the stupidest policy in the universe

 

RECOGNISING STUPIDITY WHEN I COME ACROSS IT

like my late father before me, I find that there are certain aspects of life that are just so stupid, that you can’t help but become agitated and very outspoken when one of these “stupidities” comes to light.

I actually have a real knack for recognising stupid issues, and that realisation came home to me in a quite surreal experience I had at a Guitar Craft course held in Ojai, California back in the 1990s. It was a very good course, with mostly good weather, and we got to listen to Robert Fripp rehearse his Soundscapes, not to mention hearing an early DAT of the then non-existent King Crimson album “Vrooom”, which of course preceeded the album “proper” which is the even more awesome “THRAK”.

but i digress, the incident that confirmed to me that I do have a real knack or propensity, if you will, for seeing stupidity for what it is, and usually, confronting it head on….started like this:

A GUITAR CRAFT STORY

The course was in a lovely, big house on a lovely big green hilltop, a grassy hilltop lawn that of couse, being in California, was fully equipped with sprinklers, which went off automatically at pre-set intervals, to keep that hilltop lawn watered and healthy and looking good.  That is absolutely standard practice in southern California, because, if you don’t water…your lawn, and / or your plants, turn brown and then die.  California, after all, is basically, an artificially-irrigated desert, with water piped in from other states! – from many hundreds of miles away.

part way through the course, on a rare rainy day, where it was raining pretty hard, but in that warm kind of unconvincing California way…   I believe it was just before lunch, and the whole group, including Robert were sitting in silence (as you do quite often at Guitar Craft) and of course, if you are not quiet inwardly (as I often wasn’t) your attention may start to wander, and I confess that at this point, where a long, uneasy silence was waiting to hopefully, become a proper silence…I was looking out the window, watching the rain and looking  at the plants and the lawn.

the silence went on and on, and after an uncomfortably long time, suddenly, Robert spoke: “can anyone” (he said, addressing the entire course) “give me an example of real stupidity that is going on here, right now” and he sort of, gazed up and around the room.

confused silence was the first response, while people tried to think if perhaps, THEY had done something stupid earlier on, and now here was Robert Fripp calling them out?  You could sense some rising panic in some of the faces…but no one answered.

then, the answer smacked me right in the brain, that Stafford tradition (my Dad would have been so proud of me!!!!) came back and I blurted out “the sprinklers”.  “The sprinklers are on, watering, while its pouring with rain”. I added.

“Thats right, the sprinklers” Robert agreed.

And of course, thats pretty much the only time that I had the answer when the gathered elders of Guitar Craft did not, so I was pleased that I’d seen it so quickly.  And no one except Robert had a clue, it is just one of those things that people born in California, are used to seeing, all the time, all of your life.

And, it IS a pretty stupid thing, to have your sprinklers busily overwatering your lawn, and indeed, the combination of a substantial rainfall and the powerful large radius-coverage sprinklers running at the same time, could and often did turn your lawn into a green soaking wet sludge –  serious over watering can occur.

I have told this story before, in a more abbreviated form, and I apologise if you have heard it before – but it was necessary for me to restate my “credentials” as a more than “averagely aware of stupidity” kind of person.  I see stupidity in many designs, processes, and even in well establish practices, where people are doing activities in a particularly stupid way, when a much better way is or at least, might be available.

for example – sprinkler systems that can be overridden and can be programmed NOT to turn on, in the case of rain.

clearly, the owner of that nice house on the hill in Ojai, was unaware of this possibility, and because of that, would be always overwatering his lawn and plants when the sprinklers regularly came on while it was raining!

Stupidity at work, in the universe…a perfect example, and both Robert Fripp and I, while looking out the window at the garden in the pouring rain, had realised what was going on just outside the room, while the other fifty five people were only thinking inside the room, or, hadn’t noticed  or, hadn’t realised – that a really stupid thing was going on, right then and there – but outside, not inside!

It’s a day I’ve never forgotten, not only because I knew the answer when RF was the only other person who did, but because it was a great course, and my “Stupidity Detector” was clearly working better than it ever had done before.  A very useful tool, being able to recognise stupidity when you see it – and, if you look around, you will often find that its … EVERYWHERE!!

So what does this long and somewhat tedious Guitar Craft story have to do with today’s blog?  Not a lot, really, except perhaps, to establish that I have this knack, this ability to spot stupid practices, and that, coupled with some forty years in the business world, makes me the Customer From Hell, when companies have to deal with me.

THE ISSUE IN QUESTION

Today’s blog, however, is not about a gentle, somewhat forgivable stupidity such as watering your lawn while its raining…no, today’s blog is about something much, much stupider than that – and therefore, a hundred times more irritating because the stupidity actually has a real, negative effect on you.

I am writing today about a very specific “policy” that a particular music store has, which is, in short:  supplying the wrong type of power supply with almost every guitar effects unit they sell: a European power supply with round pins that cannot be plugged into the wall in the UK! (where we use flat pin power supplies only). To me, this “policy”…is right up there on my “stupidity radar” – supplying a useless power supply that could only work in Europe…in the UK.

a) it is a policy that makes NO logical sense – and the stream of useless Euro power supplies arriving every few months – utterly useless

b) I am sick and tired of ARGUING about it each time I make a purchase – and, an important point here – having to ask in the first place is bang out of order – when it SHOULD HAVE BEEN in the box when it arrived!!

Life is literally too short for me to waste my time railing against such a stupid thing – and they, unwilling to do as I, the customer politely asks again and again – well, the most recent sale they made to me – will be the last bit of business they get from me…I need vendors that will work with me on this.

Not, fight me tooth and nail when I try to get a useable power supply for my effects unit – that I have already paid for (it is part of the effect units’ purchase price)

Meanwhile, I have grown so frustrated with this “policy” over the past six or seven years (!!!!!!!) that I have recently reached the point where I told them that, if they were unwilling to continue to make the situation right, each time I make a purchase of an effects pedal from them (containing a European supply), that they will no longer get my repeat business or any of my business, because I refuse to participate in this specific power supply stupidity any more!

ANALOGY

I’d like now, to ask you a few simple rhetorical questions:

Note: today’s “stupidity” only occurs in the United Kingdom to my knowledge.  It does not occur in Europe or elsewhere that I know of.  This is important to remember.

 

So – UK residents only, then – when you buy a new toaster (or any small appliance) do you expect it to have a UK style plug (flat blades, three pronged) attached, so you can plug it in the moment you get home, and have some nice toast with your cuppa tea?

when you buy a new iron, do you expect it to have a UK style plug attached, the correct flat-bladed UK style plug, so that when you get home, you can plug that iron in right awaty, and get your three week backlog of ironing done in a jiffy?

when you buy a new hair dryer, do you expect to be able to plug it into the wall, and dry your soaking wet hair right away, without waiting?

when you buy a new alarm clock, do you expect a UK style plug attached right to it, so you can plug it in straight away, set the alarm, and then get woken up ever so gently to the quiet strains of Rammstein’s “Zwitters” blasting out at 6:05 a.m., at volume 10…?

when you buy a new Hoover, you expect it to have its UK style flat bladed plug already attached, so when you get home, you can plug it in straight away, and hoover your dirty ole carpets to yer heart’s content?

If you got a new set of hair straighteners, you would definitely want to go hone and plug them straight into your UK 230 volt wall outlet, so you can then wait for them to heat up, and straighten your hair to PERFECTION??

Let’s go large now, you finally bought that brand new washing machine you wanted, and I just know you will expect that it will come with a UK style plug already attached, so you can plug it straight into the wall outlet, hook up the water, and wash all those dirty clothes that have piled up everywhere??

I think you can see the everyday truth in the above statements.  Nothing tricky about them – just ordinary appliance purchases and expectations.

 

You may have gathered that I am making a point, and I am, and yes, OK I have rather belaboured that point (apologies)…but there is a reason for the many, many examples of ordinary electrical appliances both small and large – so that we can establish that for any electrical item that you buy in the United Kingdom, you have developed the perfectly reasonable expectation that the moment you get it home, whatever it is – you can plug it in, and start using it immediately.

however.

What if that were NOT the case? What if, you brought that toaster home, and it didn’t have a UK plug on it, or with it, so you couldn’t plug it into your common, ordinary, garden UK 230v outlet – in fact – you couldn’t plug it in anywhere in the UK.

First of all – that would make you feel very frustrated, because, you couldn’t feed that horde of screaming children waiting for their morning toast.  You would all starve, or at least you’d be eating untoasted bread which is almost as bad – when you want toast. and it goes on for days and days and days – no toast, and a useless, cold toaster.

That scenario is pretty unpleasant, but let me take this story one step further.  Let’s say that on that same day, the day you got home, took that toaster out of the box, and THEN realised that you couldn’t plug it in…that you rang up the store you bought it from, and asked them to please provide a proper UK plug, and they said, yeah, OK we’ll do that, you will get it in a couple of days.

Three days go by, with no toast made, that toaster not lighting up at all.  The toaster is dead.  The promised UK plug does NOT arrive.  You ring the store again, they say they will send the plug…so now three weeks have gone by and you still have no working toaster and no plug from the store…

After many calls, much argument with the store, pleading, cajoling…You reach the three month mark…THREE MONTHS WITHOUT TOAST…and finally, you get a UK style plug for your toaster delivered, finally sent by the store at long, long last.

And if the children haven’t all starved by now, they finally get some toast – but you’ve been through three months of hell trying to get the store to make things right for you, and you really begin to question your sanity.  You have argued calmly that it should have had a UK plug all along, but, the store seem unconcerned, and they also seem bent on supplying the NEXT item you buy from them…with ANOTHER useless Euro style plug.  Repeat of same scenario above.

Now, I could build a similar scenario for each and every item above, but it would take far too long, and I think the toaster example is a good enough example.

Three months without being able to plug in your new toaster?  Can you imagine?

