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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.
A piece of music which is on my mind very much at present is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, or to give it its English title The Rite Of Spring. 2013 marks the centenary of its first performance on 29 May 1913 in Paris. This centenary is being celebrated all over the world, with live performances, books and CD releases. I’ve a small part in all this, as I’m teaching a course on the Rite for Oxford University Dept. of Continuing Education in the summer.
The first performance of the Rite is legendary because of the so-called ‘riot’ that broke out among the audience. A certain percentage of the audience reacted angrily to the Rite‘s flouting of their expectations of what ballet and music should be. The ballet was created by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, with choreography by Nijinsky and scenery by Nicholas Roerich. The dancers wore costumes, used postures and movements that were contrary to traditional ballet.
The ballet is set in an imaginary ancient Russia and centres on a ritual to bring the spring in which a girl is selected from the tribe and who dances herself to death. As such, it is a work which could be seen to synchronously anticipate the sacrifice of youth during the First World War.
Stravinsky’s music may only have been partially heard. It is recorded that even the large orchestra crammed into the pit at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was often drowned out by the noise from the auditorium, and the dancers often couldn’t hear it. Given the irregular rhythms and time-signatures, this made their task even harder. The legend of this first performance had problematic consequences for the arts in the C20th, since it set up a false expectation that being shocking was a guarantee of a work’s profundity and relevance. Thus, by the late C20th, it became assumed that an audience’s shock was by definition an inauthentic response (which is not the case – sometimes being shocked is an appropriate and human response). But that’s a big topic …
The Rite later became one of the centrepieces of C20th concert-hall music and rightly so. It reached a generation of children via an adulterated version in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. It remains a startling, invigorating and thrilling 35 minutes, in which Stravinsky discovered a new continent of rhythm and harmony which composers have been exploring ever since. His use of dissonance is at times strikingly beautiful. The Rite is also a paradoxical work in which Russian folk tunes are re-worked into irregular un-folk-like forms, just as a sophisticated orchestral score is used to evoke the primitive.
A few weeks ago I heard a live performance of the four-hand piano version made by the composer. With the elaborate orchestration removed, the rhythmic and harmonic effects stand-out in bold relief. I’ve been looking at this version closely myself for the course and it is fascinating. I know of no more unearthly and seemingly inexplicable chord progression than that which forms the introduction to part two of the Rite (which I read recently was originally titled ‘Pagan Night’), where minor triads oscillate over an unrelated D minor. The Rite is full of the most amazing harmonic and melodic sounds which you can never experience if you only listen to popular music.
If you want to explore the Rite there are many orchestral recordings available. There are also recordings of the piano version, though I would not start with this. The films Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and Riot at the Rite evoke something of the reality of the first performance. There is also DVD of a recreation of the original ballet with Gergiev conducting. If you find you like the Stravinsky of the Rite you should explore the earlier ballet Petrouchka and the later Symphony in Three Movements.
In addition to the two out-takes from Atlantic Canticles I’ve started loading a few songs and other music of mine onto Soundcloud.com. These are not downloadable, just for listening. One is an extract from ‘Rainbow Hunter’ which will be on the album and gives a flavour of its style with the combination of guitar and strings.
I hope you’ll visit the site and have a listen. I’m currently swapping the mp3s I loaded for some of them to wav files for better quality of listening.
[photo © Rikky Rooksby 2013]
At last I’ve completed the recording and mixing of my album of guitar instrumentals Atlantic Canticles. It has 18 tracks, about 53 minutes of music. In part it is an exploration of altered tunings which I have often used in songs and were the topic of my book How To Write Songs In Altered Guitar Tunings which came out a couple of years ago. None of the tracks are in standard tuning. Many have additional instruments such as strings rather than being entirely solo guitar. I hope the album will be available for purchase online in a couple of weeks – however long it takes for the uploading / clearance process. There will be a separate page on the website which will have more info, including a set of short comments on the tracks.
In the meantime I have put two outtakes on Soundcloud. The links to these are:
They’re free download mp3s. I hope you enjoy them. The album will be available as mp3 and lossless.
