Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Author Archive

When strings are the thing

Yesterday I completed my latest entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The subject was the orchestrator and arranger Paul Buckmaster who died in 2017. Researching his life for this it was startling to discover how many famous songs he had been involved with; in particular, his contribution to enromous hits like Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’, and Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’ (an interesting arrangement comparison to be made in that last case with the Badfinger original). I would also add a personal favourite, the 1970 hit ‘I Will Survive’ (not the Gloria Gaynor song) by Liverpool group Arrival, which has Buckmaster’s trademark dramatic strings. (Decent audio for this song is hard to find – this is a nice tribute)

Buckmaster was not merely arranging in the limited meaning of working only within what was written by his clients. The harmonic and instrumental simplicity of the unadorned songs meant an orchestrator often composed significant additional melodic material, adding to the musical richness of the final mix. Nowhere is this more true than his handling of ‘Moonlight Mile’, from the Rolling Stones’  Sticky Fingers (1971). Around the droning, open-tuned G major pentatonics of the acoustic guitar and Jim Price’s crystalline piano, Buckmaster created a gathering surge of string melody. It lifted ‘Moonlight Mile’ from prettiness into soulful grandeur, giving the Stones’ music a rare moment of redemption from their usual satanic and hedonistic energies.


Remembering Alice

Last week I launched a Facebook group dedicated to the memory of Alice Ormsby-Gore (1952-95). Alice was the youngest daughter of the fifth Lord Harlech, David Ormsby-Gore who served as British Ambassador to Washington in the early 1960s and a close friend of John F. Kennedy. She came into my awareness initially through my knowledge of the life of Marc Bolan, especially from 2015 when I was drawn into researching his musical life in more detail. For a brief period from mid-1969 to 1971 Alice was a friend of Marc’s wife June Child, and was a partner for Eric Clapton until 1974. Alice, Marc and June were captured together in a delightful group of photos taken in 1969 by Marc’s friend and official Tyrannosaurus Rex photographer Peter Sanders. (You can see these images on the FB group page). Music was very important to Alice on many levels. In 2019 I found myself pulled deeper into Alice’s own story which is almost unbearably tragic. From that came a desire to at least remember that life in some form. By the end of 2019 I had a rough 15,000 word biography sketch which I’ve used to update and expand her wikipedia page. I hope the new FB group will provide a place where people can place memories or further information.


Spring Greetings

Some news after a long, long break from posting here.

Like many, I have switched some of my teaching online via Zoom. Get in touch if you are interested in guitar, bass, songwriting and other music online tutorials. I can also work with people who have copies of my books and would like to discuss and go through them together.

To get in touch, leave a comment at the foot of the page. You can also find me on Facebook.

This year should see the 3rd edition of How To Write Songs On Guitar in its 20th Anniversary year. It has been revised with a little new material, a re-write, a new layout and a general polish. I hope this will be the first of several revised editions of the series.

Stay well.


A new piece for strings

I have today uploaded a new piece for string orchestra to http://www.soundcloud.com The link is

 

I started this back in mid-August and have worked on it on and off. It wasn’t quite what I thought would be my next composition but as is the way with these things it wanted to go a certain way and so I went with it.

The main folklike melody (A) is hinted at in the intro before a dark waltz (B) takes over. The folk melody is then heard and then it leads to an extended contrasting C section where a hint of the folk tune appears but with the rhythmic pulse suspended for a few bars. The dark waltz returns for an extended expression, with a key-change half-way before the music breaks down into a D section which hints at the folk tune in a deformed state. This leads to a full reprise of the A section with the lower strings playing a counter-melody.

I hope you enjoy listening to it – the duration is about 8 minutes.


Jerry Donahue

I read today that a year ago Jerry Donahue, the American guitarist famous for his string-bending style, suffered a severe stroke which means he may not play again. So I want to draw attention to a piece of film which captures the genius of his playing. It’s an extract from a 1987 Equinox documentary about the electric guitar. It stunned many guitarists when it was first broadcast and continues to be an inspiration. Here is the youtube link and Jerry starts playing ‘The Claw’ at 8:40 into the track.

 

 

I think this clip deserves a special place in the recorded history of the guitar because of its influence and impact. Very few guitarists ever do something like that, which sets such a benchmark.


New Paths in an Old Forest

One of my all-time favourite symphonies is the Fifth by the Finn Jean Sibelius. I’m certainly not alone in this because the Fifth is one of the most-played of C20th symphonies. I have a number of recordings and have heard it live on many occasions, including in Finland. In 1997 the label BIS, who recorded a complete 80-hour edition of Sibelius’ music, released a CD with two versions of the Fifth, one of which had never been heard before: an original version from 1915, pre-dating the final version by four years. During that time Sibelius made many revisions small and large to the music.

