Category Archives: Musical Experience

Remembering Keith Tippett

There’s a story Miles Davis tells in his autobiography, about how seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform in a tiny club was the greatest experience of his life (he adds the caveat “with my clothes on”), and how he spent his career trying to reach that level of musicianship in his own work. For me, it was a concert Keith Tippet played at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, spring 1998. The first half was just Keith at the piano, and after the interval he performed with his wife, Julie Tippetts singing, and Paul Dunmall on sax. That night changed my life.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the uniquely captivating qualities of Keith’s piano playing. Nonetheless, there was something entirely other-worldly about a Keith Tippett improvisation that on an average day was completely spellbinding, and on a good day was utterly transformational for anyone in attendance. He named one of his bands “Mujician” after his young daughter’s mispronunciation of his job. But Keith really was the most magicianly musician.

That phenomenal performance at the Norwegian Church was on a Thursday. I know that because the next afternoon was the college big band rehearsal, and Keith said to some early arrivals, “well, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who were at last night’s concert, and those who weren’t”. Years later I heard on good authority that even for Keith, with the 1000s of concerts of he’d played over 40 years or more by that point, that night was one of his favourites. I’ll never forget how it made me feel.

For the three years I was at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, I lived for Friday afternoons with Keith. 12-1pm was free improvisation, and 2-5pm was big band. It was magnificent. The first time I went to the free improv class, I thought Keith was bonkers. He asked me to play some bongos along with a flautist. Neither of us had any sheet music, a timeframe, a plan, or a clue what we were doing. Keith said to listen and respond without being selfish. I was wracked with anxiety and I’m sure whatever we did sounded horrendous, but Keith was encouraging enough to this 19-year-old budding classical clarinettist and closet rock drummer that I came back the next week. Keith would put us into duos, trios or sometimes quartets, and everyone was welcome in his class. He curated a beautiful, safe space where we could experiment and offer feedback on each other’s performances. The fragile young musicians in attendance learned to believe in ourselves because of Keith’s unerring belief in us all. I didn’t miss a class till I graduated.

Keith’s big band was like the free improv class on steroids, with sheet music. The pad was all music Keith had written for one of his avant-garde ensembles like Centipede or Tapestry. The melodies were memorable, the chords complex, the structures varied and often baffling, and the tempi ranged from incredibly slow to unplayably fast. All were welcome – we had French horns, violins, flutes, saxes, trumpets, guitars, piano, trombones, cellos, recorders, vibraphone, bass and drums. In addition to “burning” group free improv (I can hear Keith’s devilish Bristol accent now – “burrrrrrn!”), he had us all stroking wine glasses and chanting the names of fallen jazz comrades in whispers; we would collectively improvise freely in “circular time” in the middle of a composition, and play long or short random pitches at Keith’s direction in the middle of these improvisations. Each week a different person was a section’s riff-meister or riff-meistra and led conversational call-and-response during others’ solos. Keith ensured we played every note and every phrase with intent. The energy and focus in the room were intense. The students would all go to the college bar with Keith for a pint after class, or he’d go with us to a pub in town.

Keith rarely spoke to me much individually, beyond direction and feedback as the drummer (or, for two of my three years, one of two drummers) in the big band, but Keith’s influence expanded my listening, broadened my musical horizons exponentially, and made sure I practised my ass off. Keith was a sage – deeply wise and full of unvarnished love. He often spoke with adoration of his wife, Julie, and his children, Luke and Inca. He showed by example how to live life as a musician.

Keith’s sheer generosity as an educator was profoundly impactful during my formative years. A whole generation of musicians passing through the Welsh College before the turn of the millennium owe so much of our confidence and belief in ourselves – as musicians and humans – to Keith. In the spring of 1997, after only 6 months behind the kit in his big band, I was the sole drummer when we closed the opening night of the Bath International Jazz Festival in torrential rain. I played a drum solo that night in front of 10,000 people. That, like every class or rehearsal or performance with Keith, was a masterclass in listening and being fully present in the moment. Keith was relentlessly encouraging. He cared about the musicians and the music. He cared about each of his students, and remembered us all many years later. Keith demonstrated that making good music is inherently worthwhile. (He had left King Crimson in the 1970s after one album with them because their music and ambitions were too commercial!). Keith loved life and he loved music and he loved working with his students.

Keith’s jokes were a rite of passage at the Welsh College. He liked to say “groovy, baby / gravy booby” with a cheeky grin like a 13-year-old, and every now and again when directing us to play a mezzo-forte passage he would say “MF – mother f….” Keith appeared to wear the exact same outfit every day – light blue jeans, white shirt and a tweed waistcoat; judging from publicity photos from the mid-1970s, he’d not changed his look a bit since at least then. He didn’t like or trust acid jazz – he was an acknowledged jazz virtuoso and had certainly dropped acid, he said, so the music, in his opinion, didn’t live up to its name. He had the most preposterous sideburns, which I imitated until I shaved them off for a series of unusually well-paying gigs in the mid-2000s. He preferred the Spice Girls to the Rolling Stones (I’m still trying to get my head around that one, 23 years later). He loved professional football. He felt one should drink a full bottle of wine with dinner.

Keith was fond of saying to an audience or band after a show, “you’ve made an old man very happy, and a happy man very old”. Just last week I wrote the same words in an email to a younger collaborator; it was the first time I’d said it. Keith knew 24 years ago when I first met him that he was responsible for lighting a flame and passing the torch. I guess he’d want to know that even his awful jokes are still alive and well among the next generation.

