Ep.4 - The composition of 'The Green Fuse' (2021) 

The string orchestra piece The Green Fuse (2021) was originally written as an entry into a composition competition held this year by a Scandinavian string orchestra. Part of the prize included performances on an international multi-venue tour around Northern Europe and Britain. The brief was that the 8-10 minute instrumental work should be 'about' (!?) the city and nature. (This often happens in competitions - the piece has to 'about' some extra-musical subject. Why can't it just be 'about' itself? A collection of sounds organised in such a way as to please, move, inspire, whatever... the listener.)

When writing a large piece I often write all the ideas for source material (tunes, chords, rhythms, etc...) on a large single page of manuscript paper and then squeeze all the music in the piece out of these fragments by developing and combining them in various ways without introducing anything new. This piece was an exception as, in a nod to the Scandinavian orchestra, I also transcribed a piece of traditional Swedish folk music that I came across on YouTube (traditional Swedish folk music). This animal herding music (or Kulning) arranged for strings was added to my original ideas as the starting points for the piece.

Other main ideas were a slow chorale, a faster folky tune, a minimalist-inspired chord sequence and a big cello melody. Along with the Kulning tune, these ideas mix and match in various ways throughout the whole piece.

The key points to listen for are:

0:00.   Opening Chorale

0:46    Two lines grow and inter-twine leading to -

1:18    The Kulning tune

1:38.   The faster folky material arrives thrown around between instruments

2:00.   The full version of the folky tune

2:35    The minimalist chord sequence with the first phrase of the opening chorale melody repeated

3:23.   The big cello melody against the minimalist chord sequence

4:08.   The Kulning tune interrupts things with a different accompaniment this time

4:42.   A section where bits of all the previous tunes appear in canon and counterpoint - all mixed up!

5:54    A new version of the 2:35 material...

6:40.   The return of the opening chorale.

7:15.   The closing section with tiny references to snippets of earlier tunes.

7:45    The end!


To listen to a computer version of this piece please follow this link (scrolling through the other pieces if necessary).

The Green Fuse

I hope you enjoy the piece. 



PS: The piece didn't get short-listed in the competition so is available for anyone else to perform... Please contact me if you are interested.










Ep. 3 - The composition of 'The Last Pipistrelle'. 

It should be noted that I have tried my best to make this blog post accessible to the general reader. I have tried to avoid technical music theory jargon and flowery, arty-farty language as much as possible. This is the story of the composition of this piece, revealing my processes and thoughts at each stage, put as straightforwardly as I can. I hope that you find it interesting...  

There is a link to the web page containing the recording of the composition at the end of the blog, in case you want to skip ahead and listen to the piece first. Or just listen to the piece and avoid all the detailed description. Up to you... 

This piece started after a chance conversation with Simon Taylor - a friend and also my bandmate in Dr Zebo’s Wheezy Club. Simon is also very involved in nature conservation, particularly in his home town of Warminster. He is a member of the ecological group Sustainable Warminster and was organising a series of new compositions created around recordings of bats made in and around Warminster to publicise their presence in the area. These recordings had been slowed down to bring the pitch of the bat calls down into the range of human hearing. Slowing them down also allows the detail of the calls to be appreciated. I volunteered to write a piece as part of this project because I liked the compositional challenge this would involve and also supported the cause. 

My first thoughts were to create a kind of ‘soundscape’ featuring the bat calls accompanied by strings. As this piece was written in lockdown here was no opportunity to use real string players, only synthesised string samples on a computer. I have become interested in writing for strings for two reasons; as they are the backbone of an orchestra and therefore it is a necessary skill for a composer, and also, following eight years of listening to and writing big band music I need a change! The composing was done on a mac laptop running Logic software and also a very basic midi sound source - an ancient Roland Sound Canvas. 

So according to the original concept, the piece should have consisted of just two distinct layers, the bat calls and the strings. (NB: This actually became three layers later on. Read on!) Having listened to many of the bat calls I chose a recording of a pipistrelle bat and then cleaned up the sound by filtering out (in Logic) a lot of the extraneous noise and hiss in the original field recording. I copied this track and pitch-shifted the copies of the recording, eventually ending up with three layers of similar but slightly different-sounding bat calls which entered one after another to create a kind of musical canon. The sound of one bat building up to three bats and then fading back to just one bat gave a pleasing sparse-busy-sparse texture and overall structure to the piece. At this point in the composition process, the title The Last Pipistrelle also presented itself, as the final single bat disappeared into the distance at the end... 