 

Now – with the above everyday analogies, I’ve set up the background here, I’ve created practical examples of how it would feel if you got home to find that you could not plug your new toaster in, and then, the store you got this rather useless appliance from, took over three months to make it possible for you to plug it in and finally have some toast.

How would that make you feel?

 

IT’S BEEN MY EXPERIENCE…THAT WHEN THE ROW GETS SERIOUS…

A CERTAIN SILENCE WILL FALL.

 

How would that make you feel??

 

Now – that is a question.

Unfortunately, I can answer that question. I can provide in fact, a first hand account of exactly this “toaster experience” but with something else in the way of “small electrics” that I regularly purchase: effects pedals for guitar.

For the past several years, I’ve been purchasing the odd guitar pedal or two, and often from one of my favourite stores, DV24/7.  They were, and are, a good store – they delivered quickly, they always had the lowest price, and eventually, they got all of my business.

Until a few days ago, when I reached such a point of impatience and sheer frustration with their attitude regarding the power supplies for said guitar effects – that I’ve told them that I will be taking my business, my REPEAT business, to another guitar store.  ANY OTHER STORE. One that will truly want AND truly appreciate (not just say that they appreciate, but ACTUALLY appreciate) my repeat business. GAK, Dolphin, I really do not care. Just – no more Euro power supplies.  Please.

 

I must have at least six of these useless Lumps Of Plastic with round pins sticking out of them, cluttering up my storage area at home. They are worthless in the UK, sadly, they would be quite handy for any number of young guitarists in Europe.  I have enough for a whole Euro power pedalboard.  In Europe.  Where I don’t live.

They are doing me not one whit of good unless you think it’s perhaps, a good reminder from myself to myself to say NEVER AGAIN to accepting a Euro style power supply for any UK-purchase / UK-use electrical appliance or guitar effect pedal.  Ever.

 

DV24/7 refused to listen to the pure logic I presented to them regarding this very, very stupid “policy” of theirs – which is this:

Each effects unit they sell IN THE UNITED KINGDOM, comes supplied with a power supply (as intended by the manufacturers – who meant for the correct-country power supply to come with each pedal, it is included in the PURCHASE PRICE!) but with a twist; its a EUROPEAN power supply that DV24/7 regularly send to their UK CUSTOMERS.  That cannot be plugged into ANY power outlet IN THE UNITED KINGDOM.  Now – where, exactly, is the logic or sense in THAT?

Answer?  There is no logic present in this odd policy of supplying useless / wrong power supplies with each effects pedal sale.  If I just shelled out £400.00 for a really nifty pedal, it had darn well come with the CORRECT, USEFUL POWER SUPPLY.  That will plug into one of the many UK OUTLETS that I have in my UK HOUSE.

TALK ABOUT SPOILING YOUR ENJOYMENT!

So,  you’ve finally decided to buy your first Eventide H9, a truly powerful and exciting new guitar effects device – you order it from DV24/7; it arrives in a day or two..

but…BUT…it comes supplied with a EUROPEAN power supply.  So all that anticipation, all the excitement – dies, because you cannot PLUG IT IN.  So you then get to LOOK at it, but not use it, or hear it, for several days or even weeks, while you impatiently wait for the store to send you the right, usable power supply. After the fact, after the purchase….”oh please, kind sir, may I have a UK power supply so I csn actually USE my guitar effect??”.

 

Now, the first few times this happened, I would just ring or email them , and say “can you please send me a UK power supply for this REALLY EXPENSIVE pedal i just bought from you?”.  And – generally, they would.  I just had to ask.  (Not my job, really, but, whatever).

And I would then have to wait, a few days, a week, whatever, and the power supply arrives – so I can FINALLY plug in my brand new effects pedal.  Finally use it, finally hear it – at last. But it is just not the same, as being able to plug it in the moment it arrives…nope.  A third-rate experience at best.  Sheer frustration and mounting anger at the worst end of the “DV experience” 🙂

After this had gone on for some five years, let’s say, they started resisting me when I would insist on the proper UK power supply, and then finally, just a couple of weeks ago now,  their salesperson told me, in an email, no less “you will have to accept that some of these effects (read: all of these effects) will come with a Euro adapter, and we may then provide a UK plug adapter with the Euro power supply”.

And, that, dear reader, was the wrong thing to say to me.  my reply was “Salesperson’s Name Here, I must certainly do not “have to ACCEPT” anything – “I am the customer, and, you’ve set a precedent with me, i.e, you have been supplying me with the proper UK adapter, AFTER each effects sale, with NO ARGUMENT, and at no charge for several YEARS NOW – and now, you are reneging on that, and saying that I MUST ACCEPT Euro plugs, and a crappy plastic ‘plug adapter’ to go with it ! – no thank you, and furthermore,  I refuse to trust my really expensive device to a £1.79 plastic UK plug adapter”.

So because they instigated this new “policy”, where they no LONGER supply the proper UK power supply at request or at no charge…which they had done for about five years out of the six OR seven years (or more) I’ve been buying from them, I’ve had enough – more than enough of their attitude – and if it costs them money, to supply what should have been in the box all along – well, that is NOT my problem.

I was a good, repeat business customer, a good one – but over the past two years, I’ve had to argue, argue, argue, and eventually they would reluctantly send me a UK power supply for the device I had just bought.

I got really tired of the whole subject.  I even called the UK store manager in Romford, and had a long talk with him about..about just how incredibly STUPID (THERE IT IS….THE ‘S’ WORD) the policy of sending Euro plugs (aka, something that in the UK, MAY AS WELL BE A LUMP OF USELESS PLASTIC WITH SOME ROUND PINS STICKING OUT OF IT) – and he agreed it wasn’t the most brilliant policy, but I thought we had reached an agreement, that they would continue to supply them to me when I ask for them…but I was wrong.

not so.  In fact, after the last conversation with the boss, it was then that I waited THREE MONTHS for a UK adapter to arrive for my Ground Control Pro. Almost as if he had told them to drag their feet…

 

But not long after that, the real arguments started, and the salesman started telling me what I “MUST ACCEPT”.

That was the signal for me to end my relationship with DV24/7 (except of course, in the event of me needing to use one of my many, many, three year warranties that I have with them for a number of my effects devices).

So the income and the profit from sales to me have how stopped, permanently, they claimed, in an email that they “valued my repeat business” but basically, I would have to accept Euro plugs with UK plug adapters…so from that threat, I could tell that clearly, they do NOT value my repeat business at all.

If they did, the precedent set six or seven years ago, would still be in place, and I would still get a proper UK power supply for each device I purchased.  But – no more

All the other stores, I will be completely honest with them going forward:  I will EXPECT a UK adapter with each pedal I purchase – or, I will give the business to the vendor who will happily say “yes” to that humble, simple request.

 

WHAT THE MANUFACTURERS MEANT TO HAPPEN

(and what they supply to MAKE it happen in the different markets)

 

As if the all of the above wasn’t enough, now, please consider this:

Each manufacturer, for example, Eventide (USA based) or Electro-Harmonix (USA based) has included in the price of their effects pedal, a working power supply for that device, which should be different for each non-USA country it is sold in.

So let’s imagine that you bought a pedal from a well known online store in the USA, and you LIVE in the USA.

Let’s say it’s that Eventide H9 I mentioned earlier.  You would receive that H9 in a box, with a US style two-flat-bladed-plugs-bearing power supply.  You open the box; you plug that two prong flat bladed US style plug directly into the nearest 110v US outlet in your US home – And you are instantly delighting in the beauty of the H9 experience.

So let’s now imagine that you bought a pedal from a well known online store in Germany, and, YOU live in Germany…or anywhere in Europe except the UK.

Let’s say it’s that Eventide H9 I mentioned earlier. You would receive that H9 in a box, with a Euro style two-round-pins-plug bearing power supply. You open the box; you plug that two round pin style plug  directly into the nearest 220v German outlet in your German home – And, you are instantly delighting in the beauty of the H9 experience.

Repeat above  paragraph for Japanese market.

Repeat above paragraph for South American market.

Repeat above paragraph for any non-UK market.

 

Finally – let’s now imagine that you bought a pedal from a well known online store in the UK, and, YOU live in the UK.

Let’s say it’s that Eventide H9 I mentioned earlier. You would receive that H9 in a box, BUT, much to your everlasting astonishment – instead of the 3-flat-bladed UK style power supply you expected (just as with your toaster, your hair dryer, your washing machine, your hoover…) but instead, to your ultimate dismay – you find, inexplicably, that you have instead been sent – a Euro style two-round-pins-plug bearing power supply.

You open the box; you remove the wrongly supplied Euro power supply in disbelief, which you cannot plug in anywhere in the country you live in – And, you now have no idea what the H9 SOUNDS like, because you cannot plug it INTO THE WALL as you can in every OTHER COUNTRY ON THE PLANET.  And – you DO NOT GET TO DELIGHT in the beauty of the H9 experience.  Not for days or weeks or latterly, apparently – ever.

Eventide MEANT for you to get that box, open it, plug the RIGHT power supply into the proper outlet, and play your guitar through their pedal. Immediately.  You PAID for that, you paid for the good experience, the one where you get to actually use the pedal you just bought.

No..not here in the UK.  Instead…you get argument.  You spend literally hours, emailing, calling the DV24/7 boss AGAIN to complain.

THE LAST STRAW

There is one remaining wee story to tell.  And that story is about a device that I bought from DV24/7 … LAST YEAR.

I bought a new Voodoo Labs Ground Control Plus MIDI controller from DV24/7 in late October or early November – the actual date isnt really important.

 

you’ll never guess, to my amazement…it TOO, like the Eventides and the Electro-Harmonix pedals before it, the Ground Control Pro arrived…with a Euro style round pin power supply – with a twist, it was an AC adapter (rather than the much more common DC adapter), with a higher current requirement than most pedals have.   Still useless though…I did say “Euro” and “round pins”.

So standard procedure, I rang up or emailed DV24/7 and said “please send me the correct voltage Voodoo Labs UK power supply for my Ground Control Pro”.  I got argument and stalling.  I rang the boss yet again, applied pressure verbally…he promised they would send the adapter.

still no adapter.  Christmas passed.  I cajoled, I asked nicely, I became irritated…no result.

