West Side Story

I recently came back to playing this music with Paul Clarvis, twenty years after we first tried it.  The same feelings returned, the physical buzz of diving into something so full of musical opportunity.  Physicists tell us that time doesn’t exist, that their quantum equations don’t add up unless you take the bit out, and I can verify that. Coming back to this music, it feels as if time stands still whilst our bodies simply age around it. I am 29 again, in so far as I ever was.

Somehow the plot of West Side Story, of true love scuppered by the squabbling of rival gangs, is in the music itself.  He somehow builds it into the sound, shooting through the popular musical with darkness and uncertainty, a kind of instability.  A chord in music has what’s called a root note, it identifies the “key” and is the main thing that defines its relationship to other chords.  If you put this note at the bottom, you get a “strong and stable” sound.  An Ed Sheeran song like “Perfect”, for instance, has all its root notes on the bottom.  It’s unambiguous, it gets to the point.  This is great.  Plenty of good songs like that, but….this is the fossil fuel of music, fresh ways of doing it are running out.  Chords seem to be the last thing that anyone thinks of tinkering with (jazz, on the other hand, often has the opposite problem).  In songs like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight”, Bernstein takes this “fist in the air” sincerity and undermines it.

“One Hand” is a hymn to devotional love. Hymns are celebrated for their logical beauty, parts moving impeccably yet beautifully between well chosen chords that are easily recognised by a congregation. Bernstein sticks to this idea, the melody moves one step at a time for most of the time…but underneath, he chooses to jump from one unstable bass note to another.  The chords are solid, secure, but the bass movement has an “unresolved” quality.  (I once saw Jack Dee doing stand up, years ago, and in the middle of it he put his glass of water down on a stool, but right on the edge of it.  He carried on with the next joke, then, a few minutes later said…”you’re all worried about the water aren’t you?”)  It’s like that, both comforting and disorientating. Like building a statue on a plinth that is slightly too small.

“Tonight” takes the lyrics and sprinkles not fairy dust, but seeds of doubt, all over them.  Tony says:

Today, all day I had the feeling/ a miracle would happen”

On that word “to-DAY”, what should be a solid, life-affirming chord is instead a slightly hollow sound, the fifth in the bass shocks us not with a horrifying dissonance, but with the most boring note of the chord that “fits” but sounds wrong.  It’s the grey suit, the fake “thank you” face after an unwanted Christmas present. A half sneeze.

We know it’s ending badly for these characters, but they don’t, and so their swooping melodies are somehow “unaware” of the shifting sands in the bass.  Of course, Bernstein didn’t invent any of this.  He used his knowledge and applied it.  Brahms did this kind of thing a lot, and so did many composers before him.  And Keith Jarrett does it too.  I like a band called “Blonde Redhead”; they do it.  Sometimes music has no fixed bass, but a moving line, another melody that means simple chords can be heard more than one way as the bass line moves.  “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five is a good example. Come on Ed Sheeran, have a go.

I can’t quite decide what comes first here, the knowledge or the feeling.  My gut tells me that the knowledge points you, as a composer or as a listener, to the source of the feeling A fifth, or a third, in the bass when you are expecting a root has always produced this effect, like time it stands still.  We do not invent it, we reveal its long term whereabouts, put its timelessness in a new context.

Music theory, or knowledge, is not lacking in emotion, vibe, or feeling.  It is like a summation of all the gut instincts of every composer, songwriter, improviser and performer which, being too big to keep in its original form, is condensed into a “boring” compressed file of lists, notes, principles.  You don’t follow it, you unwrap it. It’s like complaining that the ingredients of a cake, having not been put in the oven, taste flat and cold.

Chord sequences stand up like a table, and if you want to build one with three legs you’d better know where to put them.  Of course, there are still many beautiful four legged tables waiting to be built, but there might be a reason why no one has ever put legs in the middle.  To do so is not a “new discovery”, or a “revolution”. It is a pile of broken planks on the floor and nowhere to put your dinner.

Pass the salt.

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National Student Survey, 1263

(…George Benson believed that the children are our future, and I guess only time will tell on that one. It’s great students can voice their opinion these days, but this is nothing new. Going through the bins in the library, I found this ancient manuscript of what appears to be a partially completed National Student Survey originating in a Medieval Kyoto monastery.  Cautiously unfolding the parchment,  I transcribed what I could, as it was written mostly in Chinese characters of which I have no knowledge at all; anyway I did my best.  Known for its rigorous enforcement of a strict master/student protocol, medieval Japanese monasteries nevertheless enthusiastically encouraged student feedback in questionnaires eerily similar to those today.  I have updated this account a bit in order to try and make it more relevant so now young people can understand it too…)

Date : April 4th, 1263

Subject : Enlightenment Foundation Module

National Student Survey

Questions:

The teaching on my course1. Staff are good at explaining things.

