Studio Diary – September 17, 2016

Aka   Eventide Heaven for ambient guitarists…

September 2016: mad flurrying to Aylesbury on the train for the Return Of The Crimson King (please see my previous three blogs – 3/9, 4/9, 5/9) …a day at the truly remarkable Bletchley Park, taking in an evening play at the Old Globe, and the guilty pleasure of a Warner Brothers tour of the Harry Potter sound stages…then, chaotic problems with trains over-packed with frustrated commuters, only, we were just trying to get home to Scotland from Aylesbury…

Then – finally, back home again, later than anticipated but intact – and trying to assess what already recorded music needed to be dealt with – and the answer, as always, was “quite a lot”.

A spur of the moment decision to attend the live Eight Days A Week screening at the Vue Theatre, a very enjoyable three hour plus evening of Beatles music – absolutely fab. The boys were playing their hearts out, George played some excellent solos, and I really enjoyed seeing “The Touring Years” – and as Giles Martin did the music, this meant that murky bits of Beatle history such as the now ancient-looking “Beatles At Shea Stadium” suddenly now rock hard, you can HEAR the music now and what Giles did here, and throughout the project, is nothing short of amazing. I am sure George M. is smiling, grinning actually, somewhere…

Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly working on a number of new pieces, or new pieces a number of I’ve worked quietly on meanwhile, I am not quite sure which.

Most of the past year and a half, has been filled with the large amount of work required to complete just three lengthy pieces of (progressive rock) work: “the complete unknown”, “planet obelisk” and more recently, “day seventeen”. 

These creations required a lot of painstaking work, and since they are all built from scratch as I went…it takes time. I think the first one took the longest, “the complete unknown” but by the time I got to “day seventeen” something had affected me, and it took me far, far too long to create this most difficult of pieces.  I struggled, which is unusual, normally, I just move along apace, it takes time, but I keep going.  But this time, I had to re-play guitar parts multiple times, some of the parts just wouldn’t reconcile…it took weeks, maybe months, longer than it should have, and I was so, so pleased when it was finally done!  A huge sigh of relief.

In the end, though, I managed to complete all three, and have since decided that I will be taking a break from progressive rock and very long songs, and will be revisiting my first love: the electric guitar.

To that end, I recently created one of a very few new “eternal albums” planned for this year: “electric guitars – an eternal album”. Which then meant that I could begin to work on shorter, live pieces and use some of the great new guitar tones I have available as well.  

Thus began a couple of different work streams, one looking back and the other, looking forward. It also meant that the relatively “new” eternal album has suddenly grown to about 50 tracks – or rather, it will once I upload the outputs of the past one week of work on mixing and mastering.

Beginning with the “looking back”; sometimes, in the middle of a project say, when I might be feeling frustrated by a lack of progress or frustrated by simply not knowing what sounds to make next in a piece in progress, I will “take a break” and just play some guitar for fun.  

June 15, 2016 was one such day, smack dab in the middle of the sessions for “planet obelisk”, one afternoon or evening, I sat down, plugged my guitar in, and played for some 60 minutes plus, doing an extraordinary, non-stop 26 takes in a row, using various sounds from the (then brand new) Eventide “SpaceTime” algorithm..

If you haven’t yet heard what SpaceTime can do – you should! It’s a remarkable amalgam of echo, delay, reverb, shimmer, reverse and I don’t know what else, and I had only just received the update when I decided to embark on a sort of “SpaceTime Jam 1” exploration of the sounds that the H9 pedal could make with this brand new algorithm..

Over the past few week, I reviewed and assessed these tracks, and a remarkable 25 of the 26 takes from the 20160615 session, were viable. So I decided I would do a sort of arbitrary “grouping” of these very live takes, into short song cycles of 3 or 4 takes per “song” (and in one case, just 2 takes making up the final song of the cycle).

So I ended up then, with eight quite interesting songs, mixed and mastered – and as I was working on them I thought…I could add some drums to these, and then release them, explaining that they were sort of made up of the same musical DNA as “planet obelisk” is. In some cases, in many cases in fact, I used drums leftover from the “planet obelisk” sessions.

In other cases, I would create new bespoke drum parts, or adapt existing parts to fit the improvised electric guitars. Adding the drum parts in ended up taking quite a bit of time, off and on, but when all eight tracks were complete, I was glad I’d made the effort. I also did one bespoke tabla part, which utilised Native Instruments “India” and that was a blast – I played one take, live, along with the three guitar tracks, including not playing in between the takes…and coming in at the right time. I managed to hit it all on take one, and “playing” the tabla is an absolute blast – I love this instrument (India).

The guitar takes are all improvised, on the spot, and in almost every case, the natural spaces between them, as it happened, have been preserved – because the session was rapid-fire, and the 26 pieces were played in surprisingly quick succession, with very little time between takes – in some cases just a few seconds, long enough for me to change the patch, and then dive into the unknown again.

Every take used the same basic preamp sound, which is my >Frippy patch from the new Sculpt algorithm – that’s the constant. A plate reverb was also used, and I then changed SpaceTime patches on one device as I played. Being able to use the H9 Control application on my tablet really was a life saver, I could change the patches manually with almost no effort, so you do get to hear a broad, broad variety of the SpaceTime algorithm’s many amazing patches.

More than the sum of songs, because in some cases, i would change the patch mid-song, sometimes multiple times within one song. Also, where I was able and it felt appropriate, I also used expression pedal on some of the patches, which then gives you deep and wild control over many variable aspects of any SpaceTime patch you are using.

The expression pedal implementation in the Eventide H9 is remarkable right out of the box, and every one of the patches features a range of possible expression pedal values, carefully chosen for the best effect – for rotary sounds, obviously, it’s the speed that the pedal controls, but the range of expressions possible with the H9 is simply staggering – what a brilliantly designed device.

I was mesmerised by the beautiful sounds that SpaceTime gave me, and I play a fairly joyous hour of happy and heavy lead and rhythm guitar. And that hour of music, took me 65 minutes to do – so no faffing about between the takes – I really just got on with it, trialling dozens of SpaceTime patches and taking many, many expression pedal excursions too. A wonderful session that I really enjoyed, which does contain quite a lot of “planet obelisk” DNA – without really sounding anything like it.

The 25 viable tracks then, were edited into these eight new “songs”; which vary in length from perhaps, five and a half minutes long, to over ten minutes in length in one instance. The total running time actually becoming about 55 minutes of music in total, mostly because of the fact that take one was unusable, it was a great take, but the levels were far too hot, and it suffered from multiple wounds of digital distortion, and nothing I could do would have saved it – a sad loss, but I was very happy that I turned everything DOWN after that and captured nice clean versions of the remaining 25 tracks.

The resulting eight tracks are:

building the obelisk

all good children go to heaven

beautiful metallic noise

the occasional chord (to remind us)

it’s echo soup in here

the heavens unfold

since the dawn of time

reaching catharsis (bridge)

A possible ninth track may be uploaded:

the road to obelisk – 55 minute track compiled from the above listed eight tracks – this recreates the continuous nature of the original session – if successful, it will be added to the upload list as well.

It is my hope to upload the above eight (or nine) tracks over the coming week if all goes well. Along with the appropriate outputs from the forward-looking project, which came from a session that I had somewhat arbitrarily named “brief session” – and it was, if compared to the “planet obelisk” 25 takes – the new “brief session” contained just 10 takes, although take 7 was an extended take with something like six individual parts on it.