To this soundscape of bat calls, I wanted to add a layer of strings but not a conventional string arrangement. The strings should float along without any sense of pulse but still be unpredictable enough to maintain the listener’s interest throughout. To achieve this I used a couple of techniques that I had come across as part of my MA studies in classical composition.  

Firstly, I composed five ‘chords’ that I liked. Let’s call these 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The numbers also correspond to the numbers of notes in each ‘chord’ (Yes, I know that 1 and 2 notes don’t make a chord, but please bear with me) and finally to the number of beats that each chord lasts. I also added a ‘chord’ 6 which was 6 beats of silence(?!). The only ‘rule’ in choosing the notes in the chords was that the top note of each chord rose by a semitone - chord 1 = G, chord 2 = Ab, etc. The rest of the notes were chosen freely and follow no plan or conventional chord progression. I just trusted my ears! I had created a row of 5 chords which gradually got longer, thicker and seemed to rise up (at least the top note rises). This was followed by chord 6, six beats of silence. Let’s call this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.  

The late British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had first used a technique in the 1970s which derived from the permutations used in the British tradition of change-ringing church bells. Here the bells start playing in one set musical pattern and then the bell-ringers gradually change the pattern over time following a set of rules for developing the original pattern. These rules vary depending on the particular ‘piece’ they are playing. If I apply this technique to my set of chords, eventually the order of chords reverses (and if continued further, they come back around again to the original starting order). So, if I repeat the six chords but move on to the next permutation each time that gives me the following pattern of chords. (I’ll leave you to work out exactly how the rows permutate!): 

1 2 3 4 5 6 

2 1 4 3 6 5 

2 4 1 6 3 5 

4 2 6 1 5 3 

4 6 2 5 1 3 

6 4 5 2 3 1 

6 5 4 3 2 1 

Eventually, I end up with six beats of silence followed by 5 chords which gradually get shorter, thinner and seem to descend (at least the top note falls). This is the mirror image of the opening set of chords. Again, another pleasing compositional shape. 

The final piece of compositional ‘fun and games’ is a technique that I learned from Philip Cashian - my composition teacher for my MA - that involves creating a palate of similar chords from one initial chord. This is done by keeping the same number of notes but swapping the positions of the ‘vertical’ gaps (or intervals) between the notes in the chord.  

Here is a simple example using a chord of C. This chord has three notes: C, E and G. The gap (or interval) between C and E is 4 semitones, and the gap between E and G is 3 semitones. So the original chord of C, in terms of intervals, is 4,3. If I keep the same intervals but swap them over (3,4), I get C, Eb, and G. (C to Eb = 3 semitones and Eb to G = 4 semitones). So I now have two chords with the same ‘intervallic content’ that sound similar but slightly different. The more notes in a chord, the more possible permutations, and the greater the number of similar-sounding chords generated.   

Cashian uses this technique as part of his pre-compositional process (but with much less conventional ‘chords’), to generate possible musical material to use in each new piece. He then treats this material merely as a starting point and is very free in the way that he plays around with the resulting groups of notes in the final composition. 

In my composition, the result of using this technique is that every time chords 3, 4 or 5 appear they might be in their original form or in one of the permutations sharing the same intervallic content. Again, I just trusted my ear… As a result, each set of six chords sounds similar but slightly different and appears in an unpredictable order with the ‘silent chord’ appearing at any time, apparently at random. All of this keeps the listener guessing… 

With all this raw material and a basic plan, I composed the string orchestra parts using Sibelius notation software. I decided that the dynamics of the string chords should align with the sparse-busy-sparse outline of the bat recordings by starting quietly building up and then dying away. This arc is the basic form of the final piece.  

When I listened back to the first version of the strings layer alone I spotted two problems. Firstly, I decided that the flow of the chords was still too predictable, so I broke up some of the long note textures with plucked (pizzicato) notes. Secondly, the slow six beats of silence (chord 6) created too long a gap and this caused the piece to lose momentum entirely. I filled the gap with a single high note that changes in length throughout the course of the piece. This single held note also worked well as an introduction to the string chords, and as an ending.  

