Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

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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:

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).

(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:

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

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.



Postcard from Finland no.1

I’ve just spent a wonderful musical week at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a small city about 100km north of Helsinki and located on the shore of a very big lake. Right by the lake is the Sibelius Hall, a beautiful structure which melds an old industrial brick building with a brand-new glass box in which is housed a modern wooden concert hall with superb acoustics. The two are joined by the Forest Hall foyer which has enormous glass frontage through which you can see the lake and sky, and staircases that look like trees branching upward.

The Sibelius Festival is held every year and usually lasts about three and a half days (three evening concerts, several chamber concerts in the day and some talks). It is entirely dedicated to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who is Finland’s national composer. This year the Festival ran for seven days to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. I’ve been twice before, but this year’s was unmissable.

During the week we heard all seven symphonies, the 75 minute choral epic Kullervo, the violin concerto, the Lemminkainen suite, The Wood Nymph, Luonnatar and the tone poems Tapiola, The Bard, The Oceanides, Pohjola’s Daughter, and En Saga, and several shorter pieces. If you don’t know Sibelius’ music the tone poems are a good place to start as they are generally between 8-20 minutes long and in a single movement. They’re all highly atmospheric.

More stories from the Festival in the next few days.

The jangle of Django

It has been awhile since I posted due to work leading up to and on the Oxford Experience summer school, my 18th I think since I started teaching on the programme. This year I taught week-long courses on the Battle of Britain, Symbolist art and literature (with reference to Sibelius, Nielsen and Yeats), and the ever-popular Beatles course. I also gave four lectures and two musical performances – the latter with my musical partner guitarist / songwriter Roger Dalrymple.

With all that out of the way for another year it’s time to catch-up with other things, including upgrading some of my composing software. I will shortly be working on a revised version of my book Chord Master. Before that I will write a long essay on the Led Zeppelin track ‘Achilles Last Stand’ for the Tight But Loose magazine. That magazine published my piece on Zeppelin at Earl’s Court in May 1975. I also have my Marc Bolan research to pick up and I am contemplating a book connected with the Beatles.

Recently I bought a compilation of Django Reinhardt’s recordings. To the uninitiated they have a strong cultural ambience – bohemian Parisian cafes in 1937 – and / or making you feel as though you’ve suddenly stepped into a Woody Allen film. It’s quite good driving music, and obviously the guitar-playing is special, but after awhile the incessant gritty tramp of the Hot Club’s 2/4 rhythm becomes monotonous. Likewise, the chromatic jazz harmony also palls – the rule seems to be never use a straight major or minor when you can squeeze in a 13b5#9 – evoking a brittle and frivolous emotional range. But then I’m not a jazz fan. But it made me feel that perhaps the ‘year zero’ of primitive three-chord rock’n’roll in the mid-50s was a necessary simplifying and purefying of popular music to burn the crop and sow the soil for the achievements of the 1960s and beyond. This is interesting, because there are parallels with what happened in classical music at the turn of the century when it purged itself of an elaborate chromatic romantic language.

My symphony-a-day is still going, so I must have passed the 200 mark now. I continue to make some pleasing discoveries – yesterday for example Rautavaara Symphony 5 which has a remarkable final few minutes that I must investigate more. If you’re unfamiliar with the Finnish composer, try his atmospheric Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for birds and orchestra) on Naxos.

The reel thing

A week ago I had a memorable day at the offices of a music publisher in London. It was the research I’ve been doing on Marc Bolan (T Rex) which took me there. I was permitted to have a look at the company’s library of tapes.

For an hour and more I handled the original multi-track reels on which Marc Bolan recorded his songs 45 years ago and garnered some useful information about the recordings from the notes written on the back of the boxes. I have in the past heard people say how magical it is to hold the original tape of a celebrated song and have never considered whether I might find it so also. But I confess I did.

It was both thrilling and moving to hold these tapes whose magnetized iron oxide was imprinted by the sounds of guitars and voices and strings and percussion as a song was captured for the very first time. Thrilling because one feels very close to the musical event. Moving because the tape boxes are worn and battered, and some of them may not be played ever again (they have to some degree been digitized and are probably unplaybale without baking), and the person who wrote those songs left this life in 1977. I stood in front of the metal shelves that hold rows of boxes, reflecting on the fact that this was a significant part of a life’s work.

I was also able to listen to some CD backup copies of different takes and mixes. It was quite a day.

June news

My summer school teaching is looming, so I will soon be engaged with preparing some new material, including the music of Sibelius and Nielsen. At present, I’m teaching the music of Brahms, and exploring the British music scene in the early C20th as a way in to the art song of Peter Warlock (1894-1930). And I have just completed the fifth month of my symphony-a-day ‘symphathon’.

