Friday, 20 May 2011

Solo simplicity

They say that the simple things in life are free… Or is it that the free things in life are simple… Or is it that the best things in life are free… Or is it simple?

Oh, I don’t know, but sometimes simplicity acts as a highly efficient duster, sweeping away the cobwebs and clearing the way for a deeper, more significant activity. This is the value of creating soundscapes – or auraloramas – for me. It is an instantly accessible method of getting something done, putting something into my own personal reality that is capable of delighting me on an immediate level, putting into action theory and practice and, if I’m really lucky, laying the foundations of future compositions.

As you might have seen in my previous blog (here) I recently went through one of those downward spirals caused by one too many inopportune moments of taking it easy. As I discussed then, while things seem pretty hopeless from within the labyrinth of mental blackness, the cure is a simple one: get up off your arse and do something. I wrote a blog about it and felt a lot better about things as a result – it made me observe me from outside, as it were.

All well and good, but that was just the first step – the ‘wake-up’ if you like. The following morning I had to continue, so, forcing myself to get work and chores out of the way, I hurried down the garden to my studio and plugged in my guitar…

Whaddayaknow? I wasn’t so much short of ideas of what to do as standing in a dusty wilderness where ideas have the moisture sucked out of them before they can even take their first breath.

Thankfully, I was plugged into my Gigadelay unit, so I switched it on, eased in a couple of notes, layered a couple more chords and there I was, 15 seconds and I had a spontaneous ‘composition’ to deal with, add to, manipulate. The music was coming back at me, demanding attention and calling out for progression. I had to deal with it.

I immediately felt better and before too long, I had laid two separate chord sequences on two asymmetric loops (one about nine seconds, the other 23), into which I blended a sort of ‘filigree’, high-pitched collection of notes/sounds on a third loop (can’t remember how long). I really liked it, it made me feel good – and what is more it has given me a couple of ideas (as a result of the ‘accidental’ chord patterns) of a song – or maybe two.

Having listened to it for a while, I then recorded about four minutes of it, feeling it would go well on the next auralorama album (Meditation) and I was planning to go back to more conventional practice, but after I switched off the first two loops, the third carried on by itself – and I thought it sounded great, so I copied that onto a longer loop and started all over again, creating a longer, more dramatic soundscape.

I know I am easy to please, but this was, for me, very exciting – and not only the possibility of another new song based on the second piece, but a whole concept for soundscape performance. Build a piece up, then deconstruct and at some point use what’s left as the framework for the next piece.

(The first of these two auraloramas is now up on Youtube – called Acceptance – and can be found here.)

Needless to say, the next day, my work and practice were better still and my energy levels are still on the up. It’s simple, really.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The angst of mediocrity 1

While having made much of the joys of mediocrity on these pages and hailing all of us who are not quite so good, but have a little of that something that means we can do, create, make, perform to a degree that is not entirely displeasing to those around us – and some a little further afield, too – there does come a time when mediocrity can drag you down. And because you were never that high to begin with, it seems to mean that you can go a lot lower.

I know there are those that say ‘the bigger you are the further you fall’ and that is undoubtedly true, but the implication is that if you aren’t so big, the troughs are not so deep. I don’t think I buy that.

Starting from a lower point and falling – possibly a little less than the high and mighty, admittedly – does not mean that you don’t fall to a lower point than the so-called ‘bigger’. In fact, from where I am now, it seems a pretty low place.

The problem – and I know we all face it – is stagnation. That vicious circle that catches you on a low ebb, which pushes you into doing nothing in particular, which – and I am still to get a handle on why this is – then saps your energy further. The less you do, the less you are able to do.

Why is that? Why does conserving energy so often prove to be the very worst thing you can do for your energy levels? Answers on a postcard, please (or below in the comments, should you feel so brave).

Of course, the highly talented suffer this as well, but at least they have the proof of their ability behind them. We, the mediocre, look back and see little to keep us going. Almost nothing there that inspires us. The worst thing about attaining enlightenment, a wise sage once said, is not the physical discomforts or even torture that you might be put through, but the wave after wave of blackness and despair inside that threatens to drown you.

That’s what stagnation builds up to for me. It starts as a simple ‘oh, I’m not going to do anything tonight’ and then (remarkably quickly) becomes a black labyrinth from which escape seems impossible.

I know I have a lot to do at the moment – an awful lot – but right now I can’t even bring myself to pick up my guitar.

