Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

John Barry, Bond, Rubbra, and Kings of Leon

A belated Happy New Year to everyone.

I’ve been busy so far this year with two new ‘classical’ compositions: one lasting 9 minutes for a chamber orchestra, the other for a piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, cello) of about 15 minutes divided into four or five shorter movements.

On the listening front I’ve been impressed by the Kings of Leon song  ‘Pyro’. There’s a good clip on youtube of the band performing this on the BBC TV Jools Holland show. ‘Pyro’ is a good example of a band making the most of a simple chord sequence through a subtle arrangement (the way the two guitars work together, the bass sometimes not playing root notes under the chords, etc) along with an expressive melody.

Toward the end of last year I started listening to all eleven symphonies of English composer Edmund Rubbra in sequence. Listening chronologically reveals various ways in which a composer develops his or her musical style and language. Rubbra is a subtle and metaphysical composer whose music takes patience to get to know. At present I think the best of the symphonies is no.7 but 5, 6 and 11 also seem to hold the promise of great things once they are familiar.

A symphony of about 30-40 minutes contains a vast amount of musical information and I find it usually takes about six listens (and I mean listening, not having the music as background) before its underlying shape emerges from the intial fog of the unfamiliar. The challenge is heightened because there is far less repetition in ‘classical’ music than in popular songs and repetition increases the speed with which we assimilate music. With more listens more detail emerges and eventually you can reach a point where you know what is coming on a bar by bar basis.

I attended a fine performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5 conducted by Andre Previn in London a few weeks ago. If you have never heard this work I urge you to do so – it is one of the greatest of C20th symphonies. Try Vernon Handley’s recording which is a budget price CD or Sir John Barbirolli’s 1963 performance for a slightly more romantic version.

Last Monday the death of the film composer John Barry was announced. He had a remarkable career and has a claim to be considered one of the greatest British film composers post-1960. I have always had a soft spot for the first six Bond soundtracks. Barry’s music was among the first I heard which made me feel how expressive, sensual, mysterious and potent certain types of dissonance could be. The Bond films have for me long ago lost the glamour and excitement they exuded when I was a child, but in Barry’s music the spell remains unbroken. The chord sequence for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ is a brilliant invention, as are those in ‘Thunderball’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and I also liked the ‘Theme From The Persuaders’. Barry’s feel was quite influential on much left-field popular music in the 1990s.

When I was writing for UK’s Making Music magazine in the 1990s I interviewed session guitarist Vic Flick who played on the Bond films in the 1960s, including the famous Bond theme. He had the actual guitar with him that he used on that 1962 session and was kind enough to show me the fingering he used for the last chord (a clanging Em9/maj7 – 0-10-9-8-7-x on the guitar). A great chord – but almost impossible to use anywhere else because it is so distinctive.

I’m currently writing an extended article about Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. It will be 40 years this April since the band unveiled their new song on an In Concert BBC radio show and 40 years in November that it was released as track 4, side 1 of the untitled album most of us refer to as Led Zeppelin IV. More about this article on ‘Stairway’ anon.

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One response

  1. bill

    I have not heard of these composers but will check them out. Your books have really helped me understand song structure and I look forward to more books from you. Thanks
    Bill

    February 3, 2011 at 12:50 am

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