2. Staff have made the subject interesting.

3. The course is intellectually stimulating.

4. My course has challenged me to achieve my best work.

I don’t like the way staff explain things at all actually.  First of all, it seems we have to do all the work, it’s all questions and no answers. He asked us what the sound of one hand clapping was. I did it, I clapped one hand and the teacher was like, but there’s no sound and I was like, I know but isn’t that just your opinion (which the teacher seems to think is important by the way). I tried it again. I watched a girl on YouTube try it, and her results were the same despite having fifty thousand likes on a video sharing platform that doesn’t exist yet. Not a whisper. Try it. Clap one hand, nothing comes out. It’s just lame.  Two hands clapping is apparently cheating, breaking the “***rules***“.  Rules are just a way of limiting our self expression, in my opinion.

Learning opportunities5. My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth.

6. My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics.

7. My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt.

Look, I have a lot of ideas, and especially a lot of concepts, which are like ideas in that you don’t have to do anything.  My teacher said, that’s great, you should explore them, but this lesson isn’t the place.  I said isn’t that just your opinion.  He hit me with a large stick.

Assessment and feedback8. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.

9. Marking and assessment has been fair.

10. Feedback on my work has been timely.

11. I have received helpful comments on my work.

Marking is rubbish here.  I definitely don’t like being assessed.  Apparently there’s no guarantee that I will get a good mark although I paid a fortune to come to this place.  I get feedback but some of it is critical and that makes me sad, representing bad value for money.  My teacher said some of the best lessons he had made him sad, and the sadness enabled him to seek out what he needed in order to improve.  He also said that you wouldn’t feel like that if you didn’t have to pay for your education.  I said exactly, that’s why you should give me good marks. This time I saw the stick coming and got out of the way in time.  The teacher smiled.  He said I had at last learnt something.

Academic support12. I have been able to contact staff when I needed to.

13. I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course.

14. Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices on my course.

15. The course is well organised and running smoothly.

16. The timetable works efficiently for me.

17. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.

I must say things are pretty efficient here, there are lots of emails about doors working, then not working and then working again.  I know every detail of the well being of every entrance mechanism in the building.  This makes me feel empowered.  The timetable of getting up at 4am, eating rice and then meditating for twelve hours every day (until enlightenment comes) is quite simple to follow, except one day I missed it because it wasn’t in my calendar, so on that day it didn’t “work efficiently for me” as I wasn’t there. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Learning resources18. The IT resources and facilities provided have supported my learning well.

19. The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.

20. I have been able to access course-specific resources (e.g. equipment, facilities, software, collections) when I needed to.

Libraries are so uncool, scrolls and all that shit are just not edgy enough for the way I like to do things.  I prefer my own vibe.  Other people have already done things, now it’s my turn.

Learning community21. I feel part of a community of staff and students.

22. I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course.

This is true, I get to sit in silence for twelve hours next to people I like who, like me, are silent.  Some days, we all get together and try, again, to clap with one hand, which is like silence but with aching arms.

Student voice23. I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course.

24. Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course.

25. It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on.

26. The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests.

True feedback is found in the clear mirror of your quiet self, they tell me.  This is the kind of shit we have to put up with.  I tried to complain about the clapping thing. Apparently it’s kind of a riddle, and there’s no definitive answer, which means the mark is totally random.  I said, how long will it take me to work it out.  My teacher said, ten years.  And if I try really hard?  Twenty years, he said.  If I was allowed my stick in class, I calculate I could just about break his nose from here.

Overall satisfaction

27. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.

The course is a journey, life is a journey, life is suffering.  Satisfaction is superficial, coming only to those who do not embrace true and constant change.  Quality is an illusion, all is vanity.  I don’t know what is left of this question, or how to answer it.  Instead I sit, and I think what now.

“Q” is for…

“Q Samba” : Arto Lindsay, from “Mundo Civilizado”

https://youtu.be/JkEMwcm4vbM

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Arto Lindsay.  The geeky, skinny kid at school, scribbling in his notebook when he thinks no one’s looking, or when he thinks that people think he thinks no one’s looking.  Probably just schoolboy crush scribbles, arrows through hearts, epigrams.  Eyes almost upstaged by his owl-like lenses, which are looking straight at you, and it’s a hard stare to look back at.  People don’t.  Prom Queens, though, might take him home in one of those High School movies, people would learn to look beyond appearances, towards new experiences, everyone would learn things and nothing would change.  Music, credits, thank yous, etcetera.

