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.
For a number of years I’ve been exploring the symphonic repetoire from about 1890 into the C20th. I think this was a golden age for the symphony, even if many of the composers are not as well known as C19th symphonists such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner et al. C20th composers who took up the symphony often did so with a new palette of harmony and melody, which enabled them to avoid repeating what the Austro-German composers had done with the form, and many of them were born outside that tradition (think of Vaughan Williams, Nielsen, Sibelius, Shostakovich). It is always exciting and satisfying to get a purchase on a new symphony which you know is going to give much pleasure for a long time.
This time it’s Symphony no.3 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg written around 1950, which I’ve listened to about half a dozen times in the past week or so (and I mean listened to, not ‘had it on in the background’). Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Poland but lived much of his life in the USSR and was a friend of Shostakovich. His music is generally tonal from what I’ve heard, and this 32-minute symphony makes a very good starting point. Part of its accessibility is its use of some folk themes. I particularly recommend the first and third movements. The third movement has a very beautiful example of changing from a major chord to its tonic minor (i.e. G to Gm), this idea being used as an important musical idea in the movement. It’s very expressive.
The recording is on the Chandos label and is a hybrid SACD – so you can play it in standard stereo, SACD stereo or SACD 5.0. Chandos have recorded several other discs of Weinberg.
In the realm of popular music a recent project has set me thinking again about the importance of various different aspects of songwriting and recording. I’ve been struck recently by the way that the musical language of popular music does change over the decades. It might be assumed to be always the same, but there are trends for using certain chord changes or progressions or certain scales for melodies. I’m not sure if anyone has ever written about these per se.
My current research has made me feel more strongly the importance of arrangement in songwriting and recording. In many cases you can line up scores of songs with the same basic progression and structure and what distinguishes them (apart from lyrics and the character of the performer) is the arrangement. Sometimes the instruments you choose make all the difference. I dealt with this subject in my boook Arranging Songs and I may have to return to it.
I hope to have news of the next book project to share with you in awhile.
First, welcome to those of you who recently signed up to this blog; I hope you’ll find these notes on music interesting. Apologies to all for the absence from writing. This has been due to several weeks getting to grips with a new computer and new software (for music-making) plus a much-delayed summer holiday in Finland.
The holiday included attending all the concerts at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, about 100km north of Helsinki. This is an annual festival dedicated to the music of Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who for awhile at the beginning of the C20th played an important symbolic role in the struggle for Finnish national identity. He composed quite a bit of music in most genres, but it is his tone-poems and seven symphonies on which his reputation probably most rests. The symphonies in particular are held in high regard – so much so that at his funeral seven white candles were used during the ceremony, each standing for one of the symphonies. That gives an idea of the reverence in which they were/are held. They are all quite different from each other, as became apparent at the festival this year, because over the course of three nights we heard them all in chronological sequence. The first lasts about 40 minutes, the last only about 22 and is essentially in one movement instead of the usual four.
If you haven’t sampled Sibelius before try some of the tone-poems such as ‘Night-ride and Sunrise’ or ‘The Bard’ or the spooky ‘Tapiola’, or a short piece such as ‘Spring Song’, or the ever-popular ‘Karelia Suite’. Among the symphonies no.2 and no.5 are probably the most accessible to begin with, the former being a late-C19th romantic work, the latter being more compact, optimistic and with the beautiful ‘swan hymn’ theme in the last movement (also featuring one of the greatest key-changes in all orchestral music as Sibelius swings from G flat to C major just as the swan hymn is launched).
The Sibelius Festival is held in the first week or so of September Thurs-Sun. It is good to fit in a visit to his home which is now a museum about 60 km from Lahti. The capital Helsinki is also good to visit and walk round. There is an excellent DVD by Christopher Nupen about Sibelius’ life and music if you can’t get to Finland and also a 2004 Finnish biopic called Sibelius which I haven’t seen yet.
… 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.