Up until this point, the two layers (bat calls and strings) had been entirely separate, so I imported all the files into Logic, and shuffled them about against each other until I was happy with the way the two textures aligned. As neither layer has a strong pulse, this was purely by ear, gut feeling, and trial and error. The raw sound of the bat recordings and the Sibelius string samples were improved by adding reverb, filtering, changing the envelopes and eq-ing, and in the case of the strings, by adding copies of each part played on the much better string samples available in Logic. The individual parts were panned left and right to provide a wider, bigger soundscape and the complete track was finally mixed to make everything balance.  

I think of this process as painting with sound, and that includes all the false starts, changes of mind, failed experiments and alternative versions we are familiar with from the visual arts world. The final piece evolves out of the initial sketches, and I start the process without knowing exactly what will emerge. I have an inkling of what I’m after, and hopefully, something close to that ‘sound-picture’ in my head gradually comes into focus over time. In this case, I wanted the bat calls to sit against the evolving string backing but neither layer should dominate the music. The strings definitely mustn’t distract the listener from the stars of the piece - the pipistrelle bats. 

At this stage, I sat back, closed my eyes and just listened to the piece from start to finish,  several times, to see if I thought it ‘worked’ and if I was happy with the outcome. I wasn’t… Something was missing. It needed another layer of something. Some other sound in the mix to make it ‘come alive and sparkle’. But what, exactly…? 

This led to three very frustrating weeks of trial and error. I tried a big cello tune. No! A layer of random percussion sounds. No! Some piano flourishes - getting closer… Eventually, I discovered the slightly distorted piano sound in the banks of keyboard samples in Logic. I just improvised a layer of piano ‘stuff’ against the backdrop of the bats and strings, just having fun, with no critical filter on the quality of the playing and the success of the ideas. The good thing about digital recording is that, unlike when you improvise jazz, you can easily go back and edit improvisations and fix mistakes and bad decisions. By deleting notes, copying and pasting phrases and moving sounds around I eventually came up with the keyboard part on the finished version. Phew!   

I listened to it all playing back together and found the missing ‘sparkle’ had appeared. The piece was finally finished.

Here is a link to the page with the recording of the piece, 'The Last Pipistrelle'. Enjoy!

Ep.2 - Ten Common Mistakes in Essay Writing  

This may seem to be a bizarre topic for a blog entitled Musician at Work, but part of my work is lecturing on a music course at an FE College. As I am the lecturer in the department with a PhD, I get lumbered with trying to teach academic writing skills to 16-18-year-old wanna-be Popstars. You can guess how popular these lessons are…  

These ‘Ten Common Mistakes in Essay Writing’ are the fruit of several years of marking dodgy essays that just throw away marks needlessly. 

If you are in the ‘joyful’ position of home-schooling your kids at the moment, feel free to use this advice to help your offspring with their school work. (You can adapt it to fit younger age groups too.) Here we go… 

1. Include the title and make sure the essay actually addresses the title. Eg: If the title is a question, does the essay answer this question, or does it go off at a tangent? 

2. Proofreading. Check the spelling, grammar and punctuation for mistakes before submitting the work. The free app/programme ‘Grammarly’ is excellent and much better than the normal spell-checker on your computer, as it checks punctuation and grammar too.  

It is also useful to listen to your computer reading the text back to you. [Google ‘text-to-speech’ for instructions on how to do this. It is fairly easy to set up but varies from machine to machine.] The computer reads exactly what you have written, not what you think you have written… 

3. Neat Presentation. If an essay looks a mess then it probably is a mess. Keep the font, text size and line spacing consistent throughout the essay. 

4. Present information in a logical order in paragraphs. I once ‘marked’ (actually I didn’t mark it because I gave up trying to read it) a 1500-word essay that was a continuous block of stream-of-consciousness text unbroken by paragraphs or even full-stops and capital letters. You can guess what grade this got! 

5. Include an Introduction and Conclusion. Don’t just stop when you have reached the minimum permitted word count… 

6. Include a ‘List of Sources’ (in alphabetical order) at the end of the essay. NB: This used to be called a ‘bibliography’ but no student these days knows what a book is, let alone reads one. And I refuse to use the phrase ‘webography’! 

7. Make sure that any statements or quotations are linked correctly to the ‘list of sources’. At one extreme, this avoids any accusations of plagiarism. At the other end, it proves to the person marking it that you have actually done some research. Both of these are ‘good ideas’... The standard referencing system nowadays is Harvard Referencing, and the ‘bible’ for this is a tiny book called Cite them Right. This is updated regularly and the most up-to-date edition even includes how to cite tweets (if you really want to quote Donald Trump!). 