My research time this year has been taken up researching the earlier music career of Marc Bolan and that has been very interesting. I have a pretty clear idea of the themes nd the scope of the book. Exploring some of the musical equipment used in the late 1960s has been fun too. A new double CD Best of T Rex called For All The Cats has just appeared and I can recommend it to anyone not familiar with T Rex. The first two-thirds of the second CD in particular captures the enchantment of his earlier songs.

Creatively, I’m stockpiling song ideas for an album. Not sure when I’ll get a chance to record it.

I’ve just finished reading a book called The New Shostakovich by Ian MacDonald, first published in the late 80s and since revised and reissued. MacDonald is well-known as the author of one of the best books on The Beatles Revolution in the Head. The book is a harrowing account of the terrible conditions under which Shostakovich composed his 15 symphonies. It raises many interesting points about music and meaning, and music and irony / satire. I was struck by this passage: ‘By reserving the right to project our private meanings on his music, we distance ourselves from the very life impacts that Shostakovich, far from seeking to evade, met head-on and made the subject of his work. To the extent that we turn art into whatever we want it to mean, we forfeit the chance of being changed by it.’ MacDonald then quotes someone saying of the effect of the Eleventh Symphony: ‘The poetics of shock. For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself.’

Remembering John Renbourn

A week or so ago the death was announced of the British acoustic guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn was one of a small group of acoustic players in the early 1960s, along with Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, who developed a style that became known as ‘folk-baroque’.

The style was eclectic, embracing elements of blues, jazz, tradition and contemporary folk (Graham also brought in elements of African music heard in Morocco). It was played largely fingerstyle on steel-strung acoustics, taking full advantage of the longer sustain of the upper strings in comparison to the nylon strings of a classical guitar. Where string guages permitted, there could be a certain amount of string-bending. The style evolved to be musically complete, in that a player would provide bass, harmony and top melody. It could be technically demanding, though some of the simpler syncopated right-hand picking patterns were easy and gave great results. Altered tunings were also developed by these players.

Graham, Jansch and Renbourn influenced people such as Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Gordon Giltrap, Donovan, and Jimmy Page.

Having made several albums solo and in partnership with Bert Jansch, Renbourn and Jansch became part of the folk-rock group Pentangle who enjoyed considerable success in the eclectic music scene of the second half of the 60s. After the group split, Renbourn pursued many musical interests, including Elizabethan lute music, making many arrangements for steel-string guitar of tunes from the 1590s. He was a composer and a scholar with a wide grasp of music.

I saw John Renbourn play on several occasions and interviewed him. I found him a charming, thoughtful and personable man with a deep and inspiring commitment to music. His playing was precise, tasteful,  and elegant, and imbued with a humane spirit.

If you haven’t sampled his music there are many budget compilations of his solo work and of Pentangle. You can’t go wrong with the solo albums he released in the 1970s such as The Hermit.

When the circus moves on

The other night I was channel-surfing and stumbled on an edition of the talent show Britain’s Got Talent at just the moment when a young man with a Fender Strat was about to perform in front of the audience. These talent shows tend to be dominated by histrionic singers, so I was curious for a moment to see what this young man would do and how it would go down. What followed was a ghastly collision of a hostile context with a fundamental lack of musicality, prefaced by the usual humiliation of such contestants.

Said young man (who I think was 26) began a solo rendition of ‘Beat It’ and within half a minute had abandoned the singing bit for the guitar solo. He dropped to his knees, executed some Van Halenesque tapping, and finished off by playing the guitar with his teeth in the manner of Hendrix. These bits didn’t connect up. The fact that he was running his guitar into a very small Fender combo amp didn’t help much either. By this point the jury had voted him off and the audience weren’t impressed either.

What struck me about this was not the humiliation he was put through, which you expect from those programmes. It was the way he had unconsciously set himself up for it by not understanding what would work in performance. Playing electric guitar parts on your own that need a full band backing is never a good idea. Although he had some technical ability (probably hampered by nerves) and was apparently a guitar teacher (!), he didn’t seem to realise that in 2015 those theatrical guitar show-off gestures don’t mean anything. The only place for playing guitar with your teeth is in a Hendrix tribute band. Outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps you have watched videos of Jimi playing guitar in 1970, and your dentist may be unhappy next visit.

It didn’t mean that much when Hendrix himself was doing it. His creative genius as a guitarist lies in other things altogether, despite the fact that rock documentaries continue to try to convince us that he was a great guitarist because he liked setting fire to his guitar or smashing it up. It’s a bit like doing a Hendrix version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 2015. It’s either a Hendrix tribute gesture or pure establishment, or both. But it can’t mean what it meant in 1969, not least because the electric guitar doesn’t mean what it meant in 1969.

