How To Learn A Tune

Method 1

Some time ago, it may have been five years ago, for the purposes of this story it really doesn’t matter, all that matters is that it was back beyond measurable time.  I was staying at my friend Trevor’s house in Birmingham whilst teaching there, and we were listening to Blossom Dearie’s album of songs by lyricists Comden and Green.  The tune that stuck in my mind at the time was “Lucky To Be Me”, Ray Brown’s bass quietly singing through the 5 foot speakers, Ed Thigpen’s delicate whispering brushes, Blossom Dearie just singing the tune, almost as if she’s known it all her life and is recounting it to herself,  absent-mindedly  tracing the chords.(1)   I remember just sitting, both of us just letting the music wash over us, which is what it does, still, today.  But I’m jumping ahead now; back to my first time.

The last track on the album…no, not a track, it’s a song…the last song on the record is a Bernstein tune called “Lonely Town”.  I’m not sure if I even heard it properly that night, beer and sound fused in an impressionistic haze as the night went on; maybe I just remember seeing the title and wondering how it might sound.  I went straight out and bought the cd and played it on my own (much smaller) speakers whilst washing up; sometimes listening to music like this merely jogs the memory to a time when you were really listening to it.  I have never been able to recreate the sound of that music that evening, speakers almost as tall as Ray Brown’s bass like your head was in it, hearing all those little things bass players can do in between the essential big notes that are almost inaudible until you get that close, hearing the ends of the notes on the piano as well as their gentle beginnings, the soft hiss of a brush moved off the skin of a drum.  And that voice, that is somehow even closer than life, impossibly close.

At this point, I still haven’t investigated the mysterious “Lonely Town”, not properly.  But I have a vague impression of it; a series of disembodied, yearning phrases set against familiar chords arranged, somehow, in a new order, there is obviously some “classical composer” cleverness going on here but it has such a mood about it.  The melody seems to want to form itself into something longer, finally rising in the bridge, the lyrics speaking of the redemptive power of love “shining like a harbour light”, the voice seeming to brighten in sympathy before sinking again.  The underlying rhumba seems to hint, however,  at a world weary acceptance, intoxicating and urbane.

A few months ago, I was teaching a composition class and we were talking about songwriting.  I have an idea that being able to write, and to recognise, good melodic lines is a good foundation for any music, as far out or straight ahead as you want to go.  So, I recommend this album to the students, partly because I think they might be lured in by the more obvious jazz credentials of the rhythm section, but also hopeful that they will experience something in this music, that it will work its strange magic on them.  Anyway, now I really want to learn the tune.  I know what it means to me, essentially I know it, but I don’t know what it is.  It resides in that part of my imagination that goes with Miles Davis’s L’ascenseur, Paul Bley’s Open, To Love, a kind of melancholic, blues infused solitariness that can be hard to find in jazz these days but used to be one of its strongest, most accessible emotions.

 So, last week, I put the record on and transcribed it.  I also bought some sheet music, the original show version with piano accompaniment.  I put the cd on my iPhone, and on the whim of the machine that is the iTunes shuffle function, it appeared unannounced, trudging home from the pub in the dark, wet landscape of Camden chucking out time, or amid the endless chatter of the Monday morning tube.  I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, the strange and abrupt twists and turns of the song’s middle section repeating endlessly in my head, not torturing me but just there.  I decided I needed to find a reason to play this tune.

Three days ago, I did a solo improvised set at Café Oto.  The only way to do these gigs is just to start playing and see where it takes you, to listen to what’s in your head and try not to get in its way before it gets to your fingers.  So, when, a few minutes in, the first couple of bars of “Lonely Town” emerged, that was where I went.  I tried not to think too hard about it, I had obsessed about this tune for days, months, years even, it was in my body, wired into my whole musical psyche, just a case of letting it out and not getting in the way.  It’s all about intention, there are no mistakes, it’s the flow, the flow will take care of everything.

Anyway, somehow I fucked the bridge up.

It seems I don’t know this tune yet, but there’s no rush, it will happen.

