King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.

I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:

November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University

(eleven years pass)

then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).

(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).

(nineteen years pass)

which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…

this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.

but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.

the Soundscape faded down briefly.  Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area.  Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage.  This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.

so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.

the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time.  to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).

it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.

that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.

at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different.  There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too.  The “guitars” mix was better, too.

so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.

when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.

then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo.  the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.

I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.

once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.

then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.

I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”,  etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!

speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.

I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.

I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.

the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.

Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.

from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.

oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision.  I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.

did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas.  A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”.  Shivers.

I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable:  he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band.  Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night.  He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂

with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect.  Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what?  I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.

this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.

I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs.  Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.

and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track.  Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers.  Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!

the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.

A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.

meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.

finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.

the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.

the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.

my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…

the melodies stay with you for days.  you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.

its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.

and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody.  sigh.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

studio diary 20141230 – year’s end – the view to 2015 from here…

as the year end approaches, we are wrapping up a number of small projects, continuing work on others, and preparing for a very, very musical 2015 indeed,  the last few months have seen a lot of change, a lot of good change, and we are now more fully equipped to make music – a lot of music – on the fly, or with meticulous planning and execution, or maybe even, singing Todd Rundgren ballads at the piano, who knows?? – a little bit of everything, no doubt.

 

GLASSWORKS by Soniccouture

 

before we talk more about what is to come, we wanted to catch up with recent musical events, of which there are many.  on the mind at the moment, are the “Glassworks” instruments, there was a session recorded on December 6, 2014, using two different sampled glass instruments, one an emulation of an instrument invented by Harry Partch, the first track using the instrument called “cloud chamber bowls” the second one,  “armonica”, invented by none other than Ben Franklin (yes, the guy on those bills you never see any more) – we managed to upload the first track from the session, which was simply titled “cloud chamber” in honour of the “cloud chamber bowls” Harry Partch-based patch used to create the track – and it was at that point in time that events just caught up with me, and I did not, at that time, complete two other mixes from the session, both of which were made with the “armonica” tool.

 

I’ve now dealt with that issue, I’ve spent this entire morning – December 29th, 2014 – mastering these two remarkable and remarkably delicate recordings, I’ve been working very, very hard to retain the eerie beauty of the “armonica” instrument, it’s a very ghostly, ethereal sound to begin with, sort of like a floating pipe organ from heaven.  words are not really very useful when it comes to trying to describe Harry Partch‘s instruments, really the best way is to hear them – they are utterly unique, and in the case of the glass Partch instrument included in Soniccouture‘s “Glassworks” offering, they are also uncannily beautiful, fragile and other-worldy, ancient and somehow, because they are so ahead of their time, literally, they represent the future, too, Soniccouture have truly surpassed themselves with the “Glassworks” package, and I can easily see myself, and hear these instruments, making their way into future compositions – easily.

 

all three tracks from the December 6th “Glassworks” session are now up and loaded onto the “music for pcs: komplete samples” eternal album, the track listing for the three tracks is as follows:

 

21 glassworks – cloud chamber – recorded using the “cloud chamber bowls” instrument  2:07

22 glassworks – quiet grace – recorded using the “armonica” instrument  2:51

23 glassworks – quiet passion– recorded using the “armonica” instrument  3:00

 

these have subsequently been uploaded to the appropriate “eternal album” on bandcamp, which in this case is SSDL1751 “music for pcs: komplete samples”

 

all tracks recorded 20141206 by dave stafford for pureambient records

all rights reserved © & ℗ 2014 / 2015

 

 

 

REV by Output

 

and then there was REV.  I am very, very excited by the sonic possibilities that rev offers, I am still very much a new user, but I have indeed, set aside some time to work with rev, and I was not in any way disappointed.  on December 27, 2014 I sat down and recorded a few pieces using just multiple instances of rev, which is clearly one of the most innovative of all sample based instruments.  I actually agree with their marketing information, which states that this is not the sound of a few guitars going backwards, it has been designed from the ground up to be a playable instrument, with the option in every case, of using the reversed or the forward sample – it is left up to the user.

 

the reversed samples that have been utilised, are simply beautiful to listen to; and I can tell this because if you just sit and “trial” the voices, it sounds utterly amazing, almost like a beautiful song.  so they are right, this thing is way beyond a few reversed samples, it is a unique and beautiful instrument in it’s own right.

 

as with soniccouture’s “glassworks”, I can see myself using the rev library and instruments for many, many years in compositions and in on-the-fly improvs like these tracks.  I set up two instruments, one loop, and one “rise” and at first, I was so blown away by the sounds, I just sat there playing, drifting away on ambient clouds of reverse acoustic and electric guitars.