New Year passed.  I wrote again, this time simply saying “appalling customer service, making a good, repeat customer wait OVER THREE MONTHS for a lousy power supply that costs £2.00 to produce in Asia…you ought to be ashamed”.

Nothing.. No response to my emails anymore.

 

then, tonight, on January 20th, having waited thru November, thru December and thru most of January with no power supply – when I got home, a small box from DV24/7 had been delivered to my neighbour.  I went to retrieve it.  Finally – and, by the way, NOT a Voodoo Labs supply at all, but the cheapest of the cheap generic type adapter, BUT the right voltage 9 volts AC at 500 ma – so theoretically usable with the Ground Control.

The adapter was promised over and over, the salesman promied, then his BOSS promised it, and it didn’t arrive.

I doubt it was my “you ought to be ashamed” message that finally caused it to ship to me – but it should have been.

They still owe me a power supply for an EHX pedal I bought recently. But we shall see what happens with that one.  But, I won’t expend the least bit of effort on DV24/7 any more, no more chasing down a power supply EVERY SINGLE TIME I BOUGHT SOMETHING.  For SEVEN YEARS.

 

A SIMPLE, SIMPLE SOLUTION EXISTS

DV24/7 have some internal “problem” where some their stock that is to be sold in the UK, comes from Europe, and it has Euro plugs in it.  But guess what – the manufacturers make at least four different adapters, that are supposed to be sold in the US, the UK, Europe, and Japan.  So – you, as the distributor of these products, are supposed to be SMART ENOUGH to order the right boxes with the right adapters for each country you are selling them in.

A quick example of a smart policy:

You are a big music store with stores in Europe and in the UK.  Sales are roughly equivalent in both areas, so, instead of buying 1000 boxes of EURO Eventude H9s, you order instead, 500 boxes of Euro H9s (which you sell in EUROPE) and 500 boxes of UK BOXES, (which you sell IN THE UNITED KINGDOM). Simple.

Under my clever scheme (see above) the customers in BOTH Europe AND the UK END UP WITH THE CORRECT POWER SUPPLY when they receive their order. Rejoicing. No more phone calls.  No more emails. No more arguing with customers.  No more customers so traumatised by their never-ending NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE AT DV24/7 that they finally just say NO MORE.

NO MORE.

 

Now – clearly, their purchasing department wasn’t smart, and all their pedals are in EURO boxes.  So this won’t ever end, with DV.

BUT INSTEAD of them making their problem by MY problem, and pawning off their unwanted garbage/Euro Lumps Of Plastic onto UK customers who DO NOT WANT THEM…instead of you making your problem be my problem…why don’t you just SOLVE the problem, and buy the boxes with effects with UK power supplies in them, to SELL IN THE UNITED KINGDOM???

by the way:  I ***HATE*** it, when companies, or people, make THEIR PROBLEM be MY PROBLEM.  I refuse to allow that.  My time is too valuable, too precious to waste on the “Euro round pin power supply game”.  It is a game that sucks, I can tell you that much for free.

THE REAL INTENTIONS OF THE EFFECTS’ MANUFACTURERS

Remember, the manufacturers, WANT YOU not only to get a power supply with your device, but, they WANTED for it to have a power supply with it, that meets the following  criteria (you PAID for all this – it is included in the effect’s price!!!!):

a) fits the outlets in your country

b) supplies the right voltage and has the correct current handling requirements for your device and your country’s power outlets

c) you PAID FOR THAT privilege, to be able to plug right in and enjoy your purchase – whereas, I got to LOOK at how nice my new effects looked, for many days, while I waited for the “afterthought” correct UK adapter to arrive – and, looking is not HEARING or ENJOYING, is it?? and

d) they did NOT intend for you to receive the WRONG PLUG type, that does NOT plug in, in your country, and is, to a UK customer anyway, a useless LUMP OF PLASTIC with two round pins sticking our of it.

 

CONCLUSION (?)

 

i rest my case.  As Bryan Ferry once said “don’t let this happen to you!!”

I told you I could find the STUPID stuff.

 

 

 

peace and love and UK POWER SUPPLIES FOR ALL!!!!

 

Dave 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-GuitarCraft Depression? Is that a thing?

Hello again

I’m recently returned from my latest Guitar Craft adventure, working for a short week and then giving a live performance, along with 61 other “Symphony of Crafty Guitarists” guitarists, that was stratospheric in every way.

It was an incredible experience, and my first impulse was to write at length about it – which I may well do in the future, but right now, I wanted to ask a question – I am wondering if any other attendees of Guitar Craft (or, Guitar Circles, I am now beholden to say as well) courses, suffer from this (possibly imaginary) malady, not just now, but over time – across the years – which maybe I am the sole inventor of, I don’t know.

My life is pretty ordinary – I live in an ordinary town, I have an ordinary job in that ordinary town, and ordinarily, I work on music at home, with the occasional Internet collaboration, because of a disability that makes performing very difficult indeed.

So attending Guitar Craft courses, which I’ve done in a very, very intermittent way, over many, many years (since September, 1988 in fact!) is a huge, huge privilege and it’s a real highlight – a rarity, for a number of reasons:

  1. A chance to socialise with like-minded musicians and others
  2. A chance to practice Alexander techniques – great for highly strung or stressed out people (i.e. me, a lot of the time) or, do Tai Chi – and, meditate regularly, too
  3. A chance to perform with like-minded musicians and others
  4. A chance to spend one week in a very positive, very safe, very forward-looking environment
  5. It’s something enjoyed only rarely, recently, every five or six years perhaps – therefore, a huge treat for me
  6. It’s something very memorable
  7. It’s an occasion where you meet up with old friends, and renew those friendships (yes, I’m talking about you, Frank, and you, John Lovaas, and you, Ray Peck)
  8. It’s an occasion when you meet new friends, some of which, will stay so for many, many years (I’m talking about you, Pablo, and you, Jules, and you, Jamie! – you all know who you are!)
  9. It’s something very special in an otherwise very ordinary life

So when you only experience this once every five or six years, that strange, strange feeling – that people think you are a good guitarist, that people look up to you and respect your musical ability, that people want to jam with you, that people want to hang out with you – whereas, in your normal life, where there are few to no like minded musicians or people – doing any of those things is very difficult to downright impossible.

Recently then, since it’s now almost a week since the end of the course, I began to have moments where it all became a bit too much for me, and I really wished I could be back in that house, back at Koos Vorrink, in Lage Voorsche, in Holland – you just wish that the course could maybe run a bit longer, or you could somehow bring that environment back with you, and continue to live among like-minded colleagues, whom you respect, and, who respect you.

I am one of the most isolated of all Crafties, being the only Crafty guitarist in the northern part of Britain, and my disability prevents me from any chance of any regular meetings with those very few other Crafties who do reside in Britain – mostly, waaaay down south where that round yellow thing * can be sometimes seen in the sky.

Other symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • no desire to hear music of any kind
  • no desire to play or perform music of any kind
  • no desire to work on music of any kind
  • a craving for silence – silence is what I crave – silence as experienced at the course I was just on

So it can be daunting, coming back to that ordinary life, and not putting away the stack of spare strings you took with you to the course, or the gig flyer, just leaving them on your desk to remind you, to make you feel like you are still there.  Don’t get me wrong though, I am so, so glad to be home, home is where the heart is, and I truly missed home while I was away in Koos Vorrink.  I am very glad to be home, and especially glad to no longer be parted from my partner.

I am not depressed in the normal sense, I am fine, but there is an odd feeling to life now, I miss the routines of Guitar Craft, the communal feeling at meals and at other times of shared work or play – and I’ve rarely seen a course run so smoothly as this one did, the kitchen was amazing, Fernando should be crowned king and…some of those desserts – wow!  What can I say?  As a veteran of many, many Kitchen Craft courses, I know exactly what it takes to run a kitchen for a large group like this, and the hard work and intense effort that goes into it, is almost invisible when you are on the receiving end of yet another amazing dish or dessert – it’s flawless.

The quality of that performance, absolutely inspired and fed into the quality of the musical performance of October 15th, 2015 (at Koos Vorrink, Lage Voorsche, Holland) which for me, was one of the single most amazing things I have ever been a part of, in my entire life – simply astonishing.  I’ve never heard or seen anything like it before, even my original “Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists (I)” course performance in Sant Cugat, in 2009 – which was brilliant – was not quite the performance that THIS was.

And here I am now, talking about the course, rather than about my reaction(s) to the course – my recent feeling of being adrift in the ordinary world, so I will have to reign that impulse in, and not describe that amazing performance right now – that’s for another time.  At the moment, I want to say, I can remember this strange feeling from other courses – I remember after one California course, I had to go shopping in a brightly lit, clean supermarket, with very few people in it – and each time I came around the corner of an aisle, I fully expected to see one of the 75 faces that I’d just spent the last 8 days with – and inevitably, I would feel disappointed to find that it was just a stranger – I expected the face of a Crafty, maybe holding a guitar, maybe clearing away dishes, but – someone I knew.  those [however many] people on your course, become the whole universe, and when you walk out of that universe – it’s very, very odd indeed.  Disconcerting, even!