‘Eleanor of Acquifer’ is a sort of companion piece to one of the tracks on the album, ‘Eleanor of Acetylene’. ‘Upon The Printless Sands’ is a variation on another album track ‘Mr Peggotty’s Rag’. For any guitarists reading this I should say that it provides an example of how to get a different slant on a piece by making a small adjustment to the tuning. ‘Mr Peggotty’s Rag’ is in an open tuning in which I left a blue note – a b6 – which then contributed to the ragtime sound by being an open string that could ring dissonantly through the progression. To create ‘Upon The Printless Sands’ I tuned this one note up a semitone to the ‘normal’ sixth. This changed many of the chords from bluesy sevenths into smoother major sevenths. I then slowed the tempo to make it more relaxed and re-wrote several short sections. The title is an allusion to a famous speech by Prospero in The Tempest fused with memories of the beautiful beach of Porthmeor at St Ives in Cornwall pictured above.
I’ve been meaning for some time to write on the subject of British singer-songwriter Kate Bush. She may not be familiar to all visitors to this site. In the UK she has long since attained the status of a musical legend and was recently awarded a CBE for services to British popular music.
Born in 1958, she signed to EMI in the mid-70s when in her mid-teens. The label provided money and time to develop her music before she went into a studio. Her first single ‘Wuthering Heights’ drew lyrically on Emily Bronte’s famous novel and went straight to no.1 in the UK. She was about 20 years old. The single caught people’s attention with its dramatic and often stratospheric vocal and English orchestral backing, and her striking beauty and ability to act out her songs made her TV appearances instantly memorable.
The single (and a follow-up hit ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’) featured on her debut LP The Kick Inside (1978). A second album Lionheart was released not long after. Both drew on a pool of songs written before her public career. The songs on these albums are charming, innocent, and colourful in a number of ways, with above average melodies and harmonic progressions.
A third album Never For Ever (1980) showed her music in transition and with increasing ambition. She was now involved in the production and the arrangements became more adventurous. It seemed she wanted her songs to have an extra-musical dimension, so there is greater use of sound-effects, and she changes her vocal style / accent to fit the subject and / or the persona of a given song. This album included an impressive anti-nuclear song ‘Breathing’.
These trends continued on the darker, more troubled The Dreaming (1982) which has tracks that feature folk instruments and more aggressive use of drums and percussion. By this point Bush had abandoned the usual routines of the pop career, retreating into the studio to concentrate on her music, and shunning live gigs, fame and celebrity. Each of the songs has an arrangement which is like a soundscape for that lyric. The emotional content of the songs is deepening all the time, to the point where by now she is outstripping most of her contemporaries, male or female. Neither the emotion nor the music is ever formulaic.
A decline in her commercial fortunes was remedied by her fifth album Hounds of Love (1985) which yielded several hit singles including ‘Running Up That Hill’. The album was divided between a suite of five songs on side 1 and a concept song-sequence called ‘The Ninth Wave’ on side 2 which showed something of the influence that Pink Floyd had had on her youthful imagination. It doesn’t sound like them, but it is as if she had internalized a feeling that a group of songs could be more expansive and imaginative. Some of the songs on the album were written with a drum machine, as Bush hoped to increase the rhythmic assertiveness of her music.
A more delicate ‘yin’ strength dominates The Sensual World (1989) which is possibly her greatest album. Some of the songs on this album have a truly searing emotional intensity, with guest musicians such as Breton harpist Alan Stivell and violinist Nigel Kennedy playing on ‘Between A Man And A Woman’ and ‘Never Be Mine’, and the plangent harmonies of the Trio Bulgarka appearing on other tracks.
It was another four years before her sixth record The Red Shoes was released. Although this has some great moments, the album is over-long. It can be thought of as Bush’s Blood on the Tracks, a relationship break-up album where there is a slight sense of life experience out-stripping the ability to turn it into the best art at that moment.
Bush did not make another album until 2005, when the double Aerial appeared. This combines a miscellany of songs with another conceptual song-sequence. It has been hailed as her masterpiece, but I personally find some of the musical material uninspired and predictable in a way that the songs on her first album were not. I feel this more strongly with her most recent album 50 Words For Snow where a great idea for a set of songs (snow / night) is doing too much of the work the music should be doing. In these songs musical content is stretched to a point where the uneventfulness is painful. The album lasts around an hour. Debussy’s piano piece ‘Des pas sur la neige’ (Footprints in the snow’ from the Preludes) achieves more in two minutes.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kate Bush is one of the most significant singer-songwriters the UK has produced in the modern era. I see no reason why she should not have more great music in her. Given the importance of her childhood at East Wickham farm and the memories attached to that sense of belonging and inner adventure she could write one of the great albums about the lost domains of childhood. But I think that when she next finds a framework or concept that excites her imagination she needs to find someone who whilst respecting her musical identity can encourage her to re-discover her gift for memorable melody and harmonic progression.
