Drums and Shouting of Words

I was becoming bored of (and spending a small fortune on) playing in the Toxic Twins Aerosmith tribute band, and wanted to make new music at the drums. I quit with the firm intention of not playing any more rock for a while, unless it was of the ‘feral pop’ variety discussed by Charlie Bramley (2017), or in projects with Stephen Wheel or the Eruptörs. I had also recently burnt all my bridges with the London musical theatre fringe circuit by fathering a child and therefore not being in a position to do gigs for free any more. I was still playing in pop-noir electro-swing band, Sweet Tooth, whose gigs and rehearsals were consistently beautiful, immersive quasi-cinematic experiences that kept me technologically on the edge of my seat, but I wanted to express myself a bit more on the drums – to breathe, move, listen, respond and emote. Jazz might have been the logical vehicle for such an endeavour, had I not long ago abandoned its oppressive subtleties and sophistication for a post-quiet performance aesthetic that allows me to play as loud as I feel I need.

At one of the monthly Cabaret Futura events hosted by legendary London musician and curator (and one-time olde-English executioner), Richard Strange, I absorbed the performance of spoken word artist and self-proclaimed “shouter of words”, Oh Standfast. Having seen him play at another event a few months prior, I was excited to be bombarded by his bombastic bardery for a full fifteen minutes and gave him a lift home after discovering we lived in neighbouring regions of north London. My rock covers holiday inspired me to contact him later by email, and he was curiously accepting of my invitation to meet in a rehearsal room to see what would happen. I confessed at our first session, I had been struck by a video that caught my attention on Facebook, of a drummer (and bassist and keyboard player, but I wasn’t at all interested in them) playing along to this advertisement for Jones’ Truck Rental and Storage.

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Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe

In July of this year I was part of a team, along with Dr Haftor Medbøe and Prof Chris Atton, that organised and hosted the international conference ‘Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe‘, in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.

We were delighted to welcome a broad range of delegates from around the world, including academics, musicians, industry representatives, and educators. Through a programme of panel discussions, research presentations, and discussion sessions, the conference was a wonderful weekend of informed and lively debate around the ontology of jazz in Europe, the nature of jazz in the region at present, and a look towards the future of the music in this area.

We now have video footage and audio recordings of the event, and I would like to share them in this post.  For audio recordings, you can subscribe to the podcast using iTunes by clicking here, or visit the blog feed here. Please see below for a range of videos of the event.

We are looking forward to working in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival again next year, and we will be distributing a call for papers in the next few weeks.  If you are interested in participating, or even just attending, then please get in touch or comment below.

Enjoy the video content – we’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The Black Dog: More thoughts on writers’ block

In response to a recent post by Zack Moir, I thought I might wade in with some related musings and give offer suggestions to banish the ‘black dog’ that is writer’s block.

In common with Zack, I struggle to balance my musical practice with the teaching and administrative demands of academia, and the general push and pull of simply living life. I recognise all of the worries that he outlines – and, I dare say, that they are probably universally experienced by those who compose music. The act of committing musical ideas to paper (or hard-disc), for posterity is a daunting prospect. Improvisation, albeit differently challenging, doesn’t run the same risk of sustained critique – when it’s over, it’s over and quickly becomes just a vague memory (good or bad). Composing, however, exposes you to the judgement of fellow musicians, listeners and critics. And, most frighteningly, they have the ability to review your work over and over again, giving you never ending fresh insights into what’s wrong with your it (or, on a brighter day, what’s right about it).

Personally, I find the following strategies provide some motivation. And motivation is generally the first stumbling block over which to jump:

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Writers’ Block

Introduction:

I have writers’ block, when it comes to composition.  I have had it for nearly two years. I have not written a full piece of music that I have been happy with in a long time.  It is starting to stress me out…

What is writers’ block, though?  Many people say that it doesn’t even exist, and that it is just a combination of procrastination, trepidation, and fear of artistic commitment.  That’s probably true , using the term ‘writer’s block’ as some sort of catch-all term for one all encompassing monolithic problem is probably not helpful or appropriate.  Regardless, it feels like an appropriate term and the notion of ‘blockage’, is particularly apt in my case as many of my problems seem to stem from not being able to get close enough to this type of work to develop any ideas or to encourage any artistic ‘juices’ to flow.

