In recent weeks I have been busy checking the proofs of the next songwriting book, Songs and Solos. It has now gone to the printers and will be published in September. It runs to about 250 pages with an 84 track CD so it is a pretty hefty book – it never seems quite like that when I’m writing them, but it does at proofing stage. As I mentioned before, the next book to be revised into a new edition will be Chord Master. I’m looking to expand the amount of audio that comes with that book.
I spent two days at the London Book Fair at Earl’s Court in April, talking to various publishers about several book projects. I’ve also been doing a little research on Marc Bolan’s famous Les Paul. I hope at some point to do some writing about that and about his guitar-playing in general. Some articles I published have already been put up on line. You can read one of them here which was originally published in a fanzine Rumblings:
I’ve completed work on an entry about film composer John Barry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
In Oxford the summer term has just started, so I have teaching to do that will curtail my musical activity. But it does include Vaughan Williams and Sibelius and Stravinsky – and I’m always happy to talk about those three great composers.
Mentioning Stravinsky reminds me that I blogged last year about Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal’s amazing animated version of The Rite of Spring. I recently discovered that there is now a high quality version which you can buy for only $1! So get this bargain and forget about the youtube version. The link is:
Last week I watched the Stone Roses film Made of Stone and was amused when at the 46 min mark a fan standing outside their comeback gig in Warrington held up a chord songbook for the band – which happened to be the work of yours truly. As Morrissey once sang, fame, fame, fatal fame …!
I’ve just started reading Peter Doggett’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On (2007) which is subtitled ‘revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture’ which gives a good idea of its focus. So far it is a compelling account of the tensions within the 60s counter-culture, and a useful corrective for anyone who tends to have a more rose-tinted view of the period. Not for the first time, it seems that some of the best aspects of the idealistic 1960s survive in the music itself – flowers growing out of mud, transcending the messy human realities of their origin. (Oh what a big topic the 60s are …) Scott Mackenzie’s ‘San Francisco’ survives as a place in the human imagination which always transcended the reality of Haight Ashbury in 1966-67.
This set me thinking about some favourite books on music. Staying with popular music, I would certainly recommend Revolution In The Head – Ian MacDonald’s famous study of The Beatles – and his collection of essays The People’s Music (2003) which contains a number of memorable essays, including a landmark one on Nick Drake. At the time of his death (a suicide) MacDonald was working on a book on Bowie. I suspect his premature death robbed rock criticism of several more classic books. Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and post-war pop (1989) is a fine, thoughtful study which raised the bar for rock criticism and has been reprinted several times. Both MacDonald and Murray bring a broader perspective to their subjects and write as if they mattered. Murray’s collection of essays Shots From The Hip which reprints many pieces from the New Musical Express is also hugely entertaining.
Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicles (1992) is an enormously detailed coffee-table book which follows the career of the Fab Four on the road, on TV, on the radio, in the studio. Martin Millar’s novel Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me (2002) is a funny but accurate recreation of teenage rock fandom back in the early 1970s. If you want to know what it was like to be a young male obsessed with Led Zeppelin and anticipating them coming to your city, read this.
I’ll use another novel to link into a few classical music books. Chris Greenhalgh’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2002) is an entertaining and mostly well-written account of the affair between these two cultural figures of the early jazz age. It was made into an equally entertaining film, Coco & Igor. For endless hours of browsing try Third Ear’s massive Classical Music The Listener’s Companion guide edited by Alexander J Morin (2002), which reviews thousands of recordings by hundreds of composers, helping you choose between multiple recordings of a single work.
Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music: Cultural Choice and Musical Value (2002) is an important discussion of a deeply unfashionable topic: the idea that some music might be ‘better’ than other types. It’s an inspiring book, because it ascribes a much greater value to music than the current dominant notion that music is mere entertainment. Its great limitation is that Johnson is at his least intelligent when dealing with popular music, and he makes some crass comparisons. But the book is redeemed by much.
My next recommendation is the Cambridhe Music Handbook series. These are detailed but compact studies of important single musical works, exclusively classical (with the notable exception of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). I have several, including those on Nielsen 5 and Sibelius 5, which are great. Some of the chapters are full of very technical analysis, but the more general chapters are usually worth the price for the general reader.
