About a month has passed since my last blog. Since then I’ve been busy with getting the material together for my teaching on the Oxford Experience Summer School. This year two of my five courses are music-oriented. There’s the ever-popular ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain’ and a new one called ‘From the blues to a Symphony’. I spent a few days gathering several hundred music examples for this course. It begins with a look at the simplest musical forms (folk song, blues, rock’n’roll), moves gradually through various examples of popular music, reaching long songs by Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Television and Pink Floyd by mid-week. At that point it switches into the classical field with solo guitar and piano pieces, then chamber pieces, then orchestra and finally looking at the symphony. Where else would Charles Ives rub shoulders with Soundgarden, Carl Nielsen with Radiohead, or Jean Sibelius with David Bowie?
I guess I should mention that the 40th anniversary Ziggy Stardust album reissue does include some 5.1 high-quality mixes – but not on SACD, rather DVD-A.
In the course of my guitar teaching I’ve been reminded of a couple of songs that make great use of triads and pedal notes – namely, ‘Turn It On Again’ by Genesis and ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ by Tears For Fears. There’s nothing like it for instantly creating a dramatic element to a song. I’ve also been reminded of Jackson Browne’s 1976 hit ‘The Pretender’, which is a lovely song, though I always felt he took quite a risk in the lyric by using so many polysyllabic rhymes on the conspicious ‘-ender’ sound (fender, tender, pretender, vendor, etc). I can never quite suppress the impulse to add some irreverent extra line about ‘going on a bender’. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackson Browne back in the 90s for Making Music magazine.
Another thing which has emerged from recent guitar lessons is the question of the relevance of much info deemed essential when you are learning how to play lead guitar. Tutorial books and guitar magazines often over-theorize this topic, implying you need at least half a dozen different scales and scores of fingerboard patterns before you can play a decent solo. This is, of course, untrue. Bringing some clarity to this guitar topic is going to be part of my (probable) next songwriting book.
In the meantime, here are some tips. First, don’t bother learning five sequential positions for a pentatonic starting on the sixth string. I recommend only the ‘first’ shape and the ‘fourth’ shape. For A pentatonic minor that means 5th fret starting on A and 12th fret starting on E. Second, learn a pattern that starts on the sixth string and one that starts on the fifth string for the same root note because they will always cover different areas on the neck. Third, when using scale patterns to play lead, spend most of your time on strings 1-4. Only occasionally do lead lines do much on the 5th and 6th strings because those notes will tend not to cut through the accompaniment (and the lower down in pitch the truer this is).
Chord of the month: x05587. Am9. Try lifting 8 and 7 off also.
I managed to get to London recently and paid a visit to Classical Music Exchange in Notting Hill. It is now above one of their other music shops rather than having one of its own, but is still worth a visit. Among my finds were an SACD of Danish composer Rued Langgaard’s string quartets (vol.1) on Da Capo. From the bits I’ve heard so far the sound is fantastic and the string writing a wonderful mix of styles. Langgaard is gradually building a posthumous reputation, with about 17 symphonies to his name, though in his lifetime he got very little attention and was often dismissed as too conservative and old-fashioned. It is a familiar story. I also made a discovery in a disc of Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg’s Symphonies 3 and 6. His idiom is melodic and very listenable. The slow movement on no.6 is quite haunting.
On the subject of symphonies I’ve recently been corresponding with critic and musicologist David Fanning who is a big enthusiast for Weinberg (mentioned in an earlier blog). He has written an excellent essay on C20th symphony that will appear in a Cambridge Companion to the Symphony due out later in the year. If anyone needs a book recommendation for the symphony get a copy of Robert Layton’s superb paperback A Guide to the Symphony (OUP, 1995). The various writers included do a fine job at evoking the inspirational and sublime potential of the form which makes exploring the symphonic repertoire such an amazing adventure.
From mid-August I hope to do some recording.