A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing American guitarist John Doan. John is one of the world’s leading exponents of the harp guitar. He’s been studying and playing it since the mid-1980s. We first met in the late 1990s when he was touring in the UK. The main focus of our talk was the signature harp guitar which John is involved with that will be available (for about $1500) in 2013. This is the first such affordable instrument – previously you would have to have one hand-made. Simply put, the harp guitar is a six-string guitar with an additional set of sub-bass strings and ‘super-trebles’ which extend the range of the guitar in both directions. If you search youtube for ‘john doan harp guitar’ you’ll be able to watch him play. It’s an impressive sound. It’s always great to talk to John because his thinking about the guitar is always subservient to his musical commitment (not always the case with guitarists). The short version of the interview will be available on guitarcoach, the download for the iPad. I hope to publish a longer version elsewhere.
I had a couple of concert experiences last weekend. I saw John Williams and John Etheridge play in the Sheldonian Theatre. A day or so later I saw the Led Zeppelin Celebration Day film on the big screen. Whatever one thinks of the band’s performance, this has to be one of the best ever shot rock concerts. If you like Zeppelin you have to see this.
I’ve recently been reading Pink Moon, a book of miscellaneous writings about Nick Drake which is enjoyable. If you don’t know Nick Drake’s music go and order Five Leaves Left or Bryter Later from somewhere. I’ve also read Leslie Ann-Jones’ new biography of Marc Bolan which, despite having some new information (especially through some new interviews) is poorly written and unsophisticated. It is also amazingly uninterested and uninformed about the actualities of Bolan’s music. I can’t see the point of writing biographies talking about musicians if you’re not going to talk about the music. There are more lines in the book about the 1966 World Cup Final or the JFK assassination or personal stuff than Beard of Stars! The book doesn’t even tell you what songs are on each release.
On the personal front, I think I have a green light now for the next songwriting book, although it seems it won’t appear until 2014. I’ve also written a number of acoustic guitar instrumentals which will go toward an album of such.
I’ve acquired a few more symphonies and enjoyed them very much. In addition to still investigating different recordings of Nielsen, I’ve been delighted to hear the Finnish composer Merikanto 3, along with George Lloyd 8, Riisager 1, Atterberg 6 in another recording, and Tubin 2 – one of those symphonies which is brash and noisy with a sublime pay-off at the end which makes it all worth it. There’s also a very pleasing disc of minor Vaughan Williams on Dutton Epoch called Early and Late Works.
It has been awhile since I last posted because of the run-up and start of the Oxford Experience summer school programme on which I teach. So far I’ve taught the courses ‘From a Blues to the Symphony’, ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and 1960s Britain’, and ‘The Romance of the Railways’, and everything seems to have gone fine so far. It was interesting to see the reaction Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Stolen Car’ got on Day 1 of the first course. Several people were obviously quite moved by it, despite its simplicity (mostly two chords but haunting). It was released on his 1980 album The River.
The railways course is really about how they have inspired poets, writers, artists and composers. There are hundreds of railway songs, especially in the American tradition, but less familiar to my students were some of the classical pieces inspired by trains – notably Honegger’s Pacific 2-3-1 (1923), Charles Ives’ ‘The Celestial Railroad’, Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ (1988) – something of a minimalist classic – and (a recent discovery of mine) a string quartet by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard, the second movement of which is a 2:15 evocation of a fast train ride, written for just the four strings.
I meant to blog about several rock documentaries shown on BBC4 recently. One was on The Who’s Quadrophenia album and the other on Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. Both were eminently watchable, but showed an alarming tendency to make highly uncritical claims. It is rare these days to get any contrary view on a music doc to take the heat out of the exaggerated praise. The world really didn’t change THAT much when Bowie put his arm round Mick Ronson on TOTP one June night in 1972. You would think it was the trigger for the reversal of the magnetic poles and the fall of various governments …
I’ve been listening a lot to various works by Weinberg, the Estonian composer Lepo Sumera, and the Swede Kurt Atterberg. This morning I had a blast of Nielsen’s third symphony, which I don’t know as well as no.4. The more I hear of Nielsen’s music the more I admire the positivity which much of it radiates – a fascinating contrast to another favourite of mine Jean Sibelius, whose music’s positivity is often harder won.
Speaking of Sibelius the man reminds me that for the past two weeks I have watched with horrified and avid (pun intended) attention the drama playing out over the Sibelius notation system’s future. Sibelius was sold by its originators the Finn brothers to the company Avid 15 months ago. Avid have announced that they are closing the London office of Sibelius. This apparently means the break-up of the very team whose skill and dedication have made Sibelius a world-beating notation software. It is unbelievably short-sighted. A campaign to save Sibelius has been launched. You can read about this over at the Sibelius forum. I’ve used Sibelius for 10 years now for my composing and it revolutionized my musical creativity.