 

my first test of most new music software or sample instruments is usually ambient in nature, basically, I want to know if this sample set, or this synthesizer, or this generative device, is capable of producing beautiful, calming ambient music ?  happily, in the case of rev, the answer is a resounding “yes” – it did beautifully, and I feel that the two ambient tracks I produced using it were excellent – totally down to the instrument, not the player!!  rev is awesome for ambient music, but I can also already tell, it will rock in active music, too – it’s just a brilliant sounding instrument, and I cannot recommend it highly enough – it’s a fantastic and very musical instrument!!

 

on the day, I actually recorded at least three tracks, two ambient, and one active, which I have just now mixed and am in the process of uploading – it’s called “perpetual grunge” and it could not be more different to tracks 24 and 25 – hold onto your hats…

 

 

24 rev – time waits for no woman – recorded using the rev “instrument”, category: complex pad, patch: “beautiful”  2:50

 

25 rev – timeless – recorded using the rev “instrument” including  cctwo patches: both category: simple pads, first patch “electric guitar harmonics” and second patch: “acoustic guitar harmonics”  2:40

 

26 rev – perpetual grunge – recorded using two patches: first, a loop from the factory category called “pulses mid” run through effect “filter gate 1”; second, a rise from the factory category called “4 Bars + Tail” run through effect “rewind”  1:50

 

these have subsequently been uploaded to the appropriate “eternal album” on bandcamp, which in this case is SSDL1751 “music for pcs: komplete samples”

 

all tracks recorded 20141227 by dave stafford for pureambient records
all rights reserved © & ℗ 2014 / 2015

 

 

 THE IBANEZ RGKP6 KAOSSILATOR GUITAR

 

our other new star is this remarkable new instrument, that combines a normal electric guitar with the synth / effects processing power of a korg mini-kaoss pad, the mini-kaoss 2s – which, when used on the guitar, gives guitarists (in this case, me!) unparalleled ability to manipulate the sound of their guitar in realtime and in near-realtime, meaning, as you play, or, directly after you play when effecting notes or chords that are still “ringing”.

 

Either way, it’s an absolute joy, pure dead good fun to play, as I hope the videos demonstrate.  While I initially put it to the test with a fairly ambient guitar improv, as soon as I switched on the built-in distortion circuit…that’s when the real fun begins.  With a more sustained signal, the mini-kaoss 2s really comes into it’s own…it does WILD things to your guitar sound.

 

With 100 basic patches available, the pad allows you to slice and dice and squash and decimate and rip apart your normal guitar sound in more than 100 ways. Each patch can be tweaked by the user, and of course your technique also has a huge effect on “what come out”.  It’s such a simple but genius arrangement, only really made possible by the fact that korg decided to create “Effects” style kaossilators like the mini-kaoss 2s to complement their existing range of “synthesizer” kaoss pads…so the original idea was, you buy a normal kaoss pad, which is a mini-synthesizer with an xy input pad (instead of keys or strings) and then, you buy an “effects” kaoss pad and you plug the two together, running the synth thru the effects, to get the best of both worlds……

 

Ibanez simply replaced the mini synth in the above set up, with an electric guitar!! So instead of a synth, you get the guitar, which is your input / sound source, and it runs thru the “effects” kaoss pad which is of course, embedded physically on the guitars where your pick guard would normally be 🙂

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

 

not forgetting the enormous amount of work done over in the arena of APPLICATIONS, we’ve worked on a huge range of projects from sample based PC apps like Komplete ultimate, to performing live duets using two instances of tc-11, a touch controlled app for the ipad.

 

THE FUTURE AND BEYOND…

 

So – what is to come in 2015?

 

refining and improving what i’ve learned in 2014 (and, a few of the years just before 2014!!) so I will be working in all of the arenas we’ve been looking at the recent history of:

 

1) More Kaoss Guitar videos, plus, the use of Kaoss Guitar in other compositions providing unusual textural guitar for solos or backings…long live the Kaoss Guitar !!

 

2) More work, both solo and combining sampled instruments, basically, diving deep behind the covers of komplete 9, native instruments effects, native instruments sample instruments, soniccouture instruments, waves audio effects, scar-bee sample instruments and anything we can get our happy sampling hands on, basically – a massive world of very, very real sounds – because – they ARE real – they are samples!

 

3) Much more visibility for the native instruments synthesizers, of which I have done so little with – there is a huge, beautiful, terrifying sound world there – that I plan on visiting soon…

 

4) Much more use of Guitar Rig 5, one of or possibly the best of the software guitar system emulators, I used Guitar Rig on the sessions for the Ibanez RGKP6 Kaoss Guitar; and it sounded great – more work with that, for sure.