This feeling persists for days, you keep expecting to see __________ – put in the name of anyone you were just on the course with here, you expect to see that face, I expect to see Fumi coming around a corner, with that huge, huge grin on his face, always laughing, or perhaps it’s one of the Vicious Queens, intent and intense, on the way to a VQ meeting, or Fernando, worrying about the menu, but secretly, thinking about the dessert…

so – there are things that remind you – I am washing the strawberries…and I notice they are from Holland.  sigh.  I see the waffle cookies in the cupboard, which evoke every memory of Holland – too sweet, too good, too delicious to believe.

reminders, and then, going back to work, and remembering that this is my reality 99.9999 percent of the time, and Guitar Craft is some tiny, tiny minuscule part of my life – but, the impact it has, is absolutely not minuscule!  not at all.  It does stay with you, for weeks, for months, for years – and that’s both good and bad.  hopefully, I will have, perhaps, finally learned the right way to hold my pick.  I get Robert to fix it every time I see him, he fixes it, and, I get closer to the ideal, every time.  It’s progress, although it can be painfully slow progress.  But that is still preferable to nothing!  It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, I truly wouldn’t – but I just wonder if it affects other Crafties the way it sometimes affects me – it’s not so much a negative, as just a reminder of how ordinary life outside of Guitar Craft can be.  And how it makes you feel when quite suddenly, thanks to the extreme time compression of the Guitar Craft experience, you are thrust back into the ordinary world, and you start having to worry about connections and planes and trains and cabs and all that.

it’s jarring, it’s difficult to re-adjust, and after about a week, I don’t feel as if I have quite settled back into my ordinary life. Perhaps that is because I was part of an absolutely extraordinary group of people, that rehearsed and put on an absolutely extraordinary performance – probably.  Yes – that will be why.  And also knowing, that I won’t be able to take part in SOCGII – because it’s in South America, which is both a practical and a physical impossibility for me.  So that’s it – I was at the debut of the Symphony, but it’s doubtful that I will attend any future SOCG courses or circles.  It has just become too difficult, and, too geographically challenging.

sigh.  meanwhile, coming from a place of slight melancholia now – please let me know if you have experienced any post-Guitar Craft feelings of any kind, or, what other “reactions” you may have had within the first week or so after returning from a Guitar Craft or Guitar Circle course.  I’d like to compare notes, find out if others have had this kind of feeling before, upon returning to their normal life.  🙂 – whatever “normal” means, I suppose!

another sigh, then, before I go…

all the very best to everybody – thanks TEAM SOCGI, wherever you have scattered to now…

dave

* the sun

I’ve got this notion…

After recently completing a couple of new tracks in the “music for apps” series, one piece done in korg’s  remarkable gadget app, entitled “fair play (advanced version)”, and the other, a very new piece made in my old friend nanostudio , entitled “treeclimber” – my most recent application-based work to be uploaded – I was thinking about what I should work on next.

I always have in my mind, a massive backlog of ideas for work with apps, and there are still a number of apps that I have not had the chance to record with – and in some cases it’s almost criminal, because they hold so much promise.  And I promise that I will get to them – borderlands granular being but one of them – an amazing ambient music application.

This is my current, “off-the-top-of-my-heid” list of apps that I own, but have simply not had an opportunity to record with yet:

borderlands granular

sector

moog’s animoog  – (note – I have quite a lot of material recorded using animoog, which dates back to the earliest times, almost three years back – that I have yet to publish any of – and it’s an incredibly beautiful application, one of the absolute best)

nave

thor

arturia family: imini and isem and iprophet

not to mention…

synergy

addictive synth

nlog pro

sliver

alchemy

arctic pro

and, no doubt, a host of others 🙂

 

And maybe what this list is…is the list of my next half dozen or so “eternal albums” series for 2015 – possibly.  I need to look at this carefully, and recently, I have been working with my app data (i.e., a mass of audio recordings made over the past few years, involving applications – and lots of them!!), of which there was such an overwhelming amount, created so quickly, over the first couple of years using apps, that I am just now sorting out the data (this is the curse of being prolific and incredibly inspired all at once, I dove head first into apps, recording so much video and audio, that my backlog has at times stretched out to about two years – and it’s only very slowly being worked through now, very slowly indeed! – it will take a long, long time to “catch up” – if I ever do!), and seeing what I have to present to you – and there is quite a lot sitting here, just waiting for me to find time – and I am constantly torn between the need to present this backlog of interesting application-based music, and playing new app-based music which will then also need to be presented – it’s always a choice, a choice I don’t want to make – I truly wish I had time to do both, but as it is, I am constantly bouncing back and forth between… – music of the past, music of the present, music of the pastmusic of the present.

 

Before I could sort through my mental files and choose one of these neglected apps to work on, another thought appeared in my head, which I kept trying to push away, I kept resisting it – until I realised, that I am much happier if I always have a project going in notion. So – without any remorse or hesitation whatsoever, I dived in, and began a new piece in notion, with a temporary title of “quartet in d major for four guitars” – it is another work in the classical genre, but this time, I am [temporarily, I assure you] moving away from the concerto form, and I am trying something new.

 

I have worked with notion and guitars before, in fact, my very first notion piece, “notionally acoustic”, was scored for two acoustic steel stringed guitars, as was the later “once more (into the fray)”, but to date, never really in the Classical genre, so I loaded up four nylon-stringed, classical guitars into notion – and began writing.

 

Very soon, I realised, that this is an amazing opportunity to apply some of my very limited Guitar Craft knowledge, in a writing situation, being very aware of the place that Guitar Craft already has within classical performance – i.e. where groups such as the Orchestra Of Crafty Guitarists (and their predecessors, the League Of Crafty Guitarists) and the California Guitar Trio, have used the new standard tuning, and, techniques such as “planned circulations” when performing classical works from Bach to Beethoven to Bartok.

 

With that strong history – and I was there, when the California Guitar Trio started doing a lot of classical repertoire, arranged by the remarkable Bert Lams, a musician that I respect more than most, and those early performances were the first time I had seen circulations used to play the very trickiest portions of some of these compositions – which might just about be “impossible” for three guitarists to play without using the circulation to share out the workload.  So any passage that is too incredibly quick or complex for a single guitar to play – can be shared across the three guitars, which makes the piece performable.

 

Or – it might also be, that in some cases, it’s not because it’s a tricky section of the piece, it’s rather that, Bert takes real joy in breaking up these melodies and harmonies into their component notes, and sharing them out between himself, Hideyo and Paul – and I was astonished the first time I saw this – it’s truly impressive, a remarkable way to perform classical music, and one of the most innovative I’ve ever seen.

 

Bert’s “planned circulations” truly inspired me, and now, while I cannot, unfortunately, work in new standard tuning (NST) in notion (I really, really wish they would add this capability to the application; then my life would be absolutely complete!! But it would involve new samples for all of the missing notes, that would have to be matched to the existing notes…not an easy ask, I am afraid), I can work with circulations.  I learned how to notate a circulation when I was working on my alternative track “once more (into the fray)”, so I already know how to do it – so I realised, when I set up this piece, that this is an opportunity to really expand this experience, and I plan to use “planned circulations” whenever and wherever I can within this new piece.

 

Of course, there is already a small one (a circulation, of course!) in place (!!) in the first section of the piece, the earliest melodies and ideas arrived very quickly and sorted themselves out very easily, so I am perhaps into minute two by now – a brand new composition, but, one that is already using circulations – I think it’s very exciting.

 

A chance to blend what I learned in Guitar Craft, actually, one of the single most important and beautiful things I learned in Guitar Craft, the “circulation” (where a single note is passed around a circle of guitarist, improvised or planned) – with classical music – something which, at the time, I did not have the skill, inspiration or tools to write – but now, fast forward to 2015 – and I have all three – amazingly.

 

Which means – at last – I can integrate the beauty and delight of the circulation form, into any classical composition I do involving guitars – so, four guitars, and of course, since I am notating sampled guitars in notion, rather than notating for real guitars in the real world, I use another tool to simulate the presence of four real players, an old, old piece of technology that I think is often criminally overlooked:  panning, or stereo placement.

 

OK, I am not able to do this in 5.1 (yet) or build up a 3D model a la Dolby Atmos, but – I can begin with what I’ve learned from the world of recording – if you want to simulate the physical position of different players, especially in a classical piece, you have to give careful thought to their stereo placement.  Now, in this case, it happens to be wonderfully simple, I set the four guitarists up like this:

 

Guitarist 1           Hard Left

Guitarist 2           30 degrees left of centre

Guitarist 3          30 degrees right of centre

Guitarist 4           Hard Right

 

Incredibly simple, but also, incredibly important – and I think, that this very simple technique, sounds wonderful – if you have a nice reverb room for all four players, and you put on the headphones and close your eyes…the stereo is simply amazing, and you really start to be able to pick out each player, and hear each distinct contribution to the piece.

 

It means too, that I can work in pairs – but not just the obvious, but in every possible configuration.

 

The most obvious two pairs would be Guitarist 1 and Guitarist 4, which gives you a very wide separation, and when Guitarists 2 and 3 fall silent, you get a particular ambience with just 1 and 4 playing.  At the same time, the second most obvious pair, Guitarists 2 and 3, sound almost as if they are in mono, wonderfully blended, being closer to the centre, and when 1 and 4 fall silent, this pairing have a completely different ambience, which provides a wonderful contrast to the wide separation of 1 and 4.  (Note, obviously, if you had a fifth instrument in this scenario, it would, of course, be set to dead centre).

 

Of course then, I am able to do any of the other remaining possible pairings, 1 and 3, 1 and 2, and 2 and 4 – so that’s five basic pairings…but for me, the most satisfying thing of all, personally, musically, and aurally – is when I run a planned circulation using all four players.  That means, if I score the notes starting with Guitarist 1, and then moving through the other three players in order, that you get the notes moving right across the stereo image from Hard Left to Hard Right (or, moving across your speaker system, or, moving across and through your head, in your stereo headphones) which just sounds wonderful to my ears!

 

If it is a particularly quick series, this almost then becomes a wonderful blur of musical motion, as the notes splay across your headphones, first, from left to right, then, back, but there is also the possibility of changing direction at any point in time, and sending the notes into almost any sequence – the most obvious being 1, 2, 3, 4, then the reverse of that, 4, 3, 2, 1 but there is no reason at all that I might not use other more unusual “orders” such as 2, 1, 4, 3 or 3, 1, 2, 4 and so on.  It’s also interesting the way these circulations “resolve”, when you are working on them, and you get to the end of the four bars or whatever, and you hear the way the circulation “works” within the large composition – it’s fascinating.