8. Pictures, diagrams and graphs. These should all have a title and a figure number (fig. 1, etc…) which should be referred to at the appropriate point in the text.  

9. Stick to the word-count (usually plus/minus 10%). If the essay is too short you will not get a good mark, and if it is too long you will not get extra credit for writing more (and may even be penalised). 

10. Rushed, unresearched work done at the last minute - is very, very obvious to the person marking it. Don’t do it! Plan ahead and get the essay done in good time. Finish it and leave it alone for a few days. Then revise it. It will always end up much better than the first draft. 

I hope this helps. 



Ep. 1 - Introduction 

Hello. I have decided to write this new blog Musician at Work for several reasons, which I will outline shortly. It is a view of the world from my point of perspective - both issues in my life as a professional musician with a finger in many musical pies, but also as just a bloke trying to get by in the wider social, political and cultural climate of the UK today. 

Online presence 

Having an online presence is an essential part of life as a professional musician in this country. This is needed mainly for self-promotion and advertising (eg: informing potential audiences of upcoming performances and new projects/albums, etc). This is particularly true of a freelance musician, which is the category that I mostly fall into (apart from a few regular, ongoing bands). More about freelance musical life later... 

Sometimes, this need for an online presence seems to be a bit absurd and illogical to me. I recently thought about entering a jazz composition competition funded by a regional branch of the Arts Council. One of the criteria for assessing the viability of the winning proposed compositional idea was the ‘scope of the online presence of the composer’! If this was for a competition where the prize involved attracting an audience for a live event I could understand this, but here the prize was a radio broadcast of the performance of the work by a band that didn’t necessarily include the composer in its ranks. Huh?!  

I didn’t bother to enter the competition… Thinking about it, a competition for the best idea for a composition rather than the best actual composition seems a bit bonkers in itself.  

What musicians do all day 

In the current lockdown-affected world there seems to be a strong pressure to justify the work that musicians (and artists in general) do as ‘real’ work. The validity of this career as a ‘proper job’ seems to be more in question than ever, and this is reflected by the shockingly bad organisation of financial support for freelancers in the Covid pandemic. The government just does not know what we do and how the music (and wider arts) industry is actually organised. I hope to enlighten and inform with my future blog posts. 

This lack of understanding from the wider audience became even clearer to me over the Summer when a friend interviewed me as background research to her upcoming novel which featured a musician as one of the main characters. She is an extremely knowledgeable and widely-read person, but the ‘unworldly’ and ‘romantic’ ideas that she had about life as a musician were very wide of the mark. The interview proved to be a real ‘reality check’ for her. Maybe she is not alone in needing this? 

Show your workings 

This phrase, which for me harks back to the dreaded maths exams of my youth, is part of a philosophy which is gaining prominence amongst artists in all fields. I first came across it a few years ago when my PhD supervisor recommended the book Show your Work! By Austin Kleon. (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Show-Your-Work-Getting-Discovered/dp/076117897X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=8UI611W1QIYJ&dchild=1&keywords=show+your+work+austin+kleon&qid=1611161026&sprefix=show+your+work%2Caps%2C153&sr=8-1)  

The basic philosophy involves opening up the process of creating works of art to the audience rather than just waiting to present the final finished product. This (usually online) access helps to explain your creative processes in the making of a work and some of the ideas and techniques behind it to interested observers. This helps to build a relationship between the creator and individual members of a potential audience and opens up the possibility of a two-way stream of ideas and greater understanding between both sides. Watch this space… 

Music education 

2021 is the 40th anniversary of passing my PGCE in secondary music teaching. Since then I have taught in schools, colleges, universities, workshops and community projects, usually part-time alongside a professional involvement in music. I still teach part-time in an FE College. Education is in my blood and I will also be passing on a few nuggets of (hopefully) useful information in this blog. 

As you can see, the reasons behind this blog are many and varied - from an extension of my self-employed business, a small (semi-political) platform for my voice and opinions (and also that of my industry), somewhere to share and explain my artistic ventures and projects, and an educational tool. 

I hope you enjoy reading it! 



Yes, but try telling my bank manager this... 

“Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. 

They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. 

Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they’ll never work again. 

Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. 

With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. 

With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life 

– the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. 


Because musicians are willing to give their entire lives to a moment – to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. 

Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. 

In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. 

And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.” 

David Ackert, LA Times

Competition time...? 


I thought I would go through the latest batch of composition competitions that arrived in my inbox yesterday, and see if there is anything of interest to me. 

NB: All the comments are about the relevance of the competitions to me personally and not about the competitions themselves. 

C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective Announces 2016-17 Student Composer Competition 

I'm not a student at a "school" in New York... 

Chamber Music Amici Composition Competition 

I'm not a legal resident of Oregon... 


I'm not an Australian citizen and "emerging" is pushing things a bit... 

Call for Scores: Ensemble Schallfeld and Francesco Filidei Workshop with Ensemble Schallfeld 

"For composers taking part in the Darmstadt Summer Course 2016"... 


"Composers of any age, nationality and place of residence who haven’t scored nor orchestrated more than three feature films (longer than 60 minutes) are eligible to enter." So far so good... Pay 75 euros to write a symphony orchestra score for a given 6-minute film. The best 5 get a big performance in Zurich with the winner getting an award and CHF 10,000...  

Sounds interesting, but I haven't got the time at the moment. This would make sense particularly if the resulting score was composed in such a way that it works on its own without the pictures - giving you a 6-minute stand-alone orchestral piece - but the whole point of film scores is to subtly support and not over-power the images...  

 Kalamazoo Mandolin & Guitar Orchestra Call for Scores 

Instrumentation. Must consist of the following make-up: Mandolin 1 (4), Mandolin 2 (7), Mandola (2), Mandocello (2), Contrabass (1), and Guitar (4). Divisi may be used as much as wanted but may not exceed the numbers listed above. Guitars are classical 6-string standard tuned guitars. 

Length. There is no restriction on length of the work. 

This is just a group fishing for new pieces scored for their bizarre line-up. There is no prize to speak of... Anything written for this group couldn't easily be recycled and used with any other group, so why bother - unless you are a mandolin-geek (a lesser known relative of the ukulele-geek). 

Latitude 49 announces a call for scores, 

Goal for Call for Scores: 

To build connections and relationships with composers and to surface new works that could possibly be programmed in future Latitude 49 programs, or recorded on future albums 

This is Pierrot-like Ensemble - replace the flute with sax - looking for new works. Interesting details: travel expenses for the composer from any US city, and you are encouraged to send a head-shot photo (!)... 

The Etobicoke Philharmonic Orchestra YOUNG COMPOSERS COMPETITION 2016 

The problem is in the title... 

The Vancouver Performance Scorebook Project 

The Vancouver Performance Scorebook Project (Maren Lisac and Alanna Ho) is looking for musical and performance scores by people currently based in the GVRD, for publication in a collective book project. The book will consist of music scores in non-conventional types of notation, e.g. graphic and verbal, as well as instructions for non-musical performance pieces, for all kinds of people to explore and perform. When the book is complete, we intend to put on a combination concert and book release party featuring selected pieces from the book...  

Where is the GRVD? I don't think I live there... 

Fifth Piano Composition Competition Fidelio via Internet 

Dear friend, if you think that you are capable of composing a piano piece 1-3 minute long, perhaps you may be interested in this competition via Internet from home. No matter how far you live. To enter this piano competition you only have to send your audio file. It costs 7 euros or equivalent in dollars and there are five prizes , three of them in cash. http://concursodecomposicionparapianofidelio.com/ 


2016 University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival - Yarn/Wire Call for Scores 

Composers must submit two scores of any style, instrumentation, and length for this call for scores. These scores need not conform to Yarn/Wire’s instrumentation, but should showcase the composer’s best work. Yarn/Wire will then choose one composer to receive a $500 award and to create a new work approximately 10 minutes in length to be premiered by Yarn/Wire in October as part of the festival. The new work will be written for two pianists (two pianos or one piano 4-hands) and two percussionists and may include electronics. 

I don't have anything close to that line-up, and anyway, it's a pig in a poke... submit 2 pieces to get the commission to write another one... 

All in all not a very interesting batch from my point of view. Maybe next time... 

If any of these are up your street, go for it. You have to be in it to win it...

Return of the Blog... 


