Lent 2

So Easter (and therefore Lent!) is well and truly over.  Those of us who have anything to do with education are back to work with a vengeance!  I had meant to post this much sooner, but you know how it goes – life is what happens while you were making other plans!

So did you give up anything for Lent?  I didn’t – but, as I indicated in the last blog, I took something up and set myself a challenge.  For each the 40 days of Lent (you get Sundays off, apparently) I set myself the goal of coming up with something new musically.  This proved to be a very valuable and rewarding experience.

As a composer, I’m forever doodling away at the keyboard, fiddling with software and trying to come up with new sounds and ideas.  However, most of those embryonic sketches never see the light of day – for a variety of reasons.  Like many creative people, I am my own worst critic and impose a great deal of self-censorship upon myself.  By nature, I’m a tortoise rather than a hare!  I tend to work slowly and carefully, only putting material out into the big wide world once it’s been written, re-written, rehearsed, recorded, re-recorded and edited.  I also have to hold my hands up and admit that I ignore one of the most important pieces of advice I give to students:  “Don’t throw anything away!”  I’d rather keep doodling (telling myself that if an idea is any good I’ll remember it) than hit record and commit to keeping a version, however rough.

So the 40 days of my Lent challenge made me determined to come up with a chunk of musical/audio material every day.  I took the opportunity to push myself in all kinds of different directions too.  I made myself use (and learn) unfamiliar pieces of software, program new sounds, explore difference ways of working.

The results can all be heard in this Soundcloud playlist.


I’ve just listened back to the whole collection and I’m really pleased I did this.  The casual listener might hear these little chunks of audio and think, “So what?” but to me they represent lessons learnt and challenges overcome.  Will anything there set the musical world on fire? Er, no – probably not!  There’s stuff there which is immediately forgettable and times when, even with self-imposed hurdles, I’ve managed to lapse into cliché.  But amongst the collection are moments of promise.  There are some interesting sounds I’d like to explore in greater depth, some programming techniques which I need to weave into my workflow and some musical ideas which inspire me to dig deeper.

However, the greater legacy of this little Lenten experiment is to be found in the way I approach creative work.  Truth is, I now feel a bit incomplete unless I’ve made myself knuckle down – even for 5 or 10 minutes at the end of a full day  – and create something and commit to it.

Though it can be thought of as elusive, mysterious and magical, creativity is not about sitting around waiting for inspiration but is more likely to be found by simply turning up for work resolved to create.


Lent 1

So what are you doing for Lent?  Giving something up or giving something to a cause close to your heart? I had never really bothered with the whole giving-stuff-up-for-Lent thing.  Then, a few years ago, our children (being much younger and wiser!) announced they would give up chocolate for Lent.  “Ha!” I thought, “We’ll see how long that lasts!”.  To motivate them, and generally join in the fun, I offered to give up alcohol for as long as they abstained from chocolate.  I secretly reckoned that their resolve would last a few days before they would cave in and I’d be able to have a beer at the weekend.  No such luck!  Bless them – they did it and went without chocolate right until Easter. I found the whole process surprisingly valuable and thought provoking.  I’m by no means a heavy drinker – a glass of red with a nice pasta dish and a beer (or maybe two) on a Friday night.  But the moment you resolve not to do something it’s funny how large it looms in your mind.  There were so many situations in which I found I not only looked forward to but eagerly expected an alcoholic drink.  It seemed decidedly odd to be drinking orange and lemonade (instead of a foaming pint of Cumbrian ale) at a pub whilst on holiday in The Lakes.  Tomato juice felt like a very poor substitute for G&T or a glass of bubbly at social occasions! It certainly made me think – more than I thought it would – about habits, my relationship to alcohol, control and the nature of self discipline.  Like I said – a valuable exercise. Subsequent years saw me give up chocolate or coffee for the season.  Coffee proved exceptionally difficult.  Again, as with alcohol, I don’t drink a huge amount but I really (and I mean REALLY) enjoy a good coffee.  I became noticeably ill-at-ease and fidgety about 11 o’clock each morning! Over the last few years I’ve noticed a greater emphasis on DOING things for Lent – not just denying ourselves the odd luxury.  Volunteering. Charitable giving, Random acts of kindness.  There are all sorts of resources out there. So, this year, I’ve set myself my own creative Lent challenge.  More of which later… What are you doing for Lent?

