Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Jazz Education

A very quick post to point people to my Jazz Education survey (or questionnaire). I'm writing a paper on jazz education which has to be ready for the end of August. One thing that seemed important was to get a few results and information from other people about their learning experiences. I decided to make an online survey, which you'll see below. Obviously its not completely perfect and doesn't really leave much leeway when answering the questions. One musician - quite rightly - pointed out that yes or no was a bit to restrictive for some of the questions. However, unfortunately the way the survey is built it's difficult to do it any other way without making people really spend a lot of time on the questions. The idea that people leave their addresses tried to cover this 'hole' in the survey as I can contact individual people to ask them more detailed questions.

If you're a musician and have been working in improvised music please take a look at my survey as it will be very useful for having some sort of figures to present to the university - even if they are not stricktly controlled, it does give some sort of general idea of musicians experiences in teaching, or learning about improvisation via education (or not).

Please take a look at the survey here. If you have other musician friends around please don't hesitate to pass on the link (or survey) ..... I'd be most grateful!

I should add that the questions (see the comments section below) are very 'general' due in part to the format which makes them a bit restrictive. I could have made them much more 'write what you think' style, but I was worried that people may find that too time consuming. Unfortunately I was wrong, but it is a little late to change after so many people have answered the survey - very thoroughly. Please feel free to contact me directly - here - if you'd like to help me get some more in depth information. Thanks!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Solos Number 1: sax solo

A new project that I'm starting to work on is called "Solos". In reality its a slightly pointless project because I'm imagine that:  
-   a) I won't be able to sell it 
-   b) I won't be able to perform it live!
But what the hell, why not make music that you find interesting, and hope that someone else will as well. Naturally the non-performable aspect is a little bit of a problem, but maybe eventually I can work around that?

The project is going to be a series of simple improvised solos that are then transformed with acousmatic elements, some sound transformations using Spear and Pure Data, and of course cutting and editing on my Logic program. All this should come together to form an albums worth of material all based on solos. I haven't yet decided if it's always going to be my saxophone or clarinet that I'll be using. I had wondered if I could ask different performers to record a simple piece which I then work on - a piano piece, another saxophonist, a trumpet, a violin etc. All things to think about in the future.    

Here's the first idea which I've been working on. It has a working title, surprise, surprise of Solos Number 1: sax solo. I haven't decided if it's a finished piece yet, but one way of trying things out is by taking the work out of the garage and letting it sit for awhile. This way one gets a better look - or listen - at it from a distance. How does it stand the test of time? Who knows, and will it inspire me to continue onto something else (the next solo)? Will it ever be on an album, or maybe it will just sit around on my hard disc for the next few years!  

Solos: Number 1 by joehigham

:::::: Solos Number Two is already under-way!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

L'âne il fait "Hi Han", and Sound Language

Here's my first post since a good few months! I've been back at university for the past year working on a MA in musicology. Many people have asked what can you do with a MA in musicology, and the answer is .... not much really. Or to be more truthful it's more that there's no such job as 'musicologist'. One could work in a museum or teach music from a historical perspective, and of course there's various other 'musicological' posts out there in research areas, or educational functions within organisations. However, all is not based around what job you hope to get with your diploma, there are other interesting stuff which can be developed, or discovered, whilst learning and working at the university (UCL - Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium in my case).

One course in particular has been very enlightening called 'Langage Sonore' (language of sound OR sound language even). This course discusses 'what' sound can be, trying to define it in different cultures such as oral culture and written culture, how it differs and in what ways. It's also dealing with people like Murray Schafer, Pierre Levy, Ivan Fonagy, Jean Piaget and Charles Sanders Peirce whom have all influenced our understanding, in some way, in which we understand sound, speech and music. What is sound, what is music, archaeoacoustics, what is noise, the way our society reacts to sound and music, how children learn language, how they react to music, and many other ideas. I could (and maybe will) write a long blog article on this subject, but for the moment I'll just leave it at that.

Furthermore what made the course particularly interesting was the possibility to work with recordings. One of the projects was the development of a short recorded idea, seeing what could be done with it but in a defined way - using some small rules to produce a piece of sound/music. I decided to keep my piece particularly simple so as not to get bogged down in my soundscapes or various editing techniques. The piece I produced is called L'âne il fait "hi han" (the donkey goes HeHaw) and is made up of 5 people reading from a children's book called 'Le livre des bruits', everyone read the same ten pages at their own speed. Oddly enough everybody read - without knowing it - the material in the same amount of time (44 seconds), except my daughter who spent a few seconds extra on each animals noise. The piece is built in sections of 4 bars + 2 extra bars each time eventually leading to the 10 pages being read in one go. Listen to the piece and you'll understand better the process.