Whereas, if this contestant had concentrated on making his own musical statement – maybe not requiring much guitar technique – he might have fared better, and even if he had been voted out it would have had a kind of integrity to which the vote was irrelevant.

An important lesson really about musicality and musical awareness.

Now, where’s my lighter fuel … I fancy Strat Stroganoff for dinner …

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:

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:

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            from 9:19

Roy Harris 7 drum-driven coda         from about 18 mins

Atterberg 6 mvt 2           from 10:07

Nielsen 6 2nd mvt Humoureske          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 …

A trip to Abbey Road

To allude to the famous opening sentence of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Abbey Road.’ Except it wasn’t a dream.

I was in attendance for a Mojo magazine press launch of the new vinyl box-set of the remastered Beatles in mono, thanks to the kindness of a Dutch friend (thank you Arjan!). The 14-LP box-set is released on Sept 9. It includes the band’s first 10 albums and a three-record set of non-LP singles and B-sides entitled ‘Mono Masters’. It includes a 108-page hardback book.

Having arrived at Baker Street in the late afternoon, I walked north toward St John’s Wood, passing the Beatles and the Rock and Roll memorabilia shops (they’re opposite each other on north Baker Street) which are worth a visit if you’re in the area. Inside the latter my eye was caught by a platinum disc and LP cover for T.Rex’s 1972 album The Slider hanging on the wall. Five seconds later, still looking at The Slider, I heard Roger Daltrey on the shop’s sound system sing the line ‘But I drink myself blind to the sound of old T Rex’ – how’s that for a synchronicity!

Arriving at one end of Abbey Road you see the famous zebra crossing. People halt the traffic repeatedly all day and everyday, having their photos taken imitating the Abbey Road album sleeve photo (this bit of London was a lot quieter in 1969). Others sit on various walls on both sides of the street. Abbey Road Studios is a surprisingly small detached building from the outside, set back from the road with a small car park. The entire length of its front wall is covered in multi-coloured Beatles graffiti.

At 6.15pm I’m walking up the steps into Abbey Road. In my mind’s eye I think of the many photos I’ve seen of members of the Beatles standing on these steps. There’s a warm yellow light in the entrance foyer, turning right into reception. On the walls are many black and white photos of famous artists who recorded here, both popular and classical (on the staircase down to the lower floor I spot Sir John Barbirolli and Herbert von Karajan). There are black-suited security men about every 12 feet along each corridor of the route we’re directed along. It seems remarkably small. Downstairs I enter a large room with a high ceiling and a dim red light. It is hot and brimming with people, many of whom are already sitting on the 100 or so chairs that have been crammed in. I didn’t see any identification on the door coming in, but looking around it becomes clear to me that I’m sitting in Studio 2, the room where the Beatles did so much of their recording. To my right is the staircase that runs along the wall up to the glass-fronted control room on the back wall behind and above.

At 6.30 the playback session starts, chaired by Mark Ellen, who interviews a panel of four, including Ken Scott who engineered sessions for the Beatles. The conversation is punctuated by playback from the new vinyl mono masters on a sound system which is said to be worth over a quarter of a million. Since the tracks are mono it doesn’t matter where you sit in relation to the speaker arrays. In the course of the event we hear mono versions of ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Sgt Pepper Reprise / Day in the Life’, ‘Boys’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Love Me Do’, and ‘Norwegian Wood’. At times it’s too loud, and at times the mix is off (‘Norwegian Wood’ was ruined by the bass being far too loud). I also feel that sometimes the expensive equipment and the remastering expose the roughness of some of the original recordings (I wonder what a good symphony orchestra recording from the 1960s would sound like with this set-up). As for mono, while I accept the historical argument (this is how the Beatles wanted to be heard up to 1968) and also the fact that some of the mono mixes have different musical content to the stereo, I’m not personally persuaded that I need them. And I don’t have a functioning turntable at present, sadly.

However, hearing the Beatles at high volume in their home studio was a powerful reminder that they could be more of a rock band – even in the early years – than one might think. If you are used to hearing them at low levels without the bass and drums coming out properly, it is easy to not feel the vibrant energy which was theirs and helped them become so successful in the early 1960s. As the slinky beat of ‘You Can’t Do That’ throbbed in Studio 2, I found myself thinking how intoxicating and exciting this must have sounded in 1964. The other highlight for me was hearing ‘Love Me Do’ which it was pointed out had been recorded on September 4, 1962 – i.e. 52 years ago to the day in this very space. I tried to empty the room of everyone else and picture the Fab Four standing on the wooden floor, with amps on chairs, mikes, baffles, clustered round a microphone, the primitive two-chord vamp of their first hit bouncing off the walls, soon to escape into the world. I thought of how year after year they spent hours and hours in this space, tuning guitars, getting hoarse, bounding up and down the stairs to the control room to hear a take, songs taking shape and then being committed to tape, and then through radios and vinyl becoming part of the memories, feelings, lives of millions of people. That’s magic.

