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.
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.