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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.
Happy New Year everyone. I hope you all had an enjoyable holiday. As promised, here is the first detailed information about my next songwriting book, to be be published by Backbeat in the summer.
Many songs have a moment when the spotlight shifts away from vocals and lyrics to an instrumental solo. Often this solo is played on guitar. Songs and Solos examines this neglected facet of songwriting. It is a unique manual of creativity for guitar-playing songwriters who want to make the best use of solos in their songs. For the songwriter who composes with a guitar, solos are a significant way a song can be intensified. Though lead guitar technique for its own sake is widely discussed, this book takes a new approach, focusing instead on the relationship of the solo to the song.
Songs and Solos has 12 sections. Section One relates a brief history of the solo in since the mid-1950s when the electric guitar changed the course of popular music. It narrates how, from the 1960s, the guitar became the most likely soloing instrument, and how lead guitarists became a potent musical and symbolic figures. Some of the roles and politics of the guitar solo are traced through musical genres popular in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including how attitudes to solos changed. Section Two is a practical look at basic concepts of soloing, and Section Three looks at how a solo is positioned and integrated. For the songwriter this section discusses what a solo can do for a song and where it might be placed for maximum effect.
Section Four surveys the use of other instruments than guitar to add solos to songs. This is important knowledge for a songwriter, because a guitar solo might not always be best for a given song. These other instruments include acoustic and electric piano, synths, saxophone, piano, trumpet, flute, recorder, and strings. All have been featured during solo breaks in songs.
Section Five looks at the implications for soloing of choosing one type of guitar over another, including nylon ‘classical’, steel-string acoustic, and electric, six- and 12-string. It also covers the way various guitar techniques and effects influence a solo, including harmonics, wah-wah, feedback, sustain, echo, vibrato, tremolo, phasing and playing with the fingers rather than a pick. Section Six deals with the way scales and harmony relate. This has information about which scales are the most useful for solos and the chords they fit. Section Seven rounds up guitar techniques for soloing which are not based primarily on scales.
The next four sections illustrate this practical knowledge with short solos, designed to show a range of techniques, scales and chord types, so by the end of the book you’ll know which scales fit over the likeliest chords encountered in a song. These solos are given in standard notation, TAB, and on the CD. Each of the 42 audio tracks is repeated just as a backing track so you can use them to practise the example or improvise your own. Section Eight deals with scales and major key chord progressions, and Section Nine with minor key soloing. Section 10 looks at how to solo when a progression includes the common out-of-key chords used by songwriters – the ones labelled ‘reverse polarity’ and ‘flat degree’ chords in my other songwriting books. Section 11 discusses how to solo over more complex harmony, including common altered chords and unrelated chords. Section 12 has quotes about soloing from famous guitarists.
Songs and Solos cites solos in over 800 songs by more than 600 artists. Features in these solos are mentioned and described for comparison, but there are no transcriptions of these solos in this book. Songs and Solos is about creating and playing your own solos.
I hope this book will prove useful to everyone who has already bought my songwriting titles.
Well 2013 is nearly finished, so it is time for a break. Thanks to everyone who visited the site this year and read the blog. I hope you’ll join me on more musical adventures next year. My first post in the New Year will give details of the next songwriting book due to be published in the summer. Until then, I hope you all have a good festive holiday and that 2014 brings lots of good things.
I am a little late with this, owing to work (finishing the next songwriting book), but I thought it worth writing about regardless. On the evening of November 22, I attended a choral concert in Exeter College Chapel, here in Oxford, titled ‘Requiem ’63′. The music chosen was intended to mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, as well as mark the 50th anniversary of the deaths of C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy. The piece selected for JFK was Herbert Howells’ setting of ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’ (1964). The BBC’s music magazine had published an article about music connected with the death of Kennedy which was rather disappointing. In previous blogs I’ve mentioned Roy Harris’ superb ‘Epilogue – Profiles in Courage’ as the best elegiac JFK piece I’ve heard (it’s available on the Naxos label).