The craziest thing of all is that I know full well that once I have carried out the tasks I have in front of me and once I do pick up my guitar, I will feel absolutely on top of the world and will enjoy even the simplest little things – but until then, until I do make this (almost symbolic) effort, I am dragging myself across a thick, stinking lake of mud that only increases in stench and viscosity while I try to crawl through it. The moment I stop, it becomes pure, clean air.

It’s like hitting yourself in the face with a hammer. It’s bloody unpleasant, but the only way to stop it being unpleasant is to stop doing it. So why don’t we? Why don’t we stop hitting ourselves in the face with a hammer and go and do something less painful instead?

It’s a good idea. I think I’ll write a blog about it – that should help.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Approaching the Eternal Now

I had been working on a new album of auraloramas since the Promenade event at the local arts centre (Norden Farm), when I was fortunate enough to work alongside Julie Potter as she went through her yoga routines. It was a tremendously worthwhile event and opened my eyes to possible applications for my soundscaping.

Some of the results of this session can be found on my Youtube page. The event threw up four basic improvisations, which then became Clearing the Mind, Relaxation, Uncertain Start, and Walking Home in my studio over the next couple of months.

I was actually getting into gear with the pieces and was about to start work on others when that old beast called desire stepped in and I decided that I wanted to get a guitar synth. Well, as is so often the way with desire, obstacles throw themselves in front of you in order for you to be absolutely sure that this is what you really want.

Immediately became Christmas, became the New Year, Became February, became March and, finally, in April, I was up and running with the new Roland GR-55 guitar synthesizer – and a jolly fine piece of kit it is, too.

Thus, six months after I started work on the Meditation album, the direction has changed considerably – not to mention the sound. Before I was using a selection of Boss and Digitech pedals to create the pieces, but now I am down to the delay unit, a echo unit and the synth – it has certainly made the floor before me when I play a far tidier space.

While trying to get a handle on the synth, I did what I assume anybody would do and simply went through the patches, making note of what sounded good, often getting distracted by a particularly nice noise and going off on a tangent to see how an idea might develop. At one point I came across a number of brass instrument sounds close together and started noodling with these.

The effect was, I thought, extremely dramatic, so a couple of weeks later I was back in the studio working on the piece. It starts off with some bells and vibes, played quite randomly and then a ‘Dark’ trumpet comes in, followed by a high trumpet. Then a French horn and finally trombone.

The sounds of these synthetically produced instruments is not quite natural, yet certainly reminiscent, and the looping creates a quite ethereal sound when each sound begins to layer over itself.

I remember speaking to Theo Travis after the Travis & Fripp gig at Gloucester University and he said how he liked the looping of woodwind instruments because it created a sort of Mellotron sound. It certainly does – and it lifts my spirits very much to be able to create such drama.

I chose the title of the song from something I have heard along the way from various people that are into spiritualism of one sort or another – the Eternal Now… a moment when everything is in harmony and time seems to stand still. I certainly can’t claim quite such a moment, but I thought this might be something like the moment before everything falls into place… What happens afterwards goes beyond representation, I should think. I am really pleased with this first synthesized auralorama and I hope you are too.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Quantifying the process

Just finished writing my private diary – a good old-fashioned notebook, which I make entries using a pen (gosh! How quaint!). It is something I am trying to make a habit out of, in order to compile something of a record of this final ‘push’ in my life to achieve something I value.

Robert Fripp says ‘to try is to fail’ and how right he is. But my trying here is a step on the road to a discipline and it is more succeeding than failing and it will become less trying and more doing until it is established as a habit. And a habit is a hard thing to break.

I mention Fripp because (a) I always do and (b) because shortly before writing my own diary, I saw this on his entry for April 11th 2011…

The Aims Of The Diaries.

Public Aims:
1. To engage the listening community at an earlier stage of the creative process than is commonly available.
2. To inform the listening community of the practicalities of that process.
3. To de-mystify the process which is, essentially, practical.

Private Aims:
1. To encourage the Diarist to recapitulate their experience.
2. To provide the Diarist with a pointed stick.
3. To expose the Diarist to public ridicule.

And, of course, this is exactly what I had wanted to do with this blog, only hadn’t been able to articulate it quite so succinctly.

