Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher



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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.

June news

My summer school teaching is looming, so I will soon be engaged with preparing some new material, including the music of Sibelius and Nielsen. At present, I’m teaching the music of Brahms, and exploring the British music scene in the early C20th as a way in to the art song of Peter Warlock (1894-1930). And I have just completed the fifth month of my symphony-a-day ‘symphathon’.

My research time this year has been taken up researching the earlier music career of Marc Bolan and that has been very interesting. I have a pretty clear idea of the themes nd the scope of the book. Exploring some of the musical equipment used in the late 1960s has been fun too. A new double CD Best of T Rex called For All The Cats has just appeared and I can recommend it to anyone not familiar with T Rex. The first two-thirds of the second CD in particular captures the enchantment of his earlier songs.

Creatively, I’m stockpiling song ideas for an album. Not sure when I’ll get a chance to record it.

I’ve just finished reading a book called The New Shostakovich by Ian MacDonald, first published in the late 80s and since revised and reissued. MacDonald is well-known as the author of one of the best books on The Beatles Revolution in the Head. The book is a harrowing account of the terrible conditions under which Shostakovich composed his 15 symphonies. It raises many interesting points about music and meaning, and music and irony / satire. I was struck by this passage: ‘By reserving the right to project our private meanings on his music, we distance ourselves from the very life impacts that Shostakovich, far from seeking to evade, met head-on and made the subject of his work. To the extent that we turn art into whatever we want it to mean, we forfeit the chance of being changed by it.’ MacDonald then quotes someone saying of the effect of the Eleventh Symphony: ‘The poetics of shock. For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself.’

Remembering John Renbourn

A week or so ago the death was announced of the British acoustic guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn was one of a small group of acoustic players in the early 1960s, along with Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, who developed a style that became known as ‘folk-baroque’.

The style was eclectic, embracing elements of blues, jazz, tradition and contemporary folk (Graham also brought in elements of African music heard in Morocco). It was played largely fingerstyle on steel-strung acoustics, taking full advantage of the longer sustain of the upper strings in comparison to the nylon strings of a classical guitar. Where string guages permitted, there could be a certain amount of string-bending. The style evolved to be musically complete, in that a player would provide bass, harmony and top melody. It could be technically demanding, though some of the simpler syncopated right-hand picking patterns were easy and gave great results. Altered tunings were also developed by these players.

Graham, Jansch and Renbourn influenced people such as Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Gordon Giltrap, Donovan, and Jimmy Page.

Having made several albums solo and in partnership with Bert Jansch, Renbourn and Jansch became part of the folk-rock group Pentangle who enjoyed considerable success in the eclectic music scene of the second half of the 60s. After the group split, Renbourn pursued many musical interests, including Elizabethan lute music, making many arrangements for steel-string guitar of tunes from the 1590s. He was a composer and a scholar with a wide grasp of music.

I saw John Renbourn play on several occasions and interviewed him. I found him a charming, thoughtful and personable man with a deep and inspiring commitment to music. His playing was precise, tasteful,  and elegant, and imbued with a humane spirit.

If you haven’t sampled his music there are many budget compilations of his solo work and of Pentangle. You can’t go wrong with the solo albums he released in the 1970s such as The Hermit.

When the circus moves on

The other night I was channel-surfing and stumbled on an edition of the talent show Britain’s Got Talent at just the moment when a young man with a Fender Strat was about to perform in front of the audience. These talent shows tend to be dominated by histrionic singers, so I was curious for a moment to see what this young man would do and how it would go down. What followed was a ghastly collision of a hostile context with a fundamental lack of musicality, prefaced by the usual humiliation of such contestants.

Said young man (who I think was 26) began a solo rendition of ‘Beat It’ and within half a minute had abandoned the singing bit for the guitar solo. He dropped to his knees, executed some Van Halenesque tapping, and finished off by playing the guitar with his teeth in the manner of Hendrix. These bits didn’t connect up. The fact that he was running his guitar into a very small Fender combo amp didn’t help much either. By this point the jury had voted him off and the audience weren’t impressed either.

What struck me about this was not the humiliation he was put through, which you expect from those programmes. It was the way he had unconsciously set himself up for it by not understanding what would work in performance. Playing electric guitar parts on your own that need a full band backing is never a good idea. Although he had some technical ability (probably hampered by nerves) and was apparently a guitar teacher (!), he didn’t seem to realise that in 2015 those theatrical guitar show-off gestures don’t mean anything. The only place for playing guitar with your teeth is in a Hendrix tribute band. Outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps you have watched videos of Jimi playing guitar in 1970, and your dentist may be unhappy next visit.

It didn’t mean that much when Hendrix himself was doing it. His creative genius as a guitarist lies in other things altogether, despite the fact that rock documentaries continue to try to convince us that he was a great guitarist because he liked setting fire to his guitar or smashing it up. It’s a bit like doing a Hendrix version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 2015. It’s either a Hendrix tribute gesture or pure establishment, or both. But it can’t mean what it meant in 1969, not least because the electric guitar doesn’t mean what it meant in 1969.

