seems like a lifetime ago… (or, studio diary 20141101: arriving too late to save a drowning fungo bat)

A blast from the past as it were, sometimes, when you are involved in one project too many, various routine tasks (such as, uploading completed pieces of music) slip through the cracks.  This is the story of one of those projects – a project that was actually completed at the end of October, 2014, was rough mixed on November 1, 2014, but is only just now seeing the light of day.  The rough mix was acceptable, but for reasons unknown, the final mix was not made, and the piece just sat in the completed masters section of the database – done, complete – but not published!

That would be, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings“, my third concerto, but, the first to feature piano and strings, I’d always worked with horns before, specifically, oboes (my lead instrument of choice it would appear – see concerto no. 1 [in e minor] and concerto no. 2 [in a minor] – both for guitar and oboe – do you see a pattern emerging there?) so I wanted to test some uncharted waters, and see if I could “say” as much with just piano and strings.  It was challenging, but in the end, I believe I have succeeded quite well in that particular aspiration.  But I will let you be the judge of that…

A curious melody, sounding for the life of me, like a lost European folk melody, begins the piece, but then, suddenly, a banging and clashing of strings and timpani takes over, with urgent, repeating “morse-code”-like bursts, which then settle to almost ambient, mellotron-like strings, which wash over the listener in beautiful, deep waves…or so I hope, anyway! 

That folk melody established at the very beginning, then re-occurs in various places within the larger work, as do other themes – I really like to try and establish a number of different, short musical themes or ideas, in the first (and sometimes, second) movement, and then, reiterate them, often in totally re-arranged or re-configured ways, at various points during movements 2 and 3 – I like to always refer “back” to earlier themes wherever possible, I find that gives you a cohesiveness that can otherwise, be lacking – you can hear the relationship between the movements, as well as their own unique characteristics.

What I found was, that of course, you can’t really have the strings or the piano “soloing” endlessly, so various interesting musical events probably “take the place” for me, of the missing oboe, short instrumental passages, plain and simple chord sequences; lovely pizzicato sections (I find pizzicato strings to be absolutely gorgeous, and I will use any excuse to include them in my work – I really will); but what I found very interesting was that I continued to turn to the percussion section, to take over sections of melody!

In particular, I began to rely heavily on the timpani, to express musical ideas, that normally might have fallen to a more common solo instrument (my missing oboe again, or clarinet, or flute…) – so I found that timpani alone, or, timpani with xylophone, became my new weapon of choice, and even better, when you contrasted those two percussive instruments against the best percussion instrument of all, the piano – it sounds great!

So I found myself playing xylophone a la Ruth Underwood, taking my cues from the world of Zappa jazz more than from the world of serious classical music, and I tried to think like a Zappa would (not an easy task) – however, I will say, that this concerto has a far more…”modern” sound to it, it’s far closer to jazz then my previous two works (in places), and normally, I am not a huge fan of modern classical composers or modern classical music, but I learned here, that it can be very invigorating and indeed, a joy to take those sort of almost jazz-like flights of fancy, and then keep bringing back to earth with the strings and piano, making sure that the normal classical motifs and forms are still in place, so that it still retains a flavour of non-modern classical music – elements as old as the hills – the piano, leading the way, the strings, supporting, questing – I really enjoyed the composition process in this instance, as I always do, and each time I produce a new piece, I learn something – actually, not “something” – many, many things – new.

Then, it’s almost as if the percussionists have temporarily “lost the plot”, as they seemingly almost wander off onto a strange melodic quote from “the firebird suite” – played on the xylophone in a humorous style [between 5:59 through 6:25].

More Ruth Underwood-style solo xylophone follows, which then resolves into the most incredibly ambient section of strings I’ve ever scored, which is the long, flowing section that ends the first movement – in such an incredibly calming, slow, and luscious way, and, the first time I’ve used a long fade out in a classical piece– the calm after the modern jazz storm I would almost say.

A strident string and piano theme begins at 6:42, but very quickly, loses its stridency, and becomes calmer, with pizzicato “dropped chords” occasionally appearing, long, deep strings, fade gradually along with the ever-calmer piano melody, which is now dream-like, almost ambient – eventually, the piano disappears altogether, leaving those gorgeous strings on their own for the last few moments running up to 08:07; until the first movement fades to complete silence, when another “first” is to immediately follow; the start of the second movement, has an even longer “fade in”, which then becomes a new piano theme (which, curiously, had originally been part of the first movement, had been rejected and removed to the outtakes section – and then, because I really liked it, re-instated as the first new piano theme in the beginning of the second movement; which then begins to merge and intertwine with more timpani and more xylophone, but, fleetingly; once again, the long, beautiful ambient “string chords” threaten to overwhelm, they just flow over what is happening whenever they will, often, at unexpected moments, and I really like the sound of those long, string section held chords – simple, effective.