The first six takes are very, very ambient, indeed, and are really a highlight of the session – the remaining four, used distorted guitars instead of clean, and although interesting, they did not come out nearly as well as the first six, which used clean guitars and more Eventide H9 wizardry.

I am very, very excited about these six tracks, which represent the bulk of the session time-wise, because for the first time in my memory, I was able to play ambient guitar, without the use of either a looper or of an ebow (energy bow) – I can now create very, very ambient guitar, just using the stock algorithms from the Eventide H9.

That is an incredibly freeing experience – yes, you do still have to play the guitar, but, the beautiful sounds that come out, whether produced by SpaceTime, Resonator, or MultiTap (such as “UltraTap”….heavenly patch) it matters not – there is not just one ambient sound available, but in fact, droves of them, and I can see myself playing a lot of clean, careful guitar into an H9 (or two) that can translate that input directly into the kind of soundscape I’ve always wished I could produce.

My best method of creating that atmosphere has always previously been, running an ebow guitar into a looper and then into a good reverb unit. And of course, I will always, always still do that, because I love to do it – but, the H9 gives me an alternative to that, where I don’t need to rely on the ebow or the looper (however, I have retained and have used the ebow on several of the eight tracks above), because that made them sound even better, so ebow + SpaceTime is a winning combination for me. Ambient guitar made…a little bit easier than it used to be.

For the six tracks below however, I did not use the ebow – I didn’t need to, the pure ambient output from the H9 was all I needed.  What a brilliant device!

The resulting six tracks are:

exogenesis

exoskeletal

exospheric

exothermal

exocyclic

exonumia

I cannot express how wonderful it was to be able to create these pieces, and I sat there in awe of the sound design that has gone into the Eventide algorithms – especially those that I would call “totally ambient” – and there are many, many of these sprinkled here and there within the algorithms.

I see this then, this set of six songs, to be very future oriented, very forward-looking, and I will very probably be exploring much, much more along these lines, in hopefully some longer-form improvs, just what I can achieve for ambient guitar, without resorting to ebow + looper + good reverb – although, that is still a great formula for ambient music!

I feel like a man who has been given the actual sound of heaven, and by gosh, I am going to use that sound – those sounds – as often as I can, because they are truly remarkable. Even one of the oldest of Eventide’s algorithms, “Space” – their do-all reverb magic box – is an incredible tool, and contains reverbs that can also act as ambient guitar creators – it’s all in there, in that little white box…

“exogenesis” was the starting point for me, I could just close my eyes and hear those ethereal sounds, and realising that I was just playing clean guitar notes, slowly, carefully – and this river or ocean of beautiful, ethereal, reverberant sound just flowed all around me – as it should do. I could really get used to this – I really could.

The six super ambient tracks from the “exo” series will also be uploaded in the near future – as soon as possible.  

So, I haven’t been absent at all – I’ve been busy!

love peace and order

🙂  dave

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the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part two

So – the stage is literally set, I’ve at this point, got the majority of seven months’ of work behind me…

My last blog, recounted the first seven months of the project in a fair amount of detail – that was part one – but here in part two, we are looking at the final few days of work – the last four or five days in December, 2015 – that’s our “part two”:

 

The drums and bass have been locked down (except for final level setting, of course) for many months.

The keyboards are all locked down, and the intricate middle section has been completed, encompassing acoustic guitars, birdsong, ipad, and ambient electric guitars (the infamous “Hackett Guitars” – courtesy of the new Eventide H9 multi effects unit – that occur just before the second half of the song re-enters).

All that is left is – more work (on the second half only, after the new “middle section”) with the guitars, a few needing solos, and a few, needing some rhythm guitars.

I decided to use some of the extraordinary sounds from the Eventide H9 multi-effects unit, which only arrived in the final days of work on the song, so using it as my main guitar effects unit, that enabled me to do, for example, the ambient “Hackett Guitars”, as well as some of the rhythm and lead guitar work in the final section during “part two” – so I would characterise “part one” as being the main build of the song, plus, the first part of the guitar overdubs; while “part two” is two things, finishing touches – all done on guitar – and mixing, mixing, and more mixing.

I had originally thought that I would play a series of different guitar solos over the second half of the mix, but things happen…plans change.  And in this case, it was one of those weird accidents that you just can’t deny, that you have to go with – because you hear it, and the sound of it just says to you, you know it in your heart: “you know this is the right thing”.

I sat down to play the first of many solos, which, by my cunning plan, would have filled the end of the main track from the end of the middle section to the end of the song, bit by bit, a short burst of one guitar sound, a short burst of the next, and so on. The first solo, was to be an ebow solo.  So I got a nice sound for the ebow from the H9, and started making takes.

But what happened was something I never expected, as the track kept playing, after the section I was overdubbing – I kept going, I kept playing after the first section went past…and then the next, and then the next…and suddenly, I could hear the very end of the song approaching – so I went for a crazy, major key ascending scale that could not possibly fit at the very end of a really, really LONG ebow solo – and of course, almost as if it had planned that way – it fit just right, ending right alongside the existing “fast-Leslie” organ solo…

I listened back, astonished – because I never meant to play right through, I hadn’t imagined finishing the entire track with one very long, multi-key energy bow guitar solo – but that is exactly what happened.  At first, I thought, well, this creates a problem – what do I do?  How can I play different sections of lead guitar now, with this really nice solo filling up the entire second half of the track?

The answer, of course, was “you no longer need to”.  So instead of doing piecemeal solos, using different guitar sounds, etc. (as I did in the first half, as planned…) the second half now features one long, long ebow solo (which, to be fair, is actually in five sections, edited down from the best three takes – but if I had not told you that, you would not have known – it sounds like one solo – well, it is one solo, just, from the best three takes!) – it was quite a feat of editing, but editing ebow solos is one of the most amazing procedures out there, because – well, because a recorded ebow sounds, looks and acts like a pure sine wave, fading it in and out is never an issue, at a microscopic level (zoomed) or even at a normal level (not zoomed) and “switching” from one solo to another, from one take to another rather, at any point, is almost always very easy, because the notes are usually quite long, and, whether they are long or short, they have distinct silences in between – the perfect space to switch between take 1 and take 3, for example.

The editing task then was not that difficult, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it, as I wanted this final solo to really bring the whole piece together, and once I got used to it – I realised that it was the best idea all along – because it’s the only opportunity, really, for a nice long guitar solo – and there is nothing on earth like a nice long ebow solo – it’s the best! – so…I took that opportunity.  Accidentally “on purpose” 🙂

So while unintentional – that “accident”, of me just carrying on playing that ebow solo, not stopping when I should have – going on and on to the very end of the song – changed the whole planned character of the second half of the song, and gave me a glorious, long and lovely ebow solo to take us out to the final moments of the song.

I did some work with panning towards the end of the piece – I boosted the level of the existing “fast Leslie” organ solo to match the ebow solo better, and I gradually moved it from the centre to one side of the stereo image, while at the same time, in the opposite direction, I gradually moved the ebow solo to the opposite side of the stereo image, so it moves from being a homogeneous centralised pair of instruments at the beginning of the second half, to two distinct instruments, one on either side of you – and I love that slow, slow stereo spread of the two solos – it works for me.  In headphones, it’s very nice indeed.  On speakers, you might not really notice it as much, but it’s an important point – I wanted the solos to end, with them split, one hard left, the other hard right – and that is indeed, what I ended up with.

