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Writing music through meditation

I’ve been meditating on and off for a few years now. Recently it’s become more of my regime.

Now, I don’t suppose I’m the first creator to have noticed this, but I’m starting to see that cool things happen when I take an idea and then meditate – not forcing the idea but just plopping the idea into my awareness, then meditating as usual and forgetting all about the music (at least, on a conscious level).

The first time I experienced something of this way of composing was with the song cycle of Philip Larkin Poetry I wrote many years ago. (I bet I also that the tower of stuff I wrote as a lonely teenager sitting at my paper-round purchased digital piano came from this subconscious realm – except of course as that teenager I was so self-conscious I daren’t have even shown the ideas to myself). In this case I took the Larkin poems I wanted to set and just sat down and stared at them for a while. But that was more of a focused attention and not a meditation, although the music did come surprisingly quickly and easily (putting all the dots down was the hassly bit). I remember my composition teacher at the time – Martyn Harry – saying to me “how did you go about writing it” and I said “actually, it was more like it wrote me.” Martyn thought that was very twee and pretentious of me – it probably was – but it was my best stab at describing the process.

Thereafter most composition came about through necessity – deadlines and promises. But one significant (for me) such occasion was a track called “Give”, which I wrote a year or so ago. The opening riff had come to me years ago, but I while meditating, the rest of the song sort of spewed forth unbidden – especially the lyrcis and sound of the track – which some might describe as abstract (actually their meaning is very specific). Again, the hard part was actually laying it down.

The latest of these meditation pieces came about the other day. I wanted to write a mass for men’s voices – as I know there is a bit of a lack of that stuff out there (contemporary, I mean). So apart from knowing I wanted to write one, I was just meditating as usual one day, and the the Sanctus turned up in my awareness, unbidden but written. It’s pretty simple so I laid down a rough version at home. Excuse the singing quality – I’ve a cold at the moment (i.e. no resonance and strained voices, which makes me sound even more Mr. Bean than normal) – but it gives an idea of things to come.

On the one hand this is quite exciting – for the rest of the mass I can simply engage my intention to set the other words, and what comes will come. On the other hand, I don’t want to get too excited about it, because I’ll just end up assuming meditation will bring the goods, therefore I’ll have the piece in my awareness when I meditate, which is not the trick.

This engagement with the subconscious mind interests me as it seems to pull ideas out of thin air. Of course, I don’t attribute this to anything supernatural (the piece is fairly derivative and it clearly did come from my head, via the influences of others). But the fact that I couldn’t sit down and consciously write it is very interesting.

I saw a fascinating Horizon documentary the other day about consciousness and the conscious mind, and how we can show that being conscious of something is well behind being subconsciously aware of it – especially something like decisions, such as deciding what note to chose. Skip to 51:50 or so to see Chappie McBlokey realise that his decisions actually happen up to 6 seconds before he actually believes he makes them. But what the hell, watch the whole thing, if you are interested in your own mind and self-image (who isn’t?)

In my uneducated opinion, by meditating after having thought about wanting to write music (but not thinking about it during meditation) I can somehow tap into my unconscious mind more readily and access the wealth of influences and information in it.

It’s like when you come up with an idea in the shower, except it’s more reliable and you don’t have to get wet.

Songs I like

This is an ongoing post where I archive new songs I like as and when they come along!

I think this band’s sound. Sort of the Bees with Spirit and a prog-rock kind of feel, combined with Dire Straits and some other stuff

My Top 5 Favourite Sounds

5. Waves

It’s the way that the waves go from so gentle and calm to thunderous and crashing. They represent everything in so many ways – the ebb and flow of life itself, maybe even the cycle of universes. Maybe because I used to be a fish, maybe because my mummy’s tummy is full of seawater. Whatever it is, it’s primal.

4. Beethoven String Quartet op. 132 Movement III

If it’s played at half the speed of the above performance and with the right space and understanding of Ludders, this movement (at least the beginning), is om, the sound of the universe. It’s music to die to.

3. Birdsong

Several composers have had a go at writing this down. Messiaen was a notable one. Nice try Olivier, but no chance. I love the complexity and simplicity of birdsong. I love how you never know what it will do but always know how it will sound.

