Getting the Led Out
Term-time in Oxford has left little opportunity for much else recently, though I have enjoyed sharing the music of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams with students. I’ve also been pleased to start to get a grip as a listener on Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra which is quite a tough work (an SACD on Chandos).
A listen to French composer Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quartet for the End of Time led me to his ‘chord of resonance’ (C E G Bb D F# G# B) which I used as the basis for a new piano piece. It has three parts and lasts about 14 minutes. I hope to add it to the Black Purple Blue piano pieces I sketched in January and release the music as a CD.
Led Zeppelin have been much in the news recently. A few weeks ago a story spread on the web that they were going to be subjected to a law-suit directed at ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on the grounds of plagiarism from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’. I wrote about this several years ago in an extended essay on ‘Stairway’ for Dave Lewis’ Tight But Loose magazine. Revisiting the story I incline even more strongly now in the negative – that the alleged borrowing has no real substance. But already I have encountered the idea which has spread that this law-suit has caused the delay of the release of the remastered Led Zeppelin IV. I’m pretty sure there is nothing in this at all and the release schedule was planned a long time ago.
As for the remastered albums (Led Zeppelin I-III) from the bits I’ve had a listen to I can say the CD versions certainly sound impressive, and anyone who has never owned these albums can certainly buy with confidence. The deluxe versions come with an additional disc of either live versions (in the case of the debut album) or studio alternate mixes, or one or two previously unreleased songs or covers. These make interesting listening, but are not compelling for the casual listener.
Listening to the band’s debut album the other morning, released in January 1969 and recorded in October 1968, it’s striking how much of a 1960s album it is, with clear reference points to a lot of 60s rock styles. This is not a criticism. I mention it because Zeppelin are generally thought of as a Seventies band. The arrangements on the first album have many fascinating and inventive details which are a joy to pick up. John Paul Jones’ organ intro for ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ always strikes me as the aural equivalent of summer sunlight bursting through opened curtains, a sharp contrast to the subterranean murk of ‘Dazed and Confused’ (which, if you’re familiar with their 27 minute live versions, seems to positively zip by here). ‘Your Time’ of course kicked off the second side of the vinyl.
The additional CDs demonstrate that Zeppelin were not the most prolific of creative teams in terms of quantity of material. This sounds a strange thing to say of a band that released five classic rock albums in as many years from 1969-1973, and it should also be remembered that they spent a huge amount of time on the road. Clearly there is almost nothing left over in the vaults. Also factor in the cover versions and various blues borrowings and this aspect increases. But it must also be said that whenever you play a Zeppelin borrowing next to its original the degree of transformation of that material is always staggering. For this, they can be forgiven much.
It will be very interesting to see what Jimmy Page has in store for the next three releases, and hopefully he will expand Coda to include the various odd things which do belong with I, II and III that have been omitted so far (like ‘Hey Hey What Can I Do’)
Latest Zep magazine out
Part two of my long feature on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is published in Dave Lewis’ long-running Zeppelin magazine Tight But Loose. You can order it from the tbl website. Dave has recently published a very detailed colour account of the band’s final tour in Europe in 1980 as the book Feather In The Wind. He is currently planning a revised second edition of his book Then As It Was on the band’s two gigs at Knebworth in August 1979. If you’re interested in Zeppelin’s music and career his books are essential.
Stairway To Heaven
The first part of my 10,000 article about Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is now available in the Zep magazine Tight But Loose. Editor and writer Dave Lewis continues to do sterling work in chronicling the band’s history and the careers of its individual members. Here’s a link: http://www.tightbutloose.co.uk
A bouquet for Kensington
… or to be precise, the Kensington Orchestra who, a couple of weeks ago, gave a terrific concert in London. What drew me was two of my favourite pieces of music unusually linked on the same bill: Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony in Three Movements’ and Vaughan Williams’ third symphony (‘Pastoral’), along with a short third piece I hadn’t heard before, Martinu’s ‘Memorial to Lidice’. The Martinu made an immediate impression – a colourful and humane work on a terrible historical subject (the Nazi eradication of the town of Lidice). Martinu’s star has been rising of recent years, and his sixth symphony is a firm favourite of mine. The Stravinsky piece may have a questionable grasp on what a purist would consider true symphonic form but what drive, colour, melody and invention! It is another example of how, despite his reputation as a dissonant and shocking modernist, Stravinsky’s music is full of intriguing melody. It was great to hear the Vaughan Williams live again – his pastoral symphony is one of the great works in any medium inspired by the First World War. Evidence again that his symphonic cycle is so remarkable – 9 symphonies that sound unmistakably his and yet each forges its own world. And you can pick them up in a box-set for about £20 these days. I should mention that a couple of Vaughan Williams previously unrecorded pieces are being released this year, including his choral setting of Swinburne’s poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ (published in 1866). I wrote something about it on the CD sleeve and also in the current issue of the RVW Society Journal.
I’ve noted also first reports of the new Fleet Foxes album. Their debut made a big impression and I’m looking forward to hearing the new music.
On the home front, I’ve completed a piano quartet of about 15 minutes, and unexpectedly sketched a violin sonata whilst working on something else entirely. Sometimes you just have to follow wherever the ideas lead.
It looks like the long article on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is going to appear in two parts in the next two issues of the magazine Tight But Loose. See the tbl website for details of subscriptions, etc.
Greetings to everyone who has recently registered for this blog.
The Joy of SACD
Recently I’ve been listening for the first time to 5.1 surround sound mixes as featured on SACD. As has been said, the effect is more immersive than stereo. On classical SACD recordings the two rear speakers are used to add subtle ambient sound, so if you’re sitting roughly in the central position it feels as though the sound from the front three speakers is being pulled behind you. It’s three-dimensional. On the couple of rock SACDs I’ve heard individual instruments are positioned in those rear speakers, allowing more access to the texture of the music.
It is a tragedy that SACD never became a mass-market success when it was launched about 12 years ago. It offers much better sound quality than standard CDs, let alone mp3 files (I’ve read one account which said that mp3 files contain only 10% (!) of the information contained on the equivalent CD track.) There are some blu-ray players that will also play SACDs, so that’s hopeful, and classical labels are still issuing them. Other high-resolution formats such as so-called ‘studio master’ downloads also promise better quality music reproduction.
The essay on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ I mentioned in the previous blog is now done. It turned into something of an epic. I had anticipated writing 3-4,000 words, and it is over 10,000. I’ll post details of where it will be published when I have them. For many years I thought I would write a book on Led Zeppelin but the time for that has gone now. So I’m pleased at least to share some thoughts on what makes this legendary song exert its particular magic. This year would be a fitting moment to see Led Zeppelin’s fourth album released as an SACD.
I shall end with a brief note for readers who play guitar, which is to recommend the solo guitar works of the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, which I’ve re-visited over the past six months. They can be found on a single Naxos label CD (among others). His Preludes and Etudes are recognized cornerstones of the classical guitar repertoire. They are a delightful mix of rhythm, lyricism and dissonance.
John Barry, Bond, Rubbra, and Kings of Leon
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.