I had avoided this disc, concerned that hearing an alternate version might spoil how I heard the Fifth. However, a couple of weeks ago I found a secondhand copy. It has been a revelation and a huge pleasure, and I am so grateful to BIS for making it available. I know the Fifth so well that I can appreciate every change Sibelius made. From a composer’s perspective it is fascinating to hear the decisions Sibelius took to make the Fifth the focused masterpiece it is, but some of what he changed or cut out is almost as beautiful. I would compare the experience to finding new paths through an old and familiar forest. If you follow the final path you get familiar rewards. But the 1915 version is like wandering off the usual path and experiencing more of the forest which surrounds the usual path. (It’s on youtube, along with an astonishing quantity of Sibelius’ music).


Marc Bolan 1947-77

Last Saturday saw the 40th anniversary of the death of the English rock musician / songwriter Marc Bolan. It was marked by two new documentaries, on BBC4 and Sky Arts, and a celebratory gig in West London. I saw and enjoyed the BBC4 film which had some fresh material.

For those of my subscribers who are outside the UK, I should mention that Marc Bolan’s group T. Rex were the Top 40 sensation of 1971-72, having a run of hit singles and several successful albums which lasted well into 1973. The hysterical reaction of fans at live T Rex gigs drew comparisons with Beatlemania. During the late 60s Bolan had been part of a mostly acoustic duo Tyrannosaurus Rex playing to a hippie / underground / student audience. The four albums released under that name 1968-70 had Bolan writing poetic lyrics which seemed like postcards from a Tolkeinish world of his own invention – pastoral, innocent and enchanted.

As he gradually introduced electric guitar these lyrical preoccupations faded, but there was enough of that enchantment hanging over to make the early T. Rex quartet’s music a special blend of magic and rock’n’roll such as has never been heard in the Top 40 before or since. Who else but Marc would put in ‘Get It On’ a line like ‘You’re an untamed youth … (name-checking an Eddie Cochran film) … with your cloak full of eagles’, not to mention the ‘hubcap diamond star halo’ and the ‘teeth of the Hydra’. Along the way he almost single-handedly invented glam rock, dressing up on Top of the Pops a year before Bowie put his arm round Mick Ronson for ‘Starman’.

Sadly, the decline, musical and personal, was precipitous from 1974 on. But the inspiration from that earlier music has lasted a lifetime for me. T. Rex were the first rock band I saw live, and made me want to take up playing guitar and writing songs. Bolan’s example is for songwriters an encouragement, in terms of how much you can do with little material if the creative energy is high, and how you can get stuck if you don’t care enough about the parameters of your music. He also had a wonderful palette of electric guitar tones which are tricky to emulate. But in recent years a few of them have come alive under my fingers, and that has been a thrill.


Music in the cinema

Two recent trips to the cinema provided some food for thought about the way music is used and abused on film soundtracks.

A few months ago I saw A Quiet Passion, the biopic about the US poet Emily Dickinson, which closes in a gloomy mood. As the final credits rolled on the emotional unfulfilment of her life, slow-moving strings provided the accompaniment. These caught my ear first for their beauty but immediately after because I recognized them. They were written by the composer Charles Ives and were taken from his 1908 piece The Unanswered Question. What was striking was that the trumpet part and the woodwind quartet which are integral to the piece were both missing. I felt this was a typical example of the film industry’s disregard for the artistic integrity of musical works, which it has often cut and paste for its own purposes.

More recently I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, about the legendary few days in June 1940 when the British army was evacuated from northern France. The film was impressive in many ways, and the musical score had a crucial role in piling on the sense of tension with a series of dissonant repeated-motifs which gradually accelerated. In its own terms I thought this was very effective.

The surprising moment came toward the end of the film when a moment of small triumph and pride was supported by a brief statement of the melody of Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ – one of the Enigma Variations, deeply associated with English history and still played at many commemorative events. But the melody was played on synthesized strings and at a drastically slower pace, so that I think many people would not have recognized it. This fitted the nightmarish feeling of the events unfolding on the beach and in the sea.

During August I taught a week-long course on Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring. Always on that course several people will mention how their first exposure to the music was on the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia, where a mangled version of parts of the Rite accompany the dinosaurs. It takes awhile to get those images out of the way, but the film at least brought something of Stravinsky’s idiom to a much-bigger young audience.


In harmony with enharmony

It is a truism that there are always new things to find on an instrument. I was reminded of this transcribing a song by Elvis Costello for a guitar student.

The song featured a rising bass line where an inverted chord was succeeded by a root chord. Such bass-lines are common in more sophisticated songwriting, enjoyed by songwriters and listeners alike for the feeling of mobile ingenuity they convey. I found myself looking on the guitar for a playable G# chord with B# as the bass note. G# major is usually fretted (466544) with a standard barre chord. Initially, I couldn’t find one where B# would be the lowest note – and then saw a solution by using enharmonic equivalence.