And of course if no-one else is willing I’m happy to volunteer …! :-)
I can’t believe how the time has flown by since I last posted. First, an update on my guitar album Atlantic Canticles. I’ve almost completed the recording. I’m going to have 21 tracks to choose from because another idea turned up a couple of days ago and that turned into a piece which is titled ‘Upon the Printless Sands’. I’m aiming to finish and make available the album by the end of the month. Whether I can do it we shall see …
News in the past few days of the death of Reg Presley of The Troggs. Their hit ‘Wild Thing’ 1966 gained additional fame when it was taken over by Jimi Hendrix (it was the last song he played in his set at Monterey in 1967). It’s quite possible that the song is now more associated with Hendrix than The Troggs. Hendrix’s version may have been more amped-up, but in the context of the chart pop in Britain in 1966 The Troggs’ version did startle by seeming so primitive. Its charming slightly-out-of-tune recorder solo was an early hint of the fey bucolics of the approaching Summer of Love (the recorder in popular music signalling the pastoral).
Another big Troggs hit was ‘Love Is All Around’. I’ve always been immune to this song, regardless of who does it. If you want to hear an infinitely more expressive use of a I-II-IV-V chord progression try R.E.M.’s ‘Fall On Me’.
On the subject of Hendrix it has been frustrating to read news reports of the imminent release of his ‘new’ studio album in March. In fact, almost all these songs have been issued before, if perhaps not in these exact mixes or takes. The 12 songs belong to the album Hendrix was working on at the time of his death which has been released before under the title First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Approach with caution …
King Richard III has been in the news too, since it was confirmed on Monday that DNA testing had demonstrated that the bones found under a Leicester car park were his. A cue for Supergrass’ Britpop hit ‘Richard III’, which has some unusual chord changes.
On the classical front I’ve been enjoying exploring previously unfamiliar music by the Finnish composer Aare Merikanto. I started last year with an Alba SACD of Symphony 1 and 3 (3 is superb and very accessible). I then got hold of two Merikanto discs on Ondine – Piano Concertos 1 & 2, and Works for Orchestra. The slow movements of the piano concertos are very lyrical. The latter disc has the attractive 4 minute ‘Andante Religoso’ which might make a great download if it’s available as such.
It seems that Chandos may have abandoned their cycle of Weinberg symphonies, which is a pity. Some of the missing ones (he wrote at least 22) are appearing on Naxos but not as SACDs. Another label Neos is six CDs into a Weinberg edition but some of those are live recordings and therefore vulnerable to hall noises, coughs, etc. Weinberg is not the most approachable of symphonists, and given the awful life experiences he endured in the USSR, it is not surprising that his music is often bleak. But it has a certain strength and endurance and a feeling that it is made to last, and I’ve enjoyed persevering with it even if the rewards are not immediate. He has been described as one of the three most important Russian-associated composers along with Shostakovich and Prokoviev. If you’ve not heard him the third symphony is a good place to start, along with the cello concerto, both on Chandos.
Last Tuesday around 7.30 am I heard Radio 4 talking about a new single from David Bowie and what a surprise this was. It was apparently making digital waves across social media. They played a snippet. Bowie has never been a central musical figure for me, though I like his glam period, so I haven’t followed his career for sometime. My first impression was how fragile Bowie sounded, and that it was a slow ballad with seemingly nothing out of the ordinary going on. But something about the fragility of the voice piqued my curiosity to hear the song in full and watch its video. A few hours later I found ‘Where Are We Now’ on the web. It was an unexpectedly moving experience.
I haven’t had the opportunity to fully analyse the chord progression, but a couple of listens have made it clear that the verse is in F major and the chorus in C, so there’s a key contrast. This is achieved in a smooth and seamless manner. It’s only when the chorus drops to Em (second chord) from F that you realise it must have changed. The chords of the verse are more complex than first hearing suggests. It is also clear that slash chords and inversions are also playing a part in the expressive effect. The song also makes a seamless transition to an emotional last section which is also a surprise climax. Bowie could easily have milked this, go on repeating it and added more and more to the production, but he shows great taste in just singing this section twice and then backing off. It’s under-stated.