 

The possibilities are many, and I am very, very excited to see what works, what sounds good, what doesn’t work, what makes the most musical sense – what also pleases the aural senses the most.  I think it’s amazing that I am able to create this unusual sense of space, where you can distinctly hear each of the four players, and when they begin to “circulate”, you can follow the notes in “stereo space” which lends interest to the performance, while it adds sparkle to the music itself – do I play it straight, where the guitarist just “play” the notes, or do I put in the extra effort, and get them to work out quality “circulations” that do the most aural, and musical, justice to the piece?  I have the options, and I love it – these possibilities are truly exciting for a composer, which is what I’ve become, and I believe that because of this, I will probably begin to use circulations much, much more in my compositions, because I can, mostly!

 

There are a number of ways to accomplish this in notation.  Probably the simplest, and this is the way I do it, is, I write out a section of music, let’s say its four bars, in regular notation.  I then copy that across all four instruments, and then I simply decide who will play the first note – and I turn the other three guitarist’s corresponding notes into the equivalent rest.  Then I figure out who plays the second note, and I then turn the other three into rests.  Continue to the end – and you have a circulation.  Then – play it back.  If it doesn’t work – start over.  Or – make adjustments.  Sometimes you need to work on these a bit, because they don’t sound right – I’ve even decided to change notes in one or two of the copies to provide some alternate notes – so the circulation will then be subtly different from the original four bars of “straight” music that I had written.

 

That is just one way to do it, you can also decide what your notes will look like, by creating entire sequences of dummy bars, containing all rests, i.e., if you are in 4/4 time, then you would have four quarter rests per measure, or 8 8th rests, etc.  Then, you can go in and add notes manually, overwriting the rests, with the notes.

 

I’ve done it both ways, and both work fine, although I tend to use the “notes to rests” version rather than the “rests to notes” – it’s just my personal preference.

 

Another possibility, is to run two paired circulations – so, get Guitarists 1 and 4 playing one series of notes, while Guitarists 2 and 3, play a different one, perhaps in counterpoint or as a round – I haven’t really tried that, yet, so that might be interesting.

 

I just think that circulations and classical music were almost made for each other, and I love the idea of combining classical composition, with one of Robert Fripp’s best ideas ever.  It just works for me, and I believe that this new piece is going to really shine because of it – I am already very pleased with the first several bars, and their little “mini-circulation”, and my mind is racing ahead to imagining massive four-part guitar solo sections, no chords, just the four guitarists all soloing like mad – and then, cut it up into a circulation.

 

Imagine streams of 32nd notes or 64th notes, descending across four guitars, moving back and forth like a jagged triangle across the page, from guitarist 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 then back through them all to 1 again – like a wave of music, shared by these four players – I can’t wait to get to this imagined “solo section” – wherever it will be.

 

I am having to restrain myself a bit here, and make sure that I also have the piece centred and still based in the classical tradition, where I do have long stretches of music that are played “normally” – in fact, I want “normal” playing to dominate the piece, not the circulations – they need to be the exception rather than the rule.  They need to remain special, and I think that whenever they do appear, even if it’s fairly regularly – that they ARE special – and I am pleased and proud to have them available to me as an interesting tool that will hopefully, make my classical works more interesting and more unique – of course, any other “Crafty” that writes notation and is aware of circulations, might well also be crafting classical music including circulations, and frankly, I hope they are.

 

I really feel that the beauty of the circulation, is something that should be much more widely heard, and much more widely understood – the first time I was involved with one, in my very first live Guitar Craft circle – it absolutely blew my mind, I realised that I was a human being, being used by Robert Fripp in a live experiment in looping – and it was basically, a massive circulation involving 30 people, with Fripp directing and deciding what each player should play. Incredible, and, unforgettable – once you’ve been a part of such a unique thing.

 

That was in 1988, a long, long time ago now, but, I’ve carried that with me all this time, and now, the excitement I felt, that feeling of discovery – and later, at other Guitar Craft courses, I was fortunate enough to participate in many, many “unplanned” circulations, and planned ones, too – and sometimes, the absolute beauty of what happened in the “unplanned” ones especially, was just almost too much to bear, I would go to bed literally shaking my head at what a beautiful piece I had had the great fortune to be a part of.  A good circulation is a tonic, it literally heals me, it feels amazing, and it’s one of the most satisfying musical forms I have ever encountered.

 

The unplanned ones, where you have 20 or 30 players – or sometimes, in more intimate circumstances, with 7 or 8 players, as in some of the kitchen teams I have worked with (I made Kitchen Craft part of my Guitar Craft experience at almost every course I ever attended) where amazing things happen that you just can’t forget – “you remember that circulation we did that night, after we did the breakfast prep – that was astonishing?!!…” – all I can remember is that amazing circulation magic, and shaking my head in astonished disbelief – what an experience.

 

It does stick in your brain, and of course, there were those amazing early performances by Bert and the trio, and hearing Bert’s remarkable, unique arrangements of standard classical works, was a huge inspiration to me too, because I could then see the power of the “planned circulation” within all music – especially, in classical music.  It was interesting too, to watch and listen as the California Guitar Trio developed, more and more circulations crept into their work, so some of their later CDs and live performances still feature Bert’s special circulation-filled arrangements of classical, and other styles of performance, too.  To my mind, the trio are the best of the “Crafty spin-off groups”, because of the incredible variety of styles and pieces they perform, but also, because of the amazing arranging skills of Bert Lams.

 

I couldn’t write notation back then, in fact, I finally learned how thanks to the remarkable notion application, and I am still very much a beginner, but, I can now write it well enough – and it’s pretty easy to “hear” too, I do have “an ear” for music, so having Notion is such a blessing – I can write it, and instantly, I can HEAR it – get a good preview, and then I can “hear” if it is right or wrong – and make the appropriate adjustments – and try again.

 

It works.  It’s a good process, and I am so glad that I worked it out – it will definitely mean that I will want to create more repertoire for Guitar Craft, both classical and non-classical, I also plan to use circulations in some of my “alternative” works featuring steel-stringed acoustic guitars rather than nylon-stringed classical guitars – and in fact, one of my recent compositions, “once more (into the fray)” was done in this way – in that case, featuring two acoustic steel-stringed guitars.

 

In any case, the new piece is well under way, and I am hopeful that I can feature circulations in it in a fairly substantial way, without going over the top, and produce a pleasant, intriguing composition that will be enjoyed by all.  That would be a good thing.

 

notion was in constant use for the first year or so that I had it, so much so that I had to take a break from it, I did not want to, and it’s been a struggle keeping away from it all this time, many months, because I wanted to give the other apps a look in – which, to some extent, I have managed to do – except for the ones that I have yet to work with – but at least, I am keeping my hand in by working on existing eternal albums such as music for apps: “music for apps: gadget” and music for apps: nanostudio.

 

During my self-imposed “break” from notion, I did have a chance to sort out my data of stored music for applications, which allowed me to clean up, prep and upload the music for apps:  thesys eternal album, I also have set up sector as the next catalogue of recorded music to look at – sector is a remarkable application – and also during that time, I completed the two songs I mentioned earlier, “fair play (advanced version)” in gadget and “treeclimber” in nanostudio – and then, I lost my will power, I felt it calling to me, and suddenly, I am back in the world of notion once more (ahhh-bliss!…) – and feeling extremely happy about it, too, I truly enjoy working with this app, and writing notation, and having the instant feedback of being able to play back your music instantly, seconds after you put note to page – and that is hugely invaluable to a composer.

I’ve now already made significant progress with my new “four guitars”-driven quartet, and I am very excited about the possibilities for this piece – it’s sounding pretty good already, which is unusual – often, embryonic music refuses to take shape, or you struggle mightily to bring it into the shape you see in your head – but not this piece, it flows, it doesn’t require much tweaking, or at least, not so far – I am perhaps, two or three minutes in now – just working through the details :-).

 

I missed you, notion, I feel “normal” now – because for so many months, I always had at least one notion piece “on the go”, sometimes, two or even three, and I feel that music for apps: notion is one of my strongest works.  I am busy working on the next piece that will form a part of this ongoing eternal album and I am very excited indeed, about the musical possibilities inherent in a piece like this, when using classical notation mixed with the very potent Guitar Craft / Robert Fripp “circulation” – to my mind, that is quite a combination!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

mobile universe of sound (the ios world)

the ios universe of applications…is heaven for synthesists and musicians alike.  as a guitarist, I appreciate guitar applications, but my passion is collecting synthesizers…also, real synthesizers were always big ticket items, and I couldn’t afford the nice ones.

for me, ios, and the availability of inexpensive apps that emulate great synths old and new, changed everything.

pre-ios, I had a limited number of hardware and software synths, and the soft synths mostly had to be run inside my DAW, or in some cases, as a standalone application on the PC, but still, I had no access to an almost limitless array of synthesizers – and now, with ios and the amazing developers who populate it, I have more choice than I can deal with!!

HARDWARE SYNTHS

or, how it all started…

imagine if you will, then, a guitarist who has been working on music for many, many years, and during that time, dabbled in synthesizers – in the early days, I had an arp odyssey (a mark I, no less!), surely one of the most difficult to tune synths of all time; I had a wonderful serge modular system, and to my everlasting horror, I foolishly sold them off many years ago…

then, by chance almost, I picked up a couple of classic yamaha hardware synths: a dx7s, and a dx11s, and the dx7 saw service in the live set up of the band bindlestiff, where I played synth on stage as well as ambient loop ebow guitar – and my partner played a korg, so that was a great contrast of two fantastic synths – and if you listen to some of the pieces we did with that combination, yamaha and korg, such as “the wall of ninths” or “pacific gravity” you can hear what two classic synths can do in live performance.

so – during the first thirty five or forty years of my career, I owned at most, five hardware synths, and now, I am down to three – and that was it.  then came pro tools and sonar and soft synths in general, and I have a reasonable selection of those, which made recording much easier – in particular, having a decent grand piano, “true pianos”, was very useful, and I’ve used “true pianos” for a lot of projects, from my own songs to covers of peter hammill and van der graaf generator.  I picked up the wonderful “m-tron pro” mellotron software, which inspired one of my best solo albums, “sky full of stars”, and I also have “BFD2” a dedicated drum program, which allowed me to have professional sounding drum tracks when making the rock / prog / ambient album “gone native” – and if you take your time with it, you can make really great drum tracks with, such as this one, “wettonizer”, from the “gone native” record.

LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING

having owned such a limited range of hardware synths, I never really got the chance to expand my knowledge of synthesis by owning and playing a variety of synths, and I certainly never would have been able to afford most of the desirable synths (I remember playing a korg M1 when they came out, and just practically drooling with desire – but I simply could not afford it) – so I never bought a modern synth.  I do love my yamaha dx7s, as eno has noted, it has a few really great sounds, it does certain things very, very well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

but overall, besides a modest collection of standalone and DAW-based soft synths, I really felt like I didn’t have much chance to understand, for example, the differences between additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis, I never really felt like I totally understood the magical relationships between oscillators, filters, modulators, and amplifiers, because I didn’t have examples of the many, many various hardware devices with their wildly differing approaches to synthesis.  arpeggiators and sequencers were largely mysterious to me, but after working with the fairlight app (now called peter vogel cmi) for a year or so, I really “got” how sequencers work – which then meant I could use them with better clarity in many, many other synths that feature them.

THE ARRIVAL

then came ios.  the apple platform, and, when you look at what is available for music – well, that’s what made me decide which tablet to get, when I saw what I could get on ios, at the time, compared to the relatively modest selection of apps on android – it seemed a no-brainer.  I realise that over time, android is catching up, but I still don’t know if they will ever match the range, scope and incredible diversity of synths and near-synths that the apple store boasts – it’s astonishing what is available, and it’s astonishing that you can buy a massive collection of the world’s best synthesizers for a fraction of what the hardware versions cost – a tiny, tiny fraction.

FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT

so I went for the ipad/ios combination (despite not being a huge fan of apple in general!) and it was the wisest choice I ever made.  within minutes, I was beginning to collect that massive set of synths that I could never in a million years have afforded in the hardware world – I started out by buying something that would have normally cost me about 20 grand, the great 80s sampler, the fairlight – and I spent about a year and a half, learning how to build sequences the slow way – and it was a fabulous learning experience, and I came to understand how the fairlight works, and how to arrange the instruments into sets, and create music in a way I never had done before (step by step) – quite inspiring, and very educational – and as I said, I could then transfer my new sequencing skills, to many, many other devices that support sequencing and sequences.

MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS

another early purchase was moog’s “animoog”, and even now, when I have more app synths than I know what to do with, I am constantly returning to this synth, with it’s ever-expanding library of great sounds.  the korg “iMS-20” soon followed, and that was probably the synth that I truly started to learn from, because it’s so visceral, and so visual, with it’s bright yellow cables in the patch bay, and it’s utterly faithful graphics…  the first generation synthesizers that were first available on ios were already excellent, emulating hardware synths that would have cost me thousands, now mine just for a few quid on ios.  unbelievable – because I never would have owned any of those in my real life, because the hardware versions are so incredibly expensive – well beyond my means.  for example – the fairlight cost about ten thousand dollars more than my annual salary the year it came out.  now – it’s mine for a pittance…

AND ARTURIA TOO…

other early device purchases were my beloved “addictive synth”, the very, very capable “n log pro” – a great sounding little device;  “mini synth pro”, and another real favourite, the arturia “imini” – a mini-moog style synth on an ipad !!

between arturia’s “imini” and moog’s “animoog”, I was set to go for that style of synth. also, synths like the great bismarck “bs-161”, the very capable “sunrizer”, “cassini”, the amazing “alchemy” synth; the list goes on and on and on….

TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH

then you get unique and amazing synthesizers like the touch control “tc-11” synthesizer, which takes real advantage of the ipad’s large screen, and delivers a synthesizer-playing experience that is unmatchable – you place your hand or hands on the screen, and by moving your fingers and hands in various ways, you “play” the synth – there’s no keyboard, but this shows you that you don’t necessarily need a keyboard to make beautiful synthesizer music (something I’d learned once before, when I got my first korg kaossilator – amazing hardware device!) – and you can produce truly beautiful music using a non-traditional interface like this – “tc-11” is simply, one of the highest quality, most remarkable devices that’s ever appeared on iosios – I absolutely love it.  one of my very favourites, I do like synths that don’t have keyboards, but out of all of them, this is the most fun, and most creative, to work with and use to produce  startlingly different synth music, often of great beauty – the remarkable “tc-11”.

SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:

very quickly, I became a true collector of synth applications, and guitar applications, too – but it’s those synths that I keep going back to – and now, the second generation of application-based synthesizers are here, and they are beyond fantastic, with features and sounds that are incredibly complex, mature and amazing: the mighty “thor”; the incredible “nave”, “magellan”, the korg “ipolysix”, arturia’s amazing “isem” – the list just goes on and on and on.

the “dxi”, “epic synth” (1980s style synth), “launchkey” plus “launchpad”, “modular” (similar to my lost serge system, but reliant on in-app purchases to make it truly useful), “performance synth”, “sample tank” (the free version only so far), “spacelab”, “synth”, “synthophone”, “xenon”, “xmod”, and “zmors synth”….the list goes on still…

GENERATIVE DEVICES

then there were the generatives…mostly ambient in nature, and therefore, extremely well suited to the type of music that I generally make, so I happily adopted and became an adherent of “scape”, “mixtikl”, “drone fx”, circuli and so on…I worked with and continue to work with generative synthesis, which is a fascinating branch of synthesis, with it’s own quirks and interesting ways of working.  mixtikl in particular holds my interest very well, sure, anyone can make sounds on it, but if you get into it deeply, you really have an enormous amount of control of how it generates the finished product…which is endlessly changing, never the same, constantly mutating according to the rules and conditions that you control…

“scape” is just purely beautiful, the sounds, courtesy of brian eno and peter chilvers, are simply top-notch, and using art works to create your generative pieces is a stroke of genius – and it’s very simple, just…drag geometric and other shapes onto a canvas, and see and hear your generative piece grow.  more recently, I’ve picked up “drone fx”, which to my mind, is very nearly in the same class as “scape” and “mixtikl” given that you can set it up to create generative pieces, and the results are excellent – it’s a very ambient flavour, which suits me just fine, so I am very happy to add “drone fx” to my arsenal of generative music applications!

then there is “noatikl” (obviously, a spin-off or product related to the great “mixtikl”) – I don’t have much experience with this tool, I would call it a “sound design”-based generative music app, where you create loop-like pieces by connecting different sound generating nodes together – it’s quite odd, but it makes lovely music, and I hope to learn more about it and gain some skill in using it in the future.

THE LAND OF AMBIENT

this category includes most of the generatives, so please see “GENERATIVE DEVICES” above, for details on “scape”, “mixtikl”, “noatikl”, “drone fx”, and “circuli”.  there are other really, truly important synths in this category, in particular, the brian eno-designed “bloom”, which was the predecessor to “scape” – “bloom” is a generative player, you select wonderfully named style and “bloom” then creates them on a grand piano for you – it’s really lovely, I can sit and listen to it for hours.

then there is another from the “mixtikl” family, the lovely ambient music player “tiklbox” – this one is really simple, it has a die in the middle, and you roll the die, and it then randomly selects or creates a piece of music based on the number you roll.  It’s mostly very pleasant, I like the music it makes, but there is very little user interaction possible, you just turn it on, roll the die, and…listen.  but – that’s cool, too.

PHYSICS-BASED SYNTHS

then you have the slightly strange synths, two more in the semi-ambient category being “circuli”, which is literally, circles that grow and collide, and those collisions produce music, and the somewhat similar “musyc” that makes it’s music with bouncing objects – again, virtual objects collide to produce notes, chords or percussion sounds.  “orphinio” presents varying sets of intersecting circles, each set to a different tuning or modality.  both of these “shape-based” synths have truly great potential, but you have to be patient to get the kind of sounds you want out of them.

GRID-BASED SYNTHS

then there are the “grid” devices – visual sequencers with massive grids that scroll past, and you merely “click on” some of the buttons as they pass, and note events begin.  one of the best of these is an old favourite of mine, “beatwave”, which I have used as a background for guitar improvs, because you can very quickly “build” a good quality backing track (it’s very similar to looping, really) and then just let it run, and solo over the top of it for live performance purposes.  a similar and also very enjoyable device, “nodebeat HD”, works in a very similar way, and in fact, there are a good number of these “grid” types of synths out there, most of which sound very good.

MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS

then…again…you have the static grid types, such as the classic “mugician” and “cantor”, which use a static grid that you play by putting your finger on the notes you want to play, and “cantor” in particular, has a great “auto octave” function which means that if you want to go up very high, you just swipe a big diagonal line upward – and the device leaps up through four or five octaves – and a reverse diagonal, takes you back down to the lower notes.  “cantor” is more note based, although it does have microtonal attributes, you mostly use real notes, whereas “mugician”  is totally and utterly microtonal, you can “hit” notes, but it’s more about being able to play in a microtonal fashion – something that takes practice to get good at.

early on, I used “mugician”  to play microtonal indian-style melodies over the remarkable “itabla pro” (one of my very, very favourite music apps of all time – I could write an entire blog about “itabla pro”; how good it is; and how much I LOVE it!) and that was great fun – it works really well as a lead instrument in that kind of musical situation.

slightly different in design to the “mugicians” and “cantors” (which while sounding very different, do have very similar interfaces visually at least) is the most excellent “sound prism pro” which features it’s own unique grid design, that is similar but different from the other two apps mentioned.  “sound prism pro” has it’s own unique musical vocabulary, and is a bit more melodic / harmonic, whereas “mugician” and “cantor” are essentially solo instruments – melody only.