 

5) Working with applications – a whole phalanx of them, existing, new and future – if it makes sound, I want to hear it, if it sounds good, I want to record it.  At the moment, I have planned a few sessions involving newer apps, probably starting with the mysterious and ambient “VOSIS” application, which I very much want to do more tracks with.  Also, I want to explore the relatively new world of the Korg Module iPad application, and how it is realised through their existing iPad music app “Gadget”Korg Module features world class samples, available through Module or in limited form, thru “Gadget” – so I have sessions planned for Module and “Gadget”, too.

 

6) Nearest and perhaps dearest to my heart – with all of the exciting new technologies I’ve been trying to absorb (with “trying” being the very most appropriate verb in this case) I feel that 2015 is the year to take all of those technologies, and use them to build an old-style, non-eternal dave stafford guitar album made mostly with real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, real kaoss pads, and so on…a normal album, in the style of “gone native” perhaps, or maybe one active album and one ambient album – I am not quite sure yet, and, it would be a case of starting such a venture 2015, but it might not be completed for quite a while…well, we shall see.  But – definitely – guitar based songs, and ambient dreaming music – will be here beginning in 2015.

 

7) Finally…both Bryan Helm and myself have made the commitment in time to begin work on the second “scorched by the sun” album – in our discussion so far, we are thinking we might do a “loud” or active album, instead of ambient, or maybe, as we sometimes used to do, one that starts out loud, and then gets gradually more ambient, with the final track being full on ambient.  The content is up in the air, and again, it will just be a beginning in 2015, it might take time to complete, but – we really want to work together more, we really enjoyed the process of making the first album, “dreamtime” – so it follows that it’s time for “scorched by the sun” to make their second record!  It is time.

 

 

 

 

So the new year looks to be our most active and intense to date, but we are gonna give it our best shot.  Meanwhile…have a safe and prosperous and happy, happy New Year – see you on the other side…

 

 

Peace And Love To All

 

D. 🙂

 

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

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

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

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

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

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

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

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

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

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

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

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

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

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

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

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

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

less is definitely more

today’s mixtikl composition – “adagio…largo…slow” – a very, very ambient piece this time.

after the last few “mixtikls”, besides being left reeling with a slightly punch-drunk feeling of “anything is possible with this application” I’ve also settled into an odd pattern of working: I work on loud, active music for a couple of days; and then I create one ambient piece, then I work on more loud, active music, then I create…one ambient piece.

today’s one ambient piece, however, has surprised me.  a few days ago, when I was working on the mixes of an active track called “sandpiper calls”, I made a note to myself on a post-it note, that says:

“take the drone-only element (which is, “3 note low-ks” from GenMix7) from “sandpiper calls” and build a new mixtikl with just that, in many iterations, slow tempo, low pitch”.

so today, when it came to composition time, I followed this instruction, and within seconds, had the most beautiful mixtikl ambient piece yet, forming in front of my eyes (and ears!). 

and the key to it – is not the successful blending of various elements (although, in the past, that has “worked” when creating ambient mixtikl pieces) but instead, the “less is more” principle, well, to be more exact:

fewer different elements, instead:

  • many of the same element placed at various different points in time
  • many of the same element placed at different levels
  • many of the same element placed at different places in the stereo field (left, partially left, centre, partially right, right, etc).

as the note (my note to myself) instructed me, I lowered the tempo, down to 64 bpm – I also experimented with some very low tempos, but 64 seems to give me just the right amount of “movement” – lower bpm settings gave me too little movement, believe it or not!

I also lowered the pitch as far as it would go, down to Ab (A flat – as in “I bought a flat guitar tutor”), which sounds lovely.

but it’s the simple fact, I noticed that the one single ambient element of “sandpiper calls” was really beautiful, and that it varied in a really lovely way, so I thought right, this one element MIGHT make a really good ambient piece.  boy, was I ever right about that. 

it’s simplicity itself, really – I did the whole “many iterations” and “many levels” and “many stereo placements” all in about one minute or so – that was that.  the end result, well, I will try to describe it:

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>Track       Pan             Level           Cells         Rule>>>>>>>>>>>>