L'âne il fait "Hi Han!" by joehigham

A few things that were interesting - I thought - was that everybody, without knowing about it, took 44 seconds to read their pages, except my daughter who took 58 seconds. This meant that by simply placing the readings together it already produced a sort of rhythm of its own. The other nice effect (if you listen with headphones) is that you'll notice a sort of 'thud' in the rhythm of the reading, which is the people turning the pages.

All that remains is to re-work the piece by taking a more acousmatic approach and introducing many more rules and possibilities into the piece. In its present state it's quite a simplistic piece, but that's also maybe its charm also. I'll be trying this in the next few weeks and naturally will be posting it back here (via my Soundcloud page). 

Monday, 25 March 2013

Funny stuff!

I love these 'Nocturnal Comedy' videos. You should have a look at a few more on youtube. Here's an excellent one that concerns a medicine (that I personally don't know) for I guess helping you sleep? However they have plenty of funny videos on subject from ransoms to condoms. Enjoy .....

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Could I be more famous?

I was just reading the BBC article on Esperanza Spalding (posted 3rd June '12) with her take on making music, or as the article mentions 'Bringing Jazz to the Masses'. I should maybe also bring to your attention articles from Ronan Guilfoyle on his Mostly Music blog (article 1 - article 2) which talk about the effect of pop music on jazz and how some musicians benefit from the 'press' of popular music by playing a type of jazz music which is less 'pure', or one could say leans towards pop music. So, who is this guy >> on the photo, what's he got to do with jazz musicians playing more commercial music, and so why did I put him there?

Some of you reading this will already know the identity of the 'Viking' in the photo. However it's maybe enough to say .. "Once upon a time there was a man who believed in his music so much that he didn't care about anything but just living and making his music, and his name was Moondog". Of course he was (and is) just one of thousands of musicians who are prepared to die for their art form. But does that make their music any better for it? I guess not, because believing in your music (or art form) is what really matters, and one cannot say that musicians such as Esperanza Spalding don't believe in their music. I think Esperanza Spalding really does, and to add to it she's a great musician. What's more interesting (for me) is how 'selling out' seems to be a very American thing to do, and in particular a jazz musician's thing to do. So what makes these musicians - with great potential - feel the need to become successful in a more commercial area?

It's unclear what started this trend off, or even if there was a starting period. After all musicians such as Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet both liked the idea of 'playing to the audience'. Jelly Roll Morton also loved the idea of being popular and like all the others around him understood that for them jazz was about entertainment, and not necessarily about pushing boundaries forward. I imagine that none of these musicians ever thought about trying to substitute chords, change time signatures and play in odd meters superimposed over 13 bar forms. I guess that whilst jazz was fashionable young players didn't feel the need to look elsewhere for a public. However after 1960 jazz music, even though important, started to loose ground to popular music of the day, and by 1970 many more young people were listening to rock than jazz. This is probably where dissent started to creep in and those who were lucky enough to have mass appeal (and had selling power) such as Charles Lloyd or Dave Brubeck were lucky enough to play what they wanted and sell out large concert halls to a younger audience. Labels such as CTI (standing for Creed Taylor Inc) had artists play in more commercial setting and some of the results were great. Wes Montgomery, George Benson, or Freddy Hubbard produced fine crossover music without compromising their artistic values. The music also spoke to younger people, although due to it's sophisticated sound it didn't make inroads into the area of rock and roll youth culture. In fact one of the main complaints today (among jazz musicians) is that the average age of the public is often quite old. The age of the public, however appreciative, does have an effect on the musicians. The energy of a room full of 50 year olds (my age) and a room full of 25 year olds is different. 