Apologies for the lack of a blog in recent weeks. This situation arose when I just ran out of steam at the end of term - not just with the blog, but everything - and barely had the energy to keep on top of all the end of term admin, reports, concerts, etc... let alone deal with the PhD and the blog (which I treat as a kind of brain-loosener, warm-up activity, before the serious business of academic writing.) But now, after a short Easter break, I am back with a vengeance, planning to get up early (6am) and work until 2pm every day (except Sunday - I just need a day off a week for my mental well-being) throughout my Easter "holidays",    

So here I am - at my desk, as I was yesterday actually - but that proved to be a bit of a false start for reasons that I will explain... 

Just before the Easter weekend, a full-time lecturing job at a reasonably local HE institution came up in my inbox. (I receive alerts for "relevant" academic jobs automatically every day.) Not completely up my street but close enough to warrant an application. It needed a Masters degree but no PhD (unusual), 2 years of HE teaching experience (I have 14!), and in several other ways I fit the bill. I spent the Easter trip away thinking about the job and the feasibility - travel, etc... I looked up train times from various local stations, the walking distance from the station at the other end. I researched the job, the institution, the staff (a couple of whom I know), organised to chat to them "off the record" to get any inside information, talked to my present boss (at a very part-time job), arranged to have a reference from him, checked out the online application form, etc... Generally thought long and hard about how to sell myself on the application... 

Then yesterday, a day before the deadline for applications, I went to the job application form to find a note saying that the job advertisement was now closed (early), and "Thank you for my interest."  

Obviously they had an internal candidate lined-up, and were just going through the motions of advertising it externally - or was that just an elaborate April Fools gag. To add insult to injury, I received three more notifications of the same job from different sources throughout the day...  

What a crap system we have in this country! And what a total waste of time, energy and emotional investment - for me and every other mug out there who had been through the same process. At least I didn't fill in the extensive application form and make (yet another) personal statement, for it to disappear into the ether without trace or even acknowledgement. 

Onwards and upwards... apparently.

To the Max... 


I woke this morning to read the news that British composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, had died of leukemia, at the age of 81. 

Why should this bother me - "the jazz guy" - jazz double bass player and bass guitarist? 

Well, in a former life I was a trombonist (classical and jazz), and studied for a masters degree in contemporary classical composition. Before that was a classical music degree, where I was mostly the "early music guy", and ace sackbuttist in various early music groups... 

Incidentally, I stuck the university composition course for about three weeks before discovering that if you didn't write 12 tone or serial music you didn't get good marks - this was in the late 1970's. I was interested in tonal-ish music (including jazz). This made me either so far behind (or, as it turned out, ahead of) the trendy style of the day that I wasn't taken seriously by the composition lecturers... 

Before that, I went to a grammar school where the head of music (an organist and harpsichordist, and Messiaen, Monty Python and Early Music fan) had studied in Manchester. He (David Johnson, aka DJ) had been a contemporary of what later became known as the "Manchester School" - Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Sandy Goehr, Elgar Howarth, John McCabe and John Lill. 

How many degrees of separation? 

One of the offshoots of this connection was that, in the school brass group, we would test out new works for the Junior Just Brass range of publications by people like John McCabe and Elgar Howarth before they were published officially. 

My teenage rebellion consisted of playing Schoenberg, Webern, Berio and Messiaen LPs very loud at home - no Genesis, Hawkwind or Led Zeppelin for me. I was a weird kid! I remember reading about the earth-shattering dissonances in Rite Of Spring (Stravinsky). I borrowed the LP from school and listened to it. I was so used to "crunchy" harmony that I didn't even spot the correct passage - the piece finished and I had missed it! Later on, the reason that "free jazz" never scared me was probably because of all this contemporary classical listening at an early age... 

Anyway... Peter Maxwell Davies will be missed, not just as a composer, but also as a supporter of all things Orkadian (He lived in the Orkneys from 1971 onwards - I've never been, but am a total Outer Hebrides nut!), a champion of music for young people and amateurs, and an outspoken supporter of proper music education for all. The only things I'm not so keen on are the title (Sir Peter) and the role of Master of the Queen's Music - I don't think my politics would let me accept either of those, but realistically the chance of being offered either of them is fairly remote... Ooh! Look at that flying pig! 

I was just finishing off this post when I read that Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) has been found dead - suspected suicide. It's a bit bizarre to have to have these two in the same blog, but ELP were the only prog rock band that I liked and their version of Pictures at an Exhibition is a much earlier fixture in my musical memory banks than the Mussorgsky original. That came much later... 