Whereas, if this contestant had concentrated on making his own musical statement – maybe not requiring much guitar technique – he might have fared better, and even if he had been voted out it would have had a kind of integrity to which the vote was irrelevant.

An important lesson really about musicality and musical awareness.

Now, where’s my lighter fuel … I fancy Strat Stroganoff for dinner …

Cutting the American Pie

Today the manuscript of the lyrics to ‘American Pie’ sold for over a million dollars at auction. This has prompted much commentary on what they mean –  see for example this article on the BBC website:

The lyric is far too interesting to be a mere riddle. The real question, which the media is not able to ask, is: how would you decide what it meant? What gives authority to an interpretation?

In pursuit of vintage tone

I’ve been thinking about guitar tone recently, in connection with the research I’m engaged with about the English guitarist / songwriter Marc Bolan. I’m interested in particular in some of the electric guitar tones he recorded with in 1969 and 1970. This was the period when he acquired an electric guitar after an 18 month period when he was only playing acoustically. Sometime in the spring of 1969 he bought a Fender Stratocaster (one of his musical heroes was Hendrix) and a couple of effects pedals.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex single ‘King of the Rumbling Spires’ (July 1969) has him using the Strat with a Shatterbox fuzz unit. I recently acquired a clone of this unit and the tone is pretty much there. Bolan then used the Strat throughout the album Beard of Stars (released March 1970), preceded by the single taken from it ‘By the Light of a Magical Moon’ which has some wonderful fluid lead fills. Around this time he acquired a Gibson Les Paul which he was photographed with on the cover of the T Rex album recorded that June-July and released December 1970. The guitar tones on that album are superb, but very far from classic rock. I suspect he may have invested in a couple more pedals or was chaining them together.

Bolan is an example of a guitarist whose guitar tones cannot easily be replicated by modern pedals, simulation devices or multi-effects. You can buy units that emulate a variety of guitar tones but his are never there. This type of thing has led to an explosion of boutique vintage pedal clones for players seeling a 60s or 70s sound. These pedals can be very expensive, in contrast to the originals which would have been very cheap but now command high prices. I knew for years that one of the devices Bolan relied on was a Rangemaster Treble Booster. About 300 were made from 1966-1968. I was amazed to discover recently that Vintage Guitar magazine have the Rangemaster at no.1 on their ‘chart’ of most desirable vintage guitar effects and in 2011 they had a price estimate of several thousand dollars.

The pursuit of tone does interesting things to one’s ears – which get sensitized to various sound effects and frequencies. Over the past few months I’ve been able to clearly distinguish the famous early 70s mid-range boost effect used by Bolan and by Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. But it is important to keep perspective – for there are so many factors that were lined up to create a certain guitar tone during a specific recording session half a century ago that replicating it is almost impossible – though with a bit of technique, imagination and cash for those clone units, the results can sometimes be close enough.

I will describe the Bolan project in more detail another time; I hope it might turn into a book.

Sad to see the demise of International Record Review, a magazine of thoughtful and detailed reviews of classical releases, caused by the death of its owner. In the UK that means the reviewing will be provided by BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone.

The symphonies I listened to in March were: Brahms 2 and 3; Bruckner 4; Holmboe 1-9, 12 and 13; Kalinnikov 2; Nielsen 5; Prokoviev 1, 2 and 6; Rissager 2; Rubbra 8; Svendsen 2; Sumera 1-6; Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C; Tansman 7; Vaughan Williams 4 and 9; and Walton 2 on a new SACD.

Symphathon on the London coach

It’s March and I have kept to my resolution of listening to a symphony a day for a second month, despite a few travels.

February’s symphonies were Balakenskas Ostrobothnian Symphony (for strings only), Chausson (in Bb), Copland 3 (one of the best American symphonies), Glazunov 5 (good in parts, rhetorical ending), Harris 2 and 11, Holmboe 11 (for me, the best of his 13), Kokkonen 3, Meulemans 3, Moeran 1 and 2, Madetoja 1; Miaskovsky 8, 11, 19 (no strings), 20, and 27 (27 symphonies!); Prokoviev 3, 4, 5, and 7; Rautavaara 1 and 8; Sibelius 3, 4-7 (all live courtesy of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic); Schmidt 4, Svendsen 1 and 2, Randall Thompson 2 (not very symphonic), and Zemlinsky 1.

Of these, it was good to be reminded of the Copland, and the Schmidt was a discovery. As for Prokoviev, I think of him as rather spikey and sardonic, but his music has moments of a curious, elusive magic (especially in no.7) which make me want to get to know him better. It was a real treat to watch a TV broadcast of characterful performances of Sibelius 4, 5, 6 and 7 from London.

I recommend Madetoja’s first symphony, especially its hypnotic middle movement, to anyone who doesn’t listen to much symphonic music. It has a haunting atmosphere. E.J. Moeran’s symphony (he only finished one in his lifetime) is long-ish but has many wonderful passages.