And just to prove that rock music documentaries don’t have the monopoly on misleading claims, there have also been a couple of radio programmes about the alleged resurrection of Sibelius’ lost 8th symphony. All that has happened is that three tiny pieces of music – lasting about 3 minutes – have been transcribed from manuscripts in the University of Helsinki Library. They might have been intended for the 8th, but perhaps not. Again, they’re online if you google Sibelius 8.
About a month has passed since my last blog. Since then I’ve been busy with getting the material together for my teaching on the Oxford Experience Summer School. This year two of my five courses are music-oriented. There’s the ever-popular ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain’ and a new one called ‘From the blues to a Symphony’. I spent a few days gathering several hundred music examples for this course. It begins with a look at the simplest musical forms (folk song, blues, rock’n’roll), moves gradually through various examples of popular music, reaching long songs by Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Television and Pink Floyd by mid-week. At that point it switches into the classical field with solo guitar and piano pieces, then chamber pieces, then orchestra and finally looking at the symphony. Where else would Charles Ives rub shoulders with Soundgarden, Carl Nielsen with Radiohead, or Jean Sibelius with David Bowie?
I guess I should mention that the 40th anniversary Ziggy Stardust album reissue does include some 5.1 high-quality mixes – but not on SACD, rather DVD-A.
In the course of my guitar teaching I’ve been reminded of a couple of songs that make great use of triads and pedal notes – namely, ‘Turn It On Again’ by Genesis and ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ by Tears For Fears. There’s nothing like it for instantly creating a dramatic element to a song. I’ve also been reminded of Jackson Browne’s 1976 hit ‘The Pretender’, which is a lovely song, though I always felt he took quite a risk in the lyric by using so many polysyllabic rhymes on the conspicious ‘-ender’ sound (fender, tender, pretender, vendor, etc). I can never quite suppress the impulse to add some irreverent extra line about ‘going on a bender’. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackson Browne back in the 90s for Making Music magazine.
Another thing which has emerged from recent guitar lessons is the question of the relevance of much info deemed essential when you are learning how to play lead guitar. Tutorial books and guitar magazines often over-theorize this topic, implying you need at least half a dozen different scales and scores of fingerboard patterns before you can play a decent solo. This is, of course, untrue. Bringing some clarity to this guitar topic is going to be part of my (probable) next songwriting book.
In the meantime, here are some tips. First, don’t bother learning five sequential positions for a pentatonic starting on the sixth string. I recommend only the ‘first’ shape and the ‘fourth’ shape. For A pentatonic minor that means 5th fret starting on A and 12th fret starting on E. Second, learn a pattern that starts on the sixth string and one that starts on the fifth string for the same root note because they will always cover different areas on the neck. Third, when using scale patterns to play lead, spend most of your time on strings 1-4. Only occasionally do lead lines do much on the 5th and 6th strings because those notes will tend not to cut through the accompaniment (and the lower down in pitch the truer this is).
Chord of the month: x05587. Am9. Try lifting 8 and 7 off also.
I managed to get to London recently and paid a visit to Classical Music Exchange in Notting Hill. It is now above one of their other music shops rather than having one of its own, but is still worth a visit. Among my finds were an SACD of Danish composer Rued Langgaard’s string quartets (vol.1) on Da Capo. From the bits I’ve heard so far the sound is fantastic and the string writing a wonderful mix of styles. Langgaard is gradually building a posthumous reputation, with about 17 symphonies to his name, though in his lifetime he got very little attention and was often dismissed as too conservative and old-fashioned. It is a familiar story. I also made a discovery in a disc of Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg’s Symphonies 3 and 6. His idiom is melodic and very listenable. The slow movement on no.6 is quite haunting.
On the subject of symphonies I’ve recently been corresponding with critic and musicologist David Fanning who is a big enthusiast for Weinberg (mentioned in an earlier blog). He has written an excellent essay on C20th symphony that will appear in a Cambridge Companion to the Symphony due out later in the year. If anyone needs a book recommendation for the symphony get a copy of Robert Layton’s superb paperback A Guide to the Symphony (OUP, 1995). The various writers included do a fine job at evoking the inspirational and sublime potential of the form which makes exploring the symphonic repertoire such an amazing adventure.
From mid-August I hope to do some recording.