So what is it that drives theses musicians to be commercial? I imagine that it's mostly from public attention, after all it is exciting to see a whole room (hall) of people jumping up and down to your music, even if you're not that convinced. Musicians enjoy public attention, something good for the ego, and a source of inspiration. The fact that you become commercial also doesn't mean you're not relevant, or innovative. Some groups that combined commercial and popular music, ex: Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds, were pioneering in terms of cross over music, and to a certain extend this jazz-soul approach certainly shaped much of our musical culture from the 70s. It's also left a very strong mark on the younger musicians of today such as Jamiroquai to name just one. Many writers and groups have been heavily influenced by the sound of 70s film music and 70s soul. Of course less commercial cross over jazz such as Herbie Hancock's 'Crossings' and the Mwandishi 6tet has also been highly influential even if due to logistical and financial concerns it isn't reproduced by modern day groups. The Soul music coming out of the states at the time was very political in direction, and the Free Jazz movement was also interested in making a statement about society, something which is less prevalent now. Music such as Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' and Curtis Mayfield combined biting social commentary into their lyrics along with very danceable rhythms and more importantly sophisticated harmony (chord progressions, melody and arrangements), something which today seems less relevant to mainstream performers.  

Following the same thread that politics and music making are linked, an interesting idea that comes from the times of Plato and his Timaeus is the idea that the world, when in harmony, produces music which is also in harmony. M. Murray Schafer illustrates this very well in his 'Tuning of the World' by quoting Herman Hesse, "Therefore the music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful, and so is its government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce, and it's government is perverted. The music of a decaying state is sentimental and sad, and it's government is imperilled." Or in real terms what this means he explains: "The Thesis is also borne out well in tribal societies where, under the strict control of the flourishing community, music is tightly structured, while in detribalized areas the individual sings appalling sentimental songs." I wonder if this rings any bells when talking about the development of popular music today via such channels as the 'X-Factor', '.....'s Got Talent', or 'The Voice'? You could even take a look at the average chart selection for any month/week of the year to then wonder if this statement reflects something about our society and the politics of these past years?

So finally we could ask is it possible to sell out? I guess in real terms the answer is no, I suppose the bottom line is; if you're happy doing what you're doing who can criticise you?

To read more about the politics of music and life in the community read Steve Isoardi's 'The Dark Tree', a brilliant biography of the life of Horace Tapscott, someone who decided to choose community over fame.

Monday, 4 March 2013

ILK releases + Mark Solborg.

I was surprised to realise that I've been a fan of the ILK music label longer than I'd realised! In fact I'd be tempted to say that along with Clean Feed it's probably one of the most interesting and forward looking improvised music labels out there. One look at the catalogue and most jazzheads that enjoy something a little different will be wondering which albums 'not' to buy! Artists such as Lotte Anker, Herb Robertson, Evan Parker or Kirsten Osgood can be found on the label in various formations. Although I haven't heard all the records (naturally) each one that comes my way is certainly worth more than a quick listen. In the past month I've received three excellent records, one from last year of 2012, and the other two from this year 2013. The records in question are Mark Solborg's '4+4+1' from 2012, Mark Solborg's 'The Trees' (2013) and a very gifted trumpet player Tomasz Dabrowski's 'Tom Trio' also from 2013.

I'll review Tomasz Dabrowski's record on the next post, but here I'll bring you up to date with two excellent releases from Mark Solborg, a guitarist who is obviously able to work in both areas of free improvised music and written arranged composition. He also clearly has a very melodic ear when it comes to writing a tune ... read on to find out more.  

Mark Solborg 4+4+1 (ILK music, 2012).

Here's the review of '4+4+1' which I posted on the Free Jazz review site:

Well this is one of those discs I wished I'd heard earlier, it would definitely have been on my top CDs of 2012. Anyhow, it seems this one,like a few others we're reviewing recently, slipped through the net and got left to one side. Furthermore ILK has steadily been releasing some excellent albums over the past few years, some of which have been reviewed here and often with very positive remarks. 

I remember reviewing another record of with Mark Solborg (see below) which also impressed me. His ability to cross between improvised and composed seems one of the major strengths in his style. This extended line up also moves very gracefully between completely improvised passages into beautifully written material. His writing uses a rich mixture of brass that includes a tuba and a bass, really giving the music real punch yet also bringing a very warm and rich sound to the ensemble. The group playing is very high quality, judging dynamics, solo space, tempos and open improvised sections down to a 't'. There isn't one wasted minute on the record.