I think at that point, I breathed a huge, huge sigh of relief – because, except for a very few finishing touches – this long ebow solo meant that the song was “DONE”!!  At long, long last, and just before the year ended, too – it had always been my goal to complete the song in 2015, to allow it to then become, pureambient’s first release in 2016.  So I am happy to report that I did indeed, with just hours to spare, meet that goal.

So – what finishing touches? Well, I added in a few rhythm guitars, where I felt that solos needed some chord-based support, but overall, there is not a lot of rhythm playing in this song – being a prog song, all of the players (i.e., me, lol) love to play solos, they all think that they are master of their own instrument – so you have a whole band full of soloists!

But the lead guitarist (again, that’s Dave Stafford, lead guitar), can be, and did indeed, allow himself to be persuaded that some rhythm guitars (well, more than he had originally done or planned for, anyway!) would not go amiss.  One of those rhythm guitar parts, a simple chord played once and left to ring, for four bars, sounds nothing like a guitar, but rather, some mellifluous dream electric piano from the stars…a beautiful H9-produced sound.

I added some lovely chords in the second half of the piece, using the H9 to get some beautiful new clean sounds (and the modulation section of the H9 is simply the best – better than any effects unit or software I have ever owned – it is the best, for those of us who cannot possibly, ever, afford an “Axe-FXII” – this is just as good or better!) so I am really pleased with the last few guitar contributions – because the H9 makes them sound really, really good!

I also realised that so far, I had not woven any reverse guitar into the fabric of the song, and I love reverse guitar – I’d always meant to do a reverse solo – but I hadn’t done any so far in the song (a huge oversight, surely!) – I mean, come on, this is prog – so in the style of King Crimson circa 1970, I thought of “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (or rather, the “Lizard” suite) I decided I would add some reverse guitars in that style, clean and nice – so – how could I now incorporate it?  Where there is a will, there is a way – I recorded a few different takes of reverse guitar (again, courtesy of the remarkable H9 pedal) and then mixed them into the closing section of the song.

That took some getting used to, in fact, all of the changes to the second half took me some time to acclimate to, because for so long, it had just been, you know, drums, bass, keyboards, mellotron.  No guitars.  No rhythm guitar.  No reverse guitars.  So the second half evolved, and the more I worked on it, the happier I felt – I really felt good about this piece of music, and despite how long it took, and the many, many long hours and long days I had to put in to get it there (the weeks spent on the drums and bass alone ate up the first two months!!!) and there were times when I thought – “I am never going to get to play the guitars on this song….never!” – but, the day finally did come, at the end of November actually, and I really went into it with a happy heart – finally, I am working out guitar parts, to go with the long, long-existing bass, organ and mellotron parts.

Playing guitar along to the finished backing track was an absolute joy, and I could just jam along to almost any of the sections, because I know them so, so well by this point – I could just about have played the guitar parts LIVE really, once I’d rehearsed them.

I did go back, too, and “try again” on some of the toughest solos – I spent one entire day, “seeing if I could do better” – and in almost every case, I found that I could, so I ended up with some very natural sounding, very “live” guitar solos – where previously, in the initial final mixes (I know, that sounds odd, but, it’s the only way to describe it) I had kinda, pieced together some of the more difficult guitar parts.  No more, though – now, they are played live, as are most of the solos – the final ebow being the one exception to that – but, it’s very, very long, and it’s not likely that anyone could play for that long, without some imperfections – so I did have to fix a few touchy moments in the long solo.

Mostly, the guitar parts kinda “wrote themselves”: there were areas where they simply join the bass for a ride-along; and other areas where they do not, but instead, they mesh or interact with the bass – and there are some spectacular bass v. guitar “battles” in the first half of the song that could not have come out better had they been planned (and, they were NOT planned – it just worked out that way – when I added the guitar parts, the bassist was RIGHT THERE, answering me – it was amazing! – the guitar would play a riff, and suddenly, there was the bass, ripping off a super quick “tiny-space”-filling-run, at impossible speed (that’s our bass player, Dave Stafford, again!) – and it sounded like both the guitar and the bass had always been there, that the interaction was totally planned and totally natural…when in fact, it was yet another “happy accident” – but the joy that it brought me the first time I heard it play back – wow! Listen to THAT, was well worth it – the guitars and the basses are totally working together, playing off each other as if it’s a live track!

Sometimes, you are very, very fortunate.  I was really fortunate with the way that the final overdubs, the lead guitars worked with the drums, worked with the bass, worked with the organ, and worked with the mellotron – and in fact, the mellotron came and went with the eeriest perfection – perfect timing every time, arriving right when I needed it.  As if they knew what the guitar parts would be (when I clearly, did not!).

I think then, that the reverse guitars were the last significant thing that was actually played on the track; after that, the last two or three days of December, 2015, were spent on the final mix, which I sorted of re-built from scratch – I’d had a “working mix” the entire time, but rather than just carry that forward and build in the new parts, I decided to create a brand new, fresh mix, which gave me the opportunity for example, to ensure that the bass and the drums, could compete with the masses of guitars, and the intense keyboard and mellotron washes – I wanted to be able to hear everything as clearly as possible (obviously!).

Getting a nice clean mix when there are this many instruments can be tricky, but I just approached each one, first, separately, and then, in relation to the other instruments, until I reached a point where I felt happy with everything.

I also stripped out a lot of “individual” reverbs and other effects that I had quickly thrown on during production, and consolidated them in the output section – I created a full set of additional stereo bus outputs, so that every set of instruments had an overall level control, and, consistent, high quality, reverbs and effects – made at the output stage rather than connected directly to the track.

Certain tracks that were created early on, were just too complex to move to a bus, so I left them alone with their track-specific sounds – in one case, a complex arrangement of Waves GTR and Waves Stereo ADT – used for an extremely strange “guitar” track that slowly, slowly fades in during the first quarter of the song.  That was left alone, along with the bass which was sent out directly without any effects whatsoever – I wanted it to be dead clean.

I didn’t mess with the drums too much, either, I probably would have (I do love adding phase shifters to hi-hat and cymbal hits and similar…), but I didn’t want to add another two months to an already somewhat overly long-production schedule!  So I kept it to some bespoke panned sections (which I really, really like, because they appear so seldom!), and just little touches – the drum track is pretty basic, and the bass is just bass – in this case, the tone of the Scar-bee Rickenbacker is so perfect, I couldn’t see putting any effects whatsoever on it – so – it’s dry and clean!

So really, mixing was quite easy, mainly because I was so, so familiar with all of the component tracks, and with the individual stereo buses for guitars, organ, mellotron, bass, drums – getting relative levels was easy!  I had expected an agony of mixing hell – and the song surprised me – maybe because to some extent, I kept it simple (well, simple when compared to something like “wettonizer” (taken from the newest eternal album, the first of 2016, “progressive rock” by Dave Stafford), I suppose!).

Note: “wettonizer” was originally included on the gone native CD (which is still available) and download, but is now also available on the brand new 2016 eternal album collection “progressive rock” – alongside the brand new track “the complete unknown”.  This is comprised of a set of prog songs taken from gone native, along with  “the complete unknown”.

