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.