When I sit and think about my dearth of ideas and what seems like a crippling lack of creativity, I feel like I can see a number of reasons why this may be the case.  While this is, in some ways, useful as it helps me to see the potential causes, it also has a compounding effect as I know how difficult it will be to try to get past some of the hurdles.  This leads to a spiral of worry about the potential of being in this position permanently and leads to bigger and more important questions such as:  What effect might this have on my teaching?  How might this impact on my musicianship? What on earth can I do to get over this?

The following is my explanation of what I think the main problems are:

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My Top 5 Songs of 2015:

Last year, having spent a bit of time thinking about the way that people like to make lists of ‘top 5 records’ (read the original post here) I decided to compile a list of my top 5 songs of 2014.  At this time of year I get more of an opportunity to actually sit back and enjoy listening to music and it is nice to look back over the songs that were released in the previous 12 months. So, the following is a list of the 5 tracks that I have enjoyed most in 2015.  I’m not trying to convince anyone or to campaign for these songs in any way – they’re just my personal favourites from this year.

What were your favourites?  Please feel free to comment below with your own top 5 list or even just the odd link to music that you have enjoyed from this year.
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Let There be Rock

Let there be rock

Really, let there be rock. I argue in this piece that too often we do not. Educational institutions frequently permit an unfulfilling simulacrum, but we fail all too often to grasp the core of rock music and allow it to happen, or to insist that it happens, in schools. I write a little about me in this post, because it is a first articugolation of an irritation that has been brewing inside me over 16 years of teaching in primary, secondary, tertiary and higher education.

I am a drummer, and I teach music at a school of contemporary (popular) music. This year I’m also studying there for a master’s degree in music performance. This combination of being the teacher and the taught has helped me see more clearly who I am as a musician. While I love playing drums, there are particular conditions that make the experience for me the fullest consummation of human experience. These are generally met when the following align:

  • I am playing drums in an ensemble
  • I can play what the music requires
  • The band is comprised of competent players
  • We’re all listening and feeling intently
  • Our commitment to and immersion in the moment are complete
  • I can move as large as I need
  • The volume in the space is loud, and I am enveloped in sound
  • We are playing rock music

In short, all is well with me when I rock.

My drum teacher and undergraduate mentor, Peter Fairclough, used to pose a question to his students. He would ask, “Who gives you permission?”[i] Pete’s idea was that a confident, successful musician enables (permits) her- or himself. I took from his advice that I should have enough ability in my wrists and fingers to do whatever I wanted on the instrument. But asking Pete’s question now, of myself and on behalf of students who I know love to rock, the answer, or part of it, lies below.

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Penguins, Snowpeople and a Man on the Moon: The ‘John-Lewis-isation’ of Pop Songs

Introduction:

The other day I was playing a game with my three year old daughter in which we were making up funny songs, based on themes that we each took turns to suggest.  So, I had to come up with songs about sheep, or busses, or cakes, for example.  One song that she sang sounded particularly happy and upbeat – a fun kid’s song.  Just out of curiosity, I then asked her to sing me a ‘sad song’, and what she did was (a) hilarious, and (b) really interesting.  She basically just sung the same melody but slower, in a breathy, fragile voice, and did so while pretending to look ‘sad’ (in the same way that a mime-artist might do).  This was wonderful as it linked directly to something that has been floating around in my head for the last few Christmases.  Namely, the phenomenon of the ‘Christmas advert’ – typified by those for John Lewis(a UK department store), for example – which seem to have become (inter)national events, in recent years.