Now, some might say it is an act of sensible modesty to consider one’s work with music (which nobody much listens to nor cares about) uninteresting enough to leave well alone, but it is precisely points 1.1 and 2.3 that encapsulate everything I want to do. I want to show that even I can make music and it is no big thing as far as I am concerned (music, is a big thing, but the fact that it is willing to work with me means (a) music is utterly wonderful and (b) music doesn’t care who it works with – it simply wants to work with you/one/etc…

Pont 2.3 explains that, while putting one’s self in the ‘limelight’ by saying, here I am, I am a musician, one is actually still a human being and needs a bit of humility in order to prevent the (oh so frequent) crawling up one’s own arse in search of illumination.

I certainly hope I never do that.

So, blogging will be my public diary. There won’t be the revelations of scandal of anything any publisher might be interested in, in fact, it will all be a bit dull, but it will provide a simple man’s search for music and how that process is available to all.

Tomorrow will see the first public airing of a new auralorama, so please stay tuned, as I feel that it will also herald a new direction – all tied in nicely with the various social faces I have on show and all, hopefully, indicative of normality.

But feel free to ridicule…

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Adele better

I’m working from home now… That is, I’m doing the work the earns me money at home now as well as the work that doesn’t (but there’s still time). This has had two immediate effects: First, I have a heap load more time to do both the money earning work and the non-money-(but-hopefully-one-day-will-earn-money) work. Second, I am now free of the (generally) bland garbage that people mistake for music and insist on having pumping through the office. I have often said ‘can we have no music at all one day?’ but people always seemed to think I was joking. I was not. When I do listen to music here at my desk in my home, it's music I want to listen to – and God, I am enjoying it immensely. Third, I am more relaxed now than I have been for well over ten years, possibly more…

Three immediate effects…

Listening to music I really enjoy got me to thinking about those poor souls in offices where only shite is allowed through the speakers. Where does all this shite come from? Is it chart music… Well, yes, of course it is. I checked out the UK chart website (which makes it very clear that we should use its right and proper name when referring to it, but I forget what that is, so ‘the UK chart website’ it shall remain) to see what kind of awful, pitch-corrected, aural monosodium glutamate sort of noises were being passed off as music at the moment in order to ridicule them on this blog…

Then I got to thinking. The singles charts have always been rubbish. Even when The Beatles and Stones and Kinks were regular participants of Top of the Pops, the vast majority of music hauled in front of us was pretty lame. To say that the charts today are in any way worse would be open to some serious argument – and it’s an argument I’m simply not ready to take on just yet.

Then, across the screen (all of three inches to the right, but it took me while to see it – I am a man, after all [so my wife keeps telling me]) I noticed the album charts. Aha! I thought to myself in a sort of watery ‘eureka’ moment. I can take the piss out of this…

Well, the Foo Fighters are number one, and although I am not a fan, I would be effectively putting myself in front of a firing squad to say that they were bringing music down in any way. They play hard-hitting rock that they write themselves and are as tight a unit as one could hope to find.

In the number two and three slots was someone called Adele. I had absolutely no idea who she was, but I figured that this was what I was looking for. I licked my lips and prepared for acrimony. The first thing I discovered was that she is 22 years old and already has three albums to her name. I was positively salivating now. Surely this was exactly the sort of record-company excrement I was after.

Then I listened to some of her songs. Okay, so the ones that aren’t saccharine ballads are, at best, quasi-chirpy, but godammit the girl can sing – and she writes her own material. Further perusal revealed she has publicly agreed with critics who have said her voice is far more mature than her songs and that she has said her music is for the ears and not the eyes. Even more maturity.

I gave up on looking for anything bad to say about Adele. She doesn’t deserve it. She’s actually as good a guardian of the singer/songwriter throne – if not better – as any. But then came my release. On the wikipedia page, a bloke called Paul Rees, who is apparently editor of something called Q magazine who said in praise of Adele that it was ‘refreshing to hear something different after a thousand years of identikit bands who want to sound like The Libertines.’

Identikit bands that want to sound like the Libertines? Are there many? I mean apart from Babyshambles and the other Libertine spin-off (which I can’t remember the name of). A thousand years? I mean, come on. A bit if exaggeration is a good thing, but let it match what you are talking about.

There are a couple of ‘dudes’ that truck around the open mic nights in my area who obviously try to sound like The Libertines, but they all deny it – and all of them seem to be pretty unpleasant blokes, actually, but I can’t say I had noticed the sort of epidemic that Rees seems to be implying.

