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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.
Much of my time recently has been devoted to the new songwriting book which I hope to finish in the next month, at which point I’ll post some information about it. It is due for publication in 2014. Over the next couple of months I’m teaching some tutorials on Ralph Vaughan Williams and Igor Stravinsky. Last weekend I gave a lecture on the biographical tradition associated with John F. Kennedy for a Kennedy day school run by Oxford University Department of Continuing Education.
The title of this blog alludes to two things. First, the film A Late Quartet which I saw recently and can recommend. It’s a film about a string quartet that have been playing together for several decades and become famous. Suddenly, for reasons of age, one of the players develops a medical condition which means he can no longer play. This initiates a landslide of internal problems within the quartet. In the latter stages of the film the plot becomes almost Jacobean in its perversity and strained in its ingenuity. But nevertheless it is an engaging drama about adult themes such as long-term relationships, partnership, self-denial for the good of the group, redemption and of course music-making. One of the best things about this film is that it takes music very seriously and as a thing of great value – which these days is to be welcomed. The title is a playful allusion to the celebrated late quartets of Beethoven which are widely considered one of the greatest achievements of Western music and as possessing a particular profoundity sometimes manifested by artists in their last years.
My other quartet is an English rock band, the wonderfully named Wishbone Ash. I’ve been re-listening to some of their classic early 1970s music, including the album Argus which was voted Album of the Year 1972 by readers of the music paper Melody Maker (quite an accolade for the period given the competition). Argus has been remastered twice in the last decade. By all accounts the 2007 Deluxe version is the one to get. The band were famous for developing twin-lead guitar arrangements, where each guitarist takes a single melodic line in harmony with the other. Their sound was hard rock but with a curious lightness about it, helped by the mild distortion on the guitars, and strong melodies supported by harmony vocals. I like their very Englishness, which at one time might have been held against them, but now seems authentic and full of character, and the lyrical sweetness which sometime surfaces in the music – most notably in a track like ‘Persephone’ and the doubled lead guitar solos on ‘Throw Down The Sword’.
As someone once sang, it’s late September and I really should be … writing another post. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been championing high-resolution formats such as SACD for some time now. The demise of SACD has not quite happened as predicted; it is certainly doing very well in the classical field with labels such as BIS, Pentatone and Chandos all issuing SACDs. But other changes in technology – such as universal disc players, increasing hard drive storage and increasing download speeds – mean it is now possible to find websites selling music at a higher resolution than standard CD. One that is worth investigating is HDtracks – their website is at https://www.hdtracks.com/ There is also an interesting blog on the Gramophone magazine website on this topic:
I notice from the current issue of Mojo that Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ album is about to be reissued in an extravagant multi-disc version which will include high-resolution versions. As record companies run out of out-takes / alternate mixes / live versions etc with which to garnish archive re-releases it may be that they will have to provide 5.1 mixes and high-resolution versions in order to have something new to sell.
Talking of archive releases, there is going to be a volume 2 of The Beatles at the BBC. The first volume, released about 20 years ago, is being remastered. I was surprised that there could be this many Beatles BBC versions uncollected to make a second volume.
I’m currently at work on the next songwriting book for Backbeat books. My guitar album Atlantic Canticles is selling well – check it out if you haven’t heard it.
Looking a long way ahead, I heard recently that the 2015 Lahti Sibelius Festival is going to be about six days long rather than the usual three and a bit, in honour of 2015 being the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius, Finland’s greatest symphonist. This will make it a must-attend. I’ve been twice and loved it. The music is mostly performed in Sibelius Hall which is right on the shores of a huge lake in Lahti (Lahti is about 100km north of Helsinki). To wander along in the evening and hear the music in such fantastic surroundings is always a treat (and the last time I went all 7 symphonies were performed over three nights). Here’s a link for more information:
Hello to all – I hope you’ve been having a great summer. It must be about two months since I last posted. Alll my time was taken up on the Oxford Experience summer school at Christ Church College, Oxford. I delivered six week-long courses – three of which were on music – two evening lectures, and a musical performance with my good friend and singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. As of last Saturday life begins to return to normal and I try to pick up the threads …
There have been a couple of musical highlights worth mentioning. Albion Records have issued another CD of previously unrecorded Vaughan Williams titled ‘The Solent’. I heard this beautiful 11 minute piece for orchestra at its world premiere performance back in May at the English Music Festival and was captivated immediately. It is one of three Impressions for Orchestra which Vaughan Williams composed in the first decade of the C20th, along with ‘Burley Heath’ (which is also a delight) and ‘Harnham Down’. ‘The Solent’ has a special place in Vaughan Williams’ early music because one of its melodies was incorporated in his Ninth Symphony of 1957-68. You can find more information about this and other releases on the RVW Society website.