2. Wind In Trees

“A tree doesn’t judge. It doesn’t criticize your clothes, or bring up poor viewing figures if you politely refuse to sign an autograph for its sister-in-law who’s recovering from an operation; a tree won’t pull a face.” ~ Alan Partridge

I like the sound of wind through trees. It’s like a leafy fugue. Chaos in order. Order in chaos.

1. Silence

Not the hit track by folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, which is not silent at all, but just good old fashion silence. Golden. It’s the sound of being, and lack of thought. The space that allows everything to be, the silence that allows sound. Having mild tinnitus I cannot experience true silence. That’s a shame. But I like my tinnitussy version just fine.

Breaking Bad – the immorality of moralising

Breaking bad has been excellent – few will deny this. But there are a billion reviews, I’m more interested in how it ended. I think it made an extraordinarily poignant point.

Throughout the whole season, Walter continually justified every action he took with the mantra “I did it for the family” and he kept playing this record over and over to try and convince himself with this affirmation; even in the face of huge suffering to his family. As if causing suffering to his family was somehow moral, as long as he was doing it “for the family”. He wanted that 80 million dollars, and would kill for it “for the family”, as if his family needs 80 million dollars. In the first season he calculated he would need to leave them around 400 000 dollars, but this kept going up – even after he was left 11 million by the men who robbed him of the other 70, he still had to get that 70 million back, no matter what, “for the family”. Moralising ultimately led him to immorality, and the inevitable consequence: limitless hypocrisy. With this “moral” rationalisation, he could kill “for the family”, he was greedy “for the family” and selfish “for the family”. With an external rationalisation for his actions, no action was off limits. It’s this kind of mentality that drives extremists to perform immoral acts “in the name of God” or “for king and country.” External, unchangeable moral systems which attempt to deny reality: the inherant transience of reality and fluid evolution of morality. Morality, like the gene pool is not fixed, and if you attempt to fix it, things start to get ugly.

The series quite rightly only ended when Walt gave up moralising to himself and finally admitted that all he did, he did for himself – not for his family. He – and only he – was responsible, and he did it because he liked it, it made him feel alive. In the end it took losing everything he had ostensibly been fighting for – his money, his freedom, his dignity, his family – to finally wake up, be honest, and finally just be. Ironically (or perhaps not, which is the point) only when he gave up moralising was he in any sense moral. This is shown when he has a gun pointing at Jack’s head, and Jack thinks he’ll stop him from pulling the trigger by offering him his money back.

But Jack doesn’t know that Walt has finally seen himself for what he is, and doesn’t care about the money, because he has seen the moral system he has been placing on himself and he sees the bullshit self-image of the “family man” for what it is, a smokescreen he invented to justify his actions in the face of his imagined moral system. He can do immoral things, and remain moral, as long as it’s done “for the family”. Only after he admits this to himself and his wife is he in any sense at peace, and you can see the same in Skyler’s eyes when he tells her. This is the singularly most powerful scene in the whole series.

This spoke to me particularly because it relates to recent realisations in my life. I have clung to moral systems and judged others for actions that I have taken myself. Moralising allows you to break the externally-imposed moral code you so dearly cling to – why? Because you believe that having a moral code makes you moral, even if you don’t follow it: “yes I did that [you say to yourself] but I know it’s wrong, because I have a moral code – see, I am moral!” This was the same for Walt – anything action goes “for the family”. Only honesty can break the cycle, only honesty can Break Bad – honesty with others, but first and foremost, honesty with ourselves.

Pop vs. Classical

6 Music Prom

Last night I went to the 6Music Prom at the Albert Hall. 6Music, famous for playing “out there” pop, and Radio 3, famous for playing “out there” classical. Radio 3’s Tom Service and 6Music’s Steve “Lammo” Lamacq cavorted around onstage, and with a 6Music audience in tow, things got lively (for a Prom). All credit has to go to Tom for dealing with a heckler in the very first link who yelled “get on with it” responding: “The point I’m getting to is that the thing that connects great music is not what genre it is, not what you’re wearing, or where you’re hearing it – it’s a spirit of adventure that goes straight to your guts, to your body, to your brains and to your soul!” Followed by huge uproar of approval from the crowd. I’m not sure any other Radio 3 presenter could – or would – have answered that heckle with such truth.  But Tom has been ingratiating himself with 6Music all last week, appearing on the ever open Lammo show with a daily classical music recommendation. Sadly they had to compress the shit out of everything to make it 6Music friendly, but nevertheless 6Music opened its doors to plenty of classical music on the air – and I don’t mean slathers of made-famous-by-advertising cliché, but proper, challenging, thought and feeling provoking music.