But he’s an eccentric.  A real one, not a muscle boy they put in glasses to indicate intelligence, reticence and hostility to games lessons.  He is thin, thin like he lives on some unknown energy, some ambiguous pulse.  He plays guitar, but no real notes, just a noise, and only when it’s called for. Mostly it just hangs around his neck, as it does on this song.  The weight of it might kill him.

Through the gate, now the path winds to the door, you pass sculptures, perpendicular pagan gods staring down suburban sidewalks, old amplifiers, guitar strings wound around slow growing creepers. Carnival melting into darkness and out again.   It’s taking forever to get to the door.

Shall we listen to some music?  He reaches for a cd, the cover a photo of a woman’s face, or maybe a girl’s, her expression masked by the blood red smear of a rose.  Smiling eyes though; maybe.  A strange, disjointed guitar, Brazilian, lurches into a kind of beat that doesn’t belong where it is, as a voice, half-spoken, half sung, asks:

How do you do that?  

Did you just make it up?  

Is there a special need for that?

Now don’t just make it up”

Not exactly poetry, this is like a kid asking questions at school.  But he grows up fast;

“How do you shake just that and not shake all the rest

Breaking all those beats apart you careless hypnotist”

A careless hypnotist, still thinking about what that implies.  The lyrics feel like they are meaning something, but they sometimes fold in on themselves, like…

You dance like you’re not alone

You dance like I’m not here

Often they seem like a study in a single sound…

Your supple cheekiness

Supreme funkiness

Your sure footedness

And you pelvic finesse.”

But that last line,”pelvic finesse”, what the hell is that?  Animal sexuality crossed with featherlight delicacy?  The music echoes the words, mismatched but familiar sounds, somehow stitched together, a brash and buzzy keyboard flooding the light and sunny samba like chilli sauce in Angel Delight, its line left jagged and raw like the edges of an awkward conversation.  Samba school drums sucked into a lop-sided sample, another piece in the jigsaw of disorder, of musical and verbal memories, those memories that for each person are their own.

Except for the Prom Queen. Tradition dictates that her head must be empty, as she trots home to recount, perhaps reluctantly, some other version of these few short minutes.

 

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The Way We Were

It seems to me what we don’t need now is people that come out waving their hands and claiming they know the Right Way.”

Brian Eno

 

Writing is hard.  Somehow what I want to say in this opening sentence, and it’s now my second sentence, escapes me.  I had an idea, but it just won’t sit.

Recently I re-watched “Fame”, Alan Parker’s film about a performing arts school in New York.   It’s a brightly coloured, pacy affair with a lot of muscle and good looks liberally splashed around the edgy New York streets.  There’s a character called Doris who does an audition.  You can tell from the inexplicable change in lighting that it won’t be going well.  She has in tow a very pushy mum and, in case that doesn’t illustrate her subservient squareness enough, she has a blouse done up past her nose almost.  She sings “The Way We Were”, a famous song from a famous film of the same name, she sings it very badly, accompanied by a very bad piano accompaniment recorded on to a cassette by her equally clueless brother.  It is supposed to illustrate bad musicianship, and it is pretty terrible.  She can’t sing, the brother can’t play, it’s all out of tune and out of sync.  It is a disaster.  But I keep thinking about it.  I want to play it.

My idea was that this scene, on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, unknowingly opens up the song in a way that Barbara Streisand, with all her belting bravura, couldn’t.  Where Streisand moves effortlessly through the tune like a hot knife through pink candy floss, Dora’s rendition reminds me of a nature documentary I saw once where a dung beetle keeps trying to push a pile of shit three times its own size, which it has fashioned into a perfect sphere, up a hill, only to watch as it rolls down to the bottom again.  Now that’s a song.

It reminds me of Nancarrow.  “The Way We Were” came out in 1973.  Conlon Nancarrow had, by then, been quietly working on his player piano studies in Mexico for years, beavering away at music that could not be played by humans.  The player piano removes the need for a performer, it is a machine; human beings were not up to playing his music.  His studies are supposed to, in other words, go beyond what a performer could do.  And yet, the effect of them is somehow to sound like three kids playing at once, randomly doodling catchy melodies without a care in the world and without any consideration of what the other is doing.  A nice illusion.

So I go back to it, back to Dora’s audition, I find it on YouTube here .  And it doesn’t really sound like any of these things.  I remembered it like that, not because it has those qualities, but because I do.   In reality, the girl can’t sing, and to find her direction in life she must first (spoiler alert) escape her domineering mother and start taking her clothes off in a nightclub, thus releasing her sexuality and her real calling, which turns out to be acting.