Just one of those days... 

(rather muted) Cheers, 




This post is written in a mixed mood of annoyance, irony, sadness and defiance. 

Three things have triggered this: 

1. I was booked to teach two 5-day jazz performance courses aimed at beginners - particularly people who are already classical players - for a well-established educational establishment. (I will not name them.) Yesterday these courses were both cancelled, as only one person had signed up so far. Fair enough if the course was weeks away, or even two months. The first course was not due to start for four months - July 11-15 and 18-22! Is it just me, or is that decision not a bit premature... 

Ironically, I had previously had an email conversation about the courses with a female cellist - who had started playing as an adult - asking if she, as a string player, was suitable for a jazz course. I replied very positively and she signed off her last message with - "Great! Thank you! I'll book myself on for a new musical challenge... so see you in the summer." What a brilliant attitude... 

2. This contrasts with someone else (again not named) who recently stated that as they were now XX years old (XX being less than the normal retirement age) that they couldn't cope with getting to know any new music at that age. The "old dogs, new tricks" argument. Well, as someone doing a PhD in my mid-50's (slow-learner?), that argument just doesn't wash with me. And all my artistic heroes developed and changed continuously throughout their careers - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Picasso, Haydn, Paul Gascoigne, Debussy, Stravinsky...  

(NB: one of these isn't really my hero... but which one?) 

3. Then I realised that the "new" music in question - as the peak of contemporary, cutting edge, avant garde madness - was actually written about the time the person in question was about ten years old... If my cut-off point was when I was ten, I wouldn't be interested in anything created after 1969, and, correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to think that things have developed a bit in all genres of the arts since then...  

Not all of it is good, and just because it's new, that doesn't make it good, but it is "of my time", and I should at least be aware of it. When I stop trying to keep abreast of new developments - in everything - just dig a big hole and put me in it! 

So, in conclusion, if anyone needs a composing, arranging, workshop tutoring, conducting, bass playing, old git to "boldly go (grammar!) where no man (or woman - correct use of academic language) has gone before" I now just happen to be free for a couple of weeks in the Summer...  

Open to all offers. 



Decisions, decisions... 


The topic today was initially discussed in the pub, after last night's rehearsal (also in the same excellent pub - http://www.theorganinn.co.uk/ ) by the three members of Dr Zebo's Wheezy Club...  https://www.facebook.com/DrZebo/ 

As you can probably tell from the facebook page, we are a profound and academically rigorous ensemble determined to preserve the authentic ethnomusicological performance practices of West Wiltshire. Not! 

What we actually do is collect (or compose new) tunes borrowed (or inspired) from anywhere and everywhere, and then combine them in elaborate medleys/mashups/remixes, whilst having a laugh and a few drinks. We then generally amuse/bemuse audiences in folk clubs, acoustic music venues, beer or gin festivals, wedding receptions and the like... with the results of our labours. 

We have been thinking about recording a CD, after doing some trial recordings with the excellent sound engineer, Tim Walker https://www.linkedin.com/in/tim-walker-0130a515 . (NB: Highly recommended if you ever need a recording engineer (and he's a tasty bass player too)). 

Having heard the warts-and-all live recording, we realise that there are things that we all individually need to tighten up before doing a proper recording... But how "authentic" should the CD be? The recording options seem to be: 

1. An "everyone playing together" recording giving an exact record of the band sound live. 

2. Mostly live, but with some tricky bits (eg: backing vocals or solos) overdubbed later. 

3. The live arrangements of pieces with extra overdubs by members of the band - extra guitar, fiddle, trombone(!) or backing vocal parts. 

4. The basic trio plus additional players adding touches of (maybe) keyboards, drums or even a horn section. 

When you realise that the recording technology used to record the entire Beatles "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album is now available on an iphone - in fact you can do more with just a phone - the options are endless... 

Then, if we do some new, fancier versions, do we just use these for occasional tracks on the CD, with the rest "as live" - or should the whole album be seen as a different project from the live band? 

Finally we have to decide which pieces to do! And do we owe royalties to John Coltrane (or his estate) if I play a version of the head of his tune, "Spiritual", on the double bass as the introduction to some of Mike's new slip-jigs? 

This CD recording lark is harder than you would think!