The very last part of the song, after that energy bow climbs up to the top of that unlikely major scale, and then SLAMS down into reverb with an odd but lovely sound of wonderful completion, the song then almost comes to a halt, the keyboards are pretty much all that is playing, until suddenly, the Rickenbacker bass and the Hammond organ, join the drums for their final flourish – and then, a long, pure bass note is held, to remind us I think, of purity, of the beauty of just one note – and then, the drummer plays a few bars of precision military snare roll, and the long bass note and the snare drum, disappear forever into the complete unknown…the song is over.

I really, really enjoyed myself on this project, my only regret is that by becoming so involved in it, I was really unable to work on much of anything else, so other areas of my music suffered.  But that will change in 2016, I have an enormous amount of new music in the planning stages, including still more eternal albums on Bandcamp, and I hope to present more musical material, both old and new, in various formats, including hopefully, a return to video as well as audio only work.

We shall see!  But in the meantime, if you fancy a bit of old-style progressive rock, this could be the 17 minute long song for you – “the complete unknown”.  Give it a listen – it will take you right back to 1974…

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the beatles – in the beginning

I have been remiss.  While I have written at length about so many great bands and artists, and – OK, I have mentioned the Beatles at times, but what an omission – this band dominated my musical world for six years, from the age of 9 through 15, for me, there was only one band, and that was John, Paul, George and Ringo – my beloved Beatles.

So when I had an unusual request arrive in my email inbox the other day: a nice lady in Las Vegas, asking me if I would be interested in writing in my blog, about the Beatles – well, how could I refuse?  In fact, it struck me, why on EARTH have I not dedicated a single blog to the four lads from Liverpool who started it all for me?…(and, for so many others, too!).

Oh my God, I thought, I can’t believe that I’ve done a hundred plus blogs in just over a year’s time, and I’ve never dedicated one to the Fab Four!!!

That is a grievous error on my part, and this kind soul who asked me so innocently if I would write about my favourite group of all time – she will eventually end up with more words than she ever, ever dreamed of.  Just – give me a few years, and I will make this up to you all – and, I will add to her ever-growing collection of Beatle memories (what a job – I’d love to collect Beatle memories as part of my “day job”!).

Strangely, though – Las Vegas has been on my mind of late: because one of my strongest wishes in terms of my ongoing relationship with the Beatles, is to visit Las Vegas for the sole purpose of attending the Cirque du Soleil‘s remarkable Beatles “LOVE” production.  I really, really want to see and hear this musical and visual spectacle (and I absolutely love the innovative “Love” CD that George and Giles Martin worked so incredibly hard on) – it’s a great album, it just is – an uncanny juxtaposition of some of the best songs ever recorded by anyone -the music of the Beatles, totally reinvented for the purpose of supporting the Beatles “LOVE” production.

This also provided us with the first alternative remixes of Beatles tracks from an official Beatles source (most fans were delighted, some cried “blasphemy” – but I am firmly in the former category) – I approve of the alternative approach of these remixes, Giles Martin especially worked very hard to create something really unique and wonderful from there tracks; so, in 2006 – George and Giles Martin  gave the world 80 minutes of new Beatle music – which is simply brilliant.

If you watch the 2008 DVD documentary video about the making of “LOVE”; it looks like it’s going to be an amazing live performance (and we already KNOW the music is good…) – so, hopefully, one day, we’ll travel to Las Vegas and check it out.

But already – I digress.  Back to the business at hand, by all means! 🙂

 

Consider this then, to be the beginning of a series of articles about the Beatles, as a group, and possibly, also as solo artists, although that’s another story – however, I do reserve the right to write at length about my favourite Beatle, George Harrison, at great length; out of sequence; at any time in his life – because George was the quintessential Beatle to me – he had it all, that wry humour, a winning smile, advanced prowess with the lead guitar, the most beautiful slide guitar sound of all time – truly amazing slide guitar sound and technique – George was just an all-around cool guy…may he rest in peace.

However, George will be the subject of a future series of Beatle-related posts, this time, however, I am writing about the Beatles as a group – and I intend to begin at the beginning, and just see where we travel to.  or, possibly, as George said: “arrive without travelling…”.  Sigh.  Note – I only just realised, from reading the wiki entry for the song, that the bansuri (Indian classical flute) player on “The Inner Light”, is none other than the remarkable Hariprasad Chaurasia, one of my favourite Indian musicians – a brilliant player – imagine that, I had no idea!

But now it’s time, finally, to talk about the Beatles .  And when it comes to the Beatles , well…

 

It all begins with memories.

One of my earliest memories of all, is a memory of standing in the front yard of my house on Mineral Drive, in San Carlos, a suburb of San Diego, California, in about 1965 or 1966, as a young child, and hearing “Nowhere Man” playing on a transistor radio, and feeling utterly transfixed and transported – frozen in time, almost mesmerised, while this heavenly music played, sounding literally like musical magic…  (which, in my opinion – it simply is).

the memory is kind of…mixed up in my mind, I mainly remember the incredible sound of the vocal harmonies (although at 7 or 8 years old, I had no concept that that sound was “vocal harmony” – that knowledge came much later) – but, that sound is mixed up with bright, bright sunshine, on a late afternoon, with late afternoon shadows behind me from the house, but bright, bright sunshine in my eyes – standing there, looking out at the street – and just listening to “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles.  What a beautiful, mournful, wistful, heartbreakingly beautiful sound.

To this day, “Nowhere Man” gives me shivers – without fail, when they hit the chorus the first time…it’s the sound of heartbreak, the sound of sympathy, the sound of empathy, the sound of joy at hitting a perfect harmony…a song so complex, so far ahead of it’s time – what a beauty – and I think this song encapsulates the beauty of the song-writing and singing of John Lennon in particular, who just excels on this tune – until that amazing dual lead solo comes along, that is, when the good George joins in with John to absolutely steal the show with their amazing, concise, super bright guitar solo or I should say, duet – ending with that magical-sounding harmonic – a great piece of guitar playing from both players, if you ask me.

Of course, at that age, I already knew who the Beatles were, I had been aware of them probably since I was about 5, but it wasn’t until a couple years later, when I recognised “Nowhere Man” for what it was, a beautiful, yearning, shiver-inducing slice of perfect pop music.

like so many kids did in the States, I watched the Beatles cartoon as a young boy, and I saw the Beatles themselves on our tiny black and white television, although I was just a little too young to see the live performances on the Ed Sullivan Show (actually, I probably did see it, as I imagine that my parents watched it); they did watch the Ed Sullivan Show show regularly at least in it’s later years, not sure about in 1963 – but I would have only been five at the time (1963), and I have few memories from before kindergarten (i.e. about age 5).

the Beatles performed live on the Ed Sullivan Show for the final time on august 14, 1965, but, for a few years following that, they would regularly send Sullivan other video artefacts, like the much, much more sophisticated colour videos that the Beatles shot and sent to the show (since they could not possibly schedule live performances at the time, their schedule was absolutely insane – so they sent their data instead!).

I remember in particular, the video of “Rain” (which was shown along with three other later tracks, “Paperback Writer”, “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever”) – [apologies for any annoying ADVERTS at the beginning of any or all of the preceding video links] – and specifically, with regards to “Rain”, I can recall being absolutely gob-smacked by the increased complexity of that song, Lennon’s beautiful, dreamy vocal – and George looked so, so cool with his Gibson SG, too.   And why were they all wearing sunglasses, I wondered?

