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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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32196117

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDfyBQSeav0

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZmIJewRdLQ            from 9:19

Roy Harris 7 drum-driven coda

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvNWrTAdm28         from about 18 mins

Atterberg 6 mvt 2

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inD9pgVtswA           from 10:07

Nielsen 6 2nd mvt Humoureske

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRLT5vq1weM          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 …

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