It’s a song soaked with elegiac feeling, as Bowie recounts fragments of his life in Berlin 30 years ago, a Berlin which itself has changed greatly. The video is haunting too. It’s a song that feels like a generational milestone. For people who were teenagers when they discovered Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane it seems almost unbelievable that Bowie can be in his mid-60s. As he once sang, time is waiting in the wings …
I’d like to wish everyone a very Happy New Year. Apparently people from 93 different countries visited the website last year. If you want to receive a notification of my blog please register.
My first task of the 2013 will be to complete the recording of my acoustic guitar album Atlantic Canticles. I’ll be choosing probably 16 out of the 20 tracks I’ve written, so there’s likely to be a free download track.
On Saturday night the 2nd series of the Danish drama series Borgen started transmission on British TV. This reminded me how much I enjoyed the combination of music and graphics on the opening titles. I thought there might be something in the music to comment on from a composer’s point of view. The theme moves through the following chord progression: Cm-D/C-Gm/Bb-C/Bb-Ab-Eb/G-Bbsus4-Bb-Bbm-Abm-Db-Ebm-Cb/Eb-Db-Fm9-Csus4-Cm/maj7-Cm. That’s an approximate description because the rapid keyboard arpeggios add various harmonic colours to these chords every couple of beats. The progression is about 20 bars with mostly one chord to a bar except for Bb-Bbm and Ebm-Cb/Eb which are two beats per chord (a split bar).
The first thing to notice is the number of inversions or slash chords. These keep the progression moving forward and prevent it having the stability of root chords – which is fitting for the fluid world of politics it describes. The second point is the fine temporary key-change that comes into play for the Abm-Db-Ebm-Cb/Eb-Db section, where the Abm is a bit of a shock. The music here is moving into Eb minor or Gb from its home key of C minor which it quickly finds its way back to. The melody is initiated by a powerful motif of an octave leap from G up to G, down to D and then Eb, over a chord of C minor.
It’s not quite as impressive as the theme song of The Bridge, which I discussed last year, but good nonetheless.
The Christmas holiday is fast approaching and the opportunities for recording are getting fewer.
Here’s an update on my acoustic guitar album project. I had hoped to have started recording by now but technical challenges have slowed things down. However, I can report that I have about 19 tracks written, with about 10 or so with additional arrangements. Some of the tracks will be solo guitar, but others have additional instruments such as violin, viola, cello, double bass, woodwind, vibraphone, celesta, chamber strings, and light percussion. None of the tracks are in standard tuning. There’s quite a bit of lyrical music, several more uptempo pieces, including a ragtime piece.
The album title is Atlantic Canticles.
Track titles are : ‘Ticking’, ‘Zennor Knights’, ‘Salt Doll’, ‘Eleanor of Acquifer’, ‘Gull Grey Town’, ‘Sloop Roger B.’, ‘Starlight Dancer’, ‘Postcard From St Ives’, ‘Written On The Roads’, ‘Atlantic Nocturne’, ‘Eleanor of Acetylene’, ‘Mr Peggotty’s Blues’, ‘The Night Above St Ives’, ‘The One Summer’, ‘Rainbow Hunter’, ‘At The Chime Of A Harbour Clock’, ‘Postcard To Denys’, ‘Querulous III’, and ‘Atlantic Canticle’.
I think most of these will be included, depending on running time. More details in the New Year.
While I’ve been re-engaging with various bits of recording equipment I’ve been reminded of past musical song projects which may yet see the light of day, notably an album of songs written in the style of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, a John Barry / rock album called A Kiss In Berlin, and an album of English-themed songs Spitfire Summer. These need re-mixing and possibly a few additional overdubs.
Time to dig out the Christmas music. I’ll be listening to Vaughan Williams’ Symphony 8, Fantasia on Christmas Carols and cantata ‘Hodie’, Prokoviev’s ‘Lieutenant Kije’ suite, Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’, Tveitt’s Piano Concerto no.4, and Peter Warlock’s great carol ‘Bethlehem Down’. And there must be some Sibelius that will suit the season too.
Thanks to everyone who visited the site this year and posted comments. It’s always great to hear from people who have come across my books. I hope you all have a great Christmas holiday and best wishes for the New Year.
P.S. [Christmas Cracker]
If you didn’t see it last year you may find this spoof amusing, which I posted over at the Vienna Symphonic Library: http://community.vsl.co.at/forums/p/30750/196567.aspx#196567