Then we have a section of string madness, where more new themes emerge, including a brief, bowed solo from the bass (another first for me, I think) I have tried to be a bit more bold in terms of allowing individual players to have more solo “moments” – and probably, more solo piano than in any other piece.  Some really lovely violin and viola leading up to ominous bass notes, long, held notes.

At some point, we are briefly re-visited by the opening “European folk music” theme, which is a nice place for a re-iteration, tying the first two movements together nicely.

Normal string melodies, trade off with pizzicato ones, followed by more moments of madness, from 11:18 thru 11:29 for example, when the lead violinist, begins playing high speed pizzicato riffs way above the top of his/her normal range, a piece of musical joyousness I simply could not resist, which started out as just one instance, and soon grew to a full 12 seconds of high pitched pizzicato madness – a temporary loss of sanity on the first violinist’s part, no doubt. 🙂

The second movement then settles into a sort of strange mixture of piano, timpani and xylophone, in more supporting roles, as violin, viola, and cello play interlocking lines, this section gave me a lot of grief at the time, but it was worth the pain, I persevered, and it all came out well in the end.  Some sprightly up and down arpeggios for both the piano and for the xylophone are interspersed, accompanied by powerful timpani, the pianist playing with some wonderful flourishes and beautifully underpinning the piece with subtle low bass notes, while his/her right hand is playing double-quick arpeggios in the top octave of the piano keyboard.

Our familiar D suspended 4th to D major theme re-occurs too, extending out into a timpani–led improv section, followed by more mournful, long mellotron-like string parts that bring the second movement to its inevitable conclusion…

…the third movement begins immediately, without the customary rest between movements, at 16:02 on an eerie, ominous minor chord, with the bass alternating with a short-duration minor chord, a cello melody begins, and we are once again, away…

More new themes are immediately presented, piano and strings being featured heavily throughout this movement, we then move into some “octave” piano work, followed by a beautiful, strange almost Rundgren-esque chord sequence [17:31 – 17:42], involving both major seventh chords and bass notes that are not the root note – as example, C major 7th with a G bass, or C major 7th with an E bass – anything but a C bass!! (two of Todd Rundgren’s trademark devices, the major seventh and the 3rd or 5th in the bass – why  not!) – which are then reiterated briefly by the strings –and then on into the next emerging theme, a descending chord motif…which then resolves to a piano theme first introduced in the first movement; our bright, major key sequence of D suspended 4th to D Major chords once again; which then resolves to a really stark, honest solo piano section that I am inordinately proud of [19:51 through 20:30].

A tension-building exercise is next, using a new piano riff to drive home a musical concept via repetition, and I love the powerful way that works, once again, resolving back to a reprise of that stark solo piano piece with its odd tempo slow-down [the one just referenced, from 19:51 through 20:30] – I love the fact that the tempo changes so often in this piece.

Again, the tension-building riff, but this time, for a shorter amount of time, it then dissolves into a piano and strings section that builds and builds in volume, until finally I reach my “Beethoven moment” [22:41 – 22:47] which while it may sound simple, it actually took some doing to get that part to sound right.

SPECIAL NOTE: since we are for now only producing recordings of the full concertos (previously, we have offered both the full concerto; and recordings of the individual movements, but we have discontinued that practice, and for the foreseeable future, we will be producing only complete, full versions of the concertos online) – here are the start times for each movement, and the total time as well, for those who like to know such things:

  • Beginning Of First Movement                       00:00 Approximate Duration: 08:07
  • Beginning Of Second Movement                 08:07 Approximate Duration: 07:55
  • Beginning Of Third Movement                     16:02 Approximate Duration: 13:09 (13:15 with added silence at the end of the piece)
  • Overall Duration                                         29:11 (29:17 with added silence at the end of the piece)

 

As is my custom, it would seem, the third movement of every concerto I do, seems to always end up to be by far the longest of the three; I do not know why this is, I am not intentionally doing this, it just works out this way – partially, I suppose, because I want to add in themes from the first movement, and sometimes the second, that if all three movements started out life roughly equal, that the third would always end up having several minutes added, because, first of all, I want to re-insert certain earlier themes, but also, there just seem to be more emerging new themes, as well as sometimes, I like to re-arrange or sometimes, radically modify earlier themes, to present them with all new instruments, or with one instrument taking the lead and another a background part, the reverse of how they were in movement one, and so on – a place to experiment, a place to really stretch out both compositionally but also, as a player.

