Posted on

Slow Music

Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire

Why do I love abstract and weird? Well… to be honest, why not? Sometimes it’s so important for the music we listen to or the things that we read to challenge us. If all we listen to is the sweet and obvious sounds then we miss a whole sound palette. Being open to adventures in sound can bring us new ideas, new thoughts and concepts.

I’ve been working on writing projects today and whilst in the zone I was listening to the Slow Music project. This was a really fascinating project developed by Bill Rieflin with the help of Robert Fripp, Peter Buck and others. The concert I was listening to also included the late great (please excuse the cliché) Hector Zazou. At times it was ambient, at times it was abstract, improvisational and always spacious.

I hadn’t heard it for a long time. It’s even more beautiful than I remember. The concert took place 11 years ago in Los Angeles.

Sometimes we can find beauty in the gentle and slowly evolving. It’s a fast paced world. We need time in the 7 minute morning mediation, or in the moments of pause whilst sitting on the train, or the hour spent listening to music like this. We are brought back to the present and reminded that there is no other time but now.

Posted on

Experimental V – music with or without an audience

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am a huge fan of the work of David Sylvian and Richard Skelton. An initial google might lead you to think that these two have very little in common. Sylvian began his career in the last 70s and early 80s with Japan, a band that trod the New Romantic route even if that isn’t what they wanted to be called. He broke the band up just as they were becoming popular – and then set off on an eclectic solo career working with an incredibly wide range of musicians from the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical, avant-garde and modern music. His recent albums have been either entirely instrumental musical pieces for art installations or spoken word pieces with found sound backgrounds. All very obscure and truly beautiful (if you like that kind of thing, of course!)

Richard Skelton – Limnology

Meanwhile, Richard Skelton’s music uses drones and found sounds – hence, the connection with the work of Sylvian. In contrast, Skelton’s work has a singular vision – it is incredibly distinctive. His early work was in very limited editions, often with leaves of pieces of bark included to make the work unique. Skelton is a writer as well as a musician. His writing is also very focused – often drawing on the landscape around him – often poetic. His work is impressive for its purity of vision.

Another similarity between these two artists is the way in which they create music – or art – with a singular vision. One has the clear sense that they are creating what they want to because they are driven by a purpose from within. They are not playing to an audience at all. This driving sense of the need to create is at the heart of the experimental. It’s what often makes the product of experimenters hard to understand at first. Their outputs require effort, patience and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend judgement whilst trying to understand what is going on.

And sometimes the work of the experimenter goes beyond rational understanding. Thus, Sylvian’s albums “When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima” which seems to be set in a stark and bleak landscape with strange falsetto voices (Arve Henriksen) and weather creaking and howling – is at times harrowing and at others beautiful. A more recent album, “there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight” takes the poetry of Franz Wright read by the poet, and drops it into a bleak soundscape that jars and resonates with the words.

It’s all powerful stuff – both musicians have created their own experimental worlds and developed them outwards to create their own musical vocabulary.

There is so much to inspire in what they do. At once I am inspired by their drive to experiment, and by the stripping away of anything familiar in a quest for the new and surprising. As often happens for me, this creates ideas in my head that jump out of music and into other media. And that is when experimental music is at its richest, its deepest and its most profound. Ah, wonderful!

Posted on

Neil Young – the journey to wonder

For the past few months I have been writing the first draft of my next book. It’s called “The Journey to Wonder”. It’s about the people who have been a huge influence on my life, on how I think, how I work and what I produce. Here is the chapter about Neil Young:

The wild and curmudgeonly man that is Neil Young. This is the man who produces at least one album a year as he heads into his 70s. His music never rests – one minute he is championing high fidelity sound with a new streaming service, the next he is releasing an album recorded in an antique sound booth from the 1950s. Every turn is an exploration, everything he produces is another aspect of the creative flow of this unique talent.

Neil Young – I first heard him in the 1970s when a school friend brought in the double album gatefold sleeve compilation album “Decades”. I took it home and listened. At first I wasn’t sure about the voice, barely reaching the note and so fragile. It took me a while to see the uncompromising nature of his work. Songs of protest and songs of love. But when I did fathom it out, I became a massive fan. Over the years he has travelled the musical sound world. You always know it’s Neil Young because of that voice, but no two albums are the same. He also assembles and dissolves bands as he goes. It’s as though he gets a huge stimulation from working with others, but needs to keep control so he will switch from group to group, looking for something different in each space. Crazy Horse is one of the most famous bands he has put together, and yet still none of these groups transcend what Young brings himself. Going way back, his work with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) was a step beyond the band with just the other three members. It was as though Young’s input brought a disruption to the harmony and created a tension that made for remarkable work. Neil Young really does understand, perhaps intuitively, the role of tension or disruption in creating great work. The challenge is always to maintain the tension so that it doesn’t destroy what is being created. That wasn’t always achieved with CSNY.

As well as releasing 37 studio albums at the last count, he has also released vast amounts of archive material and also produced a number of films, using the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. He has an obsessive interest in model trains and in cars. There is a childlike quality to Young that is both endearing and also perhaps the reason he is able to be so creative and restless in all that he does.

I also really love the way that he releases material. There are always really high standards in his work, but this is someone who has figured out how to keep the inner critic at bay. He gets on with it and produces material at a fearsome rate. And he has the ability to still write songs that sound like they should have been written long ago – they are so natural that I can’t believe that they didn’t exist before now. Perfect tunes and wonderful guitar work. It all fits together into someone who isn’t perfect, someone who is still so inspiring and thoroughly entertaining.

That work rate shows someone who does see the whole creative process as a discipline, something that requires us to settle to the work and get on with it. Each day, being productive – and pushing the work forwards. It’s now such an overstated thing, but still worth repeating: the muse doesn’t visit us so that we can sit down and write. It’s the other way round. We sit down to write regularly and the muse finds us because we are ready and in the process.

The passion in Neil Young comes from truly believing in the things he writes about. Whether it’s a love song, or a song of loss for the band member who died of heroin, there is a part of him in each song. When he chooses politics he may not sit on the correct side of the political fence all of the time as far as the fans are concerned, but he cares deeply about what he writes songs on. From an early song like “Ohio” about the Kent State Massacre, through to the deeply political later albums like “Living with War” and “The Monsanto Years” – Young makes it patently clear what he thinks. This passion shines through in his work.

On top of all this, the man has struggled throughout his life with epilepsy – and has three children, two sons with cerebral palsy and a daughter with epilepsy herself. He helped to found the Bridge School project for children with severe physical and verbal difficulties and supports an annual concert to raise funds for it.

It’s not difficult to see why Neil Young would be a source of inspiration. He has strongly held beliefs, works from a place of passion to create an ever evolving and expanding body of work.

Posted on

Working Out Loud #352

fullsizeoutput_11ccSome more working out loud. A marvellous concept that I read about in-depth in the book “Working Out Loud” by John Stepper.

This creative journey. An opening out of ideas – and the lack of focus that emerges. Thus, all of these projects underway, open loops:

  • Working on at least 6 non-fiction pieces
  • Working on 2 new poetry collections
  • The second novel, about half written and left for at least 4 years.
  • Developing ideas for a collection of ambient pieces of music
  • Early ideas for the second album of spoken word and music
  • Various blog themes including “People who inspire me” and “Intuition over Logic”
  • A 365 day photo exercise with the team in work

So many creative projects – in a way  I love the diversity of it all. But in the middle of it all, sometimes time devoted to just one project until it is finished is important to build confidence and resilience.

Without a mix of focus and opening out of ideas, nothing gets done. And amongst all of this I am reminded by a voice from my past that not everything has to be finished. Some projects are there to be abandoned, tidied up and closed down, or turned into something else.