Musical Memories (Part 1)

When I was very young, my parents had an old record player.  For me, this was a magical machine – a gateway to another world and a device which ignited a lifelong love of recorded music.  We probably had a few LPs but I only remember four of them.  Each has had a lasting impact on me and my music.

The Sound of Music:

Yes, I’m afraid I have to admit I’m a fan.  I think I’ve been in love with Julie Andrews since about the age of two!  My parents’ copy of the soundtrack included a story booklet illustrated with photographs of stills from the film.  I would sit and listen to the music whilst reading the narrative.  Consequently, I think I knew the plot back to front long before I even saw the film.  I can understand those who find it all just a bit too saccharine but, for me, the music remains a masterclass in melody.  As a boy, my favourite song was “Sixteen, Going On Seventeen” (so grown up!) but these days I’m drawn to the oft-overlooked, “Something Good.”  I still think the film has one of the best opening sequences in cinematic history.

The Old Fashioned Revival Hour:

The LP cover had an illustration depicting a family riding to church in a horse and cart so this wasn’t exactly cutting edge, contemporary hymnology!  Even so, I loved the catchy tunes, sung with such genuine conviction and gusto by a large choir accompanied by fistfuls of octaves on piano and Hammond organ.

The Planets:

“Diddly dum dum da-da dum, diddly dum dum da-da dum…”  I used to listen to “Mars The Bringer of War” over and over again.  What a piece of music!  Even at a very early age I remember working out that there was something disturbingly asymmetrical about the rhythms – it’s in 5, so you can’t march, waltz or dance to it.  I heard again on Classic FM in the car today and the insistent, driving rhythms, epic brass section and compelling dissonances still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  As a media composer and film music fan, it all starts with Holst.  What a debt is owed to that orchestral masterpiece by almost every epic/action/sci-fi film.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto:

As a very young child, I suffered from quite severe asthma.  My mother would put this LP on the turntable as a way of calming and soothing me when an attack made breathing a panic-stricken struggle.  Such an exquisite piece.

However, the association became too much and, to this day, I associate any solo violin with a shortness of breath!

Dance v Sculpture

Ask musicians why they got into music in the first place and many will tell about an early experience of live music.  They might point to a particular performance or concert.  They’ll tell you about that captivating string quartet that came into school or about that time their Dad took them to see a singer in a local church hall.

For others, it was not the mesmerising magic of the live experience that captured their imagination but the wonderful world of recorded sound.  These musicians will tell you about “that” song they heard played over and over over again on the radio or how they saved their pocket money to go and buy the latest single.  (Apologies, by the way, to younger readers, growing up in a post-iTunes universe for whom none of this makes any kind of sense!)

For me,  the difference between live music and recorded music feels like the difference between dance and sculpture.  Both extraordinarily beautiful.  Both demonstrating talent, commitment and persistence in the execution.  The live performer walks a tightrope – there’s an element of danger.  There’s also (when it goes well) the virtuous circle of audience feedback – an energy in the room which cannot be faked, bottled or summoned upon demand.

Recorded audio is a very different animal.  It’s often painstakingly and carefully constructed.  Even a “live” recording is no longer truly live.  It may have been a recording of a live event but upon second listening it remains unchanging, resolutely fixed in stone, frozen in time.

That brings its own challenges.  If I play a duff note in a live performance it vanishes into the ether.  There’s always tomorrow night.  Besides, the audience might not have noticed…  But make a mistake in a recording and it’s fixed.  It’s out there subject to scrutiny in perpetuity.  It will haunt you forever.  Now, of course, by “mistake” I don’t simply mean a wrong note.  The technology of recording has long given us the capacity to redo the offending passage, edit a composite “perfect” performance from multiple takes.  Pitch and timing have become totally malleable and plastic in the hands of the sculptor.  The “mistakes” now are those errors in judgement which obscure the meaning and detract from the music.  Too many options!  When anything is possible nothing is ever finished.  You end up obsessing over micro-details.  “Does that bass guitar slightly anticipate the drum in a good way or a sloppy way?”  “Should I tweak the tuning of that slightly flat syllable or will to do so destroy the humanity of the performance?”  “Does that guitar come in ever so slightly too loud in the chorus?”  These things matter when you’re producing for posterity.

I guess it’s these challenges that spark something in me.  That could be because most of my early, formative musical experiences were all gained through recordings.  Recordings that I came to know intimately and love dearly.  Over the next couple of blog posts I’m going to be remembering some of those recordings and discussing their importance.  You may be surprised…