VOCAL SYNTHS

then there is the “vocal section”, which on my pad, share a special page with my audio utilities – in this category, we have some great tools for creating vocal harmonies and effects: “harmony voice”, “improvox”, “vio” and “voice synth” – each boasting it’s own slightly different way of achieving vocal harmonies – some very innovative and good sounding tools in this category, a lot of fun to sing into, too.

RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID

just outside of the land of synthesizers, there are also a broad spectrum of recording studio applications, such as “auria” (professional audio multitrack studio), “cubasis” – professional AUDIO + MIDI studio, “nanostudio” one of the oldest and most respected MIDI studios, and a personal favourite (and it does qualify, because it has a synth in it – a GREAT synth, called “eden synth”, which I absolutely love), “isequence”, “isynpoly” and “synergy studio”, midi studios all; and the unique yamaha “synth and drum pad” which is a bit different from the rest and is a lot of fun to experiment with – some unique sounds there, too.

the most recent entrant to this category is korg’s groundbreaking “gadget” – an incredible studio with fifteen unique korg synthesizers, bass synths and drum synths (yes, fifteen) that you can combine in endless variations to produce some amazing music.  I’m currently working on my first three pieces with gadget – and of course, I feel another eternal album coming on…

STANDALONE ARPEGGIATORS

on the same page as the studios, I also have a couple of standalone arpeggiators, “arpeggiognome pro” and “arpeggio”, which are very useful for driving your other synths, and unusual apps like “lemur”, which I purchased at half price for future development projects.

DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

I also have a few of what I term “idiot synths” (no offense to anyone) because you need know absolutely nothing to run them, they are really just sample players with controls to modify many samples running in parallel.  the “groove maker” series are really quite good, I love the “groove maker rock” version especially.  I also have “session band rock” which is similar, I’ve made a couple of nice “metal” backing tracks with “session band” – the “rock” version, of course!

PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS

then there is the more traditional section of keyboards, which features a variety of grand pianos, regular pianos, upright pianos, electric pianos (“iGrandPiano”, “iElectric Piano”, “EPS”, mellotrons, and a couple of really, really great emulations of organs – “galileo”, “organ+”, and “pocket organ c3b3” – I love all three of these!  I am really pleased in particular to have the organs available, and the work that’s gone into them, right down to the quality of that leslie speaker emulation – I love the “slow to fast” sound and vice versa, and all of these do a good job of that.  the sounds are simply beautiful, and, they are a lot smaller, lighter, and cheaper than real organs 🙂

DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO

this section of my ipad has really expanded of late, and there are a lot of great apps available for very little cost.  starting with the basses; we have a large variety of very innovative and interesting-sounding devices, from oddities like “amen break” to more practical devices such as “bass drop hd” and”bassline”. the drums section, by comparison, is massive – old faithful “korg ielectribe”, “dm-1”, “drumatron”, “easybeats”, the unique “impaktor” (which makes a drum kit out of any ordinary surface), propellerhead’s quintessential “rebirth” which of course, handles bass and drums, and is enormous fun just to play…”synth drum”, “virtual drums”, and a million other drum kits and machines too numerous to mention…

my absolute, all time favourite drum app, however, is not any ordinary drum machine or drum kit, rather, it’s the extraordinary “itabla pro” – one of the most excellent applications I own.  full on tabla samples, with several playing styles for each template; and an extremely large range of templates in all time signatures, it’s as much an education as it is a drummer. also featuring tanpura and other supporting instruments, it has two completely tunable tanpuras, the tablas and the two tanpuras are all tuneable within an inch of their life, and it makes outstanding music for interacting with other ipad instruments.  I’ve been working for some time using synthesizers with “itabla pro” as accompaniment, and it works equally well with microtonal synths such as “mugician”, as well as ordinary “western” synths such as animoog – on my ipad right now, I am working on a new piece that features two animoog solo melodies over a tanpura and tabla backing – and it’s sounding very, very good so far.

notably, while not a percussion instrument, there is also an excellent free app, called “samvada” that does tanpura only, it’s beautifully made, sounds great, and is excellent for use either in conjunction with “itabla pro”; or, for situations where you want a tanpura drone but you don’t need tablas.  sometimes, I just gang up the tanpuras on “itabla pro” with “samvada”, for the ultimate in rich, deep drones – fantastic.

ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS

other oddities include “tabletop” which is a sort of…table top, where you can arrange midi synths and drum modules to make music with, with a lot of in-app purchases if you want the really nice tools.  it is possible to make decent music with the free supplied tools, but it is limited unless you are willing to spend a lot on IAPs.

there are so many in this “category” that I cannot possibly list them all: “76 synthesizer”, “moog filtatron”, “catalyst”, “cascadr”, “dr. om”, “noisemusick”, “figure”, “lasertron ultimate”, “samplr”, the list just goes on and on and on…

IN CONCLUSION…

and as time passes, more and more synthesizers will arrive on ios, each more powerful than the last, it just seems like a never-ending process, there are so many excellent developers out there, as well as such a hunger from musicians (myself included, I am not ashamed to admit) for these synths – especially the vintage ones, the ones that emulate the classic keyboards that we all lusted after, but most of us simply could never afford.  ios, and the availability of cheap synth apps – gives us what we could never, ever have in the real world.

armed with this vast array of synthesizing power, I feel like there is no sound that I can’t make, and no requirement I can’t meet – if I need a sound for a project I am building on my ipad – I will, absolutely will, already have a synth – or two – that can make that sound.

I am utterly in my element here, I hope the synths never stop arriving, and as long as developers keep creating them, I will absolutely, absolutely – keep playing them.  rock on.

I will leave guitar applications for another day – suffice to say, they are equally diverse and fascinating, and several of them are putting serious challenges to existing stomp box and other guitar processing hardware items.  I love my guitar apps, and it’s a whole new world of guitar playing – instead of my traditional set up; instead, I have a guitar to ipad to sound card set up – and I can get a whole world of excellent tone just using ios ipad guitar applications…

in the meantime, synthesists unite, and developers, please do not stop working on new and better and more innovative synthesizer apps.   something needs to feed this addiction, and that’s truly what it has become – but in the best possible way, and I get so much enjoyment, hours and hours and hours of enjoyment, from just playing the various synths, to making various recordings using them – it’s created an entirely new application-based world of music that I did not realise I had in myself – and it’s an absolute joy to play these innovative instruments, and to try out new combinations of devices either by using them in a multi-track environment such as “auria”, or, for simpler set ups, the very practical “audiobus” (another game-changing device) and now, we have the new inter-app audio as well, so options for tying synths together via MIDI, or for triggering other devices from within one device, just grow and grow – it is truly amazing.  I feel truly blessed to live in such times, technology at work for good, for the sake of sound, and the sound quality of most of these apps far exceeds expectations.

for that, and for the massive number of free, inexpensive or even expensive synthesizer applications, I am truly grateful, and truly happy, that these exist for me to collect 🙂

happy synth-ing!

the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime” – first pureambient release of 2013

the first release of 2013 for pureambient is a new album, from a new band, namely “dreamtime” from “scorched by the sun” (released as download only on january 17th, 2013, by pureambient records – available on bandcamp right now) and we could not be more pleased and proud.  this record represents a new kind of ambient music, made with new techniques and a lot of experience and history, too.

veteran ambient musicians bryan helm and dave stafford (who “are” “scorched by the sun”) bring a lot of experience to the table: both students of robert fripp’s guitar craft, they formed a crafty acoustic guitar duo in 1989, “the dozey lumps”, that worked mostly in a live setting, for a few years, creating a remarkable repertoire of original acoustic guitar music comprised of about 25 unique and very special songs, before they gradually transformed / mutated into a completely different musical entity: “bindlestiff”.

bindlestiff” was many things – a precursor to “scorched by the sun”? absolutely.  more a studio entity than a live performance entity, paradoxically, most of the material they recorded, whether it be on stage or in the studio…is live, absolutely live, 100 percent real, live, looping, without the benefit of MIDI sync – just doing it manually.  at that time, 1991 – 1995 (with an extended posthumous life that carried them forward to 1997) – and of course, the obligatory “best of” CD in the early 2000s, “enlighten” – “bindlestiff” could be said to be quite innovative, because of course during the late 90s and throughout the 00s – the “noughties” as we say – everyone was syncing up their MIDI clocks and all “playing live” to a click track…something we never did.  we just counted in (or not, once we really knew a piece, we would just start cold with no count in!), and played – our loops might not have technically been in sync, but we both have a good “ear” for music, so that meant we didn’t really “need” technology to enable us to loop – we just…looped.

a very, very straightforward and real proposition – we just played the tunes, and the loops took care of themselves.  perhaps a bit surprisingly, very few loop disasters occurred, but occasionally – they did.  when you listen to bindlestiff’s 1994 live album (entitled “live”, unsurprisingly) you don’t really hear any evidence of any loop trouble – and that’s because really, there was none.  because much of what we recorded in the studio was also live, the “live” album doesn’t actually sound terrifically different to the “studio” albums – we sounded the same, studio or live, because we were a live performance unit.  the only real difference on the studio takes was that there wasn’t an audience, and, we could play the piece as many times as we liked until we got the “best” version possible.  a very, very few tracks, a handful out of the total, actually involved overdubbing, which was normally just doubling up by playing a second live pass on a second stereo pair, to add additional colouration.  you could count those overdubbed tracks on less than ten fingers…

so: bryan and I have a shared musical past: three very difficult years writing 25 really, really difficult to play songs in robert fripp’s new standard tuning for guitar, and playing them…then, the amazing transformation from crafty acoustic duo to electronic looping duo – so moving from a very difficult instrument, the ovation 1867 acoustic guitar, to much easier instruments – for me, electric guitar, and ebow guitar, and looper; for bryan, drum machine, korg synthesizer and looper.

that change was really dramatic, and it really “freed” us – it gave us enormous scope to create (and the first bindlestiff album, “early” is testament to that freedom – what a strange collection of wonderful musical experiments!) and that sense of freedom carried on through the very important recordings of 1994 and 1995 – “live”, “quiet”, “LOUD” and “distant” – our four most important records, perhaps.