A constant companion of the past two months has been a CPO disc of Symphonies 2 and 3 by the Swedish composer Dag Wiren (1905-86). Both symphonies are written in a very accessible tonal style with very attractive progressions and themes. The repetition and development of the themes is unusually clear and so a good listen for people not familiar with the symphonic repertoire. There is also a CPO disc of his 4th and 5th symphonies but their idiom is more challenging.
I also found in a charity shop a Chandos CD of choral music by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). Bliss was quite a well-known figure on the British music scene during the interwar period. I am very fond of his ‘Colour Symphony’ and ‘Music For Strings’ which I think is one of the outstanding works for orchestral strings in the British C20th tradition. So far for me the stand-out track on this choral CD is a setting of part of the closing lines of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. It also has settings of poems by G M Hopkins.
Naxos has released some interesting early recordings of the Sibelius symphonies from the 1930s in their historical series. There is also a recording from 1940 of Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring. I’d like to get to hear these.
In the rock field I was interested to read about the forthcoming 6-CD box set of Marc Bolan / T.Rex recordings for the BBC. This set supercedes the 3-CD Bolan at the Beeb of a few years ago. This new collection will only really be of interest to serious Bolan fans, though there will be a 2-CD version. The problem with the recordings he did for the BBC after 1970 (i.e. once T Rex started having hits) is that they are often not much more than recycled backing tracks from the original versions, sometimes with a few overdubs missing, sometimes with a new lead vocal. I would like at some point to write something about the plethora of T Rex alternate versions and so-called ‘out-takes’ which have come out in recent years.
Still no word on those promised Led Zeppelin remasters …
A recent guitar lesson experience reminded me of the existence of the partial capo. This is a capo that instead of holding down all the strings at a single fret permits the player to select a combination of strings. This enables the player to, say, put a capo at the second fret but only make it hold down strings 1-5, 6 remaining unaffected by the capo. This approximates drop-D tuning but without changing the pitch of the sixth string. This means a G chord has the bass note G exactly where you would expect it – third fret – not the fifth fret as happens with drop D tuning. My partial capo is a relatively crude elasticated device from a few years ago, but there must be more sophisticated models on the market by now.
My next work project will be the completion of a new songwriting book for Backbeat books. It will appear in 2014. I am also thinking about a Christmas single release and an album of songs to follow Atlantic Canticles.
I’ll sign off by sending good wishes to the young guy from the Orange County Youth Orchestra with whom I jammed two impromptu guitar / violin duets yesterday in Blackwells Music Shop in Oxford. That was fun, and reminded me how lucky we are as musicians to be able to share the wonderful world of music.
I was recently contacted by Charles and Sherry who took my first Beatles, Popular Music and 1960s Britain course on The Oxford Experience summer school a few years ago. They were delightful company on that week and helped make that first course a great success. It transpires that they recently attended the soundcheck at one of Paul McCartney’s recent U.S. concerts as VIP guests. During this soundcheck they attracted his attention with a sign that stated they had studied The Beatles at Oxford. Paul saw it and wanted to know more. The culmination of this was Charles and Sherry getting their certificates from the course signed by him – probably the only time my signature and Paul McCartney’s will be on the same piece of paper! Here is a link to the blog. You have to scroll down to the soundcheck and photos. It begins after he has tried out ‘Lady Madonna’.
Two weeks today the 2013 Oxford Experience kicks off, and my first course will be the Beatles. So for the next two weeks I will be gathering together my final notes and material on the Fab Four, Stravinsky, French Impressionists, the English Country House in Fiction and Film, and a variety of poets and songwriters and bands.