In that list above there are at least 14 live projects, and that isn’t everything I am working on at the moment. Working out Loud. Sharing as I go.

Without an audience, without communicating there is no point.

“#352”? What do I mean? Well, I guess a lot of my blog posts are in the guise of working out loud. That is what blogging means to me. So, this is probably at least the 352nd post where I am working out loud.

(November Challenge 15/31)

Posted on

McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica

img_1729It just looked like a normal music shop selling an eclectic mix of musical instruments. It was across the road from the hotel on Pico Boulevard where we were staying for two nights on our road trip through California, Nevada and Arizona back in August of this year.

We hardly noticed it. Except for the second night of our stay as we came out of Santa Monica and walked past the shop at 8.30 pm. It was open and that seemed odd. June suggested that we should go in and take a look.

img_1727As we stepped inside through the heavy wooden doors with guitar fretboards as handles, it struck us that this wasn’t an ordinary music shop. There were loads of people buzzing around inside. A member of staff – a tall guy – welcomed us into the store and asked us if we knew where we were and also where we were from. It turns out that this is the guy who organises the concert programme for the shop. He is really excited to show us around and tell us about the shop. At the back of the shop is a concert hall with instruments hanging all over the walls. There’s a gig that evening which is why itimg_1726 is still open and so busy. We are invited to have a look around and listen to some of the concert. We wait to hear one song by Dave Alvin and a beautiful song it is too. Our host then takes us upstairs to show us the corridor with framed photos of those who have appeared here. I see so many familiar faces and am awe-struck that this unassuming looking place has hosted all of these artists.

It’s a long list – the shop has been going since 1958. Here is a complete list. It’s an incredible list for its depth and breadth. Some huge names and such a diverse mix of musical genres.

The infectious excitement of the staff working in the shop leaves us feeling giddy. We head back to the hotel room and I sit in bed wading through the performers list on my iPad emitting a “wow” every few seconds. What an incredible place!

The following morning there is just enough time for us to call in again so that I can buy a T-shirt with the McCabe’s logo on it. What an incredible find!

(November Challenge 9/31)

Posted on

Improvisation in the Moment

This post was written before the results of the Presidential Election in the USA:

I am sitting at the dining room table. It’s late afternoon. Thanks to the shifting seasons it is already becoming dark. Within a short while we will know the outcome of the Presidential election and whether the planet is safe for now.

jarrettIn the background is “Creation” by Keith Jarrett, a beautiful album of short piano improvisations. I love listening to his music. It inspires me. I may have mentioned before, that the striking thing about Keith Jarrett’s concerts of improvised music is the fact that he meditates and stills himself before performance and then walks onto stage with a mind of emptiness to create in the moment. There are no pre-arranged ideas, no threads and patterns to work from. He just begins to play and waits to see what emerges. In digging through the notes and phrases one can often hear him finding something he likes, developing and expanding on it. In the background if you listen carefully you can hear him reacting to some of the moments of ecstasy that emerge from the playing. It’s astonishing to listen to.

IMG_1329That process of creation and improvisation in the moment is amazing to listen to. I heard a similar process in Bristol back in May when I attended the Social Age Safari and watched the performance poet Selby creating poetry live and in the moment.

We also see this in the art of improvisation shown by comedians at work. Again, it is remarkable to watch. Billy Connolly at his peak also had a similar openness to creating in the moment when on stage.

These techniques can take our creative pursuits into exciting new areas. It’s a question of looking at what we do and then opening it up to the new – how might this work as a process in real time, something that is created and adapted as we go. Anything can be tried  – break down the preconceived rules and just explore. Take the thought process where it wants to go. And above all, Trust! Trust the process, trust ourselves, and trust the outcome.

(November challenge: 7/31)

Posted on

Burundi Beat and Treated Trumpet

220px-possiblemusicsenohassellIt would have been the summer of 1980. This is one of those moments I think we all have, when a piece of music becomes rooted in a specific time and place.

