilling and moving to hold these tapes whose magnetized iron oxide was imprinted by the sounds of guitars and voices and strings and percussion as a song was captured for the very first time. Thrilling because one feels very close to the musical event. Moving because the tape boxes are worn and battered, and some of them may not be played ever again (they have to some degree been digitized and are probably unplaybale without baking), and the person who wrote those songs left this life in 1977. I stood in front of the metal shelves that hold rows of boxes, reflecting on the fact that this was a significant part of a life’s work.

I was also able to listen to some CD backup copies of different takes and mixes. It was quite a day.

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