Back to the hall, and the Stranglers kicked –off with No More Heroes, with London Sinfonietta backing with orchestration by Anna Meredith. I’m not sure the Stranglers should be orchestrated. Mostly it was over-complicated, a bit of a mess, with not-quite-in-place quirky flute insanity, lots of drums being hit at different times, and overall the ensemble was about as tight as this simile.

I was sitting next to my brother, who seemed pleased at the stranglers in that way that raising the corners of one’s mouth seems to indicate.  Next:  Varese and a piece for 13 percussion instruments. Unlike the Stranglers, no regular beat, no strong groove, no riff, but a soundscape – a haunting, almost dystopian sonic forbodation.  I absolutely loved this, much better, I thought, than some aging rockers playing out of time with an orchestra. I turned to my brother who didn’t agree: “What was that? It didn’t do anything.”

And this brings me to the title of this post. (Just to quickly say of the rest of the Prom:  the arrangement of Golden Brown was a bit better [and more together] and the programme was eclectic and bought out the best of Radio 3 and 6Music: there was no “let them in gently with some Mozart”, but instead a concentration on the less common, challenging, edgy – if not cornery – avant-garde, Welsh medieval folk from Cerys Matthews, jazz-classical Martland and eastern-modality-peppered folk with Laura Marling.)

Now then (poor turn of phrase these days). My brother and I were bought up on more or less the same stuff – the pop/rock canon from the 60s to the 90s, but we are now in a position where I can appreciate Varese, whereas he can’t. Scores of books have been written about “pop – classical” and I had a good old stab at it during university. In the end I decided that they were unhelpful terms and I should just abandon them, but I’ve since come up with another idea. I was always concentrating on looking at the differences from compositional, instrumental and performance viewpoints. But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s to do with how we listen. (From this point on, most of what I write will, of course, be a generalisation and riddled with exceptions, and with that disclaimer in place, game on!)

I had lunch with a friend today and tried to go through analogies with listening to music. They were mostly unsuccessful. I love, for example, this track 

in the same way that I love throwing myself off a snow covered hill wearing some skis. It communicates physically, and awakens an uninhibited, playful, and somewhat destructive side – the adrenalin-fuelled AAAAHHHHHHHH! rush, the feeling of being immortal and inconsequential at the same time….

BUT! But, I also like stopping at the top of the mountain, looking at the view and doing… nothing. Existing without thought, in a meditation… doing nothing.  I think this is what my brother meant. This is the Varese in this case – the awareness of space, the gaps between the notes, the silences within the music. But in rock, pop, dance, whatever else, there is a different emphasis of movement and noise, and so you listen to it differently. One is not better than the other, they are just different. Some might think that witnessing the infinity and majesty of the sun skimming along snow-covered hill-top is superior to the short-lived thrill of bolting it down a ski slope. Others would say that of course hitting the slopes is better, because standing up at the top and looking at a view is “not doing anything”. In my opinion, they are equally as valid, but are just different. Hurtling down the ski slope is great – love it – but you couldn’t do it for an hour straight (for one you’d need a massive mountain), whereas you could get lost in the eternal moment of a beautiful landscape and not realise where the time has gone.

This may be appropriately analogous with the length of pop and classical pieces. You couldn’t hear an hour of one riff which doesn’t really evolve, but four minutes will do quite nicely. Now of course we’re stepping into prog rock  territory – long pieces of music which seem to have this soundscape quality and use of space, as with one of my favourites from Pink Floyd:

But remember, I’m having a go at looking through barriers here, not putting them up!