Christmas Adverts:

Most people reading this, certainly those from the UK will be familiar with the phenomenon that I am referring to.  Essentially, these are adverts (commercials) that last for approximately 2 minutes in which a supposedly heartwarming, Christmas (or winter, at least) narrative is played out, often with an emotional message or display of seasonal good will.  Importantly, however, the songs used in each of the adverts are cover versions of famous pop songs.  If you are not sure what I am referring to then the following example is the most recent John Lewis advert (‘The Man on The Moon’) featuring a cover version of ‘Half the World Away’, by Oasis.

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The International Journal of Inaccessible Jargon: A research dissemination gap.

As a research student, I regularly attend research training sessions and other such events. A running theme in many of these sessions has been ‘impact’ – more specifically, how can we create impact with our research? Who might benefit from our research? How can we engage with them?

What is impact? 

Earlier this year I attended a training session on “Evaluating your Digital Impact”, run by the Scottish Graduate School for Social Science. The aim of this training was to make us aware of how we can evaluate our research impact, and identify ways of disseminating our research. J. Britt Holbrook’s list of 56 Indicators of Impact (featured on the LSE blog) shows that impact is measurable in more ways than counting how many times your work is cited. Furthermore, Holbrook identifies that impact – which is so often talked about as a positive outcome – can also be controversial or negative.

Last week I was in Keele, at the first PG conference held by the AHRC North West Consortium. In his keynote, Professor Charles Forsdick suggested a shift is needed, away from talking about ‘impact’ – which in the REF is encountered as a short-term result rather than the long-term impact more applicable to the arts and humanities – towards a focus on public engagement and knowledge exchange.   I find this helpful, particularly as a musician and music PhD student, as it suggests more of a dialogue between research and society.

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Found Sounds: Music from the mundane

 

‘Hearing’ Music:

Whenever I am on a train, I find myself hypnotised by the sound of the wheels on the track and the rhythmic ‘rattle’ that this produces in the carriage. Similarly, when at a queuing to pay at the supermarket, I love to stand and listen to the sound of the ‘beeps’ produced when items are scanned at the different checkouts, the differences in pitch (probably due to the relative distances) and the sometimes ‘rhythmic’ effect of the beeps occurring at random intervals. When I’m in a traffic jam in a car, I can amuse myself for long periods of time by simply listening to the ‘music’ created by the interaction of the indicator’s clicking sound and the swoosh of the windscreen wipers, slowly moving in and out of phase with each other. When using a photocopier it is not uncommon to see me nodding my head, in time with the mechanistic ‘groove’ of the machine, as if I was listening to music on headphones.

When I tell people about this, or when people observe me absent-mindedly humming as I invent bass lines that compliment the metronomic ‘tick-tock’ of the car indicator, or tapping additional layers of rhythmic patterns over the incessant ‘clickity-clack’ of the train, some people think I’m mad, some think I’m just a muso-geek and others seem to understand and even recognise this behaviour in themselves. Regardless of what other people may think, I find that I derive genuine and meaningful musical experiences from sounds that other people may regard as noise, or indeed, that they may subconsciously ‘block out’. This does not surprise me, I am fully aware of the subjectivity of musical experience, but it does intrigue me. Consequently, in recent years, I have started to use this idea in my teaching and, most recently, in the context of a 1st year undergraduate course I teach in Popular Music Composition at Edinburgh Napier University.

‘Collecting’ Sounds:

In week 2 of my composition course (after the initial introductory lecture) I ask my students to attend class with some sort of hand-held recording device. After a preparatory discussion about sampling and related issues, we head out into the campus (and beyond) in search of sounds that we feel are ‘interesting’ and that are/could be considered ‘musical’. The term ‘musical’ is deliberately used as a problematic and ambiguous word as the intention is for the students to decide what this word means, and why. I want my students to start to listen to sounds in their environment analytically, to think about the ways in which sound is perceived, and to consider the ways in which ‘music’ can be found (or drawn from) unexpected sources.

