Someone said on the radio recently that she found happy music depressing and sad music uplifting. “Me too! Me too!”, I yelled at the radio.
I’ll go further: when I hear some happy-clappy songs on the car radio I want to open the car door and vomit – or at least wind the window down and scream. On the other hand: the last pages of the last movement of Mahler’s last symphony leaves me confident that the Earth’s axis of rotation is still set at the correct angle.
Well, that’s the reaction that I get when I have to explain why I haven’t listened to any of the playing of this or that acoustic guitar player. Their names are more often than not very familiar to me having come across them umpteen times on internet forums and other websites – but as to being familiar with their music? No, I’m afraid not. And the I feel uncomfortable and embarrassed about being thought self-centred and unsympathetic. So why not? I can explain it in few words.
Way back there was a couple of years when I was determinedly learning fingerstyle guitar when all my spare time was taken up listening to records by the then prevailing gods of fingerstyle acoustic guitar – both living and long gone; English and American; black and white. I even ruined some LP records and record player styli learning some of the tunes, note for note, bar by bar. I bought compilation records of acoustic fingerstyle guitar players and knew all their names and went to many of their gigs. I bought a whole series of guitar tutors, one by one, from some of my favourite players.
Then came a time – without my noticing it – when I stopped all of that. It was round about the time I started thinking and playing around with jazz, with more focus on the music than the players who made it. And it didn’t have to be guitar – I realised that jazz could be figured out without reference to a particular instrument. It’s principles of harmony and melody were universal.
A little later a latent empathy with classical music which was caused by my exposure to it when I was a kid was kicked off for real with my “discovery” of Mahler and rediscovery of Sibelius who I heard a lot of from my father’s record collection. So, off I went, on a program of buying CDs of all the classical music that I heard and liked – and quite a lot more out of curiosity. Tellingly, none of this involved classical guitar (which to this day I have a real distaste for).
So; is there much I could learn today by listening to other acoustic guitar players? You bet! But I would rather go exploring in other places. In the end I don’t think I’ll find my own voice in the playing of others.
What do you think? Am I wrong to pass today’s “wizards of the acoustic guitar” by?
I’m talking about the currency of your original musical output. Some of us, I’m sure, are now writing and playing stuff more or less indistinguishable style-wise from the days when we first strutted our stuff. Others will, I’m equally sure, have adjusted their style – either sub-consciously or deliberately – to the “market” as it has evolved through the years.
Do you think it matters? Do you think about it? Or do you just do what you do?
Anyway, it’s a mystery to me how someone who plays solo fingerstyle acoustic guitar (like us) could ever be on the bleeding edge of modernity. Ha! Prove me wrong?
Not everything about the act of songwriting is all cuddly and cosy. There are times when the topic of a song is such that the act of considering it deeply enough to write several verses about it makes me feel distinctly out of sorts. This feeling is usually reinforced by whatever tune accompanies it which, if I’m doing it right, increases the unease. That’s not to say that the lyrics need be so overtly direct about a subject – on the contrary: a lot of the work is concerned with couching the lyrics in such a way that most is unsaid and merely inferred or implied. But that again means that what is unwritten still has be fully formed and chewed over in the head before writing it down in a more “artistic” way. The net result is that I can feel quite drained as if I have experienced the events described in the songs again (if they recount personal experiences, present or past) or by proxy (if they do not).
When I was younger I used to enter the fray with bravado being concerned only with the end product – the song – and how an audience might take to it. But in recent years, I’ve noticed, I’ll hover around certain proto-songs, putting off that act of actually sitting down to compose the final music and lyrics until I feel my frame of mind – or mood – is robust enough for it not to be a too enervating an experience.
So when it’s done and dusted, what’s it like to perform or record? Well, it’s OK because by the time it’s all written up and practiced and revised, I will have become inured and distanced from it and can treat it like a piece of “art”. I can try to conjure up a performance hoping to stir up some empathetic response from the audience while leaving me pretty well unscathed…
Last week this day was my 60th (sixtieth) birthday. I am now sixty-and-one-fifty-secondth-years-old. The eve of my birthday was spent on vacation in Sicily with my family sitting in a humble trattoria near the sea in Palermo. After which, and by way of walking off much pasta and pizza, we went a-strolling along the shore. A shore festooned with rocks as big as boxes and perversely angled. Dancing on a pin of glee having entered my seventh decade and having my dearest with me for security I set foot upon the rocks…
The rest of the night was spent trying to find out how badly my ribs had been damaged. Desultory ambulances shipped me rockily between the various Palermo medical buildings containing emergency reception facilities, an x-ray machine and an orthopedic specialist. All of this managed by my wife and son because I was incapable of very much at all. Dismay eventually seeped through physical shock. Recognition of the importance of a sense of humour under all circumstances was counterbalanced by the knowledge that laughter would have me doubled up in agony in this circumstance. Peering under the dull lights of waiting rooms with elbow on knee and chin in palm of hand waiting for x-ray results as dawn approached. Turns out nothing broken – take these for seven days once after food. And rest. The rest? I got a fine Chromebook computer for my birthday next day upon which I write now. And a Turkish smoking pipe for which I will need guidance. It’s beautiful.
