Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Posts tagged “John Adams

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.


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 …


Americana in South Wales

Yesterday I travelled to Cardiff in South Wales for a concert treat. It was one in a series called ‘Americana’ featuring a number of well-known American C20th composers, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Eric Stern and went out live on Radio 3. The programme comprised Ned Rorem’s Eagles, John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons, David Diamond’s Rounds For String Orchestra and Roy Harris’ 9th Symphony. I enjoyed the Adams and the Diamond – the former has an interesting mixture of instruments, the latter ha some vigorour and lyrical string-writing. But what enticed me to make the journey was the chance to hear a Roy Harris symphony live – I think for the first time. His music is rarely played in the UK.

Harris is a composer I discovered thanks to the budget CD label Naxos. They began releasing a Harris series in the mid-90s. Harris piqued my ear because he seemed to be using chords in an unusual way and also using certain types of chord with an expressive broad, open-air quality (probably voicings that stress 4ths, 5th, and 9ths). His music cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. I latched onto his Third Symphony – a one-movement 18 minute work which was first performed the the early 1940s and was hailed at the time as the first great American symphony. I also discovered his Seventh and his Epilogue for JFK (on the same Naxos CD). I gradually acquired a dozen Harris CDs, including some chamber music. The character of the music is assertive, muscular, brash at times, curiously innocent also, based on a perspective not entirely free of cultural chauvinism – Harris was very fond of flying the flag.

With increasing familiarity I came to the conclusion that Harris is a perplexing case. His music is grounded in triadic harmony but not organized according to the principles of usual tonal music. This means that on a bar-to-bar basis it sounds engaging and full of fresh chord changes, but over the longer term creates a feeling of aimlessness because the key centre is never there. Perhaps other listeners can hear it, but I cannot usually even hear a single pitch  functioning as a tonal center. Paradoxically, this may mean that his music is actually heard as atonal despite its triadic content, yet it sounds nothing like what most people associate with the term ‘atonal’. Harris’s problem with the symphony is to find a way of building narrative, conflict, resolution, when his musical language mitigates against these things.

I certainly enjoyed hearing his 9th live – quite a different experience to a CD. If you want to try him have a listen to the Epilogue for JFK (8:30 mins) or the Third Symphony, of which there are many recordings.