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.
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!
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.
Continue reading My Top 5 Songs of 2015:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.