I was aware I had dodged a bullet. My fall on the rocks was utterly uncontrolled. I could have kissed a rock with my head. I was lucky.
Hard rocks are in Palermo. Like all good rock it’ll keep you up through the night.
I was classically trained on guitar for a very short spell when I was very young – the only (but priceless) two benefits I got out of the experience was the ability to read music and to play fingerstyle. The biggest downside was I developed a loathing for classical guitar music which has lasted to this day.
That said, I have a love for other forms of classical music even to the extent that for pleasure I rarely listen to anything else (except jazz). What this has provoked in me is a deep curiosity about musical forms and the (ab)use of tonality, particularly by late/post romantic composers such as Mahler and Bartok. Such has been my immersion in this – coupled with studies of scores and academic texts – that I often become restless and bored by the verse/chorus/bridge structure of popular songs. This is all an accident caused by my listening habits and I’m not sure it’s all a good thing, particularly when my playing – and writing – pedigree is rooted in folk music!
So do folks here who have a background in musical theory find it a help or a hindrance when setting down to write a “popular” song?
In my 60th year I always keep a look out for wee niggles and aches that might be something could impinge on guitar playing. Well a couple of months ago I didn’t need to keep a look out. It slapped me right in the face – or in the neck to be precise.
I “pulled something” as I was drying my hair with towel. I didn’t think too much about it although I was pretty uncomfortable. Six weeks later I was thinking a lot about it and I was still.. er, uncomfortable. Long story short, it turns out I’ve done something to a nerve in my neck. Best advice I got from the medical boys is “patience” and “keep taking these three times a day”. I was not sleeping and I was not full of cheer.
So, no guitar. No singin’. No posts here (sitting at a computer: no could do for longer than 30 seconds). No nuffink.
But I’m back. Not 100% – I’ve got a numb thumb on my left hand which is irritating (if that’s not a contradiction).
Still, here we are. And what do you know? I can still remember mostly how to play my songs after nearly two months not picking up a guitar. Yippee!
I understand the reasoning to be that art songs are composed as intentional artistic works with formal consideration of form, structure, melody, harmony and accompaniment – whereas folk songs arise out of an initial spontaneity of expression which gain currency and reinforcement within a community due to the relevance of the subject matter and appeal of the tune.
So if folk songs arise from spontaneity, why do British folk music clubs, and the folk singers who populate them, take so much care in their formal presentation to the extent that adherence to the purity of some imagined paradigm is all, and that, by inference, insist that the rejection of re-interpretation as a corruption is mandatory? It strikes me as an ossification of something that was once lively. This desire to retreat into a frigid imitation of the past and opine that where, for example, the hearty singing about the poverty of a redundant cotton worker or a drowning sailor is noble and pure; well, surely that’s just sentimental and lazy. Particularly if you dress for the part.
So where are the folk songs of tomorrow to be found today? In hip-hop, I imagine. Where are the “art songs” of today? Beats me.
As a first part of what I hope will be a series of “hats-off” to friends who happen to be fine musicians, songwriters and entertainers whom I’ve met in the past couple of years since I’ve moved to Edinburgh, I think you will be entertained by the gifted Calum Carlyle. Calum is a fine player, talented songwriter and means what he sings. He often plays around town so a quick search in your favourite browser should unearth his next few gigs.
I’m proud to announce the release today of my new CD, Good Grief!
The CD and downloads can be purchased worldwide from CD Baby using the link at the side.
Fast slow fast slow. As far as ordering songs on my records, I can’t get over the habit. I thought I’d try and avoid it this time around. But here I go again… Why “Good Grief!”? Well, I claim that there’s at least a measure or two of exasperation in each of the songs herein. Can you hear it? Catharsis! The tunes. The damn’ tunes! I’ve lived with them and rinsed them repeatedly. Some are hot-off-the guitar and some are as old as my hills. Blues influences and modal forms elbow each other. That can cause accidents and evidence of this provided. The lyrics. A blurting out at a tempo to fit a melodic and harmonic arch. Some verses are cock-a-hoop and others are downcast and trodden but this is of the essence and per the recipe. I hope they are self-explanatory and are not in need of laying out in tiny type in this booklet. Where they puzzle, be assured that I share your bewilderment. Fast slow fast slow fast. Slow. Finally and at the end there’s a slow slow. What the heck. I hope you enjoy listening to all of these as much I enjoyed whipping them into shape.
Dave Keir Balerno May 2012
My thanks to:
John Need who took the photographs Matt Azevedo who mastered the CD Neil Warden who designed the package