Saturday, 31 October 2015

10 popular songs that deserve study.

All the following songs have at least one outstanding feature in their design. The focus is on mostly on instrumental techniques but leaving out words altogether in popular music is imprudent so two categories, word painting and the use of unconventional texts, are included.

A brief historical introduction will account for many of the techniques used in the table. After the invention of the electric guitar certain methods of sound manipulation became widely used, to mention a few we have the flanger, reverberation, filters, wa-wa and fuzz.  With advancements in tape recording further modifications were made to the sounds, long delays and echo; reversed sounds and the use of natural sources also became part and parcel of sound production. The use of tape brought about new instruments like the mellotron which expanded the popular sound canvas.
The process of sound modification accelerated with digital recording methods and techniques already available through recording on tape became considerably easier to control. The purity of sound available through digital recordings and the ability to microscopically select sections of music from a context led to a revolution in the form of sampled sounds.

The danger with rapid technological change is that many useful processes can be overused and then neglected.  This is particularly true for popular music where one well crafted effect might make the difference between success and failure.

The category "large scale" may seem contrived but the ability to use musical material over extended periods of time creates several technical problems, and understanding how to resolve musical problems is always a source of interest for aspiring composers.

There is no shortage of popular songs that have the potential to inform contemporary composers, there are many alternative songs that would have performed just as well.  I hope at least that some readers might agree that the choices are well made.


Carla Bley / Robert Wyatt
I'm a Mineralist

Hybrid: serious contemporary/popular
(minimalism and vocoder use)


Irregular time signatures

Sail to the Moon

Reversed tape effects
Strawberry Fields Forever

(in this instance in rhythmic cells)

Led Zepplin

Complex time signatures

Dream Theatre
The Dance of Eternity

Adapting ethnic rhythms

Paul Simon
The Obvious Child

Large scale composition

Duel with the Devil
(particularly from the 18th minute onwards).

Word painting
Joni Mitchell
Both Sides Now
(year 2000 version)

Unconventional use of text
King Crimson
Elephant talk

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Saturday, 17 October 2015


This blog concerns itself with a figurative account how inspiration and intellect create music, the allegorical material comes from Greek myth and involves Apollo, Hermes and Pan.
Hermes is the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. Hermes is known like Loki in Norse myth for his cunning and shrewdness. He is the messenger of the gods and is associated with poetry. 
According to legend, Hermes was born in a cave, Zeus had impregnated Maia at the dead of night while all other gods slept. His mother wrapped him in swaddling bands, and then fell fast asleep. Hermes, however, squirmed free and ran off to Thessaly where Apollo, his brother, grazed his cattle, Hermes takes part of the herd and returns home. Before returning to the cave he catches a tortoise, kills it and removes its entrails. Using the intestines and the empty tortoise shell, he makes the first resonator for his guitar/lyre. When Apollo realised he had been robbed he protests and brings up the matter with Zeus who states that Hermes should return the cattle. As Zeus speaks Hermes plays his lyre and enchants Apollo, and he offers an exchange, Hermes may keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre.  Apollo becomes associated with the lyre and it is recognised as one of his symbols.

Later  Apollo encounters Pan, the god of shepherds and nature and like Hermes a player of the (Pan) pipes. He challenges Apollo to a musical duel. Pan is supported by Midas who believes the nature god to be the greater exponent of the pipe.  At this point it is well to recall that Pan is the god of elemental nature, his temples are found in caves and in the mountains, his utterances are for shepherds and their flocks, his music is rustic.  Pan’s performance captures the attention of all who hear the music, the challenge is under way.
When Apollo plays every creature who hears the music is entranced, and when the music closes the listeners sense a great loss, such as the grief experienced after a person's death. Only Midas holds to the belief that Pan is the greater musician, and as his reward Apollo transforms his ears to those of an ass.