we explored the world of looping – both of us – both as a group within the very loose confines of “bindlestiff” as well as in our own individual solo careers – so this was a double education for us, and I felt I could do one kind of looping in the band, and some very different kinds of looping on my solo records – which really gave my output a broad span sonically, and the same applies to bryan – all the while we were in the band, we both carried on making our own recordings, as well…which is how it should be.

we also fully explored the world of ambient, and there are major ambient works on every “bindlestiff” record, from “early” to “enlighten”.  that also carried over into our respective solo careers – for example, since “bindlestiff” tended to make a lot of long form live ambient improvs, I decided to make an album of extremely short loops (“other memory / sand island”) – and it worked out really well.  so one decision in one area, affected another area positively – it was a brilliant and very, very creative time.

then, in 1995, bryan made the difficult decision to move from california to colorado, a move which effectively ended bindlestiff (although we did make two more albums, “distant” and “late” – and that inevitable compilation CD, “enlighten”, too) and simultaneously, launched my solo career!  but that was fine, bryan and I were very good friends for many, many years, and I respected his decision – for the sake of his family, he needed to be in colorado – so that is where he went.

the next thing that happened was…life.  time passed.  a lot of time.  bryan made recordings, bryan set up his most excellent blog and web presence, “my life in sound”.  I carried on making solo albums of many types, working on collaborations such as “drone forest” or the work with my musical and business partner, ken mistove, “saffron matted voids” – and we both kept very busy with music – bryan was in a couple of different bands, including one where he played upright piano (of course, as guitarist/synthesist – when you join a band, you play the piano – why not?) – and also worked on various collaborative recordings.

of course, we stayed in touch all through this long, long period of time.  we talked about recording again, but somehow we knew that since we could not work physically in the same room (because by this time, I had moved permanently to scotland, while bryan remains in colorado) – we knew that “bindlestiff” could not really make more records.

we talked about making a new record in some format, but then it would get set aside, somehow, we never started actually working on it.  we agreed that with the amount of time that had passed, and with the experience gained, that making an album now would be very interesting and exciting.  still – we couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually make the record.

then one day, an email arrived from bryan with a link to a download page, that had 12 pieces of music on it.  I downloaded these, and when I listened to them, I knew that at last, we had our album.  in a similar way to how leaving behind the acoustic guitars freed us to do the very creative “bindlestiff” material, having these great tracks delivered to me all in one go, absolutely freed me to use some very, very creative approaches when playing “my parts” on the record.

the approach I took surprised even me.  the first thing I did, after only hearing each of the pieces once or twice, was lay them out into a final running order, in sonar, but not in the order that bryan had numbered them, so I re-ordered them according to what I thought would “flow”…12 pieces, set up and ready to overdub.

this created for me, a huge blank musical canvas to work on.  I did a rough mixdown of the 12 bryan tracks, and listened to that for a few days, before attempting to work on the actual piece.  that helped, because it got me familiar with the music, and, it gave me ideas for what I might play…

but that was the interesting part…since so much time had passed, I now had a huge selection of instruments and sounds available, everything from soft synths to the guitar synthesizer, and of course, my trusty ebow and loopers.  I reckoned that I would just do what I always did; what bryan had done was mostly synth-based, so I would add parts that were mostly guitar based, or, I would (as always worked so well on all of the bindlestiff albums) – I would play the ebow.

this proved to be erroneous, uninformed thinking – it was just wrong; and when I tried to do this, it backfired horribly, it just did not work.  a day or two of this, and I realised – this will never work like this.  so I stopped, because I knew it would not “work” – and in thinking things through, I realised that I truly needed to view this as a new band, a new kind of music – and therefore, it demanded a very different approach indeed. on reflection, I should have realised earlier, that “falling back” on “what I knew” was just a bad idea; of course, playing looped ebows worked perfectly for “bindlestiff” – the old technique for the old band, but for this new band, which at first, did not have a name, and then gradually became “scorched by the sun”, I realised I had to approach it another way.

a few days of wringing my hands and worrying later, thinking, what am I going to do? one day, I was listening to the 12 tracks again, and it suddenly came to me – three words – “play the mellotron”.

and that was the answer.  I realised, that with my late 2011 album “sky full of stars”, that I had very successfully created an entire album of music using just the m-tron mellotron software synth – no other sound source of any kind – and that record for me, is one of the most beautiful and effective that I have ever created.  it just hit me, that what would work with bryan’s beautiful tracks – was the m-tron.  and that was the problem solved.

with one exception, every sound on the record that I made, was made with the m-tron mellotron, and the way it worked with bryan’s tracks is simply breathtaking – and simplicity is also key, in some cases, what was needed, was a very simple, very effective “basic flute” mellotron setting, and sometimes, of course, “simple” is best.

the one exception is a very brief, very reverberant grand piano part that I play on the first track, but after that, it’s mellotron all the way 🙂

hearing the fully produced, fully mastered and mixed version now, it’s difficult to conceive that (with one notable exception) the only instrument I played was a mellotron, because the m-tron does make a lot of very unconventional sounds, many of which I did use during some of the more…atmospheric tracks, so some of the mellotron work was more of the “creepy” variety, as well as the sweet, beautiful flute tones used in other sections of the piece.

some early mixes included versions that had just bryan’s parts, or just my parts, (the “overdubs only” or the “underdubs only” mixes) and listening to those, is like hearing two different, fully alternate versions of the main “dreamtime” album.  I haven’t properly finished or mixed either of those alternate versions, I suppose if there was enough interest from folk, I’d be happy to take the time to do so – perhaps they can be “added on” to the main album, as bonus tracks…maybe.  finding time for things like remixes is increasingly difficult – bearing in mind that the first draft of this very blog was written on january 23, 2013, and it’s taken me until march 6th to finally update and upload it!).

I also paid homage to my progressive rock roots on one of the tracks, performing a very camel-like flute mellotron part, and also, my one contribution to the main form of the album “part 9” (a new, thirteenth track that I added in after the existing part eight) – a mellotron solo, also has it’s roots in prog.  both bryan and I love a bit of progressive rock, and while it’s influence is here, it’s not overt – it’s mostly inherited, just subtly “rolled into” the overall feel of the record.

“dreamtime” is therefore a new creation, from a new, revitalised musical partnership, and bryan and I have both spent a lifetime in music, as he puts it, a “life-in-sound” – and after some forty years plus in the business of music, it’s great – no, it’s fantastic – to sit down and make a record with such a capable partner.  I respect bryan’s prowess as writer, performer, keyboardist and guitarist, and I am always interested too, in hearing what he gets up to in the studio, the things he records – because he has an approach to looping and ambient like no other, but is utterly willing to try anything once, or twice, in the studio or in performance – and we often pushed our own broad boundaries even farther than we would have perhaps planned to – often resulting in some real musical surprises, and some fabulous live improvisations came out of those early two incarnations too.

“scorched by the sun” is different though – it’s a very different animal – because for the first time since “the dozey lumps” – we are not looping. well, let me re-phrase that – I am not looping.  at all, not one note.  bryan may well have looped in creating his original pieces, I never analysed them that deeply (I shall have to ask him!) but whether he did or not is irrelevent – they are just lovely pieces of music regardless, and they represent “his half” of the work beautifully. and, they gave me a mostly melodic, often ambient, sometimes unusual but very, very inspirational “bed” of music to play over – a fantastic experience!

I also think that…maturity has a huge part to play here, and being…older…helps in so many ways.  I think we both have learned from our mistakes, and I think we are both much more subtle in our approach, and are both capable of sitting back, and letting the other lead the way, when that’s appropriate, or, if need be, taking the lead ourselves – whatever the piece of music at hand demands, we are ready for it.

most of bryan’s 12 songs, were fully realised pieces of music when they arrived; fully-formed, and quite complete on their own, so I had to work hard to find “overdubs” that were not too over-the-top, that complimented rather than were overbearing, and I think the finished record is testament to my success in that endeavour.

and it was a real pleasure too, to first, “imagine” this piece as a single, continuous piece of music – which I had to do in stages, first, by “deciding” what order those 12 pieces needed to go in – then, making the decision to add a 13th part, and inserting that into the piece – and finally, not just the overdubs for each of the pieces, but the small “linking” parts, which variously did or did not carry – overlapping pieces of music – bridging two of the songs, binding the pieces together like musical glue.

that was really fun, trying to subtly “mask” each transition, by having melodies or perhaps, a single note, playing across and over each transition…attempting to make it sound like a smooth, continuous piece of music as opposed to 13 separate tracks running in order.

so the process of “imagining” this as one single, long song, began with arranging the 12 supplied tracks into a specific order that sounded right to my ears, then, adding one short grand piano (on track one only – true piano via sonar) and mellotron parts to each of the tracks, then, adding a thirteenth piece, then, working on linking the tracks via parts that “overlapped” – and finally, melding and mixing all of the pieces together into a cohesive whole – I’ve never really had an experience quite like it, and it was highly enjoyable.

and I do believe that we succeeded in the stated goal of getting “dreamtime” to sound like a single, continuous song; this mix sounds about as continuous as it ever could, and possibly, I would live in hope that this might be true, possibly if I had never mentioned publicly that this work, this single 50:57 long piece of music, is actually comprised of 13 individual “songs” linked together – that many folk would not really have ever thought about that – they would have just perceived it as one piece of music – which is actually how I listen to it now – I really don’t think about the 13 pieces any more (after all, the work has been essentially complete for about one year – it just had a long, long wait in the queue for mixing and mastering), I just think about the sound of the “whole piece” as it unravels…a lengthy (but not too lengthy), continuous ambient musical journey, the first of many I hope, to emerge from the now mature musical minds of mssrs. helm and stafford, otherwise known as, “scorched by the sun”.

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

“dreamtime” – available now from pureambient records via bandcamplisten and download now, on the new “scorched by the sun” bandcamp site.

playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.