Rees has got it right in one respect, Adele is refreshingly different, albeit from the recent school of Duffy and Joss Stone, but with sincerity and soul. But what she is different from is the trail of pitch-corrected, bland RnB stretching back over 20 years, Bland, ballad singing, tonsil gymnasts that are the worst kind of musical bubble gum, as they are the bubble gum that has been chewed all week and plucked from the bed post in the morning to chew some more, tasteless, formless and utterly pointless, but thankfully as forgettable as they are unpleasant.

Just look at the singles charts at the moment and rejoice that the album chart still seems to maintain some degree of quality and musical nouse.

Good on you Adele (and get your comparisons right, Rees).

Friday, 7 January 2011

Simon Cowell is NOT responsible

A recent letter from an old acquaintance – once lost, now re-established, albeit by email only at the moment – contained this…

The music industry seems so strange, a lot of the stuff I see on TV now is such boring and utter rubbish. More about posing in bling than about the music and singing as far as I can tell. I hear people's stuff on Soundcloud, and it just sounds so much more passionate than the manufactured dross.

From my response…

“The points you make about music are so valid, but unfortunately very, very few people put two and two together. The problem is somewhat ironic – even paradoxical.

Obviously, artists need to eat and drink and have a roof over their heads, need to produce their art and disseminate it. All of this costs money. The spending and earning of money for whatever reason falls into the category of ‘business’. Because ‘business’ essentially controls the money, it has come to control the art. The skill sets needed to be a good businessman are almost totally exclusive to those needed to be an artist.

As soon as business considerations begin to govern the creative process, limitations of time and space begin to constrain that process. Mistakes are made in the production.

Further to that – and there should be a thesis to be written on this some day – the moment business considerations and financial motivations begin to control, the art dies in the artist. There is nothing left save technique. The pictures, the shapes, the words, the music all wither to become the sum of the parts.

So, yes, your observations are very astute. The stuff you hear on myspace is often created for the sole purpose of being created and being heard. The stuff on tv has no purpose other than the preening of the ‘star’ and the gleening of the cash.

In the music business, this has been ongoing since the 1950s. As the skills of the artist have improved and evolved, so have the skills of the businessmen – but unfortunately the latter has had no empathy with the former. The artist to the modern music businessman (in the vast majority of cases) is nothing more than a tin of baked beans, a brand of underpants, a service (supplied by another) to be delivered.

Simon Cowell and the like are not directly responsible for this phenomenon, but they are the latest brick in the walls that separate the artist from the music and the music from the audience. Scrawled hastily on these walls are the two-dimensional representations that the business world would have us think are music. And the vast majority lap it all up, mistaking mechanics for music and celebrity for talent.

The problem with trying to ‘do something’ with music is precisely this. The money is in the illusion of music and what people expect it to be – and people’s expectations are overbearingly restrictive.

I organise an open mic night at my local pub every Thursday. I often do a couple of my own songs, but people simply aren’t interested. The moment you start playing something they don’t know, the audience switches off. The only way to progress in the rock and pop worlds is to work the circuits and hope that someone picks up on what you are doing. The reward is to be placed into the mincing machine that feeds the public's expectations.

On top of this, you also need to work with other musicians, which is a difficult, angst-ridden, unpredictable environment at the best of times.

For me, the future lies in solo efforts. I don’t know if you listened to any of the ‘auraloramas’ such as ‘Relaxation’, ‘Hillside Wind’ or ‘Twilight to Night’, but these are all spontaneous pieces, sometimes partly planned, but always improvised and recorded live – just me, a guitar, and a bank of effects pedals. They utterly rebut the idea of ‘commercial’ music in terms of intro/verse/chorus/bridge/middle eight/coda, which, combined with the improvised nature of the pieces means they begin from a point of making expectation redundant. No-one, not even the musician, knows exactly what is going to happen.

From the musician’s point of view, it is a very exciting way of making music. The looping of sounds means that whatever you play will come back at you in a few seconds – you have to take responsibility for everything you do. Mistakes have to be used and blended to become part of the music. I find it totally absorbing and very thrilling.

Trouble is, of course, is that the moment you turn your back on the ‘expected’ you leave yourself out in the wilderness in terms of performance and audience. This is one of the many tasks I shall be taking on this year: trying to find venues and audiences that would be open to such a music.”

And so begins 2011…