Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

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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.

 

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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.

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