It’s a simple concept. Western music has 12 notes, five of which have two names each. They are enharmonically equivalent. These are the sharp / flat notes (A#/Bb, C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb. G#/Ab), the black keys on a piano. Which name is used depends on musical context, and sometimes this has significant musical consequences.

I found the shape I needed by thinking of G#/B# as its enharmonic equivalent Ab/C. Straightaway this shape – x3111x – presented itself and fitted nicely into the sequence.  Problem solved.

In classical music composers make inventive use of this kind of substitution on a grand scale. The first movement of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no 5 (1943)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2KRwy5Hcqc

begins ambiguously hovering between tonalities of D and C. At 2:15 the music darkens into an overcast C minor before achieving a startling and joyous shift into E major at 3:22, as though the sun had broken out. The keys of C minor and E major are distant from each other – three flats versus four sharps – so it would seems that moving from one to another might be a big step. To establish the key of E major the note D# is important. But how can it appear in C minor? The answer is the note is already there, disguised as the enharmonic, Eb. By treating the one note differently the key change is facilitated.


Sgt Pepper at 50

I’ve been following recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in general and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in particular. 1967 seems an awful long time ago now, not only chronologically but culturally. There is something archetypally magnetic about the Summer of Love, even when one rationally considers that if its idealism had been all that it has been made out to be it would not have foundered quite as soon as it did.

The BBC screened a good documentary last week with Howard Goodall providing the analysis – it was commendable in its focus on musical details of song composition or recording technique. I’ve enjoyed listening to the early takes featured as a companion disc to the CD of new stereo mixes. It is fascinating to listen in on the work-in-progress and marvel at what the Beatles were doing within the confines of 4-track recording. People who go for the full box-set which has much more of that stuff will be in for a treat.

The instrumental version of ‘Penny Lane’ shows the much-discussed influence of Pet Sounds on the Beatles, to the extent that at the earlier stages it could almost be a backing track for a Beach boys song. Those on-the-beat piano chords are typical of the way Brian Wilson had been writing songs. Had I time I would be tempted to write and record a Pet Sounds-style vocal and lyric over that backing track to see what that would be like.

It is great that almost all of the Beatles time in the recording studio has been preserved. Sadly this is not the case for many groups and hits of the 60s and 70s. Even major bands like The Who have lost multi-track recordings. I was once told an amusing if horrifying story about what happened to one multitrack of a very successful 70s rock band. The tape was stored on top of a Marshall 4×12 cabinet. When it was retrieved for a new mix the tape was discovered to be blank – the magnets in the speakers had wiped everything!

Sgt Pepper is an album I’ve always admired though it hasn’t been a particular favourite. But my recent listening to it and reflecting on the album’s spirit of adventure has made me like it rather more. It is worth mentioning in connection with its status as a work of musical art that it is the only rock album covered in Cambridge University Press’s excellent handbook series, among about two dozen classical milestones.


Music and novels

I’ve recently read a number of novels where classical music is a strong concern. Aside from their inherent interest, I am planning a course for the summer of 2018 that will cover a few of these novels and branch out to explore the music they mention.

Some years ago I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (a satire featuring rival composers) and  Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music (features a string quartet). In the past few months I’ve read two novels about Shostakovich: Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (about the Seventh symphony and the siege of Leningrad). I’ve also read Natasha Solomons’ The Song Collector (which touches on folk song collecting and mid-C20th English music), Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.

The Barnes novel I recommend because the writing is concise and thoughtful, and effectively terrifying in places in evoking the horrible stresses of life in a totalitarian regime, though it relies so much on biography I’m not sure it qualifies as a novel at all. I think it was Barnes who wrote an interesting short story ‘Silence’ about Sibelius and the mystery of the Eighth symphony.

Powers’ Orfeo is, for all its faults, a must-read for anyone interested in music as a life-changing phenomenon which goes far beyond just entertainment. This novel is saturated with musical reference at every turn, whether at the small level of metaphor and simile, epigraphs and quotations, to substantial digressions on several famous pieces, such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Meanwhile Thomas Mann’s C20th landmark and lengthy music novel Doctor Faustus awaits …

Recent music I’ve enjoyed includes French songs from the late 1960s by Serge Gainsbourg, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa,  John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, and Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.


Rautavaara’s Scandi noir, with Angels

In recent years UK media have been celebrating so-called ‘Scandi-noir’ crime shows and fiction. As usual, this focus on Nordic countries hasn’t generally extended as far as music. I’ve been listening again recently to Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer who died at the age of 87 at the end of July. According to Guy Rickards’ Guardian obituary he wrote eight symphonies, nine operas, 12 instrumental (and one choral) concertos, plus a wide variety of orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral and vocal works.

