Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher



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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.

First month of the ‘symphathon’

It’s February and I have so far kept to my resolution of listening to a symphony a day. As New Year resolutions go, this has been pretty easy (in comparison to typical ones like going for a run before work, losing weight, giving up chocolate, learning a foreign language, etc). In January on my ‘symphathon’ I listened to:

Alwyn 4, Atterberg 6, Borodin 2, Dutilleux 2, Honegger 4 and 5, Harris 3, 5 and 7, Martinu 3, 5 and 6, Merikanto 3, Miaskovsky 21, Nielsen 3 and 6, Rubbra 6 and 8, Rangstrom 3, Rautavaara 3 and 7, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony 1, Tubin 1,2,3,5,6,7,8,9, and 10, Vaughan Williams 5 (a concert in London), Weinberg 2, 20 and Chamber Symphony 4. That’s 35 symphonies. The nationalities are English, Swedish, Russian, Swiss, French, American, Czech, Finnish, German, Estonian, and Danish. I made a point of working through the Estonian Eduard Tubin’s cycle, omitting the 4th which is a big favourite. I would say I’ve heard most of these symphonies once before. Of these 35 symphonies I would say that Martinu 6, RVW 5, Nielsen 6 are all C20th masterpieces, with Harris 3, Nielsen 3, and Rubbra 6 close behind.

I was on several occasions reminded that with the symphony one must always make allowances that a piece that doesn’t have much impact one year may do so later. This applied to Edmund Rubbra’s Sixth Symphony, in particular its magical slow movement. I’m temperamentally disposed to like Rubbra very much, but the Sixth had somehow not registered. Same thing happened with Honegger’s elegant tribute to Basle, the Fourth. Martinu 5 turned out to be more listenable than I recall, and I’m now persuaded that Roy Harris’ one movement Seventh is worthy to stand along his celebrated Third. Rautavaara’s Seventh (‘Angel of Light’) also impressed me for the first time as an atmospheric piece. Atterberg 6 can be tried for its wonderful romantic slow movement. Nielsen 6’s second movement is the sarcastic Humoureske, complete with yawning trombones bored by the modern music the perky wind section serve up. It whets the appetite for the genius of the whole symphony.

youtube links if you want to have a listen:

Edmund Rubbra 6 mvt 2            from 9:19

Roy Harris 7 drum-driven coda         from about 18 mins

Atterberg 6 mvt 2           from 10:07

Nielsen 6 2nd mvt Humoureske          from 13:12

If any of these grab you, write a comment and let me know.

Happy New Year

I send my best wishes for a happy New Year.

Mine has started with an unexpected drift into a New Year resolution. I decided a few days ago that I would try to listen to a different symphony every day this year – so 365 symphonies. Some I’ll already know, but many I won’t.

One symphony I didn’t know which has already made an impression is the fourth by Swiss-born composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). Honegger wrote five in all. I know his 3rd very well – a violent, energetic piece with a sublime ending which features one of the most beautiful chords I’ve ever heard. It occurs a few bars from the end, a wash of ethereal light and joy, descending in pitch across the orchestra, and prepared for by several minutes of deeply lyrical music with a melody at a stratospheric altitude.

The 4th is a more gentle, lyrical piece celebrating the city of Basle. It lasts about 26 minutes. The recording I know is the one on the Erato label. Civilized and sophisticated, it was comforting to listen to yesterday after news of the barbarism in Paris.

Just before Christmas

This will be my last post of 2014. I hope you all have a happy Christmas and festive break, and I send my best wishes for the New Year. Thanks for reading the blog this year.

During November I began making some videos which I hope will end up on youtube. They were clips of me playing guitar, including a couple of tracks from the Atlantic Canticles album I released in 2013, and a couple of Marc Bolan instrumentals. I hope to put those up in the New Year if I can sort out a couple of technical problems. I also wrote an entry on British guitarist Bert Weedon for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

I’ve recently revised some music I composed back in the spring: a second string quartet, a string sextet ‘On the Great Western’, and an arrangement of the sextet’s slow movement for a larger group of strings.

I recently read  Simon Reynolds’ Retromania which is a fascinating study of popular music and its own processes of recycling and remembering. It has many implications, some of which go beyond Reynolds’ main concern about whether popular music can ever again create a sense of the present as it once did. You will learn from this book how it is possible to be nostalgic for the future. A good read, and it may lead you to some new musical discoveries.

Listening-wise I’ve been enjoying Stackridge’s 1973 album The Man in the Bowler Hat. Stackridge were a minor British group who enjoyed some success as a live act on the college / university gig circuit in the early 70s playing charmingly eccentric songs which mixed late Beatles whimsicalness with touches of Betjeman, Noel Coward and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. All very English. The album was produced by George Martin. It closes with a touching instrumental called ‘God Speed The Plough’.

