Thursday 21 November 2013

Ramblings on Mind, Body and Spirit

Early Greek philosophers were highly imaginative in describing what the universe was made of.  One said water, another fire, another, earth, etc. Their models had little to do with observation. Once the imaginative picture was formed, only then, it seems, did any rational thought kick in, to build up a detailed picure. Pythagoras was perhaps the first significant philosopher to combine his imagination with observation and rational thought to develop his mathematical, musical model of the universe. Plato shone the bright light of reasoned argument on this universe and the rest is history.

With regard to music, Pythagoras identified three types, described by the academics of the Middle Ages as musica mundana, the macrocosmic music of the spheres, musica humana, the microcosmic music contained by the human being and the lowest form of music, musica instrumentalis, the ordinary music made by musicians.

A distinction was commonly made between mere musical performers, cantores, and those considered to be the true artists, who theorised about music and its relationship with the cosmos, the musici.

Monday 11 November 2013

Ramblings About Music

I'm putting together a writing project about music which will develop over the coming months. I'm going to explore what might be called "the spirit of music", in an attempt to get to the core of what music is all about and maybe learn a few things along the way. This isn't going to be an academic exercise as I feel its a subject that will appeal to anyone with an interest in music, that is, everone I've ever come across. It'll be an exploration of various facets of music, including a bit of philosophy and the physics of the stuff, how the ear works and brain responds, etc. It's not a history project either but will involve delving into the past, solely for the purpose of finding out what's relevant and what's going on now.

The way I plan to do this is by incorporating another of my loves, walking in the countryside. I'm planning a series of walks along the scenic and historic way, Offa's Dyke, which runs the whole length of the English/Welsh border. Along these walks I'll be chatting and debating with my companions, thinking about and meditating on music and recording my experiences: Ramblings About Music - get it? Walking is a great allegory for music as you will see and I hope my companions along the way will add to the experience in their own style.

There seems to be a need today to look back at the simpler, more spiritually inclined music of the pre-1800s, to discover and reclaim the inner heart, the soul of music, so I plan to take this premise, go back to those earlier times, grab hold of what I find there and drag it through into the 21st century. You'll find a developing outline of what I'm planning at and if you would like to follow and add your own opinions and comments along the way, you can do this via Facebook -  I'd love you to join in and come with me. Over the winter I'm reading and gathering info., expanding the outline of the project and then the walks, with photos and recordings start when the weather permits in the spring of 2014.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Finding A Voice after all this freakin' time

Rhythmic - happy - simple - experimental - sociable - accessible - deep - mathematical - fun - humanistic - appreciative - knowledgable. I'll probably think of many more but those are my Freudian, off the top of my head ones.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Symmetry in Music

Here's a question, "What characteristics are appropriate for a contemporary piece of music?" I know that anything goes, depending on time and circumstance, but I want to think through and identify what, in the context of today, can rightfully go into a new piece of music. For someone listening to a piece that I've written for the first time, I'd like them first to recognise it as new, that is, realise that it couldn't have been written in any earlier time, but also be responsive to what is in the music and feel comfortable with it.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Performance Nerves

Every performer has to deal with nerves to one degree or another. There are a couple of myths that I've learnt about through experience. The first of these is that nerves reduce as you get older. The second is that the problem of nerves has a solution. Realising the first myth is simply a matter of experience and many performers find that, rather than abating, the opposite happens and nerves become worse with age. That's a simple fact; the second myth is more complex.

Monday 22 July 2013

Music, Memory and the Mind

Eine Kleine LP Music
I've arrived at the time in life when memory becomes an issue, namely the point when for some occasional, inexplicable reason, names of people, particularly celebs., just disappear from mind. I can sense the required information tucked away just out of sight, but for the life of me I can't get at it, until, bingo, when my mental back is turned it pops back into view like a naughtly little hobgoblin, having a laugh. Memory becomes for most people a compelling subject. On a mundane level, that's perhaps why Eggheads is such a smash hit TV show - how can they remember so much and seemingly recall it at will?

On a more sublime level, memory plays a huge roll in making music. Not only for every rehearsal and concert do you have to remember to take music stand, music, instrument, loose change, route map, remember timing and what to wear (and, nota bene, hand your music in again after the show), but there is all that musical notation to remember, too. When reading a piece of music that has been well practised, the process is of using the written notations as memory prompts enabling recall of all that musical information from the unconscious mind.

Monday 20 May 2013

Reading Ahead

In  my youth, I had a great liking for super-hero comics. My favourites were those Marvel Comic staples of Stan Lee, "The Fantastic Four" and "The Silver Surfer". I still have one or two early editions of these, now classics. On Saturday evening, I couldn't resist watching a film on TV, "The Rise of the Silver Surfer", if only for the spine-chilling moment when The Surfer reappeared on earth. Naturally, my wife made some disparaging remarks about failing to grow up and I guiltily knew she was quite right. Can you feel a "however" coming?  Here it is: however, I am currently reading a book by James Naughtie called, "The Making of Music" (thanks for the loan, John). Now, I thought this would not really add to the numerous books I've absorbed on the history of western music, but James Naughtie adds a flavour of his own brilliant journalistic and political awareness to create a bit of a musical page turner. Oh, and of course you can hear inwardly his mesmerising Radio-4 voice while reading it. The point is that in his discussion about Richard Wagner he makes clear the mythological power in which Wagner's music is rooted, music which brings those hidden powers to light in the form of operatic gods and goddesses. Wagner's operas are not that far distant from the super-hero adventures of my Silver Surfer, The Human Torch, The Hulk, Stretcho and the Invisible Woman.

