Thursday, December 24, 2015

More on Music

Something I realised recently: music can be incredibly complex, but basically it is either loud or quiet, high or low, fast or slow, and degrees in between. Listening to and playing music for more than 30 years has led me, perhaps unconsciously, to that awareness. And it's as true for so-called classical music, with its elaborate structures and harmonies, as it is for the harmonically much more simple forms of popular music. Hardly an earth-shattering epiphany, but it probably explains why certain kinds of music that I used to find harder to listen to, like Benjamin Britten, now give me a lot of pleasure.

Another reason why I now love the music of some composers that I once found incomprehensible: the voice. Looking back, I realise that I always loved opera long before I became absorbed by instrumental music. Even when I listened mainly to people like Prince, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, or Robert Johnson, what I responded to most was not the tunes or the instrumentals so much as the expressiveness of their voices. And with operatic voices, the more operas one listens to, the more one trusts the beauty of the voices to accustom one to unusual harmonic patterns. Hence, Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss are rhapsodically gorgeous to my ear, when thirty years ago I probably wouldn't even have recognised it as anything more than sound.

Proof that this is all a question of taste/exposure: a few years ago, when I was teaching in Prague, a colleague (who was more of a jazz man) told us that the previous evening he had attended a performance of Puccini's "Tosca" at the National Opera. When I asked if he liked it, he said he did, even though (quote) "there weren't many tunes in it." Just think about that: No Tunes. In Tosca. By PUCCINI. I'm not saying that he was an idiot. I'm saying that I take this as a lesson for myself, because there are operas by Alban Berg, Bartok, even Wagner, that I may come to like one day, just by putting aside the impulse to seek out the regular melodic patterns that the ear most naturally responds to, and instead follow what the music is doing, in relation to the story.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Musical Moments

My musical life:

I come from an amateur musical family. Both my father and grandfather were skilled self-taught musicians. My father and his brother played Everly Brothers-style guitar and harmony in the working men's clubs of Liverpool in the 1950s.

My mother didn't play an instrument, but she has a good voice, and has a unique condition that has been called Broadway Tourette's Syndrome. Meaning that all through my childhood, she would break out into show tunes at any hour of the day.

Because of this, I had a sweet soprano singing voice before my voice broke, and I sang at my local Catholic Church, one time in front of the whole congregation at Christmas, my rendition of Silent Night causing paroxysms of tears among the pious, I've been told.

The apartment where we lived in my teens had a rickety, out of tune piano, that I mainly taught myself to play. I had some lessons, and I can read music to a rudimentary degree, but mainly I played pop tunes by ear, though I also learned to play more complex pieces by going through the scores bar by bar and memorising them.

At age 18, I started to play the guitar. Similar story to the piano: had a few lessons in classical technique, but ended up teaching myself, playing by ear, consulting chord books. It turned out I had a facility for the guitar, possibly inherited, and within a few years I could play up and down the whole neck of the guitar, and do some of that fancy finger picking stuff in bluegrass and country styles of music.

When I worked in Paris for 6 months in 1985/1986, I used to relax after a day at the ad agency by playing piano in the bar of the hotel where I was domiciled. One time I was noodling around, the hotel manager came over and placed a complimentary beer in front of me. Another time, an old lady hobbled over to me and told me to shut the fuck up.

The ad agency held its Christmas party at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a legendary cabaret-bar founded in the 1920s (opening night guests included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and composer Darius Milhaud.) There was a piano in the restaurant area where we had our big, boozy afternoon lunch party, and a group of us ended the afternoon at the piano, with me tinkling out Christmas songs for the others to sing.

One time when I was playing the piano at a Turkish restaurant near the Place de la Bastille, the owner offered me a job. Wish I'd taken it.

I owned a Roland Electronic Keyboard in the 1980s. I can't remember what happened to it, for some reason.

I also bought an Ovation semi-acoustic steel-string guitar in 1987, a beautiful instrument that I still have.

When Patty and I owned a weekend/vacation house in Mount Carroll, Illinois, from 2002 to 2012, I bought a piano from a local man , and played it fairly often during our visits. By this time, I was much more interested in playing classical music, so I concentrated on Mozart, Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven.

I've never been that good at playing the piano, but I'm not bad at playing the guitar. I was in a three-piece band when I was at college, and I played at open mic time at folk clubs in England for a short while. But I've only played guitar and sung in private or at parties for most of the time since then.

I have listened almost exclusively to so-called classical music, and opera and liede, for almost 20 years now. I love to play music, but am trapped in an irony: the music I really love to listen to is not the same as the music I can actually play on the guitar. I could regret the fact that I never learned the piano more formally, though I also know the time that would have taken, and would still take if I were to try and elevate my piano playing skills. So I'm content with just picking up the guitar every now and then, or practicing a new song in advance of a party.

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