On the classical front I’ve been delighted to make the acquaintance of William Walton’s Cello Concerto which has some wonderful mildly sinister lyricism. I’m generally not keen on concertos – their element of technical display doesn’t grab me – so I prefer the inetgration of musical voices in the symphony – but the Walton is just too good to resist. It is being performed in London on January 25 on a bill that also features Bax’s Tintagel tone-poem and Vaughan Williams’ own stairway to heaven, Symphony no.5. Three other CDs I can mention are Otto Klemperer’s version of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (taken slightly slower than usual) on EMI Classics; a double CD on Chandos called Orchestral Pictures from Russia (Glazunov’s tone poem ‘Spring’ is a delight); and Nielsen Orchestral Works conducted by Rozhdesfvensky which gathers up some of the shorter pieces and arrangements.

So having tested my spellchecker to destruction with ‘Rozhdesfvensky’, I’ll quit while I’m ahead! Happy holidays.

Badges, Swans, Drakes and Parks

I noted the death of former Cream bassist Jack Bruce a few days ago. I met him twice – once for an interview and once informally at a Gibson guitar launch in London. I enjoyed our conversations. I was never a particular fan of Cream, though I like Disraeli Gears and seeing the film of their farewell gig when I was a teenager was memorable. If I think of Jack Bruce the first line of music that comes to mind is the opening of ‘Badge’, a wonderful song that achieves a lot in less than three minutes. Swans in the park …

Someone else connected with swans is Marc Bolan, whose first big hit was ‘Ride A White Swan’. I’ve been compiling some information about him and some new research. I hope to get at least a couple of magazine articles from this and possibly a book.  It is sad that so many people involved in his story are no longer with us. It is such a pity that his wife June did not write a rock wife memoir  because she would have had many insights. I discovered this morning that June had a hand in putting Eric Clapton into John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and she also worked for a time with the management company who handled Pink Floyd in their early days.

I duly bought the remastered double CDs of Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy. The casual listener is unlikely to be impressed with the alternate mixes which are on the companion discs, but being familiar with the music I think they are good and at times exciting in their raw state. Led Zep ought to be heard raw and not too polished. The stand-out is probably the alternate mix of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (note, alternate mix, not a different take) which was surprisingly affecting.

A number of interesting secondhand CDs have come my way recently, which I’m slowly working my through. They include Shostakovich 5 and 9 (do yourself a favour and listen to the slow mvt of no.5), a disc of Bohemian string music by Martinu, Dvorak and Janacek, Dvorak’s Quintets for strings, Schnittke piano concertos, Nielsen 4 & 5, an obscure Canadian disc of string music including Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and some Villa-Lobos string quartets.

November will see the 40th anniversary of the death of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. His sister has prepared a new biography and there may be a few new recordings emerging.

I should mention I’m now on Facebook. And Songs and Solos should now be out in all good bookshops.

October news and a songwriting guitar tip

Hello everyone. Since I last wrote I’ve been easing back into guitar teaching and thinking about my next project. I’ve been doing some writing and research on Marc Bolan of T.Rex. Over the years I’ve written a number of magazine articles on him, notably two big features in Guitarist and one in Shindig!  I also wrote the entry on Marc Bolan in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Part of this research is about his equipment, and the origin of his fabled orange Gibson Les Paul. I’m hoping this might culminate in a book; if not, I shall use the material as a magazine article and possibly add a page on my website summarizing some of the information. I’ve been thinking about the music he made before he became a regular fixture on Top of the Pops and making a case for it. The world needs more innocence and enchantment.

And by the way, here’s a musical curiosity. One of his most well-known songs is ‘Get It On’. Most people think it uses the chords of E, G and A on the chorus.  Actually, it’s E, G and A minor. (He used almost the same chords for the chorus of ‘Planet Queen’ which follows ‘Get It On’ on the album Electric Warrior).

Otherwise, I’ve been looking forward to the remastered Led Zeppelin IV and House of the Holy which will be released at the end of the month. (Dave Lewis’ Zep magazine Tight But Loose has a Jimmy Page Interview coming up in the next issue – you can find details at his website). I had a listen to some of the Queen Live at the Rainbow 1974 album which has an excellent performance of ‘Now I’m Here’ .

On the classical front I’ve been listening to a famous 40 minute piece by the American composer John Adams called Harmonielehre (1985) which is full of thrilling textures and movement, with a slow movement which has beautiful lyrical moments. It’s on a Chandos CD/SACD with his Dr Atomic Symphony.

Whether composing or songwriting it is always a good idea to be alert to the potential of happy accidents and the unintended. Here’s an example. Back in January I found a beaten-up acoustic guitar in a secondhand shop in the town where I was having a holiday. It was only £30 so I bought it. When I checked its pitch I found that it was detuned by a minor third so the open strings were C#F#B E G#C# – quite low! I also found that there was a problem with the nut, so that the top string was sounding the same note as the first fret. If the guitar had been in standard tuning EADGBE this means it would have been EADGBF. A capo at the first fret removes the problem, and a capo at the third fret takes the guitar back to standard pitch.