Content  

3 note low-ks       1      Hard Left          7           1, 2 and 4     –>

3 note low-ks       2      Hard Right       7           1, 2 and 4     –>

3 note gentle-ks  3      70 % Left           3           1                  –>

3 note gentle-ks  4      70 % Right        3           1                  –>

3 note low-ks      3      70 % Left           3           3                   –>

3 note low-ks      4      70 % Right        3           3                  –>

3 note low-ks      5      Hard Left           6           2 and 4       –>

3 note low-ks      6      Hard Right         6           2 and 4       –>

3 note low-ks      7      Hard Left           6           1 and 3       –>

3 note low-ks      8      Hard Right         6           1 and 3       –>

3 note gentle-ks  9      Hard Right         4           2                 –>

3 note gentle-ks  10    Hard Left           4           2                 –>

3 note low-ks      9      Hard Right         4           4                  –>

3 note low-ks      10    Hard Left           4           4                  –>

soft melody-ks    11    Hard Left           6           1                  –>

3 note low-ks      12    Hard Right         8           1                  –>

3 note low-ks      11    Hard Left           6           3                  –>

3 note low-ks      12    Hard Right         8           3                  –>

(apologies for the poor formatting above – best I can do free-form)

it looks complicated, maybe, but it literally arranged itself, it took one minute to do – because it’s really a LOT of iterations of “3 note low-ks” – I believe, 21 in all, with four iterations of “3 note gentle-ks” and one lonely iteration of “soft melody-ks” – that’s it.

it’s very, very nearly two dozen iterations of one voice, with nothing else – and I would imagine, it would probably sound just about as good if it WAS 24 iterations of the one voice – because the different volumes, cell placements, and panning create a sort of never-ending ambient “motion” that’s hard to explain – you just have to hear it.

something else I’ve noticed – at first, I would use many different rules, some would be looped, some would be sequential, and so on – but, lately, I’ve just been keeping them all sequential – that seems to work better for me at the moment.  I will use loops again, of course – no worries there…but right now, it’s all about samples playing in order!

regardless of the process…the piece just sounds so, so peaceful, it has a wonderful motion that seems very natural and organic, and the end result is maybe the best ambient piece I’ve done with “mixtikl”; certainly, the best piece since “I always glid before” – although this new track is a close cousin, of a perhaps “more ambient” nature – although the concept of “less” or “more” ambient is a very difficult one to describe with mere words.

in this case, less (fewer) elements, results in a “more” ambient track – and I don’t think that’s really any kind of axiom, it may be coincidental, it maybe be that in actual fact, less IS more, because when we say “ambient”, much of the time, we mean, to some degree, “minimal” – and some of our favourite ambient pieces have very few elements indeed – for example, the title track of brian eno’s “discreet music” album.  that’s a supremely ambient track, and, it contains one instrument, one melody – just played back at different levels and times (hmmm, that sounds familiar…) – or, even the mighty “the heavenly music corporation” – while not springing to mind as a super “ambient” track, fripp and eno’s first public loop composition contains just two elements: guitar and synthesizer – again, with repetition and at different levels – so with forebears like that, who needs 40 different sounds in their ambient piece – I am quite happy with just three.

of course, in the current piece, there are 21 of one of those three elements, but, who’s counting?  I’m really not, I just arrange however many come to hand – if it sounds good, it’s done, if it sounds cluttered, I remove some until it sounds uncluttered – and it’s then done…

in this case, 21 went in, 21 sounded good, so – 21 stay.  why not?

but I love that voice – 3 note low-ks, and I am so happy I took the time to design a piece of music around it – it has worked out really, really well 🙂

adagio…largo…slow

yes.

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!

van der graaf generator – live at the abc theatre, glasgow, scotland, june 27th, 2013

first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):

[encore:]

peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.

but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.

“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.

add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!

the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…

now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship.  let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship.  very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards.  for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).

that is it – so far.  sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts.  but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows.  to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.

so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending.  the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class.  you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that?  by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).

a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show.  the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!

next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output.  and what better two songs?  “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it.  a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂

then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone.  I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.

not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened.  that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult.  I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on.  and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant!  I am very, very lucky.

peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands).  and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music.  you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience.  the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable.  sigh.

“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say!  but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing.  I shall rectify that shortly.  “bunsho” passes unobtrusively,  making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).

the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.

he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction.  those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.

and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished.  probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…

song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start.  when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.

hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why.  but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing.  when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.

this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away.  really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem.  this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar.  they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song.  peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.

from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece.  newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed.  those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –

“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;

my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **

 

** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].

the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a  moment):

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.

crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”

I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice.  he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job.  his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening.  he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.

for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …

“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.

camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?

where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?

it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased.  a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.

so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place.  sigh.

I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…

before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”

the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.

and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.

I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:

some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…

I am unborn.

some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service

I grant my scorn.

my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.

all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.

Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?

some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –

I am ALL.

some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.

My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,

All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.

will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?

Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –

I am NONE.

Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:

I am No One.

Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –

it is done.

My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.

All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.

Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?

now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…

that’s gog.

what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !

for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” anda plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.

and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now.  seriously.

a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.