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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‘Teaching’ Music

What does ‘teaching music’ mean, anyway?

Admittedly, this is (in part) a bit of a flippant question – in some ways we all know what is meant when someone says that they are ‘teaching music’ or that they work as a ‘music teacher’.  However, this question has recently become more of a serious concern of mine and I have to confess to being increasingly unsure of how to answer it.   Given that I spend the vast majority of my working life teaching music in some form, it might be expected that me asking the question ‘what does teaching music mean?’ is alarming.  Actually, I can’t help but feel that this is a natural (and important) question to ask and I worry that any singular definition offered in answer to such a question may be problematic.

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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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Drumming and Timespace

Today I carved out an hour to play drums. Well, in the end it wasn’t quite an hour. After I’d accepted a colleague’s invitation to meet a special guest in a lecture room two floors away at the same time as my session was due to start in a drum kit practice booth (only available by the hour, on the hour), and since I finished three minutes early so as not to hold up the booking for the next guy, it was closer to 50 minutes. Then taking account of the portion of that time I spent rearranging the kit (why do all the other drummers in the college have the stool so damn high? And why do they insist on putting the floor tom unreachably high and totally level with the floor?!), and the time I spent stretching out, removing jewelry and rolling up shirt sleeves, it was actually nearer to 40 minutes. But the point is that I found the time, and I managed to spend it playing the drums. Alone. In a room. Just me and the drums. Plus the briefly distracting feeling that I was being watched by one of the junior members of the Facilities Team courtesy of the CCTV camera conspicuously sprouting from the otherwise bare wall. So it was that despite, and perhaps partly because of, the presence of Big Brother that I removed my shirt to play. It’s not that I dislike getting sweaty when I drum – indeed, that’s often a part of the pleasure– but I harbor an intense dislike for having patches of perspiration spread across my abdomen, back and arms in a blue formal shirt as I return triumphantly but increasingly meekly to my shared office, parading my bedraggled, (albeit invigorated and enlivened) academic figure through a sea of students confused by the figure of a man in a blazer looking like he just fell out of bed, ran to work in yesterday’s clothes, and forgot the way to his desk. Most students, I’m sure, actually don’t notice or care that I am there at all as I emerge from the drum booth and retreat (fully clothed) to my labours, while others make eye contact, acknowledge the sparkle in my eye, and smile. One or two have seen me like this before, and they grin knowingly. Others seem confounded as to why I could appear so happy to be at work in the middle of the day/first thing in the morning/late in the evening/at all.

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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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Multi-authored academic blog on various aspects of music.