Saturday, 18 November 2017

Music for Adults: Part 1

It's been a long time since I've posted anything here. I could blame a new job in part, but more simply I guess it was just laziness. Anyhow in the meanwhile I've been mulling over an idea, for the past year, which concerns music for adults, or to put it another way: "What can an adult listen to, whilst developing and discovering new music?" It does seem an easy question to answer, but many friends of mine still listen to, and talk about, groups and artists that they've been listening to since they were teenagers. Its not uncommon to see how old favourites, due maybe to nostalgia, remain at the top of many peoples lists. If one reads the commentaries on Amazon you'll soon notice how people don't appreciate an artist who changes direction!

Naturally, not all people stay with their teen and university years listening habits. Many develop further by becoming (as an example) jazz fanatics, classical buffs or maybe folk and world music fans. But, for the majority it has been hard to understand the success of the X-Factor generation of music celebrities, be they good musicians or not. It's interesting to note that much of today's - popular - music business is based around the individual. If one looks back at the seventies and eighties lists of top 20 stars there seems to be 'in general' more bands, rather than individual stars. We do have Maroon 5 and Pentatonix, but they are the exception rather than the rule. For those interested take a brief look at the website Weekly Top 40 (*) and click on any year between 1970 to 1989, then compare with (ex) 2012. You immediately notice the difference in the number of individual stars as opposed to groups in the 70s and 80s. But even so, today's idols such as Katy Perry, Rihanna, Justin Bieber or Kanye West, to name but a few, are a long way musically from the past glories of David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Annie Lennox or Aretha Franklin. 

Smash Hits (circa 1983)

Anyhow, I'm not here to judge such artists, and they don't appear on any of my top albums of the year. The reason in general is that they (in my humble opinion) lack a certain inventiveness and individuality. That doesn't mean that all today's stars are blank pieces of paper, CeeLo Green (aka Gnarls Barkley) or the excellent Hozier both have not only great voices, but also mature and strong material. However, many, as far as I can see, are more busy making mainstream music which follows fashion rather than looking for creative directions which push at the boundaries. However, having said that I guess the series 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die wouldn't agree!

The idea of my 'Music for Adults' is to introduce, in a short presentation form, some albums of artists working today who produce music that although not necessarily mainstream (in some cases), gives the listener something to savour musically and intellectually. It is also a list of suggestions for those who are still interested to find alternative but satisfying musical directions other than that of their past teenage years heroes or heroines. So, without further ado I'd like to start with a recent album (which interestingly my brother introduced me to - that's what are older brothers are for):

Darlingside: Birds Say (2015)

I chose this as the first record to present, probably the most recent record (and group) I've heard that conjures up the past by its sound and subject matter. Darlingside is a quartet who sound somewhere between the Beach Boys meet Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. That isn't a put down, in fact I'd say in this case it's a recommendation. Darlingside have produced a record with very catchy folk-rock melodies and tight harmony vocals that - as I said - hark back to another period yet remain thoroughly modern.

The bands sound is made up of a very simple line up (instrumentally), which is probably what makes the music sound so pure. With the various members just using acoustic instrumentation, except for a bass guitar, the group keeps everything down to a bare minimum - I particularly like the idea of someone stomping on the bass drum like a one-man-band. The album is full of great catchy melodies, check out "White Horses", "Birds Say" and "Harrison Ford" to get an idea of the sound and melodic direction of Darlingside.       

The band: Don Mitchell (guitar, banjo, vocals), Auyon Mukharji (mandolin, violin, vocals), Harris Paseltiner (guitar, cello, vocals), David Senft (bass, kick drum, vocals)

The band website can be found here: 

* = An excellent site with plenty of interesting figures such as album charts, top artists of a period, etc.

Monday, 10 August 2015

New Directions

In the past months time has just flown by, hence the lack of posts. I've been doing a lot of teaching (in different forms), as not only a way to earn a living, but also giving me some breathing space to look at ways in which I'm interested in composing and performing music. One of the problems with the system (where I live) is that you have to play concerts to keep your employment status. This sounds great to most artists, however, there is one drawback, to find concerts you 'mostly' have to have a public, in other words the more mainstream the product the more chances you have to get work. If you work in more obscure areas of musical composition then you can indeed find it difficult to find performance possibilities, especially on a permanent basis.