Investigating the topic reveals a number of other pieces in the classical field. Robert Bernat wrote ‘In Memoriam: John F. Kennedy (Passacaglia for Orchestra)’ which is not well-known but was released on an Albany Records LP played by the Louisville Orchestra in 1980. Ronald Lo Presti wrote ‘Elegy for a Young American’ for brass band. Stravinsky produced a very short (90 seconds or so) setting of a W.H.Auden poem ‘Elegy for JFK’. The French composer Darius Milhaud wrote ‘Meurtre d’un grand chef d’etat’. Leonard Bernstein dedicated his third symphony (‘Kaddish’) to Kennedy, and Roger Sessions his third piano sonata which he was then at work on in Berlin (regarded as one of the hardest pieces in the piano repertoire). There are probably many more, not so famous either because the composer is not well-known, or the title disguises the subject – as is the case with John Barry’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ from his album The Beyondness of Things.
2013 saw newly-commissioned pieces added to the list. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed ‘The World Is Very Different Now’ by 19-year old Conrad Tao (about 17 mins long) and the Nasher Scuplture Center’s ‘Soundings’ concert series included Steven Mackey’s ‘One Red Rose’ for string quartet.
In popular music there have been many songs about the death of Kennedy, though very few have much of a profile. Probably the most notable are Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, memorably covered by Marvin Gaye, from the late 1960s, ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’ by The Byrds (1965), Phil Ochs’ ‘Crucifixion’, and The Kingston Trio’s ‘Song For A Friend’ (written by John Stewart). The edition of the famous British TV satire show That Was The Week That Was broadcast on November 23, 1963 featured Millicent Martin singing ‘In the Summer of His Years’ which was covered by Mahalia Jackson and Connie Francis, but is only remembered in the context of the impact of TW3. Two songs with a more oblique connection are Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, which for many captures the desolation of the post-assassination period, and The Beach Boys’ ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, which was written after a concert on the night of the 22nd.
At the time there were a number of Kennedy-themed LPs released. Some of the songs have been collected on albums such as Can’t Keep From Crying: Topical blues on the death of President Kennedy (1994) and Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll. There are many songs which make passing mention of the assassination or draw on imagery associated with it – Tori Amos’ ‘Jackie’s Strength’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ which had its lyric re-written for the US market by changing the reference to Oswald Moseley, the 1930s British fascist, to Lee Harvey Oswald.
And finally I should mention my own 12 minute piece for orchestral strings ‘At Runnymede’ (2002), revised a couple of times, and which I hope to put online at some point.
The BBC have recently broadcast two interesting music documentaries. The series Imagine profiled Jimi Hendrix with quite a bit of footage I hadn’t seen before, and with a more thoughtful and less sensationalistic script than is usually the case when TV does Hendrix (note to TV execs: no – Jimi was not an era-defining guitarist because he twice set his Strat on fire or because he played it with his teeth). This prompted me to have another look at DVDs of Jimi at Monterey and at Berkeley in 1967 and 1970 respectively. 5.1 sound makes a huge difference to the immediacy of watching these films even on a small screen. In 1967 Hendrix looks happy and full of life; by May 1970 he looks world-weary – it is quite a contrast. When I return to Hendrix’s studio albums after watching the live stuff I’m always delighted to find his music richer, touching and more multi-dimensional than in concert where the limitations of working in a power trio are all too evident. He needed more colours to frame his music.
The other documentary was a profile of Elvis Costello. This was also interesting, though Costello is in a way quite a guarded person, and an hour wasn’t long enough to cover such a long and varied career. For me, his best work was done on his first five or six albums, and they remain hugely entertaining and full of memorable songs, with great wordplay and high calibre arrangements by the Attractions. Since then he has stretched himself as a songwriter and singer. Unfortunately, I do not think his voice is up to the demands of the more sophisticated material he does – as becomes evident when he pushes into his upper range. That said, I cannot think of many other contemporary songwriters who exhibit as much sensitivity and awareness toward melody.