Travelling to London a few weeks ago I was listening to Arthur Meulemans’ second symphony. He was a prolific Belgium composer whose music doesn’t seem well known or much recorded. I found a Naxos CD in Brussels several years ago and took a chance on it. One of the pieces is called ‘May Night’. It is swooningly romantic. I don’t normally go for that style but this sneaked (sneaked, not snuck) under the radar when I first heard it. You can hear it here:

I reflected on how astonishing technology is in our time – that a Belgium composer sat in a room somewhere in 1910 and scratched out notes on manuscript paper, and a century later, I’m sitting on a coach in England hearing those notes from a Sansa player the size of a matchbox in lossless audio on noise-cancelling Bose headphones … Amazing.

Remembered For A While

I’ve recently had on loan a copy of the new book on the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. It’s called Nick Drake Remembered For A While, and it is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever seen dedicated to a musician.

Almost 450 pages, it is compiled by Cally Callomon and Nick’s sister Gabrielle Drake. It includes contributions from a number of writers, including people who knew Nick Drake or worked with him. There is some excellent commentary on his songs (including tips for guitarists about Nick’s altered tunings). Several famous essays are reprinted, such as Ian MacDonald’s ‘Exiled From Heaven’. Most remarkable are the lengthy extracts from Rodney Drake’s diary for the years 1971-74 charting he and Molly Drake’s struggles to help and understand their son during his long mental illness. These rivetting and disturbing extracts should do much to prevent people romanticising the more troubled aspects of Nick’s life.

There are many unpublished photographs, reproduced clippings from the music press, and other illustrations. The design and graphics are marvellous. It is a beautiful monument both to Nick’s music and to his tragic life, and contains much material for long reflection on memory, time and change.

Nick Drake Remembered For A While is published in hardback by John Murray. If you have never heard Nick Drake I would seek out his first album Five Leaves Left or go straight to the song ‘River Man’.

My ‘symphathon’ continues (more on that at the end of the month) assisted in the past week by the wonderful Sibelius performances by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil in London (Symphonies 5, 6 and 7 were screened on British TV’s BBC4). I’ve made a little progress with my book on the symphony.

I’m currently waiting to hear the new remastered Led Zeppelin album Physical Grafitti and its companion audio disc. I have an extended piece of writing about their 1975 Earl’s Court concerts appearing in the next issue of Dave Lewis’ magazine Tight But Loose.

A final thought, a definition: music is pure meaning without an apparent referent.

Symphonic Rock?

Later in the year an orchestral version of the Who’s concept album Quadrophenia will be released, on the famous classical label Deutsche Grammophon. The orchestration has been done by Pete Townshend’s partner Rachel Fuller. The Who previously ventured into this territory with the 1972 orchestral Tommy directed by Lou Reizner (which I like in parts, though some of it is just pastiche).

The Guardian report describes it in its headline as a ‘symphonic reimagining’. If you take the word ‘symphonic’ as meaning ‘played by an orchestra’ then this description fits … but only up to a point. It is a long way short of what the word ‘symphonic’ should imply. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently in connection with a book I’m writing on the symphony and contemporary attitudes to it.

Once upon a time popular music such as the Who’s was dismissed as ephemeral noise. Some bands didn’t mind that; others did. In the late 60s rock bands consciously aspired to make their music ‘art’. Sgt Pepper, the Floyd, Days of Future Passed, Tommy, prog-rock were all milestones. Since the 1990s rock critics and rock performers of that vintage have both been making bigger and bigger claims for their favoured music. Both have a vested interest in making these claims. The performers want their legacy enshrined; the critics are there to help them do it and sell books or front TV documentaries.

No-one with a broad musical knowledge and sensibility would now deny that the best popular music is of lasting value and is not a pale imitation of anything else. But the pendulum has swung so far in its direction that people are now wilfully ignoring important objective differences between styles of music. The mis-use of the word symphony or symphonic is the most visible sign of this. It is a kind of cultural erasure.

I’ve always liked Quadrophenia. Along with Who’s Next I think it’s probably the best thing the Who ever did. It’s timeless rock music, brilliantly written and performed. But it needs to be praised on its own terms. It is not – as one writer on the band claimed – Pete Townshend’s version of Debussy’s La Mer! You simply cannot compare a double album of short verse/chorus rock songs with extended orchestral music – especially a symphony – a work which has an immense amount of small and large scale musical detail and argument, a rich harmonic vocabulary,  and relatively little repetition. This is often made painfully clear whenever rock songs are arranged for orchestra. The result is often bad rock and bad classical. There is usually not enough harmony or melodic idea in the song progressions to turn into an orchestral texture – not without writing new music.

It will be interesting to hear what this new version achieves. But lets see if any critics have the courage to question its approach. Often symphonic rock as it is called comes over as far more pompous than a rock band. The pomposity springs largely from the discrepancy between the nature of the musical material and what is playing it.

Apparently the famous tenor Alfie Boe is handling all the vocals. He is quoted as saying, “[Quadrophenia] is in my blood … I wouldn’t separate [this music] from a symphony by Beethoven or Mozart.” Well, I’m sorry Alfie, but I would, and it is a fundamental descriptive mistake to imply that kind of equivalence.


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