It was years later that I found out the answer to that one:  “tea”.  They had been…having “tea”.  Lots and lots of “tea”. 🙂

 

When I was about 8 or 9 (so, 1966 / 1967), my parents started allowing me to buy long playing vinyl albums for the first time.  I may have had some 7 inch singles of a more juvenile nature, but my first actual LPs were Beatles albums – starting, strangely, with, “The Beatles Second Album” and then, “Meet The Beatles”, followed by “Beatles 65” and later on, the truly awesome “Yesterday And Today”

– of course, being an American, and living in the U.S. at the time, meant that I had the doubtful “joy” of owning the somewhat inferior US pressings, courtesy of Capitol Records, USA – fewer songs, and incorrect running orders, changes to the original albums not sanctioned by the Beatles at all.   these four Capitol albums were, for a number of years, the only albums I had – and I really didn’t ever have the money to buy them all until I was an adult – so sadly, I never owned “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” on vinyl (perhaps my two favourite mid-period records!) but eventually did on CD, (nor did I ever own most of the other early to mid period albums – “Please Please Me”, “With The Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Beatles For Sale”“Help”, and many others – on vinyl) – I think “Sgt. Pepper” and then the “White Album” were some of the first “later” Beatles albums that I finally acquired, and eventually, as part of the remastered box sets that finally “set the record straight” for beatles recordings, with the beautiful stereo and mono box sets – finally, I had the bulk of the Beatles output.

I have just now, during the research for this blog, supplemented that CD catalogue by ordering both the “US Albums” box set, as well as the two-double-CD remastered “Live At The BBC” discs – can’t wait for those to arrive – Vol. 2 is all previously unreleased material, so more LIVE Beatles on the radio is a good, good thing…more “new” Beatles music – especially excited about hearing the “new” music from Vol. 2.

Regarding Capitol’s uh, “adjustments” to the Beatles catalogue without their consent, I remember reading the John Lennon interviews from Playboy in book form, wherein he was aghast at being handed the U.S. albums to discuss by the interviewed, and explaining to him how very hard they (the Beatles and George Martin) worked on presentation, running orders, and so on – only to have Capitol America just ignore it all, and release inferior, shorter “versions” of Beatles albums – to make MORE money – fewer tracks, more records sold for fans to get all the tracks – simple arithmetic, probably made them millions – Capitol I mean, not so much the Beatles.

 

It wasn’t until the Beatles full catalogue were first released on CD, that I finally became truly familiar with the real Beatles catalogue, which took some real getting used to since I was so, so accustomed to “The Capitol Albums”.  However, now, even though I do own Vol. I of “The Capitol Albums” mainly for sentimental reasons, I vastly and totally prefer the British releases – with the correct running orders, and songs all intact – plus the singles – which in the US, were sometimes added to albums, too, I believe – rather than mirroring the British releases.  I can recall, too, that the VERY first compact disc I ever bought, ever, was “White Album” – bought from the Price Club for $20.00 – what a way to start your CD collection!  For me, it was almost like hearing the album for the first time, the lead guitars on “Good Morning, Good Morning” practically LEAP out of the speakers, while George Martin’s impeccably-arranged horn section on George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” came through the mix with a hitherto unheard brightness and clarity – sounding fantastic!

I am well aware I’ve not really spoken much about the band’s individual talents, from the rock-solid drum beats invented by Ringo Starr, to the absolutely remarkably talented Paul McCartney, possibly the best melodic bass player of all time, and an absolute innovator on the bass guitar (not to mention, what a voice!!!) – so many “firsts” for Paul, the high register passages, the strange note at the end of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the “sticking” or repeated bass line in the outro of “taxman” – Paul is simply an amazing and extremely innovative bassist – and when you matched him up with the rock steady, unflappable Starr – you had the best rhythm section in rock music – with two genius guitarist, songwriter, singers on the front line with them.  what an amazing group – literally the first, and the best, at just about everything.

 

Of course, we now have the much more recent (2009) “Stereo” and “Mono” ultimate remasters box sets, which truly are incredible – and I am so, so glad that they did not mess with the catalogue in terms of the albums themselves, and the two aforementioned box sets really get it right when it comes to preserving the legacy of the Beatles amazing catalogue of music – and, bonus of all bonuses – in stereo and in MONO, too – and I personally especially love the “Mono” box set, even though it’s not for everyone – I’ve never owned the mono mixes; I’d heard a few of them, most of them came as a surprise to me – some amazing variations from the much more familiar “Stereo” versions.  But – as I am want to do when I get excited about the music of the Beatles – I digress.

 

The next phase of my earliest Beatle memories come from an unlikely time and place: Uganda, East Africa, where between 1967 and 1971, I lived with my parents and my two brothers– my parents were both teachers, and my father had won a place on a US Aid sponsored opportunity to move your family to Africa for two years to teach (in a program called “TEEA” – Teacher Education In East Africa) – basically, teaching teachers how to teach – which was then extended to four years.

 

My schooling during those years was a bit erratic, but my next early Beatle memory is of me, having no way to copy the lyrics from the AMAZING poster included in the Beatles most ambitious album to date, the “White Album” – I was boarding in Kampala, at Makerere University, with an American family (so I could attend school), and they had the album – which I played all the time – but my specific memory is of  writing out, by hand, ALL of the lyrics, of all of the songs, onto yellow foolscap paper – because I WANTED THOSE LYRICS !!!  I believe that somewhere in a box of keepsakes, I may still have those handwritten yellow sheets from 1968!

 

At age 10, I was not really aware of copiers, and in Kampala, Uganda, in 1968, they would not have been commonplace – so the only way I could “take a copy” of those lyrics, was to write them out longhand – which used up an enormous amount of paper, and my right had ached horribly from the effort – but I was determined, and after a couple of days, I had them all – and since it was a long time before I actually owned a copy of the “White Album” – I would often read those mysterious words from my yellow lined paper, hearing those beautifully picked electric guitars in my head, even after we returned to California from Uganda:

“She’s not a girl, who misses much….”

Next time: we will discuss the joys and frustrations of trying to learn, and perform, and occasionally record, the music of the Beatles – beginning with the very first proper band I was in – just about every band I was in from that time forward, played at least one Beatles song – at least, up until I got into Guitar Craft, Looper’s Delight and looping – but that was my strange career choice, to become an ambient looping guitarist; the time I am talking about, I am still at the tender age of 13, so with only a couple of years of self-taught guitar (and I later found, I had not done a particularly good job of teaching myself!) experience, I was finding that it was quite difficult to learn, remember, and play even the simpler Beatles songs – and it was during this time that my admiration for the skill of George Harrison in particular changed from admiration, to admiration and immense respect – that tricky little, bendy lead solo in between the verses of “Ticket To Ride” was at the time, one of the most difficult riffs I ever had to learn.

