Tomorrow I shall start my course for Oxford University’s Oxford Experience summer school on the Beatles, Popular Music, and 1960s Britain. It will be good to experience the uplifting energy of their music, which I haven’t listened to much probably since the last time I did the course in 2010. I have a soft spot for their early original songs (1963-65) in particular. It was a memorably spine-tingling moment a number of years back seeing the Bootleg Beatles do an immaculate version of ‘This Boy’ live. Looking back at early live footage, such as the US tour of early 1964, I’m struck always by two things: first, the overwhelming impression of some collective landslide of feeling which seems far more than what is generated at a typical successful rock gig … something beyond entertainment; second, the touching vision of the emotional bonds between the Fab Four as they sailed the good ship Beatledom through the force 10 gale of the zeitgeist. Despite all that has happened since, and despite the digital revolutions, I feel we have not yet escaped the ‘event horizon’ of the 1960s (I don’t mean that metaphor negatively).
I read recently that The Who plan a 5.1 release of Quadrophenia – that’s great news (see my earlier posts about SACD and 5.1).
Since I last wrote, the music world has lost Amy Winehouse. I was never particularly aware of her, but I will confess that ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ seems a brilliant re-creation of a 1960s torch-ballad, full of dark-blue-lit syncopations and tearful pauses, as though some lost Burt Bacharach song had turned up.
Meanwhile the BBC Proms have provided some great music as ever (including an interesting performance of Sibelius 7) and I am excited about having finally got a foothold on Valentin Silvestrov’s 5th Symphony. When I first tried this single 45-minute piece a year or so ago I couldn’t relate to what it was doing, but a few more undistracted listens on headphones (eyes shut!) have revealed some wonderful melodic sequences aside from the angrier dissonant outbreaks. Maybe they are in post-modern quotation marks … but who cares? One passage is reminiscent of John Barry … and that’s always fine by me.
A belated Happy New Year to everyone.
I’ve been busy so far this year with two new ‘classical’ compositions: one lasting 9 minutes for a chamber orchestra, the other for a piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, cello) of about 15 minutes divided into four or five shorter movements.
On the listening front I’ve been impressed by the Kings of Leon song ‘Pyro’. There’s a good clip on youtube of the band performing this on the BBC TV Jools Holland show. ‘Pyro’ is a good example of a band making the most of a simple chord sequence through a subtle arrangement (the way the two guitars work together, the bass sometimes not playing root notes under the chords, etc) along with an expressive melody.
Toward the end of last year I started listening to all eleven symphonies of English composer Edmund Rubbra in sequence. Listening chronologically reveals various ways in which a composer develops his or her musical style and language. Rubbra is a subtle and metaphysical composer whose music takes patience to get to know. At present I think the best of the symphonies is no.7 but 5, 6 and 11 also seem to hold the promise of great things once they are familiar.
A symphony of about 30-40 minutes contains a vast amount of musical information and I find it usually takes about six listens (and I mean listening, not having the music as background) before its underlying shape emerges from the intial fog of the unfamiliar. The challenge is heightened because there is far less repetition in ‘classical’ music than in popular songs and repetition increases the speed with which we assimilate music. With more listens more detail emerges and eventually you can reach a point where you know what is coming on a bar by bar basis.
I attended a fine performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5 conducted by Andre Previn in London a few weeks ago. If you have never heard this work I urge you to do so – it is one of the greatest of C20th symphonies. Try Vernon Handley’s recording which is a budget price CD or Sir John Barbirolli’s 1963 performance for a slightly more romantic version.
Last Monday the death of the film composer John Barry was announced. He had a remarkable career and has a claim to be considered one of the greatest British film composers post-1960. I have always had a soft spot for the first six Bond soundtracks. Barry’s music was among the first I heard which made me feel how expressive, sensual, mysterious and potent certain types of dissonance could be. The Bond films have for me long ago lost the glamour and excitement they exuded when I was a child, but in Barry’s music the spell remains unbroken. The chord sequence for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ is a brilliant invention, as are those in ‘Thunderball’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and I also liked the ‘Theme From The Persuaders’. Barry’s feel was quite influential on much left-field popular music in the 1990s.
When I was writing for UK’s Making Music magazine in the 1990s I interviewed session guitarist Vic Flick who played on the Bond films in the 1960s, including the famous Bond theme. He had the actual guitar with him that he used on that 1962 session and was kind enough to show me the fingering he used for the last chord (a clanging Em9/maj7 – 0-10-9-8-7-x on the guitar). A great chord – but almost impossible to use anywhere else because it is so distinctive.
I’m currently writing an extended article about Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. It will be 40 years this April since the band unveiled their new song on an In Concert BBC radio show and 40 years in November that it was released as track 4, side 1 of the untitled album most of us refer to as Led Zeppelin IV. More about this article on ‘Stairway’ anon.