Category Archives: Musicology

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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Dance to the Drummer’s Beat (Part 2)

“Take the funky drummer give him back to james”

In my last post, I was looking at the convoluted relationships between DJ performance in the context of a ‘live’ Hip Hop party and the live musician’s role in the creation of the first Hip Hop records. It’s now time to follow the chronology of the story and deal with the development of digital sampling of the kind any producerw would recognise today. But just before that…..if you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll know I have a penchant for Igor Stravinsky into the mix- well here he comes again: in a paper from 2005, (The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine), Robert Fink has identified ORCH5, a pre-set on the Fairlight sampler. It is a cheesy full orchestral ‘hit’ which Fink convincingly argues was sampled from a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet. To hear Stravinsky’s ‘hit’  in action in early Hip Hop you need go no further than Africa Bambaataa’s 1982 classic Planet Rock. Here it is on the invaluable whosampled.com website:

http://www.whosampled.com/sample/135683/Afrika-Bambaataa-Soulsnic-Force-Planet-Rock-David-Vorhaus-ORCH5/

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Dance to the drummer’s beat (PART 1)

This post is a quick look at the tangled the mix of live playing, sampling and DJ’ing in old School hip Hop. One of the great advantages of the blog format is the chance to lay in audio a youtube links, so the reader can actually hear what is being talked about.  I do, however ask you, dear reader, to be aware that this limits us to MP3 audio, and if you want to REALLY here some of this stuff, find it in a decent audio form.

My five year old daughter has some interesting books, courtesy of a cool mother in law. Along with a story built around Coltrane’s Giant Steps (I’ll lend it to you Zack), we have an illustrated children’s account of DJ KOOL HERC! When the Beat was Born gives a child friendly account of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx. Spurred on I went looking for more on the subject and a visit to  Edinburgh University library shows a good ten feet of academic literature on hip hop, much of it describing a world I know nothing – which is weird because I lived in new York for 11 years from 1990, and had some experience making music on the peripheries of Hip Hop.

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Six things that I REALLY like about music

1. Music is Simple

Striking a bell creates a beautiful resonance; it swells and then fades to silence. Bizarrely, we find the experience beautiful. Music really is so simple. Make things vibrate and enjoy the consequence, that’s it! Overanalyse it and miss the point?

Now for an analysis:

Much of our western harmonic system can be thought of in terms of the harmonic series, which is simply whole number multiples of a common fundamental frequency.

An Octave – 1/2 (yes, pedants it’s the reciprocal)
A Perfect 5th – 2/3
A Perfect 4th – 3/4
A Major 3rd – 4/5

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the language in Ramou’s Treaties on Harmony (1722) or the The Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization for improvisation (Russell, 1961), underneath are simple primary-school fractions.

Composers and musicians from Mongolian throat singers to Nigel Osborne understand this powerful simplicity and utilise it with varying degrees of consciousness and sub-consciousness. It seems we are innately tuned in to these ratios that nature has handed us. Nevertheless, simple systems give rise to emergent complexity.

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Why I Love ‘A Love Supreme’

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic album ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane.  The album is a four-part ‘suite’ (with a running-time of only 33 minutes) that is frequently listed as one of the most important or influential albums in the history of jazz.  The album was written as an expression of Coltrane’s gratitude to God and is widely understood to be a reflection of his spiritual quest, arising from his personal struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.  It comprises 4 thematically-linked tracks: (1) Acknowledgement, (2) Resolution, (3) Pursuance, and (4) Psalm.

My admiration for this record has nothing to do with Coltrane’s faith or spirituality.  As an atheist, I have no religious connection to the music and I do not believe that such a connection is necessary in order to engage with the work.  I love the music and feel that it was (and continues to be) an eye-opener for me with regard to the approach to improvisation, the development of melodic ideas and the ensemble interaction.  So, here’s a short list of the musical reasons for my love of this incredible album.  There is very little in the way of analysis of the music and I do not intend to draw any conclusions – this post is simply me, as an admirer of the album, providing some insight into why I love it. Please feel free to comment below and add your own reasons to the list – I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this music.