He had an interesting development as a composer, gradually re-embracing tonal music in a neo-romantic style which by the end of the C20th made him Finland’s most well-known composer since Sibelius. There was a mystical side to his music and outlook, and references to angels occur in a number of his pieces (and this long before angels were made fashionable by New Age spirituality).

Like many, I discovered him through accidentally catching his Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) on the radio. This haunting 20 minute three-movement piece features the orchestra playing melancholic and reflective music over a tape of birds recorded at the Arctic Circle.  You can find it on a Naxos budget CD along with his Piano Concerto and Third Symphony. The symphony has long been a favourite of mine, sounding like a compressed Bruckner with strong Sibelian overtones. Initially I couldn’t make much of the Piano Concerto, but I’ve revisited it recently and now greatly enjoy it, and I can also recommend the first movement of his Symphony 1.

Discovering Rautavaara came at a significant moment for me, because it was a reassurance that my intended journey into C20th classical music would turn up many gems. And so it has proved over the past 18 years.


Rock-Ola Rainbow now available

One of my songs ‘Rock-Ola Rainbow’ is now downloadable from amazon.com as an mp3. It is taken from a forthcoming album called ‘Rock-Ola Blue’. Here is the link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rock-Ola-Rainbow/dp/B01LX6LFXM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475510751&sr=8-1&keywords=Rock-Ola+Rainbow

I hope you like it.

 


Postcard from Berlin

At the end of last week I was in Berlin for four days. It is a very stimulating city with an extraordinary recent history. C21st Berlin is a place of great energy looking to the future. Unexpectedly, I had two memorable musical experiences while I was there.

The first was seeing the new Beatles film Eight Days A Week which narrates their career as a touring band. It opens with wonderfully vivid colour footage of them playing in England in winter 1963 and goes through to the final concert at Candlestick Park and the retreat to the studio in 1966. The film didn’t tell me anything new about this story, but it offers much visually and in terms of restored audio. There was a bonus film of 30 minutes from Shea Stadium. The older I get the more extraordinary it seems that there once was a time when the Beatles were a recording band, writing songs the world had not heard, and also that McCartney and Lennon once shared a stage.

The film’s release is accompanied by a CD Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I never bought the 1977 vinyl release of this music, and so it was all fresh. This version brings out what great rock’n’roll vocalists both John and Paul were.

The second musical experience in Berlin was hearing the US composer John Adams conduct two of his own works at the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a striking modern concert hall and the orchestra sounded great. The second work was a German premiere, Scherazade.2 whose anti-patriarchal programme I whole-heartedly agreed with. The music had many enchanting and lyrical passages, with Adams making use of the cimbalom – hot often heard in orchestral music. I thought it too long by about 10 minutes (it lasted almost 50). It is difficult to sustain an enchanted, lyrical mood without strong melody and mostly here by texture. I also heard some Sibelius quotes which were curious; I’d like to know how intentional they were. Adams describes it as a ‘dramatic symphony’ but I feel four-movement violin concerto is closer.

So, the Beatles and John Adams in successive nights out.

My other remaster purchase has been the upgraded Led Zeppelin at the BBC. I first heard some of these radio broadcasts on bootleg back in the early 1980s and welcomed the original double CD release some years back, but regretted the omission of an explosive ‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ from the 1971 in concert. That is now present on this 3-CD version, which captures Zep full of youthful energy.


September return

My first post in awhile. Since I last wrote I’ve had six weeks of busy teaching – I taught three courses on the Oxford Experience – British Popular Music 1963-73 excluding the Beatles, Symbolist to Modernist 1880-1930 which includes Sibelius and Nielsen, and the Battle of Britain; I also taught a three-week version of Symbolist to Modernist which gave me time to look at some Modernist texts and music, bringing in Stravinsky, for example. With my friend Roger Dalrymple I also played two sets of guitar songs for the Oxford Experience.

My book Chord Master’s revised edition is now out. Among the revisions were an expansion of the musical examples for the benefit of beginners. This came out of my guitar teaching experience, where I have noted that not everyone can manage standard open chord shapes which we take for granted.

I look forward to seeing the new Beatles’ film Eight Days A Week, especially as I will be teaching my course on the Beatles at the Oxford Experience in 2017.

I’ve been enjoying a double CD (Brilliant Classics 95221) of classical guitar pieces by the Polish composer Alexander Tansman (1897-1986). His music has been recorded more in the past fifteen years or so and I discovered him via his symphonies on Chandos, especially no 7 which is close to Stravinsky’s sound-world albeit with a slightly lighter and more lyrical aspect. The guitar pieces sound very fresh and full of strong melodies and interesting harmonies.

During the period from April to mid-June I spent much time preparing three albums of songs for release. This comprises some 54 songs. I was interrupted in finishing the artwork for the covers by the summer school teaching.  One of the tracks ‘Rock-Ola Rainbow’ will be available at amazon.com in a few weeks.

