Presenting at the Neuroscience of Imagination event at the British Library alongside Blind Summit Theatre, Pulitzer-nominated author Arthur I. Miller, Professor of neuroscience Vincent Walsh and Chiara Ambrosio was a real joy. You can hear my talk on the Myth of the Muse (essentially how composers and improvisers come up with stuff) in the video below.
A collaboration with Mike HallÂ and Tom Hardwidge of Considered CreativeÂ brought about this super fun animation for the opening of the 2013 QED conference. Musically, I wanted to capture the relentless spirit of scientific exploration through the ages, so felt a perpetual motion chord sequence with the instruments changing in line with the ages. 50 points for identifying the sound when Cox throws the LHC switch.
An exhaustive questionnaire would be non-trivial but this reflects my interest in the conformity and diversity of lyrics, and how the gamut of human expression is reflected in song.
For Part 2 of the Beatless series lets look at a Beatles rework by one Joe Connor.Â
Here the motivic and harmonic elements of the piece are extracted and examined through repetition with gentle timbral variation – techniques borrowed from minimalist and process music.
This, together with non-quantisation rhythmic elements creates a compelling atmosphere. Electronic music has been refreshed of late with such artists as Mount Kimbie rejecting the dominance that strict grid-based (‘quantized’) time has had on the genre. ‘Loose’ (but not sloppy) timing has a huge effect on musical expression, and this latest trend in IDM is heartening.
Â I thought I’d use this platform to share with you some of the great work my students are doing together with some commentary addressing compositional technique. Here’s the first of many to come.Â
As part of one of my coursework portfolios, I offered my talented and creative students at Surrey the option to rework a Beatles track. Beyond a cover or remix, the brief was to reinterpret and/or electronically deconstruct/reconstruct musical materials from any Beatles track. There was some great work such as Em Bollon’s modal reinterpretation of ‘Here Comes The Sun’
Remodalisation (invented term) is the technique of translating melodic and/or harmonic material into a parallel mode (set of notes or scale). The original track’s major tonality (with some modal interchange and secondary dominants) is really effectively (and intuitively) reinterpreted into mixolydian and dorian ideas, blended with electronic japery. Quite lovely. Â
Just how many modes are there?
A certificate at Grade 8 would suggest that there are 7 modes all derived from the major scale and maybe one or two from harmonic minor. In reality, there is an entire universe of modes, so many in fact that they can be imagined as existing on a vast continuum of characteristics, a palette from which the composer or improviser may draw.
Here’s a diagram demonstrating a small section of the huge modal universe. You may see how mirroring modes (turning them upside down) can organize them into levels of brightness. It can also identify those modes that are identical in mirror form (the middle rectangle). These include Dorian (used in a thousand tunes from Scarborough Fair, Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Brick House to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Aeolian Dominant (Kate Bush’s Babooshka) and Double Harmonic (Miserlou from Pulp Fiction).
These are just 3 of the heptatonic (7-note) even-tempered mode systems with mirror symmetry parents. There are many others, scales with 2-12 notes, as well as scales with ‘twin’ mode systems. Regardless this technique can be applied widely and is a rich resource for composers and improvisers alike.
Over the next few posts, I’ll look at particular modes and how their beautiful characteristics have been exploited over a wide range of repertoire.
Tommy Ashbyâ€™s EPs were played, written and engineered by a team of Surrey students*.
I think it is music of exceptionally high quality. This is no-gimmicks stuff: great lyrics, great performances, and great sounds. It’s not for your Nathan Barley types.
What strikes me most about it is the way in which the urge to decorate the songs with quirky, synthetic bleeps or novel plug-ins is resisted, and much to its credit.
A generalisation for you: In so much music of this kind, the authors resort to such techno-laden strategies, and I’m not one to say that there isnâ€™t anything wrong with that – it often makes for a thrilling listen – but it’s sometimes applied without sufficient justification and can mask or interfere with otherwise beautiful music…
…just because one can doesn’t mean one should.
It is for the reasons outlined above that I feel compelled to make a case for it. To put it bluntly: nothing sets this music apart, save for the level of craft.
The songs are unpretentious and penned with virtuoso restraint, and their conventional instrumental context speaks volumes for the songsâ€™ lack of want for flattery. Thatâ€™s not to say that the surface of the music isn’t pristine; in fact, the production style embodies a Nashville-esq dedication to fidelity- though admittedly, it’s a tad more ‘twee’.
Overall, this is excellent, dignified and uncompromised music. Moreover, its occasionally chirpy feel and its light hearted ‘packaging’ modestly masks the sheer sophistication at its heart.
*To my knowledge, the only non-Surrey-students who worked on the EPs are vocalist, Cynthia Quek and Jenny Double.
As my PhD is in composition, I thought I’d post some research!
This piece is for Trumpet and String Quartet (occasionally, a problematic ensemble: see picture). I hope you find the opportunity to have a listen.
‘Flickering Shards’ for Trumpet and String Quartet
It’s tempting to think that it’s only the domain of modernist composers, theorists and ethnomusicologists to talk of anything but 12 notes in an octave. After all if it was good enough for Mozart and Beethoven it should be good for everyone, right? Well, as it happens, Mozart and Beethoven understood F# and G-flat as different notes. A manuscript survives for example of Mozart’s teaching notes to his English student Thomas Attwood showing the difference between a major semitone (e.g. E to F) and a minor semitone (Fb to F). Almost universally considered as identical today, in his they were pitched slightly differently.
Very few musicians are aware that even into the 19th century fingerboard diagrams and scale exercises existed with two types of accidental (e.g. g# as distinct from a-flat) as well as keyboards with split keys so that the player could choose between accidental types.
It’s remarkable how efficiently this has been filtered out of the system so that even professional classical musicians and teachers – let alone students – are unaware of our microtonal recent history.
I was lurking around on the internet and came across this article that’s been making the rounds about the singer Adele’s performance on her song ‘Someone Like You’. In short, the article reminded me of just how influential phrasing is – or can be – to a melody. I don’t think much of the song; I find the pitches in the chorus particularly mundane and mostly ill chosen. Despite this, her performance has the power to move me and other people in profound ways.
There is a lot of content in the article that I think composers/performers/improvisers would be wise to keep at the forefront of their practice… it’s those little things…