The contest may be understood as one between sound and cultured music, both have the power to influence us powerfully but in different ways.  When Hermes takes the shell and attaches the intestines he adapts nature to invent something new, it is a development from blowing down a reed, a wholly natural act. One thing is not made clear in the myth; Pan has to blow through the pipes so there is no question as to whether he sings with his music, but Apollo playing his lyre may well have.  The terms lyre and lyric are closely related, lyric poetry being an expression of emotion in which the musical accompaniment was integral to the form. It makes sense to me that Apollo sings and this makes the essential difference between the two performances.

In the Pan myth there is more about the set of pipes he plays; it regards Syrinx, a water-nymph.  Pan is mesmerised by Syrinx's beauty and desires her, but the nymph runs away from him, being pursued until she meets her sisters who immediately change her into a reed. There is no way around the fact that Pan is not attempting to court Syrinx, his intention is rape, and the sisters act to prevent the bestial act.  We are dealing with raw nature, and let’s remember that Pan is only half-human.  Pan hears the air blowing through the reeds, it produces a sad tone, Syrinx has lost her power of speech. The infatuated Pan takes a handful of the reeds, and being unable to identify which one was Syrinx cuts seven pieces and joins them side by side in decreasing lengths.  

Apollo has many roles as a Greek god but his association with song and poetry as well as music shows the importance of culture and the relationship between music and the word.  

On the personal level most creative artists will recognise that drawing on intellect alone is not enough to produce music that communicates with an audience, and while improvisation may produce fascinating music most of it adheres to well established rules and works within musical restrictions.
This blog will not concern itself with revisiting the arguments about absolute music, and whether music with or without words has the greater meaning, though having taken the topic of the dichotomy of instinct and intellect one could easily become entangled in its net.  However, before returning to Apollo and Pan a brief glance at Kant might prove stimulating.  Three points may be considered.
As I understand, Kant regards our response to art as the interplay of imagination and understanding.
His concept of “form of finality” states that when there is a purpose to a structure, even if it does not serve a practical function, it may be found to be beautiful. He expresses the view that systematic order is important to the appreciation of structure. The argument develops when Kant states that Nature cannot be separated from the appreciation of artistic endeavour:

“art can only be called beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature” (KU 5:306, p. 185).

Kant expresses the view that while the product is governed by rules the artistic inspiration (the imagination) must remain free.  

There is a duality in both Kant's view and the Greek myth. For me both sources imply that one can make an instrument, one may play with that instrument but to make it sing requires a level above the functional.

How can we understand the contest between Pan and Apollo in the light of the creative process? I would suggest that a parallel exists between myths and dreams in that on one of many levels they inform us about ourselves.
In dreams if we visualise say the death of a relative, we may well wake up with a panic and worry that a premonition has taken place, yet the situation should be understood by the dreamer in relation to his or her own self.  Let us apply the myth of the two gods to ourselves; do we recognise the action of creativity arising from our experience of nature and another part of ourselves intellectualising the experience and transforming it into art? 

Moving briefly into the world of words poets have always worked on this theme, you may like to consider this opening stanza for Emily Dickinson:

A Bird came down the Walk
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw

Some see the bird in the poem as a symbol of the gap between nature and man’s desire to tame natural forces. In dreams birds often act as the carriers of ideas, the source of inspiration (flights of fancy). 
Ted Hughes also takes a bird for poetic inspiration. His “Crow” is savage, and reworks the Genesis story putting woman (Eve) in a different light, man is taken from his dominant position. Crow gives life to the formless human beings by biting the Worm in two halves,
Adam receives the tail, and Eve the head, that is to say man is dominated by the sexual drive and woman controls the intellect.  A detailed account of the "Crow" poem may be found at:

However you respond to that reversal of gender roles in "Crow", the majority of mythic literature promotes mother nature, raw nature, as the indispensable aspect of the creative process. 