I hope you’re all keeping well and having better weather than we are in the UK – very cool so far. If you haven’t already, have a listen to my guitar album Atlantic Canticles which is now online.
It seems our most memorable encounters with recorded music happen without much consideration for the quality of the medium on which the music is transmitted. A whole generation of young people have apparently discovered their favourite artists, songs and albums through the pallid, eviscerated medium of mp3. Likewise, deacdes ago, I can recall falling in love with music heard on a tinny transistor radio or a mono tape cassette, or poor quality but exciting bootleg live recordings. It seems that if the emotional connection to the music is powerful enough, we listen through the medium’s imperfections that is bringing it to us. On the other hand, making acquaintance with new music through good hi-fi certainly doesn’t detract.
These thoughts followed a memorable hour listening to music courtesy of Oxford Audio Consultants, the city’s prime shop for audio equipment. I went to listen to a top-of-the-range CD/SACD player called La Source made by French company Aeroaudio. The retail price of the unit is about £20,000 (!) - between $30-40,000. Only a lottery win would give me a chance of owning one, but I was curious to hear what kind of sound that amount of money could deliver. At the demo La Source was hooked up to speakers and amplifier worth a further £35,000. I should add that for the cash-conscious among you there is a budget version of the player La Fontaine which is about £12,000.
In hi-fi the curve that links increasing sound quality with increasing cost means that you get the biggest improvement in sound over your first thousands of outlay, but thereafter it takes proportionately more money to get smaller improvements. I can’t say I heard £55,000 worth of sound or an improvement 55 times greater than my budget home system. But La Source was a remarkable listen – incredibly smooth sound and creating a sense of depth in the stereo field that was almost surround sound in itself. With my eyes shut I could hear voices and instruments not only positioned left, right and centre, but in differing positions near and far. I could hear different levels of ambience on different instruments within a single recording. All the instruments and voices sounding amazingly lifelike. Hearing The Casuals’ ‘Jesamine’ – one of my favourite 1960s songs – albeit a rough 1968 stereo mix on CD – on this system was certainly one of the best audio experiences I’ve ever had.
Now, where’s that confounded Lottery ticket? ….
At last my album of guitar instrumentals Atlantic Canticles is now available to purchase online, either as a download or as a physical CD. I’ll post some links here later, but a google search on the title brings up a number of options, and it is on amazon.com (though not yet it seems on amazon.co.uk). For more details on the album click on the side-link. I hope you enjoy this music and I apologize for the long delay since I announced it back in January.
A couple of days ago I had a comment from Stephen Malinowski concerning his animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The links are
This uses a piece of software called the Music Animation Machine. His website stephenmalinowski.com has lots of information about it. I’m very attuned to the Rite just now because of preparatory work for the course I’m teaching in the summer, so I really appreciated what he has done with this presentation.
This is a fantastic labour and a terrific educative tool. As you watch the video you see the music moving from right to left as pulsations of colour, from low-pitch to high-pitch. It’s not only a pretty visual display, it makes visible many textural features of the music itself. It is quite easy to see that Stravinsky is repeating certain melodic motifs, lending evidence to my feeling that the Rite is a more ‘organic’ score than is often assumed to be the case. By this I mean that there is a greater recycling of certain musical ideas than often thought. The music becomes a live, pulsating organism. This is like looking into its breathing body. I get a similar feeling when I look at a score (scores are underestimated in their beauty) but you need a little familiarity with their conventions to do that. This visual presentation could be followed by anyone. I also feel the beauty of the visual display will make it easier for some people to cope with the dissonant quality of the music if they are usually put off by this. Whether or not you know the Rite you should take a look.
I should mention that the soundtrack to this video was created by Jay Bacall using the wonderful orchestral samples of the Vienna Symphonic Library.
My album of guitar music Atlantic Canticles has been held up by a really silly technological problem with the artwork. However, I think it is finally sorted, so I should be uploading the music within a day. There will then be a short delay for the album to be compiled and distributed to various websites where you’ll be able to buy it.