With just a couple of years of playing chords, I was not yet a lead guitarist, but learning that incredibly difficult riff, and then, learning more and more Beatles songs, also truly helped my own playing – when you imitate the best, you can’t help but sound good sometimes 🙂

So until then, I will leave you with that shiver-inducing refrain, the one I heard that day back in the mid-60s, that probably changed the course of my life for ever – because I seriously doubt, that I would EVER have become a musician, if it weren’t for the inspiration that the Beatles, as a group and as individual musicians, too, provided to me, all the time, through their amazing music:

 

“nowhere man – please listen

you don’t know – what you’re missing

nowhere man – the world is at your command…”

 

turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

the album that was not to be – providence – a tribute to John Orsi, musician

I never met John Orsi in the “real world”.  I can’t really say we were close friends – although, in the relatively short time I knew him, we did get to know each other fairly well, and, as time progressed, we had developed an ongoing conversation – and as it would always be with John, it was mostly a conversation about…music.  That conversation, which began online and then spilled out into that very same “real world”; often, in the form of long, intense, handwritten letters from John, was a very important one to me.  We were of a similar disposition, we enjoyed similar music, and we found as the conversation went on, that we had much in common.  It was good to meet someone with similar views to my own, and similar musical interests too.

John Orsi was a musician’s musician, an extraordinary percussionist and drummer with a very unique style, and an even more unique vision of music as he saw it, as made real under the auspices of the music and art collective that he helped to found, “It’s Twilight Time” – which also served as the de facto record label for many of the bands that John was involved in.  John was very possibly the only percussionist I know who could play “ambient percussion”. His drum kits were no longer “standard”, and he was always dreaming up new and better ways to configure his unusual percussion set-ups. He was also always involved in several musical projects at any given time, including the bands knitting by twilight and incandescent sky, among many others.

I met John through a mutual on-line acquaintance of ours, the good Ian Stewart, who expressed the wish, openly, to both of us, that we make an album together – saying something like “you are two of my favourite musicians, I wish you’d make an album together”.  so – we decided, after an initial conversation, that we would.  it was that simple.

So the “Orsi-Stafford” project was born.  At first, we struggled a bit with the usual questions that any new band has to deal with, what are we called? (clearly, “the orsi-stafford project” was never going to do as a band name); what music are we going to make? and similar important questions.  As they always do, these essential details sorted themselves out over time, and we then moved onto to the details of the music itself, and the correspondence proper began.

I felt that for John, that he didn’t want to do anything in half-measures; he wanted this project to be done properly, and with a full commitment from both of us; so, it was agreed that the fruits of our musical labour would be released on “It’s Twilight Time” in the US, and for Europe, on pureambient, my label.

I was happy enough with this arrangement, so the next little detail was…the music itself.  I sat down one weekend, which I’d set aside specifically to make sketches for the new  band, which by then, bore the name “providence” – after the King Crimson song of the same name, and also, in honour of providence, rhode island, which is the area that John lived in, and also where, in 1974, King Crimson played said song…and I began.

I decided that since John’s work was of a calibre above most, that I wanted to present something to him that was more serious, more classically oriented (not anything predictable, like an ambient ebow loop – or other types of ambient music normally associated with Dave Stafford and his music) – so I, to challenge myself, and to go against what would have been predictable – I decided that the bulk of the material I would sketch out for John to listen to, would be piano based; and as a twist, I also recorded (at the same time) a mellotron track for each one of the piano pieces, so we could mix and match between grand piano and the more exotic sounds of the mellotron.  Normally, I would have played ebow guitar, ambient guitar, synth, but for some reason, I felt very strongly, that this project demanded – piano.  And piano like I’d never played piano before.  Not technically difficult or challenging, but, with an ear for beauty, looking for simple, lovely melodies – and by chance, with some luck, finding them.

I recorded a vast number of sketches on the piano, with three main musical themes, which were “grace”, “providence” and “intransigence”.  The music that appeared, surprised me, because it was so serious, so very classical sounding, and also, it was surprisingly beautiful – if I do say so myself. It was really, really quite lovely, and I was happy enough with what I eventually sent to John.

I then went on and recorded some guitar sketches, using the guitar synth, and while one or two of these were of interest, the bulk of the guitar work, while acceptable, did not knock me out as much as the large library of piano / mellotron works I did early on in the session (in all, 87 of these piano / mellotron takes were recorded !!).  There were some notable bits of quiet, Fripp-like jazz guitar that I wanted to incorporate, but mostly, I concentrated on those haunting piano themes.

I then spent some considerable time, taking the three themes, and arranging them into various test mixes, sometimes alone, sometimes combined with each other to create longer pieces, and I burned it all to a DVD and mailed it off to John…a mass of material, it was a lot of takes, and I sent him the whole lot, all the raw takes, in piano form; all the raw takes, in mellotron form; all the raw takes, piano + mellotron mixed together; and then, several long form test mixes, of various imagined thematic arrangements of the takes…

Some time later (after suitable time to digest this massive number of musical sketches), John wrote back, effusive about my sketches, and the test mixes; excited, and he paid me some really significant compliments, saying about one of the pieces that it was “already finished, I wouldn’t dare overdub it, it’s perfect just as it is” – which is high praise indeed.  His reaction to my sketches was altogether positive, and I heaved a sigh of relief – I’d done something good enough that he would want to continue the collaboration, and now, it would be his turn to produce some sketches of his own to contribute to the band’s pool of music.

We exchanged letters again, I, typing them on the computer because writing cursive is too painful for my elderly, tired old guitarist / keyboardist hands, while John always, always preferred to write out his letters long hand, which were a pleasure to receive and read. I liked that about him, he had an inherent dislike of technology that was really refreshing – it was something, in 2012, to meet someone who still preferred to write letters in long hand, on paper, with a pen.  Unusual.

I looked forward to his letters, which he would often write at the seaside, he would drive out to some lonely spot and then wax effusive about music, music and more music – we did converse about other things besides music, but not often and not much, we were wholly focussed on the task at hand, and we were both very excited about the prospect of building the “providence” album, and working together to create a work of real quality.

I was very excited about working with John, and I really felt that this would become a superb collaborative effort, because both of us were experienced musicians, with different strengths that were entirely complimentary.  John could compose and play the percussion parts that I could not, and I could compose and play the piano, mellotron, guitar and ebow parts that he could not – so the two of us had the right complimentary skill sets, to make an amazing album, each playing to our own musical strengths, and letting the other fill in the parts that we ourselves, could not, or could not easily, do.

Various ideas and approaches were discussed: we would merge sketches, if possible; or, John would overdub my sketches and return them to me for another pass; or, I would overdub John’s sketches – we didn’t feel we needed to stick to one working methodology; we were both open to…whatever worked the best, and I was really looking forward to receiving John’s sketches to assess, play on, and work with.

I suggested that we keep an open mind – maybe, for example, the album would end up with five tracks of John’s overdubbed by me, and five tracks of mine, overdubbed by John.  That was just one idea that was suggested, we didn’t want to burden ourselves by making too many hard decisions about the final form of the album, but the ideas were flowing thick and fast, and it was a very exciting time for me, for both of us, I hope – I was really immersed in the process, I am accustomed to these long-distance collaborations (having done more than a few over time, drone forest, scorched by the sun, and so on), but this one was of a distinctly high quality; and I sensed and fervently hoped that the music that we eventually would make, would be most excellent.  Unfortunately, though…I never got to find out.

I had also promised John that we would absolutely work energy bow guitar into the final release, because ebow is really my signature sound, and John had worked with ebow players before, and we both loved the sound of the device.  He’d said that he wanted me to play energy bow guitar on the album, so I agreed that somehow, once the pieces were blocked out, we would find a way to incorporate some really beautiful ambient ebow loops or solos, into the finished record.  Unfortunately, we never got far enough along for me to even test this theory out, so there are no recordings of these proposed ebow pieces – they never materialised.