This thought of how we listen to music made me appreciate that if I can’t get my head (or heart) around a certain genre of music, I can accept that I just don’t get how to listen to it, and move on. Victoriana orchestral and choral music, Armenian folk, country and western… the list of genres I can’t hear is long. Long like a Wagner opera.  I used to think (but not say) that these are just bad musics. But I don’t think there is bad music, just different ways of listening. And it’s this shift of emphasis from performer and composer to listener that has struck me the most. For, if a Mahler symphony cycle is performed in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

What I would advise music lovers from either side (if such “sides” exist), is if you spend all the time at the top of the slope, breathing in the mountain air, have a go at pelting it down the slope for a few minutes and going AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! If, on the other hand, you keep getting back in the ski-lift yelling “again, again, again!”, the next time you get to the top: stop. Take a look around and witness beauty and space.  Then go and listen to a symphony or two.

Musical Synapses #1

I love when these musical serendipities come along. Two of my recent favourite discoveries, Gorecki String Quartet no. 1 (“Already it is Dusk”) totally reminded me of a bit of another newbie to me, Of Montreal, specifically Skeletal Lamping, the “difficult” follow-up album.

So compare these two extracts (skip to around 3:10 if it doesn’t do it by itself):

Obsessively driving rhythm, marching along, same chord over and over, not letting up, not giving up, a sort of madness combined with an unstoppable force. Now for Gorecki (around 12:28, if it doesn’t skip automatically!)

I love it when two musics from completely different worlds combine in my brain like this! To be fair this is a bit of a shite recording of Gorecki. A MUCH better one is happening from Radio 3 New Generation Artists the Apollon Musagete Quartet on 16th August 2013, on Radio 3! What a good employee.

Latitude Festival 2013 Review

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Latitude

It’s Thursday – coming up on the weekend: friend’s housewarming party on Friday, trying to sort out my flat ready for a move on Saturday, depping (singing for money) at Ealing Abbey on Sunday morning, followed by goodbye family BBQ to say adios to my brother and family about to return to their now native Sydney in the antipodes. Then a message from a producer friend: “would you like a couple of guest tickets to Latitude this weekend?” Cancel everything. Phone a friend (with car). Latitude here we come.

It’s sort of a woody, sheepy, rivery affair in the Land of A. Partridge, hipsters, hippies and the downright middle class wondering around, smoking joints and having too much camping equipment, families with bejeweled children, teachers on school holidays resurrecting their candy necklace-like festival beads and dusting off the bong, plus Lucy Jennings and I (not helping the middle class image here, LJ) with a tent each and me without sleeping back or mat. Hardcore.

As ever, festival protocol dictates that you’re fleeced at every opportunity, and the lack of a simple programme testified to this  – you had no choice but to buy a novelic brick for £10, which gave you all the information you didn’t need and only a tiny bit you did. Or you can be wily like us, and take pictures of the info board….

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We were only there for Friday night to Sunday morning, but with 3 days, over 20 stages and a billion acts, you can’t see everything. Which is a shame! By the time we arrived on Friday night Bloc Party were in full swing. I heard they were amazing live. They were good, for sure, but your front man doesn’t have a great deal of charisma. Playing to that many people (there were a lot) may well be a tricky thing to do and relate to on a human level. But for me, it was a bloc party CD played on massive speakers. The audience made it more than the act. Although the lazer show was pretty stunning:Image

After Bloc Party I got a call from the very producer who had got me the tickets to say come over to the Radio 3 stage – an intimate set made to look like a living room, complete with flocked wallpaper and sofas – fantastic atmos. After the predictable and uninspiring Bloc Party I was blown away by Melt Yourself Down. Proper energy, a COMPLETELY MENTAL front man and with one of my old colleagues on the New Generation Artists scheme, Shabaka Hutchings. Front man Kushal Gaya was great – a real performer, pulling people in from the crowd (much to the disgruntlement of the security staff!), climbing a pole and generally behaving like an animal. This was a proper band, and a proper performance. But would they have been good replacing Bloc Party on the main stage? No. You can relate to 150 people, but not 15000!

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Lucy and I were wondering around and stumbled upon the comedy troupe Pappy’s performing in the Literature tent. A common theme of the tents was that they didn’t do what they said they did do… necessarily. So you got comedy in the lit tent, music in the comedy tent, comedy in the poetry tent. No boundaries – this was confusing, but I liked it. And I also liked Pappy’s and was pleased to accidentally find them – especially the song about gloves.