Method 2

1          (optional)



You can always disprove almost any theory in the arts.  The guitarist Eugene Chadbourne recorded another great old tune, Stars Fell On Alabama, in the eighties.  It seems more appropriate, somehow, for me to put the link up here

It’s one of my favourite recordings, which I come back to year after year.   When I saw him live and requested the tune, he said he didn’t know it because he’d recorded it “reading off a Broadway Songbook score”.  Important not to get too attached to one way of working, I think…

(1)  (at this point, I would normally put a link in to the album, but I’m not going to for reasons that will become apparent)

Gagaku self-help

The music contained in this clip is some of the strangest I have ever heard.  For most musicians who are trying to compose, improvise or somehow create something, the search for strangeness, or “newness”, whether in the familiar or in the undiscovered, keeps us alive.

And often it’s pretty slim pickings, like this beetle that waits with its bum in the air until the desert fog forms water droplets which then trickle down into its eager mouth.

Almost everything has been done, talked about, blogged about.  Many other forms of music from around the world have penetrated our culture so completely, derailing Western High Art Music’s quest for total atonality and supreme structural unity in favour of a more mixed and multi-cultural palette (I wonder if Schoenberg et al might have abandoned this agenda in the early twentieth century had they encountered the Baka Pygmies)(1).  In our “access to everything” lives, the water that trickles down from our upturned arses has most likely been recycled, rebottled and reused many times, and now, I sense, is the time to bring this strained metaphor to a close.

But to discover the music, and choreography, of Gagaku is like walking into an alien world.    A world made entirely of undiscovered atoms,  atoms that in turn form themselves into unimagined structures, making up a landscape in which everything belongs together but in a way known only to the structures themselves.  Traditional notions of virtuosity, technique, development, groove, melody and, above all, the ‘storytelling” qualities of music, are not even reversed, they are eliminated, and not in the way associated with, for example, many “western’ composers, where there is an invention of something that demands we call them a genius“, but in a way that seems to imply that this is music in its natural form.  It’s music for the beginning, and end, of the world, a ballet that tells the story not of the meeting of lovers or the quarrels of kings, but of one tectonic plate shifting imperceptibly into another.

Some might say that the lack of “human interest” is a problem.

Nevertheless, I can think of no other music that describes the simple passing of time in such “intimate” detail.   I don’t mean psychological time, like, “Oh how time flies when you’re having fun it passes the time of day time marches on the ravages of time I don’t have time for this”…I mean time as a simple, stand-alone thing of beauty.  The framing of a second never sounded so good, this is Blake’s “eternity in an hour” perfectly realised in sound.  When I listen to this music I hear time spun out in layers, almost sculpted like clay, the small kakko drum’s patterns expanding and contracting against the slow, sonorous thud of the gigantic Da-daiko skins, the melody of the hichikiri (a kind of neurotic oboe) in a kind of demented unison with the flute, the two often falling away from each other as one or the other appears to pause for breath.   Such inconsistencies are the nemesis of western Classical Music; here they define the music’s progress, endlessly revolving around a repeating melody that is so slow as to be almost imperceptible, yet is heard with fresh ears each time.  Then there is the sho, the high pitched mouth organ that seems to bind together the whole with slowly evolving chords, an unearthly sound, perhaps with a touch of early Weather Report, that seems to stop time in it’s tracks.  Now watch the biwa (a kind of Japanese lute) players; they are using plectrums the size of dinner plates, maximum thwack with minimum mobility.  That’s fine, they are just waiting patiently for their moment to play, at the most, a couple of notes.  Sometimes they only play one.  The kotos work alongside,  yet are distinct from, the biwa in that they might fill out a whole chord.  Struck strings mirror the steps of the dancers, both musicians and dancers immersed in a slow motion arc leading to a precision attack.

I am struggling to find a sentence that moves slowly enough to describe the huge, seemingly breathing body that is the Gagaku orchestra.  Each of its parts strictly delineated, notated, handed down, the variety coming solely from the way it’s breath might change from bar to bar, the slight holding back as a beat arrives a little late, the gradual tailing off of a flute’s melody against the immovable force of the hichikiri’s line.  A vast moving organism of sound.

Music is seldom so regulated as it is here, yet Gagaku always makes me want to improvise.  It shakes up all the ear worms in my head, all the gremlins, creatures of habit, occasional voices of doom, and says “It’s only music.”  Sound in time, movement in space.  Back in the saddle.