 

egafm

In the meantime I have posted one of the out-takes onto http://www.soundcloud.com where my other music is online to hear. I hope you enjoy this light-hearted song, looking back on a time when electric guitars were hip new technology and also its reminiscence of what it feels like to stare in music shop windows wishing you could afford one …

 

 


Visions of box-sets

It’s amazing how the time goes. Several months have passed since I last blogged. I’m pleased to report that I have been busy with my own music, transferring four-track and eight-track recordings from cassettes and reel-to-reel onto the Tascam DP32SD. I have had some problems with the infamous ‘sticky shed’ syndrome, where tape reels start to break down. I have tried baking a few using a food dehumidifier with a good temperature control but with limited results. I seem to have about half a dozen reels which are not going to be of any use. Fortunately, I already have some stereo mixes for the songs on those reels.

I’m currently working on polishing a group of about 32 songs which I wrote and recorded around 1997-98 under the name of Rumble Strip. I discovered later that there is, or was, a band called The Rumble Strips, so I may have to use a different name for public release. These songs are mostly uptempo rock numbers with plenty of guitar. I drew on my love of T Rex for these, so if you like the glam/cosmic/wierd/guitar riffery and groove of that band you’ll like these. I’ve recently found a patch within a multi-fx unit which does a great job at capturing Marc Bolan’s guitar tone on tracks like ‘The Slider’.

I’m doing various new overdubs on these songs, partly to fill in the arrangements where I had originally just run out of tracks on the 8-track tape, and also doubling parts where the sound quality on the original has lost its sparkle due to age. I’m currently planning to write some new ones and group the songs into three conventional-length albums of about 40-45 minutes each. All the copying and recording is being done at 24-bit/48khz.

Eventually this is leading hopefully to a box-set in which I will gather together several hundred songs.

Perhaps this is a good moment to remind readers of this blog that my album of finger-pick guitar instrumentals Atlantic Canticles is available for purchase from amazon.com.

Otherwise I’m currently reading a new book on Nick Drake published by Reverb which looks at the theme of Englishness in his music and reception. This week I’m giving a lecture/ talk on conflict and resolution in the symphony, so I’ve been listening to Shostakovich 5 and 7 amongst others and will at some point be reading Julian Barnes’ novel about the composer. I can also recommend Roderick Williams’ re-imaging of William Byrd’s C16th choral work Ave Verum Corpus. I heard this on the radio yesterday morning and its amazing harmonies caught my ear. Wow, I thought, that’s pretty far-out for Byrd, as one chord dissonantly slid over another … was he really doing things like that 400 years ago!? And then came the announcement that it was a re-working by a contemporary composer. It’s available on CD and I’ll be getting a copy.


Smashing and not so smashing

Last week watching a BBC2 TV programme about what Britain was like in the 1960s for an average family I was confronted by the horrible spectacle of the featured Mum, Dad and two children smashing up an old upright piano. The programme claimed that this was the era when the home piano was replaced by the TV set. Archive film showed people smashing up a piano. This archive film – ghastly enough – was adequate for making the point. But that wasn’t enough for the producers who required the family to act this out and smash up the piano outside their house. The word ‘philistine’ has not yet outlived its usefulness.

I was genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction I felt to this. The next day I found myself reflecting on why. It felt like an act of cultural barbarism. The piano is a symbol of several centuries of Western music – both its own repertoire and that of all the composers who have created orchestral music on its magic keys. Symbolically, to smash one up is to reject all that beauty and all the music that still waits within those keys, and to delude oneself into thinking that you are superior for doing it.

This made me think also about the role of destruction in rock music in the past. As a teenager I saw film footage of the Who smashing up instruments and of course Hendrix at Monterey setting fire to a Strat in 1967. These were presented as though they were artistic acts of merit to which I should give my approval. Talking heads on current rock documentaries are still doing it. But even as a teenager I felt uncomfortable and not at all thrilled or excited by these spectacles, and they seem utterly tawdry now.

I remember reading that Ravi Shankar, the Indian master of the sitar, who was at Monterey, was horrified by this destruction of the musician’s creative tool by musicians. For him, it was almost a kind of blasphemy against the spirit of music.

It is telling also that Pennebaker’s film of Hendrix captures the expressions of women in the audience, and they too look disturbed and not at all excited. That too is revealing about something ugly in the dark side of the Sixties.

An act of guitar-smashing also has featured in my thoughts in my writing and research of a book about Marc Bolan. In April 1971, on a tour of the US, he threw his valuable Les Paul across a stage in a fit of frustration and broke the neck. This act was not a calculated piece of stage performance but a genuine loss of self-control. It revealed his inner turmoil and a kind of loss of a state of musical grace.

Marc Bolan had only owned the guitar for about a year and when he first got it he described it as ‘the love of his life’ … which is probably a suitable transition to wish everyone a happy valentine’s day with the love of your life – strings attached or no strings attached ….