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What sense can I make of improvisation?

Time for another instalment on improvisation – I’m going to try to absorb different accounts of what improvisation is and who does it… and there are questions that I don’t necessarily have answers for.

To begin with, two complaints against improvisation:

First from C.P.E. Bach, commenting sarcastically, in the preface to his Sonatas with Varied Repeats (1760). He goes on:

“It is indispensable, nowadays to alter repeats. One expects it of everybody.  A friend of mine goes to endless trouble to play a piece as it is written, flawlessly and in accordance with the rules of good performance; how can one not applaud him? Another, often pressed by necessity, makes up by his audacity in alteration for the lack of expression he shows in the performance of the written notes; the public nevertheless extols him above the former.”

He’s complaining about the prevalence of improvising, particularly the convention that on the second time through a melody, the performer would add variations;in fact some of them would start before they had finished the first time through – think of how a jazz player states the theme of a ballad for instance. Consequently Bach began composing the varied repeats himself, and also provided variations or embellishments (Auszierungen) for existing works. This makes us aware of the degree to which improvisation was the modus operandi of his day, and his complaint is the beginnings of a move away from it.

Now Scott Joplin, in a preface to a collection of his piano ragtime compositions:

“We wish to say here that the “Joplin ragtime” is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. They are harmonised with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this, and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended.”

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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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A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’

In response to Zack’s previous post, ‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick: Anyone can do it…’ I’ve decided that I’m going to come clean, and do an autoethnographic analysis of my OWN soloing strategies; this means coming clean and I admitting to what I was really doing in the course of a so-called improvised solo for a paying session.  Also, I just noticed that in Gareth Dylan Smith’s recent post he also used the autoethnographic tag, and I think it’s the best way to look at a musical situation from the viewpoint of the main protagonist-ME. No one else is better qualified to say what is really going on here…. Continue reading A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’

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‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick. Anyone Can Do It…’

I was sitting with my daughter last week watching Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (Warner Brothers, 2005) and was struck by a particular passage of dialogue.  Just after the first of the bratty, selfish children (Augustus Gloop) gets eliminated from the tour of the chocolate factory, the Oompa-Loompas perform an elaborately choreographed song and dance routine which describes the events which led to this child’s early exit from the film.  Shortly after the song finishes, the following dialogue occurs:

Charlie: Mr. Wonka, why would Augustus’ name already be in the Oompa-Loompa song unless they—

Willy Wonka: Improvisation is a parlour trick. Anyone can do it. [turns to Violet] You! Little girl – say something. Anything!

Violet: Chewing gum.

Willy Wonka: Chewing gum is really gross. Chewing gum I hate the most. See? Exactly the same.

Mike: No, it isn’t.

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Transformations and their musical counterparts.

This post is written in Binary Form.

When thinking about the relationship between numbers and music, often what first springs to mind are the proportional differences between the physical objects that generate musical intervals on which harmony and melody is so often based. The famous story of the blacksmith’s workshop and Pythagoras is sometimes used to illustrate this. Pythagoras was said to have been walking past a workshop where the sound of anvils of different weights were being struck, with each weight producing a different tone. Sounding together the result was consonant or stable. Upon investigation Pythagoras, it is said, realised that the pleasing aural result was accompanied by the pleasing integer proportion between the weights of the hammers, 6, 8, 9 and 12.

When one considers music in its own isolated discipline bubble, it might seem that it has a unique place beside mathematics (historically, music forms a pillar of the quadrivium alongside geometry, astronomy and athematic). However, perhaps the real power lies in the hands of numbers, and their ability to describe nature and her patterns.

“Numbers are a universal medium for the embedding of patterns of any sort, and that for that reason, statements seemingly about numbers alone can in fact encode statements about other universes of discourse”

Douglas Hofstadter, in his forward to Gödel’s Proof (Revised Edition)

Continue reading Transformations and their musical counterparts.

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