Use of samples is clearly not a new – for many composers of popular music (particularly for younger students), this is one of the first steps in writing/producing a piece of music. For example, a drum sample is loaded into a digital audio workstation (DAW) and other layers are added on top until the track is complete. The exercise that I described above is different, however, as it is not about using pre-existing samples – it is about creating audio files that can be used, manipulated, and sculpted to create musical source material. Again, this is not a new idea and it is one that has been a key aspect of many types of electronic music for decades. That said, without exception, my students consider this approach to be entirely novel and, in some cases, the idea of starting a compositional process without even touching an instrument or DAW is even met with scepticism.

Implications for ‘Popular Music Composers’:

Popular music is an ‘aural art’ (Warner 2003: 8) that comes into being through the recording and manipulation of audio – popular musicians use production technology (software and hardware) as means to work directly with sound and to create sonic artefacts (Moir and Medbøe, in press). In this sense then, recorded sounds are the building blocks of many types of popular music. Regardless of whether we consider recordings of traditional instruments or samples of ‘found sounds’, for example, when a track is created we engage with it aurally. In my opinion, this means it is of paramount importance for popular music composers to think carefully and creatively about timbre and sound creation, just as much as (if not more) harmony and melody etc.

First year popular music students often tell me that their default approach is to use a DAW (Logic or Ableton Live, primarily) and to begin with instrument presets or samples and compose a track using these pre-existing components. Additional layers of audio, such as vocals or live instruments, may be added but the starting point is often one that is essentially curtailed by the parameters of software presets, workflows, or technical ability. This, in turn, can lead to students reverting to habitual processes or to genre stereotypes. I do not mean to suggest that my ‘found sounds’ exercise will necessarily yield music that defies genre classification or idiomatic norms – nor should it. What this exercise does is to encourage students to break habits, listen at a deeper level, and consider their music in a way that goes beyond the melodic/harmonic/rhythmic content that is the typical priority and preoccupation of young students in this area. By considering their music from this sonic perspective, it is hoped (and is usually the case) that the students will uncover new and interesting perspectives on composition and production that they may not have arrived at by conventional or habitual practices.

References:

Moir, Z. and Medbøe, H. (In press). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centered practice, Journal of Music, Technology and Education (Special Issue, Edited by Gareth Dylan Smith and Bryan Powell)

Warner, T. (2003) Pop Music, Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the
digital revolution, Ashgate, United Kingdom.

Remembering B.B. King

News of legendary entertainer B.B. King’s death came as a jolt. The monumentality of his contribution to popular music created the impression that somehow he would always be around, striding onto someone else’s record to make you wonder why they were there, superstars or not. His ability to spark collaborations with unlikely partners – U2, The Crusaders, the GRP Big Band, Cyndi Lauper – meant that in the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t many genres you could approach without coming across him. This could seem surprising until you considered that all this music – stadium rock, smooth funk or state-of-the-art big band – all traced roots to the wellspring of Delta blues that formed B.B. King.

He tends to be labelled as a widely influential blues guitarist, but his singing was at least as striking as what came from his fretboard, and was what brought him to attention first. I saw King perform twice during his lifetime of incessant touring, and had never seen such blatant showmanship before: the band stoking the blues for a good 20 minutes before the great man walked on stage to top it all, and relentless encores infused with the same chutzpah as his advice for the queen of England (sic) when she corners him in the street during ‘You’d Better Not Look Down’. What I remember most from the live shows is that his voice and guitar seemed interchangeable. The voice rang out like an electric guitar, and Lucille (the guitar) sang back in the solos, a percussive approach and portamento wails perfectly recreating the vocal delivery. King himself acknowledged this link, stating that, ideally, ‘you wouldn’t know when Lucille stopped and my voice began’1. This gave his guitar playing the emphatic restraint so often lacking in overenthusiastic blues players since.

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Multi-authored academic blog on various aspects of music.