I picked up the guitar in an idle moment and decided to go with this rogue top string. Since it was sounding as a D instead of a C# I decided to write a chord progression In D and just accomodate that top string as I could. This meant using the shapes that go in the key of F. The result was a very expressive chord progression which is the basis for a short song. Happy accidents …

A trip to Abbey Road

To allude to the famous opening sentence of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Abbey Road.’ Except it wasn’t a dream.

I was in attendance for a Mojo magazine press launch of the new vinyl box-set of the remastered Beatles in mono, thanks to the kindness of a Dutch friend (thank you Arjan!). The 14-LP box-set is released on Sept 9. It includes the band’s first 10 albums and a three-record set of non-LP singles and B-sides entitled ‘Mono Masters’. It includes a 108-page hardback book.

Having arrived at Baker Street in the late afternoon, I walked north toward St John’s Wood, passing the Beatles and the Rock and Roll memorabilia shops (they’re opposite each other on north Baker Street) which are worth a visit if you’re in the area. Inside the latter my eye was caught by a platinum disc and LP cover for T.Rex’s 1972 album The Slider hanging on the wall. Five seconds later, still looking at The Slider, I heard Roger Daltrey on the shop’s sound system sing the line ‘But I drink myself blind to the sound of old T Rex’ – how’s that for a synchronicity!

Arriving at one end of Abbey Road you see the famous zebra crossing. People halt the traffic repeatedly all day and everyday, having their photos taken imitating the Abbey Road album sleeve photo (this bit of London was a lot quieter in 1969). Others sit on various walls on both sides of the street. Abbey Road Studios is a surprisingly small detached building from the outside, set back from the road with a small car park. The entire length of its front wall is covered in multi-coloured Beatles graffiti.

At 6.15pm I’m walking up the steps into Abbey Road. In my mind’s eye I think of the many photos I’ve seen of members of the Beatles standing on these steps. There’s a warm yellow light in the entrance foyer, turning right into reception. On the walls are many black and white photos of famous artists who recorded here, both popular and classical (on the staircase down to the lower floor I spot Sir John Barbirolli and Herbert von Karajan). There are black-suited security men about every 12 feet along each corridor of the route we’re directed along. It seems remarkably small. Downstairs I enter a large room with a high ceiling and a dim red light. It is hot and brimming with people, many of whom are already sitting on the 100 or so chairs that have been crammed in. I didn’t see any identification on the door coming in, but looking around it becomes clear to me that I’m sitting in Studio 2, the room where the Beatles did so much of their recording. To my right is the staircase that runs along the wall up to the glass-fronted control room on the back wall behind and above.

At 6.30 the playback session starts, chaired by Mark Ellen, who interviews a panel of four, including Ken Scott who engineered sessions for the Beatles. The conversation is punctuated by playback from the new vinyl mono masters on a sound system which is said to be worth over a quarter of a million. Since the tracks are mono it doesn’t matter where you sit in relation to the speaker arrays. In the course of the event we hear mono versions of ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Sgt Pepper Reprise / Day in the Life’, ‘Boys’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Love Me Do’, and ‘Norwegian Wood’. At times it’s too loud, and at times the mix is off (‘Norwegian Wood’ was ruined by the bass being far too loud). I also feel that sometimes the expensive equipment and the remastering expose the roughness of some of the original recordings (I wonder what a good symphony orchestra recording from the 1960s would sound like with this set-up). As for mono, while I accept the historical argument (this is how the Beatles wanted to be heard up to 1968) and also the fact that some of the mono mixes have different musical content to the stereo, I’m not personally persuaded that I need them. And I don’t have a functioning turntable at present, sadly.

However, hearing the Beatles at high volume in their home studio was a powerful reminder that they could be more of a rock band – even in the early years – than one might think. If you are used to hearing them at low levels without the bass and drums coming out properly, it is easy to not feel the vibrant energy which was theirs and helped them become so successful in the early 1960s. As the slinky beat of ‘You Can’t Do That’ throbbed in Studio 2, I found myself thinking how intoxicating and exciting this must have sounded in 1964. The other highlight for me was hearing ‘Love Me Do’ which it was pointed out had been recorded on September 4, 1962 – i.e. 52 years ago to the day in this very space. I tried to empty the room of everyone else and picture the Fab Four standing on the wooden floor, with amps on chairs, mikes, baffles, clustered round a microphone, the primitive two-chord vamp of their first hit bouncing off the walls, soon to escape into the world. I thought of how year after year they spent hours and hours in this space, tuning guitars, getting hoarse, bounding up and down the stairs to the control room to hear a take, songs taking shape and then being committed to tape, and then through radios and vinyl becoming part of the memories, feelings, lives of millions of people. That’s magic.

By 8.00pm I was walking down the steps, leaving one of the magical places of recorded music, remembering the graffiti at the bus stop in Oxford that afternoon, where someone had carved the phrase ‘Mean Mr Mustard’.

More information on the mono remasters and the event at this links:

New music posted

This is just to let you know I’ve posted a new, revised version of the first movement of my piano piece ‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ and an extract from the third movement ‘Three Thousand Miles Behind Us’ at If you go to the site and search on my name they should appear on the list.



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