Finally, the book I jokingly think of as ‘the bible’ for a symphony obsessive: Robert Layton’s A Guide to the Symphony (pb 1995), a wonderful multi-suthor survey of the symphony. This book has led me to much superb music. I shall also mention Wilfrid Mellers’ Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion (1997) which is a profound and idiosyncratic response to the music of the great English composer, full of spirituality and connections from Vaughan Williams to a broader English culture. And you will certainly never think about keys in the same way after reading this.
I recently saw some of the new documentary film about George Harrison, Living in the Material World, which was interesting and enjoyable. Coincidentally, I was reminded of the fact that all four Beatles had memorable solo records in 1970-71: George with singles such as ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘What Is Life’, John and Yoko with ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Instant Karma’, Paul with ‘Another Day’, and Ringo with ‘It Don’t Come Easy’. I thought I would mention some songs by the group Badfinger who were signed to the Apple label. Few bands had such a tragic history, as a read of their Wikipedia page will make plain. If Badfinger are unknown to you, Beatles fans should try to listen to the songs ‘Come and Get It’ (their first hit, written by McCartney), ‘No Matter What’ and ‘Day After Day’, the latter two songs being superb variations on the late 60s Beatle sound. The vocal on ‘Day After Day’ (sung by Pete Ham?) is very McCartney and the slide guitar is very much in the Harrison mould (maybe it was Harrison?).
Badfinger’s other claim to songwriting fame is that they wrote ‘Without You’ which Harry Nilsson had a huge hit with. I know of few more revealing comparisons between an original and a cover version, in terms of changed harmony and arrangement and feel. The Badfinger version seems a bit ramshackle and would never have been as bit a hit, but has its charm and may appeal to those who think Harry’s version is over-dramatic and slick.
I also watched an interesting documentary on Simon and Garfunkel. Readers of my book Inside Classic Rock Tracks will know that I hold the heretical view that ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ is not as great a song as ‘America’. But the song that stood out in the film was ‘Only Living Boy In New York’. This is one of those songs which has a strange power which seems unaccountable given the relative simplicity and undramatic nature of its materials. Partly it is a classic example of the poetry of reverb – something which has been undervalued for a long while in popular music because there has been a fashion for in-your-face dry productions (a trend Fleet Foxes bucked to great success with their debut album). The other aspect is that it is a touching song about friendship rather than romantic love. Unlike ‘You Got A Friend’ (or ‘Bridge OTW’), there is no sense that the speaker is congratulating themselves for being A Friend You Can Depend On, which lends those songs a slight whiff of egoistic self-approval. Instead, it is almost as if the singer of ‘Only Living Boy’ seems touched and startled to discover how much this friendship meant and its value.
Meanwhile, in the world of orchestral sample libraries, the chaps over at Vienna Symphonic Library continue to perform wonders in the world of computer sample music for composers such as myself, having just released an upgraded version of their software Vienna Instruments Pro with its nifty ‘auto-humanize feature’ whereby you can deliberately add a hint of mis-tuning and mis-timing to make your sampled string quartet or orchestra sound more realistic. Fantastic stuff. If you visit their website they have music examples you can listen to, including an astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring using only orchestral samples.
Christmas is fast approaching. One of the pieces of music I save for December is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.8. written when he was in his early 80s in about 1956. He added a number of bells, etc to his orchestra for this piece, making it great for winter, though it has no actual winter programme. It has many of the beauties of his music with a slightly unworldly twist here and there which is typical of his last two symphonies. I’m delighted to learn that a DVD of a performance of it from 1972 has just been released. Sir Adrian Boult was the conductor. I don’t know what the sound quality will be like but it should be worth a watch.
The last weekend of MAy saw the fifth English Music Festival held over four days at Dorchester on Thames. The purpose of the Festival is to celebrate English and British composers – mostly tonal and mostly from the first half of the C20th – whose music has been forgotten, was never performed or recorded, or is generally unknown. This year’s Festival featured music by Parry, Capel Bond, Lambert, Rawsthorne, Sullivan, Bainton, Stanford, Bowen, Howells, as well as more famous names such as Elgar, Holst, Delius and Vaughan Williams.
The closing concert was of particular interest to me because it featured a world premiere of a choral work by Vaughan Williams, a setting of Swinburne’s famous poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’. I wrote an article on this piece for the Vaughan Williams Society Journal and an extract from it featured on the CD sleeve for its release on albion records. You can read the sleeve note if you go to www.albionrecords.org and look for the album sleeve. The English Music Festival also has a website.
… 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.
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.