If all of this is no more than hot air perhaps a more practical suggestion about music making is in place. Let us take another apparent dichotomy which links to the above; some may consider that today’s music is gradually becoming over dependent on technology (still regarded by the less enlightened as the male’s territory) and that the human aspect is being eroded. On a personal level I cannot agree with that view.  If one works at home, manipulating musical materials on a computer, the musician will lose out on certain significant elements, the interaction of minds being a significant one, whether in performance or e.g. improvised dialogues.  However technology also permits interaction over distance.  

For each argument that states electronically produced music is de-humanising there is a counter-argument.  The interplay between electronic technology and creativity making is only a small part of the history of music, the last 70 years being the most significant.  In successive posts I hope to draw on some of the highlights of musical works which have explored this mix, and should any reader wish to discuss their exploration of the medium, particularly involving the voice, we would be more than pleased to hear from you.
I am certain that philosophers may argue against the standpoint that I have taken regarding the Greek myths, and too many people have argued the problems with Kant’s statements for me to say anything definitive here.  The important matter for me is to chew over the idea that art deprived of its roots is barely art at all, and the root of “inspiration” is something we have less regard for than ever, nature in the raw.

I’ll close today’s blog with a short section of text by Walt Whitman from the Sea Symphony by R. V. Williams, it has relevance to the nature argument but more importantly it is a wonderful read.

After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds.
After the white-gray sails taut to their spars and ropes.
Below, a myriad, myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks.
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship.
Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling  blithely prying.
Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven, emulous waves.
Toward that whirling current. laughing and buoyant, with curves.
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface.
Larger and smaller waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing.
The wake of the sea-ship after she passes. flashing and frolicsome under the sun.
A motley procession with many a fleck of foam and many fragments.
Following the stately and rapid slip, in the wake following. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Preparing to write for String Quartet, 10 suggestions

1.       Consider why you want to use this medium. 
2.       Write down a list of the techniques that you might use.
3.       Think carefully about where you have heard other composers using these techniques.
4.       Ask yourself which SQ piece stands out in your mind as a great work; is there a particular reason for your choice?
5.       Ensure that you are familiar with the capabilities of the string instruments and the people playing them.
6.       Consider your audience, what might they expect from your work.
7.       Select your method of planning, even down to the type of paper you use.
8.       If you make sketches, keep them all, even the most unproductive.
9.       Work out your best time of day for composing and keep to the routine.
10.   Have a critical friend, another point of view is more than helpful, it is vital.

It is not enough just to say I want to write for string quartet.  If you have been instructed to do so, or it is the case that you won’t be paid unless it is a string quartet then that is another matter.  The medium is not a matter of it will do.
Point two follows on from the first, you can use a particular medium in a simple way, e.g. in this instance one might just use bowed and pizz. textures. If you listen to Jonathan Harvey’s quartets you might be astonished as to the variety of sounds available, and most composers hunger after new sounds.
For most of us the Beethoven SQs are the main source of study, then Bartok but why restrict yourself, try one or two of the Maxwell Davies Naxos quartets or go outside the accepted range and listen to string quartets playing Bach’s Art of Fugue.



I write out my own manuscript paper, it takes time, but I love the process of using pencil on paper.  I also have my own paper made up on Word using the lines on Insert, it saves money especially with a laser printer, but again that is not the reason, it is the comfort of familiarity.
I am terrible at organising paper, I have boxes of music paper that I should throw away.  Slowly I am cultivating the habit of scanning sketches and have the computer file them.  If only I could have done this 30 years ago.
Morning time is best for me, between 8.00 am and about 2.00 p.m. anything after this is less productive, and one has a life to live.
It has been less than a year since I got to know Nurtan Esmen, we have the luxury of being continents apart, but through the medium of the internet we can be as critical to each other as we like!  Seriously though having a person who is kind enough to listen to your music, and it may sometimes be bad music, is a luxury.  We forget all too often to say thank you to those who help in this way.

I have helped composers and people sitting exams in composition for a number of years and I know that for every suggestion I make somebody else will have two better ones.  If you are reading this and have such suggestions, please add them to the list, that way everybody wins.