It’s at this point my recollection gets a bit hazy; I believe John said he was working on some ideas, playing some percussion with “providence” in mind, but I do not know if he recorded anything or not.  He very possibly did…but, sadly, I never received the promised sketches – while letters did arrive, more and more infrequently – no tapes ever appeared.

I thought nothing of this, sometimes, many weeks would pass without any contact between us, but I was not concerned, as I knew that John had my sketches in hand, and was happy enough with them; and that he was working on sketches to send to me, so it would just be a matter of time…or so I believed.  I just waited patiently, unworried, knowing that the ball was in John’s court, confident that he was busy working away on his set of sketches for the project…

Then – life happened.  My own life sometimes takes these twists and turns that mean my attention is drawn away, or must be focussed on other issues.  Time passed.  Then more time passed.  Suddenly I realised, it had been many months since I had heard from John.  I guessed that, perhaps, he was struggling with the material; that maybe, he hadn’t managed to record any sketches he was happy with, and I wondered if he had perhaps wanted to give up on the project, and work on his own music instead – I really didn’t know.  I said to myself, I must write to John and see what is going on, find out if he wants to proceed with the work on “providence” or not…

Again – more life happened, I didn’t act, I didn’t write – still more time passed, until last night, when suddenly Carrie Hodges appeared on Facebook, messaging me (so I knew something was up) with the news of John’s passing.

The John Orsi that I got to know, through his long, beautifully handwritten letters, and occasional on-line conversations, was a man of grace.  He was kind, quiet, and passionate about music, and I could feel his great love of music through his letters and in his words – and in the extraordinary music that he himself made, too.

For both John and myself, our favourite drummer was Bill Bruford.  We also both loved the work of guitarist Bill Nelson, who for many years was my hero, and my inspiration for picking up the ebow and using it instead of a plectrum or pick.

For whatever reason, “providence” caused me to play some very, very serious and moving music.  It just flowed out, as if I’d been storing it up for years on end, and then suddenly, there was a call for it – and there it was.  This was some of the first real classical music I ever composed – and I am incredibly proud of it.  It would not exist if it were not for John Orsi, and Ian Stewart before him. Strangely, by coincidence, since I hadn’t heard it for a long time, just a few days ago, I listened to a large section of the sessions, to remind myself of the quality of the music of providence, and wondered again why I hadn’t heard from John for so long…and now I know why.

Realising and respecting that John was a very private person, I didn’t want to intrude or ask too many questions (sometimes, people need space to work through their issues, whatever those might be), and by now, so many months had gone by that I was fairly certain the collaboration was not going to happen – but I assumed it was, perhaps, because John was having problems with the music, or he just wasn’t inspired, or perhaps other personal troubles were preventing him from playing – I didn’t know, but I did not want to intrude or bother him – I was, as they say “giving him space”.

There is no way no to turn back the hands of time, I wish I had intruded, that I had written – because I never got to say goodbye to my friend.  I didn’t even know he was ill, he was very careful to conceal that from me. He never said a word, or let on with any hints or other indications that anything was amiss.  Then, suddenly – he was gone.

Now I have to do that farewell, here and now, from my blog; I have to eulogise and remember my friend, my partner in “Providence”; kind, gentle, thoughtful John Orsi –

