the music of the moment – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”

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