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Saturday

Waking up in a tent without a sleeping bag or mat is never easy, but it’s a damn sight easier than going to sleep, although I was helped by my two friends Mr. Whiskey and Lady Earplugs CBE.

Gaz Coombes was on strangely early in the 6Music tent -12.40pm. I thought this an odd placing for such a big name, but it turned out that he was off again to another festival that evening. A great mix of new tunes and slightly less new, and he gave a Supergrass nod to the audience with an acoustic performance of Moving (still not sure why the other bandmates didn’t play too – maybe to do with copyright?). He is a great performer and an even better vocalist live than on record – a really bright tenor and very clean up high. There’s no shitting around with falsetto that a lot of band singers these days think they can get away with (Everything Everything, for example). Not with Gaz. Shockingly, the sound guy tried to fade him out during his last track to which Gaz said “what the fuck?” and “let us finish this last chorus”. They keep strict timings at Latitude. But indeed – “what the fuck?” –  what’s one minute? Big boos from the audience!

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Lucy wanted to go and see Jessie Ware on the main stage. This kind of bland 1990s R&B is totally lost on me, and it’s telling how boring the music is that she has to speak to the crowd between vocal lines “I love you latitude”, [ooo baby yeah] “come on make some noise!” [ooo yeah baby], “you guys are great” [some other bullshit]. Each to their own, but I’d rather eat a Pot Noodle in a Turkish prison than listen to this stuff.

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I’d heard a lot about Daughter, who were playing in the 6Music tent, and in the same way that Jessie W was quite generic R&B, I hate to say it, but “generindi” would be the word I would coin to describe Daughter. Live, they didn’t really have anything to them. Perhaps they’ve made it in the download world, but 20 minutes in I was bored and waves of the crowd seemed to agree as we departed…. See for yourself…

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After two performances that didn’t float my boat, I agreed to get stuck into The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and get right down the front with LJ. I hadn’t ever got into the YYYs before, but live they were brilliant – this is almost entirely down to frontlady Karen, who dresses ridiculous in contrast to the rest of the band (in all black), and she generally cavorts around the stage with wild vocals. Also there’s nothing like a good old mic smashing session at the end!

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I was ready for Kraftwerk, 3D-ready, in fact, as to enhance their show all the display was in 3D. Quite nice to stand there having Matrix numbers, words in Soviet-esque cold-war Russian writing and the odd commodore computer rushing towards my face. These guys are pretty old these days, so good job they stood inert behind desks while it all went down. Electrotastic. Half an hour in, though, Alt-J were about to play in the 6Music tent. A good chunk of the Kraftwerk audience had the same idea as me….

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The 6Music tent was rammed for Alt-J, so when I turned up I used the old ambulance tactics of tailgating a bunch of people pushing through the crowd to get a good spot. Unfortunately I flanked too much and ended up at the front side, where I could not see the band but was getting ripped to pieces by the massive speakers with the massive bass. I realised I would have shell shock if I stayed and had to withdraw. They’ve developed quite a following, and their meteoric rise provides hope for all. Alt-J ride that wave nicely between “just another indi band” and being experimental and original enough to avoid being entirely tarnished with this brush.

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It was a good set, and front man Joe Newman has a great deal of charisma and presence by not doing much. His expression doesn’t change, he doesn’t talk to the crowd (that’s left to keyboard player Gus) but still he manages to hold the audience, perhaps just by his weird vocal sound (like someone pretending to be a goblin). There was a nice dedication to Sean Keaveny, because of this video.

I wonder how long Alt-J will last… they will need to evolve, that’s for sure, because I think their sounds succeeds in capturing a moment, but this moment won’t last….

Leider, (as Kraftwerk would say), that was about it, because I had to get back to London for Sunday afternoon, so didn’t see anything on Sunday. I was sorry to have missed my old uni friends (and now successful comics) Naz Osmanoglu, Ed Gamble and Nish Kumar, also Shaun Keaveny, Everything Everything, Steve Mason (who I didn’t know was playing and thought it was a CD I was hearing in a distant field!!!!!) and the Foals, who are riding the wave like Alt-J for the moment.

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To see some Latitude highlights, 6Music will provide!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ex3v4f/videos/p01cv9tg#p01d2bv6