Coming Up For Air
Hello to all – I hope you’ve been having a great summer. It must be about two months since I last posted. Alll my time was taken up on the Oxford Experience summer school at Christ Church College, Oxford. I delivered six week-long courses – three of which were on music – two evening lectures, and a musical performance with my good friend and singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. As of last Saturday life begins to return to normal and I try to pick up the threads …
There have been a couple of musical highlights worth mentioning. Albion Records have issued another CD of previously unrecorded Vaughan Williams titled ‘The Solent’. I heard this beautiful 11 minute piece for orchestra at its world premiere performance back in May at the English Music Festival and was captivated immediately. It is one of three Impressions for Orchestra which Vaughan Williams composed in the first decade of the C20th, along with ‘Burley Heath’ (which is also a delight) and ‘Harnham Down’. ‘The Solent’ has a special place in Vaughan Williams’ early music because one of its melodies was incorporated in his Ninth Symphony of 1957-68. You can find more information about this and other releases on the RVW Society website.
A constant companion of the past two months has been a CPO disc of Symphonies 2 and 3 by the Swedish composer Dag Wiren (1905-86). Both symphonies are written in a very accessible tonal style with very attractive progressions and themes. The repetition and development of the themes is unusually clear and so a good listen for people not familiar with the symphonic repertoire. There is also a CPO disc of his 4th and 5th symphonies but their idiom is more challenging.
I also found in a charity shop a Chandos CD of choral music by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). Bliss was quite a well-known figure on the British music scene during the interwar period. I am very fond of his ‘Colour Symphony’ and ‘Music For Strings’ which I think is one of the outstanding works for orchestral strings in the British C20th tradition. So far for me the stand-out track on this choral CD is a setting of part of the closing lines of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. It also has settings of poems by G M Hopkins.
Naxos has released some interesting early recordings of the Sibelius symphonies from the 1930s in their historical series. There is also a recording from 1940 of Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring. I’d like to get to hear these.
In the rock field I was interested to read about the forthcoming 6-CD box set of Marc Bolan / T.Rex recordings for the BBC. This set supercedes the 3-CD Bolan at the Beeb of a few years ago. This new collection will only really be of interest to serious Bolan fans, though there will be a 2-CD version. The problem with the recordings he did for the BBC after 1970 (i.e. once T Rex started having hits) is that they are often not much more than recycled backing tracks from the original versions, sometimes with a few overdubs missing, sometimes with a new lead vocal. I would like at some point to write something about the plethora of T Rex alternate versions and so-called ‘out-takes’ which have come out in recent years.
Still no word on those promised Led Zeppelin remasters …
A recent guitar lesson experience reminded me of the existence of the partial capo. This is a capo that instead of holding down all the strings at a single fret permits the player to select a combination of strings. This enables the player to, say, put a capo at the second fret but only make it hold down strings 1-5, 6 remaining unaffected by the capo. This approximates drop-D tuning but without changing the pitch of the sixth string. This means a G chord has the bass note G exactly where you would expect it – third fret – not the fifth fret as happens with drop D tuning. My partial capo is a relatively crude elasticated device from a few years ago, but there must be more sophisticated models on the market by now.
My next work project will be the completion of a new songwriting book for Backbeat books. It will appear in 2014. I am also thinking about a Christmas single release and an album of songs to follow Atlantic Canticles.
I’ll sign off by sending good wishes to the young guy from the Orange County Youth Orchestra with whom I jammed two impromptu guitar / violin duets yesterday in Blackwells Music Shop in Oxford. That was fun, and reminded me how lucky we are as musicians to be able to share the wonderful world of music.
The Love Affair
So, for another year, as of last Friday night my teaching for the Oxford Experience is complete. Music featured strongly on my courses this year, with two out of five courses devoted to it, and will do so even more next year when three of the six courses I hope to teach will be musical (the third is a new one on Stravinsky). Now it is time to re-focus and think about my other work, including the next book.
In the meantime the Olympics have come and gone, with British popular music featuring in the opening and closing ceremonies. I will confess to being uneasy about the careless way in which some of the songs were used with an apparent disregard for their lyric content – The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ being a good example (I can’t think of a song more in rejection of such a mass-participation event as the Olympics), not to mention ‘Pretty Vacant’ – and the use of bits of songs such as ‘Baba O’Reilly’ (teenage wasteland, anyone?). The description of the closing ceremony as a ‘symphony of British music’ will go in my book on the symphony as another classic usage of the word to eclipse an important concept.
I have managed to sketch a few musical ideas these past couple of weeks. It’s a good compositional discipline to try to write something as often as possible, regardless of whether you’re feeling inspired. I find it helpful to open a manuscript page in Sibelius for one or two instruments – harp or piano (both harmonic instruments which can play chords) and perhaps a single-voice melodic instrument like violin or flute. It’s a good way to think about melody or reaching for new harmony.
I’ve also re-visited and transcribed some late 60s British pop hits by a band called Love Affair, who were slightly associated with the Mod movement, though they came on the scene pretty late for that. This was sparked by hearing one of said hits on the radio: ‘Rainbow Valley’. The band had their run of hits between 1968-70. Their sound (rumoured to have been executed in the studio by session players) is a British take on mid-60s Motown: yearning romantic melodies (sung by Steve Ellis), big brass chords, high strings, great drum fills, and busy syncopated ‘click’ bass (the picked equivalent of James Jamerson’s Motown bass-lines). If anyone ever wrote a book on what made British pop at the time work and how it differed with the US they’d have to be in it. The four big hits were ‘Bringing On Back The Good Times’, ‘Everlasting Love’, ‘A Day Without Love’ and ‘Rainbow Valley’, with the second going to no.1. From a songwriting point of view, there are some interesting points about them, notably the use of first inversion chords in prominent positions, and in ‘Rainbow Valley’ a daring break in rhythm during the later verses. You can probably find old clips of them on youtube.
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.