Keith used to say to students when we graduated, “it’s an honour to have been a link in your chain”. Keith, it was the profoundest privilege that you were a link in mine. Thank you.

Rest in Peace.

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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. And at other times, I spend time on tech review websites because their reviews matter a lot to me since I’m a strict audiophile. 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 and I’ve also attended the events at the United Center many times, 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.

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‘Layers’ – Documentary

Following on from last week’s post about The Digital Ensemble, this post gives you the opportunity to watch a short documentary about a project I worked on recently with this group.

‘Layers’ is a new track by The Digital Ensemble, a group of musicians with disabilities who compose and perform original music in a variety of styles. The track is the result of collaboration between CP Productions and Drake Music Scotland and was supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative (Access to Music Making fund).  Zack Moir worked primarily with Paul Duff of The Digital Ensemble to write, record and develop ways to perform this innovative music. The track was recorded with the rest of The Digital Ensemble in Slate Room Studios, Scotland’s newest professional recoding facility in January of this year.  The track is out now to buy on iTunes:

itunes.apple.com/gb/album/layers-single/id971257721
(all proceeds to The Digital Ensemble)

This documentary shows how the composition and production of this music was approached:

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‘Just Like Clarence’

This post is based on a presentation that I gave at ‘Improvisation: Educational Perspectives’, a conference that we held at the University of Edinburgh in April, 2014.

It is very common for people to say to me on a gig or recording session:  ‘play a sax solo…you know – like the the one on ‘Born to Run’ – or, ‘let’s do Baker Street’ (or even Careless Whisper, unfortunately).  Similarly, I’ve had many occasions where my pupils have said things like – ‘show me how to do it like Maceo Parker‘ or ‘how can I make it sound more like [X, Y or Z player]?’.  I am really interested by the idea that people, particularly in the realm of pop music, will not only learn to improvise by emulating those who they enjoy listening to and respect, but will in many cases also be asked in educational and professional contexts to do so and may be assessed or evaluated on the success of the emulation.  So, in this post, I would like to explore the notion of improvisation in pop and rock music – clearly this is a huge topic but this is deliberate and I will try to write as generally as possible for the purposes of stimulating discussion.  I should also note that, although a great deal of pop/rock music is improvised, (guitar strumming, keyboard fills, etc.) featured solos are inevitably of great interest. Continue reading ‘Just Like Clarence’

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Autoethnomusicosophy: Experiencing Drum Kit Performance

I’m planning a study into the performed experience of playing drum kit. The study will be conducted from an autoethnographic perspective, and will explore the intensity, banality, madness and surreal-ity of twice-daily musical performances of a Pantomime musical theatre production. The study will be contextualised from ethnographic and philosophical perspectives, and is perhaps helpfully explained in a haiku that I wrote when trying to Tweet about my nascent research in this area ahead of giving a talk in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year:

I am a drummer
Drumming is when I am me
Then is who I am

Adages concerning writing-about-music, and dancing-about-architecture notwithstanding, and the irony of the heightened relevance of these in a piece on an intended study about embodiment – the planned principal output of which will hopefully be a book – not lost of any of us, I shall proceed.

Continue reading Autoethnomusicosophy: Experiencing Drum Kit Performance

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Metric Puns and Rhythmic Tricks: From Hancock to Haydn

Let me start this with an excerpt of the guitar work Melvin (Wah Wah Watson) Raglin, on Herbie Hancock’s Hang Up Your Hang Ups from the 1975 album, Manchild.
Continue reading Metric Puns and Rhythmic Tricks: From Hancock to Haydn

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The Digital Quartet: Working with a Quartet of Young Disabled Musicians

This post will be used to show a short documentary that was made to outline an interesting project that I was involved with earlier this year.  The project involved working with and mentoring a quartet of disabled musicians in the composition, production and dissemination of a 3-part piece of music, entitled ‘The Deep‘.

The documentary includes footage from the studio session and commentary from myself and other members of the team.

This project was funded by Creative Scotland’s via CP Productions and was a collaboration with Drake Music Scotland

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Learning to Improvise: Communicative Improvisation Workshop

Earlier this year, I was asked to run a workshop on ‘Communicative Improvisation’ for the University of Edinburgh as part of their ‘Innovative Learning Week‘.  I have led many workshops on improvisation in the past, some focussed specifically on jazz, some on pop/rock, some on free-improv or improvisation for dance, for example, but never on ‘communicative improvisation’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure of exactly what this meant or how I would approach it. Also, when I agreed to do it, the only information about the participants was that they could could be from anywhere in the whole university (not specifically for music students) and that they may not even have any previous practical musical experience.  As it turned out, the group comprised a range of people who had never played an instrument before , people who were professional musicians and everything in between.

Continue reading Learning to Improvise: Communicative Improvisation Workshop

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From Debussy to Pharrell: How extended harmony ‘brightens up’ a pop landscape.

Continue reading From Debussy to Pharrell: How extended harmony ‘brightens up’ a pop landscape.

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Naturally Musical

Viewing landscapes “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.” That quote is from pioneering American landscape architect Frederik Law Olmsted. But it could apply equally to music listening. It’s well known that music encourages a mood, can support a sense of well being, and associates with place. But many environmental specialists and health researchers claim similar benefits from natural environments.

Continue reading Naturally Musical

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