Films, music, art, politics.   They transmit messages, and depending on what we are set to receive, we hear what we want to hear, regardless of what might be called “facts”.  William Carlos Williams once described the idea of a poem as a “machine made of words”; substitute images, sounds, shapes, movement for words, and I think it’s a good description of any other art form.  Politics might even be called a “machine made of statements”.  Statements are often summaries of devilishly complex situations, so it’s good to go back and check the facts before letting your imagination running away with them.  With machines, perhaps watching the whirring of the wheels for the fun of it is the best use of them.

I have been thinking about a new version of “Fame”, set not in a performing arts school but in a chess club.  A somewhat more introverted setting which could preserve the elements of social realism, racism, illiteracy and poverty, sex, neurosis, class and coloured gym wear.  Sexual tensions would simmer in the background, there would be arcs, characters would learn things, hopes and dreams would be dashed and fulfilled in equal measure.  Ups and downs would be described in unflinching detail.  Basically, it would be like the original but with less noise, some peace and quiet.  We all need that.

But even that is not true, not for everyone.  Some people just work and work and get better and better, faster and faster, the noise of progress in their ears.  So around we go again.  With every sentence, an anti-sentence.  Rather than come to a conclusion, I have just had to leave it all lying here in pieces, which Doris I’m sure would understand .  Writing is hard.

Fame.

I’m going to live forever.

I’m going to learn how to fly.

I feel it coming together.

Checkmate.

You’ll Get Over It (obscenity warning).

When I was a kid at school my teacher called me something that no teacher would, or could, ever call a pupil today.  He called me a ****.  I was twelve, and so were the other twenty nine sniggering boys who were in the room at the time.

A bit of background.  Every Monday my clarinet lesson was smack in the middle of the morning, which disrupted my Technical Drawing class, a joyless class where we learnt to draw perfect circles with dangerously sharp compasses and dissect them with straight lines.  To ask permission to leave the lesson, I had to go through this wretched pantomime of putting up my hand, and him saying;

What is it Noble?”

And me saying, or stammering rather;

I’ve got a…a clarinet lesson, sir.” 

And every Monday brought a new insult.  Here’s one.

Off to your banjo lesson again are we?

Despite predating by some thirty years my acute interest in Appalachian music, I nevertheless felt it necessary to correct his use of the first person plural “we”….oh no, that was a dream I had….no I was terrified of him actually.  And the Boomtown Rats had just released “I Don’t Like Mondays”.  People said about Frank Sinatra, they said it felt like he was singing just for you, and Bob Geldof’s piercing whine went similarly to my bobby socked core.

So the **** marked a new development in this man’s reign of terror.  Often, he would grace our drawings with epigrams like “well done, 3/10”, thoroughly deserved when a dissecting line was one or two degrees out of whack.   Evidently it was important to start priming the kids who would go on to push Technical Drawing into the future, the men from the boys as it were, the men who were twelve from the boys who were twelve.  Many a pre-adolescent boy’s dream of a glittering future that was somehow bathed in knowledge of angles and set squares was dashed on the rocks of Mr Wrack’s brutal marking system.

Anyway, the word has fascinated me since.  It inspires such fear and hushed disapproval.  To say this word, you have to be with a social group possessing an almost molecular familiarity with each other, because in any other situation it is a huge risk.  It’s an admission of baseness, a declaration of debauchery, it reveals in its messenger a complete and absolute lack of consideration for the feelings of anyone else.  To say **** is a sacrilegious act.

There are many good hearted people in the world, and some are religious and some are not.  Many of the latter (I suppose I would like to count myself among them) take comfort in the smug knowledge that we do not believe in anything that does not conform to hard science, that is received wisdom masquerading as fact, that takes allegorical stories as historical document, that views as obscene anything that breaks rules originating in the faded and remote histories of places unseen and unknowable.  Finally, the hard won common sense nurtured by our up-to-date knowledge and enlightened democracy has triumphed over old world superstition, mired as it was in the shock and awe of religious splendour and corruption.  We see things from every angle, we refuse to bow to prejudice in any way, and in doing so we walk on brave and strong into a new world of understanding.  It’s really great.

“Erm, did someone just say the c word?  I don’t use that word.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ugly.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you know, it’s….”

“Shunt, punt, hunt, grunt, runt.”

“It degrades a part of the human body that for some is…”

“Prick.  Cock.”

It’s like arguing for dinosaurs against a Creationist.

