I can’t believe how the time has flown by since I last posted. First, an update on my guitar album Atlantic Canticles. I’ve almost completed the recording. I’m going to have 21 tracks to choose from because another idea turned up a couple of days ago and that turned into a piece which is titled ‘Upon the Printless Sands’. I’m aiming to finish and make available the album by the end of the month. Whether I can do it we shall see …
News in the past few days of the death of Reg Presley of The Troggs. Their hit ‘Wild Thing’ 1966 gained additional fame when it was taken over by Jimi Hendrix (it was the last song he played in his set at Monterey in 1967). It’s quite possible that the song is now more associated with Hendrix than The Troggs. Hendrix’s version may have been more amped-up, but in the context of the chart pop in Britain in 1966 The Troggs’ version did startle by seeming so primitive. Its charming slightly-out-of-tune recorder solo was an early hint of the fey bucolics of the approaching Summer of Love (the recorder in popular music signalling the pastoral).
Another big Troggs hit was ‘Love Is All Around’. I’ve always been immune to this song, regardless of who does it. If you want to hear an infinitely more expressive use of a I-II-IV-V chord progression try R.E.M.’s ‘Fall On Me’.
On the subject of Hendrix it has been frustrating to read news reports of the imminent release of his ‘new’ studio album in March. In fact, almost all these songs have been issued before, if perhaps not in these exact mixes or takes. The 12 songs belong to the album Hendrix was working on at the time of his death which has been released before under the title First Rays of the New Rising Sun. Approach with caution …
King Richard III has been in the news too, since it was confirmed on Monday that DNA testing had demonstrated that the bones found under a Leicester car park were his. A cue for Supergrass’ Britpop hit ‘Richard III’, which has some unusual chord changes.
On the classical front I’ve been enjoying exploring previously unfamiliar music by the Finnish composer Aare Merikanto. I started last year with an Alba SACD of Symphony 1 and 3 (3 is superb and very accessible). I then got hold of two Merikanto discs on Ondine – Piano Concertos 1 & 2, and Works for Orchestra. The slow movements of the piano concertos are very lyrical. The latter disc has the attractive 4 minute ‘Andante Religoso’ which might make a great download if it’s available as such.
It seems that Chandos may have abandoned their cycle of Weinberg symphonies, which is a pity. Some of the missing ones (he wrote at least 22) are appearing on Naxos but not as SACDs. Another label Neos is six CDs into a Weinberg edition but some of those are live recordings and therefore vulnerable to hall noises, coughs, etc. Weinberg is not the most approachable of symphonists, and given the awful life experiences he endured in the USSR, it is not surprising that his music is often bleak. But it has a certain strength and endurance and a feeling that it is made to last, and I’ve enjoyed persevering with it even if the rewards are not immediate. He has been described as one of the three most important Russian-associated composers along with Shostakovich and Prokoviev. If you’ve not heard him the third symphony is a good place to start, along with the cello concerto, both on Chandos.
A recent musical highlight has been the theme tune of the Scandinavian crime TV series The Bridge. Crime series / Scandinavian noir is not usually my thing, but The Bridge has been engrossing. However, long after I’ve forgotten the story I will recall the visual poetry of its opening sequence, starting with shots of the bridge that links Denmark and Sweden. It reminded me of the power of music to infuse visual imagery with a power it would not otherwise have, and how the very best theme tunes / songs to films create a magic which has a stronger hold on the imagination than the actual film’s story. I’ve always felt this was true of the early Bond films – the John Barry theme tune was always the best bit and the bit that transcends the chauvinism of the films. The Bridge is a case in point, though the creepy nature of the subject matter actually gives something to the music also.
The theme song is called ‘Hollow Talk’ by a Danish band Choir of Young Believers and was first released on their debut album This is for the white in your eyes (2008). Part of what hooks me about this song is the fact that initially it is difficult to make out what language it is sung in (it’s English but with a strong Danish accent and a deliberate blurring of the words). Language thus becomes something suggesting meaning rather than denoting it. (The Cocteau Twins did the same thing back in the late 1980s).
Musically the song is constructed from two sequences: D5-F-G-Bb/D with a piano D pedal note running through it. It is a good example of the power of a pedal note to create a hook. Later in the song when this is supplied a bass-line it becomes Dm-F-G-Bb(6). A second section goes Em-Dm-G-Dm/F, where the Em chord comes as something of a shock. The first couple of minutes are very quiet and ambient, with a cello supplying some mournful low phrases, and then the dynamic goes right up with a loud and forceful playing before sinking back down.
You can hear it on youtube where there is a studio version with a lyric supplied and also a live performance (featuring a turquiose Strat!) recorded in the U.S.
I’ve been busy recently with preparation work for the five summer school courses, so my musical work has been rather pushed to one side unfortunately.
I’ve posted before about Weinberg. I recently bought the Chandos SACD of his Symphony 20 and Cello Concerto. The latter is very good on first hearing; the latter will take some work.
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.