Underarm Recording Studios

A couple of weeks ago I invested in a new piece of musical equipment: a Tascam DP32SD recorder:tascam dp32sd

Tascam have been making portastudios for several decades now, in varying sizes. The portastudio brought multi-track recording within the reach of amateur songwriters and musicians, and became a useful tool for professionals to make demos of ideas prior to recording a single or album in a fully-equipped studio.

It is a remarkable unit, and measures only 13 inches by 20. It does multi-track recording (up to 32 tracks it seems) and also has some useful effects processing built-in, including reverb, compression, and eq. You can make a recording, mix it down and make a master file all within the Tascam. In the past these tasks often involved separate hardware.

Originally, the various stages of making a recording were represented by individual physical units: a recording device (magnetic tape once, then digital hard drive, and now SD micro cards in the DP32), a mixing desk, a number of sound processors such as a reverb / delay, compression, etc, and a second recorder on which to capture the stereo mix. In the domestic audio market the decades have seen increasing miniaturisation. I got this Tascam to create space in my music room and to have a recorder with minimal setting up, since creative time is hard to find. It’s early days with the Tascam but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how straight-forward the basic operations seem to be.

The acquisition has brought back fond memories of my purchase back in the late 1980s of one of Tascam’s first such recorders – the Porta One:

Tascam Porta One

This analogue recorder taught many people the basics of recording. It only recorded four tracks onto a cassette tape, so the sound quality was not great (the DP32SD can record at 24bit / 48khz – better than CD quality). It was possible to make a basic guitar band demo by recording drums and rhythm guitar, then bass guitar, on tracks 1-3. The drums and bass could be bounced onto track 4, freeing 1 and 3. A second guitar could go on track 3 and a vocal on track 1. When the recording was mixed down into stereo that meant there would be a guitar on left and right and everything else in the middle. The limits of four-track recording meant you had to be disciplined about making creative decisions that could not be fixed later. And the cost? In the late 80s this tape cassette portastudio would cost what in today’s money would be about £1000. The Tascam DP32SD can be found for about a third of that!


About a strange young man named Bowie …

I hope everyone had a good holiday break and I send best wishes for 2016.

January has recently developed a habit of springing nasty surprises, and did it again this year with the death of David Bowie. I’ve been reflecting on this event and the response to it. Bowie has had a lot of coverage and I think on the whole this is merited. It is hard to think of a comparably major figure in British popular music from the late 60s / 70s who could compare in terms of influence. I’m not sure that the emphasis in his career on image and necessary reinvention has always been a good thing for popular music as music, but it has certainly had an impact.

For a few years in the early to mid-70s he made a lot of music I really enjoyed and most of it still sounds great.  The songwriting on Hunky Dory is agile and intelligent (the title of this blog alludes to the LP’s song for Dylan); Ziggy Stardust was a blast; and Aladdin Sane a heady cocktail of apocalypse and decadence. There were some great singles too, such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’. I was too much into rock music at that time to have much sympathy for his swerve into plastic soul on Young Americans, but liked ‘Golden Years’ and very much ‘TVC15’. Much later I properly got into Station To Station. The Berlin period didn’t connect and neither did much of his music in the 80s, though ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was compelling in its haunting revisiting of Major Tom (and who could resist that sardonic, knowing voice answering the lead vocal at various points?).

Bowie was not a one-man band and some of his achievement depends upon the contributions of others. Mention should be made of the wonderful guitar riffs and tone that Mick Ronson brought to Bowie’s music. Even after all these years there is something still exciting about strapping on a Les Paul, clicking on the right distortion, and attacking the guitar parts on  ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’ and ‘Jean Genie’. Dirty sweet glam riffola. I think also of producer Tony Visconti’s input.

Three other songs I’d mention: I’ve always loved the early ‘Letter For Hermione’. ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a song which brilliantly captures the generational divide between the 60s and the 70s the way ‘My Generation’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘San Francisco’ did in their time. One of Bowie’s greatest moments as a lyricist is the lines: ‘Well my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got off on that revolution stuff / What a drag … too many snags …’ The division runs right through the family.

One thing that I have not seen written about is that in 1972-73 rock critics were actually divided about Bowie specifically and glam rock generally. Some of them felt that this was a betrayal of the counter-cultural force of rock music. Glam was too show-bizzy and trivial and apolitical. The authenticity of rock was being undermined by artifice, by dressing-up, by pretence. You can see how a figure like Bowie pretending to be Ziggy Stardust would be a nexus point for this argument. Of course with hindsight we can see that certain aspects of glam were political, just in a different arena to the one the hippies had focused on.

The out-pouring of emotion for Bowie from those old enough to remember those days is also clearly about the way it reminds them (us) of our mortality. This generation has clung more to youth than early ones, and has had this reinforced partly by the recycling of albums from that era, and also by living in a culture in which youth remains everything. There is no counterbalancing force celebrating the second half of life. To us it feels as though there is something fundamentally wrong with a universe in which Bowie is not physically present. And we feel this at present even if he has meant little to us musically for a very long time.