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

~~~  sending peace and love to Karen Orsi and the family ~~~

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime”

as you may know, over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the final mixes of “dreamtime”, and a few days ago, I completed the first full mix of the piece (which is a long-form ambient work, 50:57 in length, conceived as one piece but built from 13 distinct parts) in a long time (other commitments have kept me away from working on the album and then, the album mixes) which my partner in “scorched by the sun”, bryan helm, and I, are listening to and considering now.

I’ve been living with this new mix (the first for almost a year I am afraid to say) for about a week now, and the more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that it is the definitive mix – I am merely waiting for bryan to confirm this.  any minor adjustments needed won’t affect anything (and so far, I can’t detect the need for any) – because this piece of music pretty much mixed itself, I was only on hand to oversee.

I did do quite a few adjustments to both levels and reverb levels, just looking for the right balance between clarity and atmosphere, and I believe that with this latest mix, I’ve achieved that at last.

this is the first time we’ve built a piece like this, and it’s been a fascinating experience for me – starting out with 12 tracks from bryan, which I then arranged into a random sequence in sonar, setting them out across two tracks, criss-crossing them, and then, I began the overdubbing process.

I’ve described elsewhere my initial experience of trying to do the overdubs on this record, how I tried some energy bow guitar, I tried some guitar synths, and nothing sounded right to my ears.  then one day, I quite suddenly realised exactly what I needed to do: “play the mellotron“.  something about the quality of the tracks that bryan had submitted, said to me “mellotron will work well with this”.  fortunately, this hunch or idea turned out to be right – very right, and indeed, it turns out, the mellotron, coupled with the brilliant “breeze” reverb, proved to be exactly the right instrument to make this track a unique and successful ambient masterwork.

the overdub process was one of extremes, really – I went from the most basic voices – “basic flute” to some of the most unusual and bizarre sound effects that the m-tron pro can produce, depending on the requirement.  so I became a flautist, and I play quite a bit of flute on this album, and in one section, I play a melody that recalls early camel to my mind – and I never dreamed in a million years that I could produce something that sounds like that – but the “basic flute” voice is powerful and expressive, and I knew it would be effective, because I’d used it before on tracks from “gone native” such as “force of nature”.

a few of bryan’s pieces involved scenarios where the music would fade up slowly, then fade down to almost nothing, then fade back up slowly, then down to almost nothing again, wavelike, several times – for those tracks, I first played a normal mellotron overdub, and then built volume envelopes that “mirrored” or “followed” the amplitude of bryan’s pieces – so that my parts would “ebb and flow” in the same way as his.  that worked extraordinarily well, although it made for some strange-looking drawings in the audio monitoring tracks for the MIDI tracks.

other tracks of bryan’s with perhaps, a darker ambient nature, needed something more extreme, and I then turned to some of the stranger sounds that the m-tron can produce, and I also made good use of the pitch bend wheel on one of the pieces.  coupling these unusual mellotron voices with the right reverb, meant that in many cases, one overdub, of one mellotron, was all I needed – and in fact, there are only a few sections where I did multiple overdubs, because most of bryan’s tracks were quite dense to begin with, so I didn’t want to clutter things up with a million unnecessary overdubs.

this is a record of transitions, too, and the beauty of building it up in one massive session is that I could create linking parts that actually overlapped two of bryan’s tracks, and this simple device blurred the edges of where the actual transitions are – which worked out really well. sure, you can tell where it changes from part to part, right enough (and I’m not wanting to hide those transitions, but rather, enhance them) but, there are cases where the starting piece continues on into the following piece, and musically, that essentially “glued together” the sections in a very organic and natural way – it made the record flow.

for one track, I got a sinister, creepy mellotron sound, sort of a modified “watcher of the skies” tone, and played a simple, repeating bass line over bryan’s atmospheric track – and that worked really well – then, I held one note which then overlapped into the next track – always at least a slight overlap – so that your attention stays on a melody or a bass line that seems continuous, and you almost don’t really quite notice that a new song has begun!

in another case, a very atmospheric, very simple mellotron melody floats over a super ambient bed of sound from mr. helm, and I really think that the “less is more” principle is hard at work on this record – I don’t believe I’ve ever done such simplistic, yet effective, overdubs on any record up until this one – and most of them were done very quickly, including some “take one” takes – where

I would just set up the mellotron, hit record, play the part – and that would be the take.  reverbs, of course, were added later;  in some cases, quite extreme, again, (intentionally) blurring the lines of the melody a bit, but increasing the “atmospheric” factor of the record through the stratosphere.  there is nothing on earth like a beautiful mellotron sound run through a beautiful reverb – wow.

keen observers will note that I’ve mentioned the album is one long piece arranged from thirteen “parts”; while I also said that bryan submitted twelve tracks originally; the reason for this disparity is that at one point in the process, when I was working on finishing up track eight, I began to conceive of a different kind of transition – a longer one – and that actually eventually evolved into an entire track, which became part 9.

to create part 9, I dialled up another flute sound on the mellotron, something a bit more like a chorus of flutes, and sat down – with the end of part 8 playing out, and played a live improvisation with this eiree, lush flute chorus sound – it took one or two tries, it was wholly unscripted, melody and chords just appearing from nowhere – and that was that.

part of the reason I wanted this “solo” piece if you will, was that I felt something a bit “lighter” – less dense – was needed at that point in the album’s development, and I believe the beautifully sparse “part 9” works perfectly to achieve that – a quiet moment of solitude, and then the album proper returns – as if, on a journey, you briefly took a side-trip to an idyllic spot, and then – got back on the road.  and that’s how it feels to me when I listen back to it – it’s a very gentle, lovely piece of music, and it sits very well in between two much denser pieces of music.

speaking of the “denser pieces”, one of bryan’s pieces – which became part 12, the penultimate track on the album – is extremely atonal and odd,  so my response was to overlay one of the oddest overdubs I’ve ever done, strange screeching, bent sounds that I’d previously never got out of the m-tron pro, but once again, it came to the rescue with just the right sound for that particular track.  that rather extreme piece, became doubly extreme once I’d added in my part!  mixed, it sounds like a blender blending up mechanical parts, on top of a hill full of screeching birds – with a slowly, ascending, ominous winding sound that is absolutely fabulous.

and then – the final piece, part 13 – we return to a very, very serene, quiet, beautiful mode – bryan’s backing track is absolutely exquisitely beautiful – drifting in and out, a lovely, lovely chord sequence… I had to work really hard to find the right overdub for this.  while not normally a big fan of “choir” voices, I eventually found a voice on the mellotron that I really, really liked – and then I designed a six-note melody with a couple of different pitch permutations – and I just played this “singing voice” over the piece, in an abstract “no time” way, over and over, with slight timing variations – bryan’s part drifting in one plane, my ghostly reverbed choir “voice” floating in another plane – and the overall effect is just so, so serene, like two spirits drifting is all I can say – a great ending to an incredibly atmospheric record.

I knew when I set out to do this final mix, that the record would come out well, because, the playing is good – from both of us, but I did not expect it to come out this well.  the sense of going on a journey, of being taken from mood to mood, place to place, dream to dream, atmosphere oozes from every track – and I really am very excited about this new band, and this new album.  it’s not unlike an interesting night full of interesting dreams (with one or two nightmares included for good measure, like part 12); including the way dreams shift suddenly, or gradually, from one to another – hence, “dreamtime”.

and for those of you who are familiar with the other two bands that I’ve been in with bryan helm – “the dozey lumps” (acoustic crafty guitar duo) and “bindlestiff” (ambient looping duo) – well, “scorched by the sun” is absolutely nothing like either of those bands!  this new group has the sound of quietly confident experience – we have both been doing this for a long, long time, and also, with, ahem, some seventeen years since our last proper recordings – in 1995 – (“quiet” and “LOUD” by “bindlestiff”) – well, it was bound to sound different.

for starters, I didn’t own a mellotron or mellotron software back in the mid-90s, and my focus then, as it’s mostly always been – was guitar.  at this point, after so many years, we had agreed we would make a new album, but we both agreed that it really should be nothing like the music we made previously – and we’ve held absolutely true to that agreement – this is nothing like those bands!

for one thing, it’s a mature work, and, it’s an all keyboard work too, OK, bryan and I did do one or two ambient tracks where we both played synths back in the day, but never an entire album, and certainly never a conceptual piece like this, one nearly hour long ambient work, but made up of 13 discrete parts or sections…that is a new idea for us.

my energy bow guitar and loops (conspicuously absent here on “dreamtime”) were also part of the bindlestiff “trademark sound” and without those energy bows, this record has a completely different feel.  I knew that we could manage a very ambient feel by using the mellotron – because I’d managed to make a complete solo album with it (which was recently released as a “download only” on bandcamp – “sky full of stars” – a complete ambient album made solely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – and that turned out to be just as beautifully ambient as any record made with looped energy bow guitars (such as “the haunting” – also just released as “download only” on bandcamp).

part of me believed that for the most beautiful ambient music, that I would need to play energy bow, but another part believed that I no longer needed to or should depend on the ebow – because in this case, the mellotron did an equally beautiful job of complementing bryan’s beautiful synth work.

so over time, we’ve evolved from an acoustic guitar duo, to an ambient looping duo of bryan on drum machine/synths/loops and me on ebow guitar/guitar/loops/synths, to now, bryan on synths, and myself on m-tron pro mellotron – quite an evolution, really.

depending on schedules, I see no reason why we won’t go on to create more “scorched by the sun” albums – I’ve not really discussed that with bryan, but I am quite certain he’d be amenable, as his reactions to “dreamtime” have been extremely positive.  and yes, possibly, maybe for nostalgic reasons, maybe just for fun – maybe we would do some tracks in our “old configuration” of synth and ebow loops – I don’t know.  maybe.

but – beginning with “dreamtime” – I can see a very successful career in the future for “scorched by the sun” – this is a strong, strong start, and the more I listen to this record, the more I can’t stop listening to this record – it gets under your skin, and the melodies, moods and atmosphere begin to haunt you, including those beautiful reverbed “basic flutes” – and as a guitarist, that is something I just never dreamed I would become – a flautist!  that’s very, very surreal, but I love the sound of it.

It’s a similar sensation to playing the flute or oboe via the guitar synthesizer – as a guitarist, you can’t quite believe that by playing your guitar (or keyboard in terms of the mellotron) you can now play virtually any instrument that can be sampled – and you can play it very nearly as well as you can play the guitar – so becoming good at oboe or flute – when recording – is easily possible.  which is yet another reason why the ebow was made redundant, because the mellotron is so incredibly versatile (much more versatile than the original hardware mellotrons ever were), and because it’s sounds are “real”, their inclusion in a piece like “dreamtime” actually ups the game considerably – and it just sounds great – I am so, so happy that I made the decision to use the m-tron pro mellotron on this record.

so – with the beautiful, dreamlike voice and synths of “part 13” fading into the distance, I hereby declare “dreamtime” to be essentially complete, and once the mix is finalised, and we sort out the artwork, we plan to make it available, as our first new release since 1996, on bandcamp as soon as humanly possible.

the first “scorched by the sun” record is nearly a reality, and I look forward to more ambient and possibly active works, as well, from this new musical entity – I give you, bryan helm and dave stafford – “scorched by the sun”, and their debut album – “dreamtime”.

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…”