Should words have rights?  I am angered and upset by the discrimination against this word on the basis of ugliness (this would not work if **** were a person), inappropriateness (oh come on, what does that mean), sexism (in a world where “dickhead” is so often the only word left to describe such a huge range of people in life).  ****.  Listen to the sound of it, its perfect bluntness, it’s over in a moment but it leaves such a glorious dent in any conversation.  Maybe it’s too good for us?  Maybe we have not yet proven ourselves worthy of its use?  I think we need to show some humility in the face of a word like this.

 

So what does this have to do with music?  Well, sitting at the piano and trying to find the next section for a piece of music I had written, I found the perfect foil in some Elton John-styled chords, which got me thinking of the eighties, then school, and then this very story.  Mr Wrack.  Icon of my school days.  Immortalised forever in my tune of the same title.  Who’s laughing now?

What a cunt.

Victorian Jukebox

There’s a pub in Soho where they still have a piano player.  This guy is not there to colour the silence and chit chat in the way a pianist does in a restaurant.  He plays Beatles songs, and show tunes, and things even people under thirty might recognise.  And people listen and sing along.  When his list runs out, there’s no music, but it never runs out.  And most of it is stored in his head.  He has fingers that play a real instrument, and every song he plays has to work on a piano or it doesn’t work at all.   And he has a head for a hard drive.

There was a time when all music in the home was like this.  If you were lucky enough to be in the rising middle class of Victorian England, you might have had a piano in the house.  And that was the source of all music.  A Victorian Jukebox.  All music was live.  And if no one played the piano, there was no music.

Just silence and conversation.

And we all know how awkward that can be.

Having no pianist would be like having no wifi, or 3G, or 4G, E4 or Dave.  People inevitably understood something of how music was made, because everyone who had a piano knew a pianist, and saw at close hand what was involved.

I remember a few years ago, I went into my son’s pre-school to play for their Christmas sing song.  They had no piano, so I brought a keyboard.  Children gathered around as I hauled the case down flat on the floor, flipping the catches as an assassin might before removing and demonically cleaning his weaponry du jour.  As I prized open the lid the kids, far from experiencing some kind of recognition, “oh he’s a musician, cool, music, wow it must be great to just sit down and play an instrument” kind of reaction, they were perplexed.  And it was tinged with that slight anger of not understanding, of feeling stupid, left out. They had no idea what this object was.  As I set it up, plugged in and sat behind the keys, they looked on in wonder.  It wasn’t the kind of wonder that Spielberg might have filmed, that kind of bathed angelic luminosity kind of light with its warmth and its fuzziness.  It was more like, I wonder why the hell we are here light.  It was more like Dogme-style, natural light, cold stares.  “Festen” for juniors.  Icy silence and tumbleweed in one uncomfortable mixed metaphor.  I was not at that point believing, contrary to the opinion of George Benson, that the children were our future.

So I played my first chord.  Resisting the jazz urge to hit them with all my musical neurosis of chromaticism and darkness, I went for C major.   A safe option, I thought, the universal language of music I thought, a vibration that reaches out to all without discrimination.  Almost instantaneously the entire group burst into uncontrollable laughter.  That weird, nervous laughter like when you and your mates got caught stealing useless crap from a supermarket.  An entire social history of music making, from the royal courts to the Victorian sitting room and the East End pub, friends who could sing and play, daughters who were encouraged to play the piano because their legs were tucked safely away from prying eyes, it all ended here.  It all ended on a cheap carpet with the worst audience I have ever had.

Well they were only four years old but, you know, once they’re over five there’s no changing them.

I’m quite fond of the piano as a music making machine, as an instrument of reproduction, reduction, representation.  Music used to work on the piano, most things were reducible to two hands, ten fingers and some sleight of hand stuff…aided, of course, by the imagination of the audience.  Pianos were often required to conjure the sound of an orchestra at full tilt, much as Turner’s paintings of water might almost make you feel the shock of the spray against your face.

So how would a piano cope with the incredible breadth of musical styles, genres as sounds today?  There is nothing to be gained by an accurate reproduction, but the sound of the attempt is what interests me.  Jazz for me sometimes involves hearing something you like, whether it’s more jazz or a Ugandan singer with a balaphon, and trying to use it for the purposes of improvisation.  Using a piano to do this is like playing playstation with a real tennis racket.  In other words, it’s perversely enjoyable.  It’s the best kind of enjoyable there is.  When I hear Bud Powell, or Duke Ellington, or Monk, or John Taylor, it’s partly a fight to prize something out of that instrument that was once a symbol of polite, middle class society.  It’s such a forgiving instrument, sometimes you have to really give it something to get upset about.  It’s that or it’s back to the kindergarten.