I’ve left one song unmentioned, one which I blogged about in 2013: ‘Where Are We Now’. Much of what I’ve felt this week I felt on its release. Ironically, it is wonderfully authentic in its evocation of personal memories for Bowie and has a haunting video with it.

 

 


As the Winter Solstice approaches

As we approach the end of 2015 I have been reflecting on a year of listening to symphonies – well over 300 now – on the home straight I’m picking my way through the Russian Miaskovsky’s 27 (bought as a box-set sometime back). I continue to find every now and then an inspiring new work in the genre. Last week I heard a live radio broadcast from London which included Alan Hovhaness’ Second, titled ‘the Mysterious Mountain’. Earlier in the year I listened to two of his later symphonies (he wrote 67! far too many!) and didn’t enjoy them, but no.2 got through, even if I’m not sure how truly symphonic it is. It is the sort of piece I would recommend to someone new to the classical field – melodious, wonderful harmonies, not too long. You can find it on youtube:

All of these experiences will feed into my book on the symphony.

I enjoyed the Beatles remastered One CD/blu-ray when that was released awhile back. I also found a stunning performance of ‘Little Girl Blue’ by Janis Joplin on youtube on the Tom Jones TV show from 1969. This was always one of my favourite Joplin tracks on CD and to watch her do a live performance which is so touching was great. The link is

Notice how different her demeanour is to the singers of today – tentative to start, something slightly awkward and gauche – yet those are the very things that make her so affecting. The phrase that always chokes me up is at the end of the second verse where she suddenly exclaims ‘Ooh I know you’re unhappy!’. Then she really opens out and goes up a gear for the last verse. Only the very last sign-off line doesn’t quite match the sweetness of the studio cut, but otherwise … how moving.

For something different in the way of Christmas music try Arnold Bax’s On Christmas Eve tone poem or Kate Bush’s ‘December Will Be Magic Again’.

I hope you all have a magical Christmas and thanks for subscribing to this blog through 2015.


Latest news

I’m pleased to report that I have completed my work on the revised edition of the book Chord Master which will be published hopefully in the spring of 2016. The main change is the addition of a new beginners’ section consisting of 20 new audio / chord progression examples that I hope will be of use to people trying the guitar for the first time. The idea for them came from my increasing awareness as a guitar teacher that standard chord shapes are not always easy for people to take in their stride. The book also has some chord boxes for a tuning not included in my book How To Write Songs in Altered Guitar Tunings. The chord progressions (forty in all) are being reset in a simple musical notation that makes them easier to read than in the old edition. As I may have mentioned before there is a possibility that I will work on a new edition of Melody. But before that I have my book on Marc Bolan to complete.

Other stuff going on includes re-organizing my music room to make more space and make it a room more conducive to writing and recording in. I’ve been sorting things and have been reminded of the hundred or so songs I have recorded which I would like to release – so there is going to be some work done on those hopefully. I have six albums of songs, each with their own musical identity, to go with my album of guitar music released in 2013.

My symphathon (listening to a different symphony each day) is still going, although there have been three days when I didn’t manage one. I console myself with the thought there have been other days when I’ve heard two or three. I’m shaping my thoughts on this experience for a possible article. It was interesting to see Scottish composer James Macmillan writing on the symphony in a positive way in the UK magazine Standpoint recently.

The majority of the new ones I hear (new to me) do not make me want to hear them again. But it has been a delight to find others which I do want to get to know. I can recommend at the relatively easy listening end of the symphonic repertoire Yoshimatsu’s Symphony 4 on Chandos from about 2001. It was consciously written as an ode to innocence, spring and childhood, and uses an elegant and very approachable idiom, and lasts 28 minutes. I know some would dismiss it as lightweight, but there’s a place for this music too when it is done as well and with a good spirit.

Otherwise I have enjoyed the new release of The Beatles 1 with remastered sound and video and am currently reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, reminding me in part of days long ago when, in a room high above the Atlantic, I would happily wile away several hours singing my way through most of sea-washed Quadrophenia and more of the Who’s greatest.


Music, silence and horrible Mr Bravo!

[Postcard from Finland no.4] While I was away at the Sibelius music festival I ordered the latest issue of Finnish Music Quarterly, an English-language journal, a special Sibelius issue. Among the articles one by Lotta Wennakoski titled ‘Content with content’ caught my eye. In it she writes at one point of the magic of a live acoustic concert:

It is a quite unique experience, to be in an audience together yet alone. And the unbroken silence immediately before and after the music is most eloquent … I also believe … that the magic of acoustic music that I referred to above will persist even amid the oceans of digital sound that overwhelms us. Live concerts, with their magical silences, will possibly become an even more valuable everyday luxury in the future.