By 8.00pm I was walking down the steps, leaving one of the magical places of recorded music, remembering the graffiti at the bus stop in Oxford that afternoon, where someone had carved the phrase ‘Mean Mr Mustard’.

More information on the mono remasters and the event at this links:

New music posted

This is just to let you know I’ve posted a new, revised version of the first movement of my piano piece ‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ and an extract from the third movement ‘Three Thousand Miles Behind Us’ at If you go to the site and search on my name they should appear on the list.


Post-Oxford Experience

Greetings and hope everyone is well. Sorry to say my blog has been quiet for a time as I’ve been busy teaching on the Oxford Experience summer school. Of the four week-long courses I delivered, two were concerned with music: ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain’ and ‘Scandal in Paris: Stravinsky, Modernism and the Rite of Spring’. In addition I gave an evening talk about the animated version of the Rite created by Stephen Malinowski, two other lectures on British popular music, and a 50-minute set of songs performed with my friend Oxford-based singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. This proved very popular and it is probable we’ll do at least two or three performances next year.

For the gig I used a Roland 30-watt acoustic guitar amp which is a pleasing and compact unit. I’ve been playing it at home. Its reverb helps fill out the acoustic guitar sound if you’re playing in a carpeted, acoustically dead room. Very inspiring, and I’m tempted to get one myself.

These past two weeks I’ve been taking a holiday. But there has been time the past couple of days to revise the four-movement piano piece I mentioned a couple of months ago. I will soon be able to make a new recording of it and put it up on soundcloud. It is striking what six weeks away from a creative project does to freshen your perspective on what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.

I have various creative projects awaiting my attention. It is a question of deciding which one to go with next, and which will fit in with work commitments, such as revising my book Chord Master.

Mention of Stravinsky’s Rite means I should add that a recent CD purchase was a Stravinsky disc recorded by Les Siecles Live (on Harmonia Mundi) which tried to recreate the sound of the Rite and Petrushka by re-assembling the earliest states of the score (i.e.1911, 1913) with period instruments. The results are most enjoyable. I’ve also been listening to  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Chandos SACD of Ravel’s two piano concertos. The slow movement of the Concerto in G is a wonderful fusion of deep emotion elegantly recollected.

Uncut magazine has had some interesting articles in its recent issues. There was a revealing piece on Robert Plant who releases a new album next week which promises to be something out of the ordinary. The current issue has a good Nick Drake article. A book that has come to my attention is David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’ which focuses on popular music in 1970. That is a year which has always interested me – partly for obvious reasons of transition between one era and another, but also as a time when some 60s music came to maturity. I’m thinking in particular of Motown’s releases that year which are amazing.

And talking of amazing …. meanwhile in London Kate Bush has returned to live performance – something many thought unlikely to happen. The broader media coverage has been in part a melancholy warning of the injustice of a songwriter / performer getting trapped by a single song / image. In her case ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978), which has tended to obscure her later achievements (see my earlier blog about Kate’s last album).

‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ p.s.

It seems that the link I posted yesterday has not taken everyone to the right place on Apologies if you’ve had trouble finding ‘On The Edge’. The link works for me, some have had trouble – though they all report different things. If you go to and search on my name and then scroll down the 19 results you’ll find it – once all 19 of my pieces / songs are listed on the screen.  I hope this helps.

New music

Today I’ve posted a new piece of music on soundcloud. The link is

You may need to copy and paste it into your browser.

‘On The Edge’ is the first movement of a piano suite titled ‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ which I’ve been working on for about five weeks (when work has allowed). As I mentioned in the previous blog, it began with a single chord – Olivier Messiaen’s ‘chord of resonance’ – which I then composed out in various ways until inspiration took over. After working on it for a week the music took on an identity / title by connecting with my awareness of some famous photographs of JFK taken by Jacques Lowe in Oregon in 1959 (you can see them on Jacque Lowe’s website and they were reproduced in the book edited by his daughter which was published last year for the 50th anniversary. The music goes through many moods over the 7.40 minutes. I hope you’ll give it a listen and enjoy it. Composing it has been a memorable experience, if at times fraught as I’ve had to keep challenging myself not to settle when there were still improvements to make.

I hope to release this with the three other movements on a CD of piano music.