I spent eight years teaching undergraduates at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) in London, England, hopefully setting students on paths to careers in the music industry. My work there largely involved lecturing and supervising students on a mandatory final-year project – a 10,000-word critical essay. I enjoyed the process, but wondered about the value of this work in the lives of the aspiring professional musicians whom I was teaching. Many resented undertaking the project and saw it as a distraction from what they felt they should be doing – making music. I became increasingly uncertain of the role played by the school and by higher music education in general; did students really benefit from spending several years at college, honing skills for an uncertain foray into an ever more saturated music market in a dense and intensely isolating city such as London?
I love getting to the end of the year and giving myself an excuse to dig back through all the music that was released and pick some favourites to share. There were some incredible records released this year, but here are some highlights for me.
Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!
The purpose of this post is to share a recording of new composition of mine for solo cello.
Whenever I get to play around with a cello or think about writing for it, I instinctively seem to see it as some sort of ‘orchestral’ version of the bass guitar – an instrument that I am more familiar with. As such, this music was composed to represent the exploratory, experimental ‘bass-like’ mentality I naturally have when thinking about the instrument.
When performed, this piece should sound like someone ‘discovering’ the cello through the lens of their own experience of playing the bass guitar. The performer should convey a sense of naïve, experimental investigation throughout, and should feel free to hesitate, become frustrated, and embrace any issues associated with exploring an alien, yet strangely familiar instrument.
The following is a recording of the track (with animated score), performed by Edinburgh-based, Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska.
Today via social media I received news of an exciting alumni success. Lauren Johnson, a young woman with a tremendous voice, whom I taught six or seven years ago at ICMP, came to my attention, thanking her circle of contacts for acknowledging the success of her band’s new song. Lauren did not actually feature on this particular release, but Captain Ska’s “Liar Liar GE2017” had made it to no. 1 on the UK iTunes download chart. The song gently mocks Teresa May, sitting Prime Minister and leader of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, highlighting some untruths she has told during and leading up to her campaign to lead the country for another parliament.
Protest songs have not been all that popular for a while. Perhaps people felt no need to pay attention to political singers, or maybe broadcast media have preferred to divert attention away from issues beyond the allure of sex, romance or dancing. Either way, it was heartening, indeed thrilling, to note that the BBC – that bastion of British Values (e.g. championing the monarchy, reifying the free market economy and de-emphasizing news stories about tragedy affecting non-whites) – had banned the song from airplay, along with popular London radio station, Capital FM. I was naturally excited for my former student, and felt a flush of pride to be connected (albeit incredibly remotely) with her band’s success.
I have Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes. Trying to manage this disease feels like a full time occupation, and it can be exceptionally difficult to try to keep my blood sugar levels stable enough to function properly sometimes. Simple things like making sure insulin dosage matches my food intake, how much to reduce insulin to compensate for the physical exertion of exercise or even the mental exertion of writing/lecturing etc., can become difficult calculations and when they go wrong, can have some significant effects. Too much insulin and I get hypoglycemic symptoms which can be anything from mild dizziness and confusion, to loss of consciousness and even seizures. Too little insulin and blood sugars rise, causing lethargy, unquenchable thirst (coupled with the constant need to run to the toilet), splitting headaches, and ultimately damage to internal organs and other parts of the body. I feel constantly as if I am performing a tightrope act and that any false steps have life-threatening consequences. All in all, it is not a great deal of fun to have a condition that can make you feel pretty rough a lot of the time. I should make it clear that I am very aware that many people are far worse off than I am and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky that my condition is relatively easy to treat. I am not complaining – just setting the scene for the musical information that follows.
For the last few years, I have created a list of my top 5 records of that year. I do this for my own amusement, primarily, as it is nice to get to December and have an excuse to spend a while looking back over the year’s musical offerings and rediscovering things that may have slipped my mind. However, it seems to be a nice way to get people talking about music and sharing their favourites so I thought I’d do it again this year. I normally wait until later in the month to do this but I am currently incredibly busy and, naturally, looking for any procrastination opportunity I can find.
This year has been full of great music and the following is my list, in no particular order. Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!
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.
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!
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: