Friday 30 December 2011

Through the Eyes of ...

Today I have to go to market to buy the items that I will need to get by on for the next week or so. This is a distraction as my time as my master's musician is precious to me. I have the glory of the Lord burning in my soul and the burning seeks expression through music, so I must return to it as quickly as I am able. I approach the town on foot. The year is 1440 and it is a hot summer's day. The first thing that assails me is the stink as I pass across a bridge - over Shitbrook - as I near the great wooden entrance gates. There I espy the severed heads and limbs of traitors on display. Then I am further pressed by the beggar boys who come out of the town to meet visitors, such as myself who travel long distances to buy at the market.

Thursday 15 December 2011

From Both Sides of the Fence

Despite all the largely media driven doom and gloom (when hasn't it seemed as if the world is falling apart?), I've enjoyed the musical run up to this Christmas more so than in recent years. As a shopkeeper I see Christmas from both sides of the commercial fence and believe me, it is not a pretty site from behind a counter. The season brings out the best and the worst in people, who, by and large, simply want to survive the pre-rush and then, with a bit of luck, enjoy Christmas itself.  Needless to say the peace, calm and tranquility that lies at the heart of the Christmas message becomes buried - but sometimes glimpsed. For me, it's music that keeps me in touch with that still centre.

Monday 7 November 2011

Timeless Music

Our orchestra sponsors an annual event in October for string players called "Play-for-a-Day" and in 2011 it was particularly successful. The theme was Baroque music and such a simple way of unifying the day had considerable appeal. There is something about this music genre that resonates clearly with our own times. Naturally, the beautiful music room at Pauntley Court, a sunny day and a great group of musical personalities all added their contribution but I also thought it would be worth a few words exploring where this particular music came from and why it is so relevant to our techno. age and discover where the resonance comes from.

When anything is put in a context it can become meaningful. In fact, unless "anything" has a context, connection, a place in the world, it is meaningless and irrelevant. During that day, I introduced one or two facts about the times in which the music was created to see if this affected our appreciation and enjoyment of it. For example, what has relatively recently become known as the Baroque period in music covers roughly 1600 to 1750. During the seventeenth century, there were two main influences at work, one in northern Germany and Holland, the other at the other end of Europe in Italy, more specifically in Rome. Prior to this period, musical harmony and counterpoint developed primarily in devotional church music. Then, in Northern Europe, this developed much further, especially in the art of fugue. In the Italian enclave, there was much more concern for the form of the music and this also developed - the concerto grosso, sonata form, etc.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

The Final Score

A couple of years or so ago I had an idea for a piece of music and began to write a few ideas down. Somehow, the whole thing spiralled and before I knew it I had the makings of not only a new composition but a book to go with it. A few random notes turned into quite a major project. That was a while ago now and it has recently come to fruition. The book, called The Final Score, is available and the music will be published in a couple of weeks time or so.

The music is called and is inspired by Alchemy, the idea being that a wide variety of my experiences as a musician would go into an alchemical melting pot and out of it would come the new piece of music, the gold that I was aiming for. That process took me on a journey not only into my own musical past but also into the history of and the roots of music making. I was trying to discover, explore and understand the powerful effects of music and to achieve this, I went on my journey.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Orchestral Feng Shui

The Chinese call it Feng Shui. It's the art of "placement", of organising a work, leisure or home space so that the greatest benefit to the inhabitants is achieved. If the feng shui is right, health, wealth and happiness ensue. This traditional oriental art form has become debased in modern times by turning it into a pseudo-science.  Place a mirror on a south-facing wall and not facing an entrance and money will pour in. Clearly, if there is anything in feng shui, it doesn't work like that.

The converse approach is unscientific but more feasible. This is feng shui using your intuition, your feelings.  When you walk into a room, a hall, an office, a garden, you immediately have a sensation of whether it "feels right" and that is, clearly, in the main, down to the way surrounding objects have been arranged, how passage from one side to the other is achieved, how the lighting and colours, the interior design, have been formulated. If an office or a living room "feels right", then its function becomes much more productive or comfortable to be in.

That is all preamble to point out that the same principles can apply equally to a concert environment, to the concert hall. The atmosphere created by the hall space can greatly affect the experience of the audience, almost independently from the quality of performance that an audience may witness. A poor performance will never be perceived as great, but a great one can be ruined by poor feng shui. When our orchestra performs, I'm always aware of the hall that we are in, as a musician particularly the acoustics, but there are other factors as well, some more flexible than others. The lighting, for example, can be the single most effective way to create the right mood and that may or may not be controllable, depending on the venue's facilities.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Healing With Music

During the weekend of the recent London riots, I was sitting using my laptop with three browser tabs open, one following the Twitter comments, one with live pictures of burning and looting filmed by a BBC News helicopter and the other listening to a prom, Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable". The music was stirring and fitted the images and frantic twitterings well.  This wasn't just a form of voyeurism on my part as one of my daughters lives in Tottenham. Maybe, I mused, what the police riot vans needed was a sound system so that they could bombard the threatening, angry crowds with soothing ambient music. Fantasy but, who knows, it might work. Music can certainly affect the way our emotions react, particularly in a crowd situation.

A few days ago I attended a workshop. This was something off the beaten track for me and was stimulating and enjoyable from a musical point of view. It was about the affect that music has on us, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Part of the day was spent listening to extracts of "favourite" music that the participants had brought along and shared with the group. We each had an opportunity to comment on how we responded to these musical extracts. The responses were quite remarkable but not unexpected considering how wide a variety of musical tastes exists even with a small group of people, in this case about ten of us.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Alchemy - The Final Score: First Rehearsal

I've heard the piece played back by my laptop, but hearing a composition live for the first time is a unique experience. The effect that it has is unpredictable, despite familiarity with the score. There is, therefore, an element of chance about it all and that I do not fear. What arises depends on the written notes, but that is only a start. Who turns up to a rehearsal and how they play the music, not knowing themselves what to expect, makes the potent magic potion. In addition, I simply do want this element of chance and the coincidence of circumstances to inform the outcome.

Including rhythmic impro. and unpredictable gaps of silence could create a sort of hothouse, encouraging growth. That's alchemy. It's all to do with process. The end result will be success or failure or something inbetween, but, hey, who cares, it's the process that's the driving force and the way the contributing musicians interact that makes it live.  The conclusion is completely secondary to the amazing process that leads up to it.

Monday 13 June 2011

The Year

"The Year" was the title of a series of radio programmes broadcast on Radio 3 at the turn of the millennium. There were 100 of them, each covering the music of a single year during the twentieth century, describing significant new pieces of music and setting them in a social and historical context. I recorded quite a few on cassette tapes and still dip into them. I look round in horror to discover that more than ten years have gone by since making those recordings and that cassette tapes are defunct and mp3 downloads, iplayers and Kindles rule.  What will it be like ten years from now?

I've been able to witness a gradual change in the Newent Orchestra over that period of time, particularly in recent years when the membership and concert audiences have grown. The growth in membership has reached a point where a long-standing rehearsal venue at Upleadon has become too small and the orchestra will begin its next season by moving rehearsals to a new venue, the Newent Centre, close to the town's main thoroughfare. The orchestra has played there in years before my time so this is a move that means the orchestra is coming home.