The music was “Charm (Over Burundi Cloud) by Jon Hassell and Brian Eno. A whole side of an album made up of authentic Burundi beat with Hassell’s heavily treated trumpet shifting over it. The whole album evokes strong images of Africa and of a world music which Hassell has plenty of reason to claim that he invented.  Hassell had been experimenting with this music – he called it Fourth World Music – since the mid 1970s. He was an early pioneer of tribal musics  merged with electronics and jazz. His trumpet sound draws on Miles Davis at his breathiest together with Indian phrasings that Hassell learnt when he trained with Indian raga singer Pandit Pran Nath. It was a spectacularly original mix. Hassell guested on music by Talking Heads, David Byrne and David Sylvian.

But the first time I heard him was on this album. It was a collaboration with Brian Eno, one of my favourite musical innovators. I had bought the album when it came out and been spell-bound by it.

Here I was, at the end of my first year at university. I had spent the year in Halls of Residence in the suburbs of Liverpool. (McNair Hall in Mossley Hill to be precise). I was one of the last to leave, as I waited for my father to collect me with all of my belongings to take back to my family home in the Midlands for the summer.

I had the whole floor of the building to myself. I put on the album loud and opened my door to the corridor. The music drifted and swirled through the building, like heat haze across a desert. Each note would be fixed forever in this setting, this ambience, the feelings of closure on one scene of my life as I moved out of the room that had been my first place of independence. I can hear it now, and can see that location as if it were before me right in this moment.

last-night-the-moonOver the years I carried on buying Jon Hassell’s music – as guest and host of albums over the years.  I still love his distinctive sound and the way that he has forged out his own musical world. His music lent itself beautifully to the world of remixing and digital technology. Right up to his most recent album “Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street” (which is a beautiful album title), which appeared on ECM records, he has continued to innovate and fill me with a sense of wonder.

It all began back then with the first “Possible Musics” album and that perfect setting for playing it loud and indulging totally in the sound. I am so glad my father was caught in traffic and arrived a bit late that day!

Posted on

Rough music cuts – a 30 day exercise


… a note taken from Evernote, which I produced recently. This is one of a series of ideas for developing new material over a 30 day period. This is the note without edit:

Take 15 minutes each day, make it a repeating task in Remember the Milk for those 30 days (weekdays only? so will take 6 weeks to complete) In the 15 minutes I open Garageband and work with sounds, develop some sound files. The aim would be to develop a minimum of 10 sound pieces in the time available. Work swiftly, honour mistakes – perhaps look for inspiration from Oblique Strategies. When possible, ensure the music is hugely experimental. Look at the software that Mark Rushton uses. Record voice – spoken and singing. Over the 7 1/2 hours devoted to this I should be able to build up some interesting ideas – and above all else, develop some confidence in working with sound.

This was the process which I used to create the ‘Blue‘ album. I am about to embark on it again for the “Difficult Second Album”. Wish me luck!
Posted on

Update: apparently you are never too old to release your first album

On Friday I publicised the release of an album through Bandcamp. It comprised 15 tracks, using spoken word and music. The words come from “Blue: experiments in sound” which is the fourth poetry sequence about a misanthropic, lone-wolf character called Blue. I will be releasing this as a book in the next few months. In the meantime, last week saw the album in digital form.

I was really surprised by the reaction through social media over the weekend. There was plenty of attention, 115 listens on Bandcamp already – which is probably 100 more than I thought there would be, and some really lovely emails from people who enjoyed what they heard.

So, it’s probably never too late to try something out!

The challenge isn’t learning how to do things, or coming up with ideas, it’s overcoming that inner critic that chunners away in the background telling us that what we have done isn’t worth sharing! That’s why it has taken me since last summer to press the publish button and get this material up online.

Was it worth it? Yes, the objective has been met – something shared with the world (or a little piece of the world), and sharing things creates the space to move on to the next project.