News recently of the death of 1960s singer-songwriter Richie Havens. Havens was a guitarist with a highly unorthodox technique involving his thumb playing half-barres in various open tunings. He also had a very soulful voice. If you have never heard it, listen to his performance of ‘Eyesight To The Blind’ on the Lou Reizner 1972 orchestral version of The Who’s Tommy (which is on youtube).
As Dave Lewis (see the www.tbl.com website and Record Collector magazine feature) reminds us, this week saw the 40th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin’s fifth album. Having numbered their first three LPs and titled the fourth with four symbols, they more conventionally gave the fifth a title: Houses of the Holy (a reference to their audiences and concert halls). The Zeppelin mystique was assuaged by the fact that the title was not printed on the sleeve but came as a paper wrap-around. The sleeve itself was a strikingly tinted photo montage of the Giant’s Causeway. Nor did the album contain the song ‘Houses of the Holy’, which was eventually released in 1975 on Physical Grafitti.
Houses of the Holy was a hugely-anticipated album, following the band’s elevation to international fame during the preceding two years, and the fourth album which contained ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Many were hoping for another ‘Stairway’ on the new album, and Robert Plant revealed in one interview that the band did indeed have a song metaphorically fired from the same cannon. This was ‘The Rain Song’, a very attractive altered-tuning ballad with rising and falling dynamics. The remaining seven songs included the uptempo rollercoaster ‘The Song Remains The Same’, the delightful acoustic / electric mix of ‘Over The Hills and Far Away’, the heavy rock winter nocturne of ‘No Quarter’, the unbuttoned and joyful rifferama of ‘The Ocean’ (its opening riff combing a bar of 4/4 with one of 7/8), and the two controversial tracks ‘D’Yer Mak’er’ and ‘The Crunge’.
These were received by the more prog-rock ‘hairy’ part of Zep’s audience as ideological crimes: the first for being reggae and the other for being James Brown funk, and both for being apparently Not Serious. How dare Zep waste several inches of vinyl bandwidth on musical jokes! was the cry. What happened to the Viking-horde-clamouring-for-Valhalla head-banging which was what the World’s Official Heaviest Band were supposed to deliver?
The answer was that the World’s Official Heaviest Band fancied a bit of variety and to let their hair down a bit. They also wanted to not merely churn out ‘Black Dog’ Parts 2,3,4,5,6 … (They made a similar gesture in 1970 when III turned out to have quite a lot of acoustic music on it). I’ve always found both tracks perfectly entertaining in a light-hearted way, and contributing to the sparkle and variety of the album as a whole. ‘D’yer Mak’er”s title (an old joke: ‘My wife’s gone on holiday’, ‘Jamaica?’, ‘No, she went of her own accord’) is misleading because the song bears little relationship to reggae and owes much more to doo-wop – as is evident from the chord sequence, Plant’s lyric, and the album sleeve’s allusion to Rosie and the Originals. What I’ve always found hugely entertaining about this track is Bonham’s drumming, which is wildly too heavy for the song, but by that reason becomes a spectacle – as if a production of Swan Lake were gatecrashed by a squaddie in size 10 boots.
And talking about production, the drum sound on ‘D’yer Mak’er’ is amazingly vibrant, whereas the overall production lacks the monolithic crunch of the fourth album. But the arrangements show the band at the height of their powers. The amount of musical colour and detail in ‘No Quarter’ is astonishing, and, contrary to the indulgences of their live sets, nothing is present in excess.
The one track I haven’t mentioned is ‘Dancing Days’. This has to be one of the most harmonically inventive hard rock tracks ever recorded. It is built on a sinewy semi-tone riff moving between C# and D over a G chord, punctuated by a blues flat 3rd Bb and rude sixths that poke their tongue out every couple of bars. This has a definite Lydian mode flavour to me. It’s a good example of how a dissonant augmented fourth can have an erotic charge rather than the usual satanic / dark edge of the flat 5. In the verse the band settle into what initially seems like a Stones groove on C, but any comparison with ‘Honky Tonk Women’ goes out the window with the second chord which is based on C# with a tritonal colour. The progression of the verse also uses Bb and A with other odd notes added so the rock rhythm riff is given a Crowleyesque twist. Short and sweet, it is one of those tracks that has the quintessential Zep vibe.
Houses of the Holy remains an unconventional but good way into Led Zeppelin’s music.