Looking at the musicians below you'll notice Chris Speed, the +1 in the ensemble. His solos when they appear are spot on as always, but it's refreshing to hear that Solborg didn't over use him, giving over plenty of space to his other musicians as well. One voice that stands out is that of Gunnar Halle, a fine trumpeter from the same lineage as Arve Henriksen or Jon Hassell. Halle gets to shine on the delicate '2620' (tk2), sounding like a voice echoing in a valley that drifts around you in the early morning air. He also unites the ensemble on the excellent 'The Whispers' (tk4), where along with Anders Banke's fine bass clarinet playing the two horns rise above the group, gradually bringing them back together like a feather landing. Solborg takes a 'modest' position in the group, adding dynamics, chords, doubling melodies (etc) as needed. But of course he leaves his mark not only with his very subtle interjections but also with the immaculate compositions. 

The music is so full of details that I expect every listen will bring out new details. Furthermore they are all fairly lengthy pieces, which makes for perfect listening. Every one - five in all - has something unique, an ambience, or a theme which is developed throughout the composition by using free improvised sections, ostinatos, silence and hard hitting themes. A theme like 'Almost' (tk3) unfolds from a simple drum/tenor sax duet into ensemble passages which each time open up to more collective improvisations, yet unknowingly we are transported into a menacing theme which has somehow crept in without anyone noticing. All this simply shows how well this music has been crafted together, and was probably, from what we hear, a great concert also. However, luckily for us it's all on the record, so to say!

On this record, recorded live in 2007, the line-up is made up of two quartets: Anders Banke (tenor sax/bass clarinet), Solborg (gtr), Jeppe Skovbakke (bass), Bjørn Heebøll (drums) + Gunnar Halle (tmpt), Laura Toxværd (alto sax), Torben Snekkestad (tenor:soprano saxes/clarinet), Jakob Munck (tuba/trombone) + Chris Speed (tenor/clarinet) = 4+4+1. 

You can listen to a few extracts from the album here.

Mark Solborg 'The Trees' (ILK music, 2013).

A more recent release from Mark Solborg is his glorious 5tet, made up from Solborg on guitars, Mats Eilersten: double bass, Peter Bruun: drums, percussion, kalimba, Herb Robertson: trumpet, voice, pump organ, kalimba, Evan Parker: tenor & soprano saxes, kalimba & gong.  

This is one hell of a record, and - for me - yet another direction taken by Mark Solborg. Solborg seems to be able to take elements of music and mould his writing and the choice of players to get the best out of them. On previous recordings such as '4+4+1' and 'Hopscotch' the music has been more 'conceived', whereas this project obviously relies on team work. In fact what stands out on this recording is the empathy between the players and the natural group sound, everyone places themselves at the service of the music. One example that stands out is Peter Bruun's drums. He probably never really hits the drums in a way one would expect to hear from this instrument. He uses his kit in such a subtle way that you only realise that the drums are not 'in your face' quite late in the recording. He plays percussion as well on this recording which may account for the subtlety of the silent sound approach. It makes me think of some of the Supersilent and early Food records where Deathprod (Helge Sten) took out instruments giving the music space, which often has more impact. 

Describing the individual tracks on this record isn't really very helpful as in reality the album works best as one whole piece/listen. Once you've pressed the play button you'll find yourself in a dark world of sounds which keep you fixed to your sofa. I imagine you could pick out 'a' track to listen to, but the atmosphere of the combined tracks seems more natural for a listening experience. There are moments where the sax of Evan Parker or Herb Robertson's trumpet come right to the fore such as the opening track. The two horns play a mournful duet which suddenly stops to let Mark Solborg's guitar step forward playing a solo as if accompanying a silent partner. The music steps off from this point never looking back. I could name a few moments where each instrument takes it's place as the principal voice, but probably the fact that the others decided 'not' to play is of equal importance. I should add that there are several tracks where the horn players play kalimbas or other percussion instruments which adds some very nice textures to the music and of course adds even more space.

The majority of the music is restrained, not unlike the cover photo, and comes across a little like sunlight trying to break through a dense forest. Picking an extract from this record is extremely  difficult, after all where to break into the flow of things? Finally I just went for a short piece called 'Dogwood'. The group goes into full flight for just a few minutes before plunging back into the silent filled gaps of the record.

Dogwood (tk 3) from Mark Solborg's 'The Trees' (ILK music, 2013)

Both records are thoroughly recommended. I'll be following up more of ILK's catalogue in the future, certainly a very interesting label. Look out for the next review which will be Tomasz Dabrowski's 'Tom Trio' also from ILK music (2013).

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Music as science?

