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.
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.
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.
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:
(all proceeds to The Digital Ensemble)
This documentary shows how the composition and production of this music was approached:
In order for any musician to learn and develop they must have regular opportunities to play, rehearse and perform over a sustained period of time. There are very few opportunities for disabled musicians to take part in regular, progressive music making. Although there is a welcome increase in more inclusive music activities, most of these are time-limited projects, often only lasting a number of weeks, with little or no follow up. Improving this situation is one of the key aims of Drake Music Scotland. This blog is about one of our groups, The Digital Ensemble.
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.
There is a great video from bassist Victor Wooten where he talks about music as a language (you can watch the video here). There is certainly nothing new about likening music to a language. Poets, writers and authors have been doing so for some time now…
“Music is the universal language of mankind.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”
“Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
The idea of music as a language has taken on an increased focus in my life ever since I came to work with Little Kids Rock through my job at Amp Up NYC about a year ago. At Little Kids Rock (LKR), their pedagogy is based upon the idea of treating music as asecond language. The basis of LKR’s pedagogy was developed by founder Dave Wish, a former first-grade, ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.
Fulfilling my overlapping roles as a drummer, a teacher of aspiring musicians in a London music college, and a ponderer on what it is some of us are trying to achieve in and through higher popular music education, I spend a good portion of my time worrying about what kind of example I set, and to what extent how many students will see my example, casually ignore it, and go their own way. Most of the music I play is perhaps most easily grouped under the broad descriptor of “popular” – although the relative popularity of that music is borne testament by the collection of boxes I have at home containing CDs of the Eruptörs’ first (OK, and also our second) punk-metal quasi-concept-album from 2008 (and 2010). That being said, I just finished a run of panto in Essex, and the show was 99% sold out – an impressive box office feat that I am confident had nothing at all to do with my being involved in the production. But although panto is popular and I hardly stopped drumming throughout, isn’t it much more theatre than music? Where does one draw the line, and why? All of this (and more) has me wondering about my relevance, anxious about the pedagogic authority – as Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) have termed it – that students, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe to me.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post about ‘top 5 records’ for this site (have a read here) which seemed to generate a lot of activity in the form of comments and discussion. At this time of year, I thought it would be fun to follow this up and compile a ‘top 5 songs of 2014’ list. So, the following is a list of the 5 tracks that I have enjoyed most this year. Again, as in the original post, I’m not trying to convince anyone or to campaign for these songs in any way – they’re just my personal favourites from 2014.
It would be great to hear what other people have to say, so please feel free to comment below with your list or even just music that you have enjoyed from this year. Continue reading My Top 5 Songs of 2014:
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.”