I've always been interested in sound as a form of music, in fact when as a kid the Beatles released the "Yellow Submarine" my favourite bit was the mechanical noise section - listen to the single around 1.27mins -  which I used to put on my turntable non stop. I liked many of those 'bits' in music, I guess sound was 'in' at that period thinking back to it. Another single that had something special was "You Know My Name, Look Up The Number", which was the B-side to "Let it Be". I loved the way the Beatles strung together all these different styles to make a song. The Moog Synthesiser was also becoming popular. My teachers at secondary school often played us Stockhausen, Walter (Wendy) Carlos, Electric Coconut and Tangerine Dream, to name a few. It was a good period for hearing experimental music often sold as commercial pop music(*).

I spend a lot of time working on my computer with Pure Data (see one project here) and SuperCollider. However, I recently I decided that I really like working with a hands on approach, much the same as playing an instrument. And so I invested in a bit of equipment to start trying to develop a live solution to making music which is built of samples, synths, saxophones and noise. I thought I'd post a few of the tracks as a way of getting my ideas out there. Of course one can just sit at home and work on stuff, but I like to get ideas down on my DAW, then post them on my Soundcloud page as a way of seeing what it looks (sounds) like. 

All the work is done with the idea that it can be played live (almost). I set up my material and do as much as possible in one go. This accounts for some out of tune playing (sax), or some odd changes, but that's just the way I'm working at present. I'll clean up the ideas later to try and get melodies in some areas and form also. But at present its spontaneous ideas first, I hope you like them, and of course any comments and criticisms are well appreciated.

Some (all?) of the tracks are little long, so you may wish to skip forwards at points to see where the music is going, but that's what sketches are about, I guess.

"Piano 1" is built using Supercollider. I built a file using three octaves of a piano, edited them and wrote a program to read the files randomly or in a pre determined order.
"Soprano SH 101" refers to the soprano sax (of course), and the SH101 is an old Roland synthesiser. Its a bit broken down now and needs some work done on it, unfortunately its also not midi compatible, which causes a few hiccups when working with other machines. I guess I'll probably have to look into updating to a Novation Bass Station!

"Synth 2a" is another track using the Roland SH 101. To listen to this you may need to plug in some headphones as what sounds like silence has (in fact) a synth line being played and modulated.

"Ades" refers to Thomas Ades, an amazing English composer. This track is made using samples from his work and others from Elliot Carter's works. I patched the whole thing together using an Akai MPC 1000 and my trusty soprano sax. I guess I should get in touch with Mr Ades to see if he's in agreement over my use of his work.

"Trains" (actually "Trains 2") is built from sounds which I used for another sketch mixing train track sounds. On this one I employ an Akai Remix 16 (see picture below) and an Akai MPC 1000. There's also some sounds from Integra Live that I've sampled and fed back into the Sampler.

Lastly here's "Koto". I've been using Koto samples in other pieces - using Pure Data - but this is a mixture of ideas, a bit inspired by a Four Tet recording I heard. I've mixed up samples from a recording of made in Bali and an amazing box set of Koto recordings that I love listening to. Add to that the MPC's ability to make drum patterns (made from different samples), and you get a very 'in your face' piece. It needs a lot of work on it, but I like the idea so much (just a one off take), that I kept it, warts and all. I'll have to refine it a later date.

So there's a few pieces (others can be found on my Soundcloud page). Of course its not swinging jazz, but that's not the idea. I hope that people find them stimulating and fun to listen to, although I'm sure that to some they're just noisy sounds with no direction. As for me I'm just frustrated that I probably won't be able to perform them anywhere, or not as a more long-term project. However, that's not the point, its about making music (and sounds) that I like.

Lastly I thought I'd post a picture (below) of my trusty Akai Remix 16. Many people use these like beat boxes, as they do MPCs also. But these old machines have much more potential for adding colour to performances live, check out the amazing Jan Bang for what can really be done with these. Unfortunately they only have - or mine does - 2GB of RAM memory. You can add more, but finding it is another problem as these things went out of production many years ago. In fact Akai sent me a nice email telling me that it was the old Akai that built these, not them! One of my buttons/pads is broken (#7) which leaves me with a slight handicap. So, if anyone comes across this article that has some spares PLEASE don't hesitate to contact me, I'd be most grateful.

*= All the major (and minor) rock and pop groups had synthesisers in them, experimental sounds were everywhere.

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