This spoke to me strongly. Before each Sibelius piece performed in Lahti, the conductor would wait for a minute, even two, with the orchestra and the audience, in near silence, before the music began. This sets a boundary and clears a space in which the first strands of the music emerge without being in competition with anything else, and in which everyone has symbolically made it the priority. Similarly, when the last notes have died away ten, fifteen, twenty, maybe forty minutes later, there is another silence. This silence is highly-charged, full of emotion and meaning and the sense of a journey and an arrival and of being changed. Sometimes it is a moment of triumph; sometimes a quieter radiance.

Every time I have heard Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, for example, it is only with a great reluctance that anyone breaks the silence at the end, because no-one wants to return from that astonishing place where the music finishes. Having only attended rock concerts until about 17 years ago, this has been a new experience and a delightful one too.

But sadly such silences are easily spoilt. So a poison bouquet for horrible Mr Bravo! who at the end of two of the Lahti concerts, shouted within a second of the last note, thus robbing everyone else of that rich moment of silent fullness. It is as if such characters have to demonstrate their cultural superiority. Bravo! comes the shout. What it really means is: I have judged this a good performance, the rest of you may now follow with your clapping. The final chord becomes a winning goal in a cup final.

But fortunately he (and it is almost invariably a ‘he’) can’t be everywhere …

 


Postcard from Finland no.3

One of the legendary stories associated with Jean Sibelius is that which concerns the non-appearance and fate of his Eighth symphony. Sibelius produced no finished major orchestral works after the end of the 1920s (his last being the Seventh symphony and the suite of music for a production of The Tempest). He embarked on an Eighth symphony and in the early 1930s there was an international hope that it would shortly be performed. At this time Sibelius’ popularity as a composer was very high and there was huge anticipation for another symphony. Unfortunately it never materialized, and in the mid-1940s we know that he burned a number of manuscripts and it is thought the Eighth was one of the works. Even after this he occasionally mentioned to close friends that he was working on another symphony, though whether this was ever on paper is doubtful (Sibelius often composed in his mind before he wrote anything down). So the Eighth is regarded as one of the great lost works of the C20th.

When I was at the Sibelius Festival I had the chance to chat with Timo Virtanen, who has been working on and editing Sibelius for a long time. He made it possible for a few fragments of unperformed music to be recorded by the BIS label on a CD called The Unknown Sibelius. These fragments last about 3 minutes. They might be part of the Eighth’s composition or not – we don’t know. They are late Sibelius. Timo published an interesting article on the status of some of the manuscript drafts Sibelius left, partly as a reply to an article by another scholar Nors Josephson who created something of a wave by claiming that the Eighth could be reconstructed. Timo told me that this created a number of enquiries from both composers and conductors around the world who wanted to know if this was true and whether they could have the task of completing it or conducting the premiere! Timo had to point out that this wasn’t possible from the scraps and drafts that are left. Whether anything else will turn up remains to be seen.

He also told me that many composers had thanked him for the three minutes of fragments because they found them inspiring for their own work. That I can certainly understand, as they are quite haunting.

The writer Julian Barnes wrote about the relative silence of Sibelius’ final 30 years in a short fiction piece called ‘The Silence’ published in the magazine Granta vol76 Winter 2001 – a special issue dedicated to music.


Postcard from Finland no.2

Here are some links from the Lahti Sibelius Festival. The Finnish broadcaster YLE filmed all the concerts and broadcast them live in Finland. You can watch some of them on their website for the next couple of weeks. This link brings up ‘The Oceanides’ tone poem:

http://yle.fi/aihe/tapahtuma/2015/08/31/sinfonia-lahti-sibelius-festivaali-2015-318-592015

Most nights I was sitting in the choir section behind and above the orchestra, in the middle. You can see that’s pretty close.

There is an audio interview with Jon Anderson of the rock band Yes. He was present for the whole festival (a couple of minutes after someone told me that I walked straight past him in the foyer).

http://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2015/09/05/sibeliuksen-musiikki-ja-taru-sormusten-herrasta-sisaltavat-samaa-energiaa

(I think you will have to copy this addresses into your browser – they’re not coming up as automatic links.) Other features can be found here:

http://yle.fi/aihe/klassinen/jean-sibelius-150v#section-73194

Several evenings we came out of the concert hall at about 9.30pm to fantastic sunsets over the lake:

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=lahti+sibelius+150+sunset&biw=1280&bih=884&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAmoVChMIy_mfz9_nxwIVgW0eCh0WwAsG#imgrc=4Vu4ptIEb9zlJM%3A

During a late afternoon reception hosted by the Finnish Sibelius Society we were told that the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth is being celebrated by over 1500 concerts around the world!

You can find out more about Sibelius by visiting the webpage of the UK group Sibelius One.