It's a long time since I've had time to sit down and write an article on my own blog. However, in the past months I've been busy working on various papers for my university, several of them have been based around music and science, something that a modern day music fan, or musician, may not make the link to at first thought. What might surprise many people is that music was considered science until the 17th Century. Only in recent times have we decided that music is an art, and not a science. And why the move away from science towards an 'ego' based vision of music? Probably in part due to Descartes stating that 'The basis of music is sound'!

More importantly I wonder what would have happened if we had stayed with our concept of science and music? I try to imagine how our world would look at music as something of value, not just as an art, but as an investment to our society. We are reassured to know that somewhere in a laboratory whole teams of scientists are researching cancer, cardiac problems, HIV, depression and a whole lot more. Most of these are based around our egocentric vision of the world. How long will I live? How long will our earth be around? How much money can I make out of ...? But what would people think if we invested more in musical research? 

In terms of investment the entertainment industry is really only interested in one thing, profit, which is fair enough considering our business model in modern society. What may be interesting is to ask how this has also influenced our musical tastes. Music is no longer of any intrinsic value to many people. Try to imagine a 'Britain's Got Talent' style program where the audience watches a panel of properly qualified judges examining new developments in composition, sound research, and instrumental development! What was originally seen as the job of a clown is now that of mainstream television shows such as the x-factor. It's difficult to know if people enjoy these programs because it's (apparently) funny to watch sincere people, no matter how bad they are, being insulted by a panel of non qualified judges, or whether the general public really do enjoy seeing copycat performers who are often a pale imitation, or pastiche, of some already known singer. 

So, should our society be prepared to invest in music as something other than 'clown' entertainment? If so how could we change the attitude of society to understand music as something worth investing in? As I mentioned at the beginning of the post we did once take music very seriously. Boethius 480AD to 525AD, taught what he called the Quadrivium. The four subjects that made up the Quadrivium were: music, astronomy, mathematics and geometry. These were considered the subjects to study, and naturally all intellectuals studied these. Even up until the 1500's and beyond these ideas were taken very seriously. For another example see the picture at the top of the page taken from Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica (1512). Reisch was one of the several people that wrote about music as a science. At this period the general thinking, influenced by the 'mythical' discoveries of Pythagoras relating to intervals and pitch, was that anything that moved produced a sound, which is perfectly true. Sound was what our world was made of and was a way of understanding how the planets, the earth and the solar system were linked via sound. Our world vibrated in harmony! Connections were made linking the distance between the earth, the moon and the sun, and the distance between our feet, heart and brain. Of course we've come a long way since then, but probably what might surprise many people is that another important discovery was made via music. In part due to astrologists and scientists people like Robert Fludd (see the diagram below) along with Johannes Kepler studied distances between the planets in terms of musical intervals. Due to this 'musical' scientific research Kepler cracked the big nut, understanding the idea of planetary ellipses.  

At the moment the only real money being invested into music is sadly, although understandably, for commercial gains. Even though society has, often without being aware, benefited from research in universities, it seems that most people still think that the only important music is the commercial music field. I wonder how many people are aware that universities have developed keyboards such as the Yamaha DX7, software like Max-MSP and games such as Guitar Hero, to name a few. Without these inventions we wouldn't have had even half of the pop music that we've taken for granted since 30 years. As mentioned already TV spends it's time trying to persuade us to participate in modern day gladiatorial style media shows, where we witness people who have no sense of self value. I suspect because of this much of our capacity to evaluate real culture is fast disappearing. Modern avant garde music is of minority interest and considered marginal, when in fact it's this music that develops the sounds that we take for granted tomorrow. Governments still refuse to invest properly in music (not pop music, variety and television), and that also includes helping struggling artists who can't make ends meet without taking day jobs to pay the telephone bill.

Unfortunately it is not possible to go further into all these theories in this blog post. However, considering these ideas shaped our culture, both east and west, up until the seventeenth century. So how come we've strayed so far from the notion of music as something central to understanding ourselves, our universe and lives? Will we ever see a resurgence of music as science? We take it for granted that one has to pay for health care, after all we couldn't live without it. But could we live without the arts?

We probably spend most of our waking hours listening to music via the radio, on computers, watching films on YouTube, looking at images in newspapers and magazines. All these are part of the arts and one has to wonder what type of world our society would be with none of these. Seems like a bleak prospect to me!

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