Monday 15 April 2013

Score Lines

There have been so many times over the years, that I've been on the brink of disposing of all my old vinyl. It takes up valuable space, the discs rarely if ever are played and CDs and downloads are so much more convenient and durable. So far, I've resisted the temptation, which, as time goes by, is receding. Thank, heavens. I heard this morning that the great Colin Davis has died. Wiki: "Sir Colin Rex Davis, CH, CBE, Hon DMus (25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013) was an English conductor best known for his association with the London Symphony Orchestra, having first conducted it in 1959.
"His repertoire was broad, but among the composers with whom he was particularly associated were Mozart, Berlioz, Elgar, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Tippett." On hearing this seismic news, I plunged into the depths of my crusty old cellar to dig out from a collection of abandoned LPs one that I could remember in particular.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Music Teachers' Expo: Review

My orchestra is a member of the umbrella organisation, Making Music, and through this I learnt about a major "expo" for music teachers at the London Barbican, which happened during a couple of days last week. This was a major event of workshops and an exhibition sponsored by Rhinegold Publications and I decided to toddle along for a look round. I'm glad I made the effort. When I arrived, I thought it could be a waste of time for me, but that was not the case. I'm primarily a musician and although I teach music, the expo was really for full time teachers from schools and colleges, so I felt at first that I was intruding. However, I found a vibrant hall full of businesses and organisations madly promoting their musical offerings, all aimed at assisting the teaching fraternity. I just felt it was all worth a mention here as there is clearly much energy and enthusiasm going on, particularly in the field that most interests me, namely music technology. I was a bit alarmed at being asked on more than one occasion what my departmental budget is, but I soon realised that much of what was on offer was of direct relevance to loose-cannon teachers, such as myself. So, just a note of congratulation is in order to the organisers - thanks from me.  Oh, yes, and I discovered the Musical Ear software, which I can't wait to try out...

Sunday 17 March 2013

Climbing Music

It's all Cornelius Cardew's fault that I wrote a piece of music in my head on the way home on the bus from Gloucester today. You heard it here first. It stems from his scratch orchestra for making contemporary music accessible to amateur musicians. The piece I heard about is called "The Great Learning" and I thought to myself, I could do that with variations. My original bit is to play an orchestra as if it was a single musical instrument. A "soloist" stands in front of the orchestra-as-instrument like a conductor, but instead of conducting a score he/she improvises on the orchestral instrument within the compass of some set rules. Those set rules turn this experiment into a particular piece of music but one which will sound different every time it is played.  OK, this is how it works for what I'll call "Climbing Music". Every member of the orchestra waits until the soloist points at them and then they begin to play the key note of a scale, e.g., a low G in the key of G major. They continue to play it until the soloist points at them again and then they move to the next note in the scale, A, etc. When each player reaches the leading note, F sharp, their next one will be back to the low G.

The effect should be of a gradual musical hill climb with shifting harmonics, harmonies and dischords partially under the soloists control but largely open to chance. To make it more interesting (and this is what Cardew did), another rule is that if a player gets bored playing a note, they can move on to the next one without being "triggered" by the soloist, but they can only do this if they are moving in unison with another player. I'm going to try this out on some unsuspecting group of musicians. Hopefully, the musical hill climb will end naturally and spontaneously at some point. Anyone like to be there at the premiere?

Tuesday 12 March 2013

So, What's New?

I have a feeling that things in contemporary music are changing.  A great chunk of what was written and published in the last 100 years has been somewhat difficult to get to grips with, either because composers weren't necessarily writing with the desire to captivate an audience or were pushing the barriers of convention to the extent that the music became incomprehensible. It seems to me that attitudes to all this are shifting. I may be wrong and my objectivity may be somewhat clouded but I detect that contemporary music is gaining ground and it is surely an inevitable process that what is new and shocking becomes at some point accepted and conventional. There are three particular events that have prompted this and all are to do with the way that the BBC is able only now to look back and make clear sense of - and present clearly - music's progress through the 20th century and into our own.

Friday 8 February 2013

Musical Spheres

I've been enjoying Howard Goodall's TV series on the history of music. It's his personal view and it inspired me to take a look at what my own might be. Coinciding with this, I had to summarise in ten minutes a talk that I've been preparing for the WI called "Musical Spheres" which explores the way that music has been regarded by philosophers in the past. The challenge was to squeeze this overview, which ranges from ancient Babylon to contemporary times, into a few brief minutes and without any off-putting technical terms. When contemplating this task, the Reduced Shakespeare Company came to mind.  Here is the result.