The piano parts are where I get to compose what I would love to sit out there in front of that audience and play, so they are special to me – I do tend to spend inordinate amounts of time working on the piano parts, solos and other instances of piano – which I use for everything – bridging sections, supporting the strings with some percussive, piano “rhythm” – I love to play piano, but I have also learned – that I love to score piano – it’s a real delight, and I love it when things work out well, and it ends up sounding just as I “hear it” in my mind – and that is an accomplishment, it’s not often easy for musicians to do that, but Notion is an app that actually does allow me to do that – it lets me wander compositionally where perhaps my mere, human hands maybe never really quite could – but my mind – my mind can!

To date, then, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano and strings”, also remains, as of January, 2015, in any case, the longest in duration of my published concertos, although the Concerto No. 4 is nearly as long, clocking in at 27:22. I think this longer form suits better, allowing me more chances to introduce new themes or refer to existing ones…

In this case, the third movement of the third concerto becomes a vehicle for a fair amount of solo piano, which appears repeatedly in between other musical events; in my humble opinion, the piano solo in the third movement is one of the most surprising bits of music that I have come up with in recent times, it really surprises me, and, it contains a wonderful slow-down of tempo at one point, which really drives home the melody playing at that moment.  After the long piano improv, a longish section of strings, with cello and viola soloing over the top of short chord bursts of strings, follows, again, this time, gradually slowing in tempo, with the cello leading the way to a long, long final sad chord…and then, back to the bright, beautiful string section with piano, theme of D major suspended fourth to D major, repeating, that originally appears in the first movement.

That piano theme fades away completely (I seem to really, really be on a “fade in / fade out” kick at the moment), or is that, rather, a “fade out / fade in”?? – the latter, in this case, and a completely new section, mostly piano-led, appears very gradually, fading in – to take us away into the lands of solo piano once again, repeating the wonderful “slow-down” tempo section, and then – to an incredibly Peter Hammill-esque duet between the lower registers of the piano and the string bass – it really, really is reminiscent of early Hammill there for a moment. [from 26:23 – 26:50 and beyond…] – I like how the piece lingers in this very lower register, where things are dark and deep – but then, moments later, the sun emerges again in the form of that persistent, sunny D suspended 4th to D major melodic section – what a swing of mood that is!

So many different moods and emotions are present here, especially in the third movement, which becomes a very rich and complex juxtaposition of themes, but somehow, I manage to make all of those recurrences, alternate versions, variants and mutations, all fit – and all work together nicely.  It was sometimes not easy to fit it all together, at times I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but in the end, I made it work – and, I think I have some nice tension built in certain places, that resolves into some of the quietest, most ambient sections that to date, I’ve been able to include in a classical work.

Notion has been absolutely instrumental in helping me to learn how to score, but by the time I reached concerto no. 3 (September – October 2014) I had gained enough skill with Notion, and with scoring, that I could, somewhat playfully I admit, insert these short sections of odd music just for the sheer fun of it – and when you listen, you might think, hey, wait a minute, did I just hear…the firebird suite, by Igor Stravinsky, played on a solo xylophone?  I am afraid the answer to that question is – “yes, you did”.  Or “hey, wait a minute, wasn’t that Todd Rundgren on the piano there?? “yes – I am afraid so!”.

You are not imagining it, it’s really happening!

Therefore, I present, better late than never; completed on November 1, 2014, but not uploaded until January 2015, with a great amount of pride and happiness, here is my third major classical work to date, “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings” by dave stafford – we hope you enjoy it.

🙂 🙂

Advertisements

universe of sound (the komplete world)

after forty-odd years in the music business, we decided at the start of this new year, that we would acquire a software suite called komplete 9 ultimate for use at the pureambient studio. the software comes from a remarkable german company called “native instruments”, who are truly the masters of sampling technology – and a few other things, too –

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – OVERVIEW & PRE-APOLOGY

 

this acquisition was intended to fill a few glaring omissions in our capabilities, such as proper strings, horns, basses, percussion, and so on, as well as providing the main elements for extending the classical music that we began releasing last year on the eternal album “classical”. this tool will allow for a speedier construction of classical pieces, rather than relying on the more piecemeal approach used on my first piece of classical music, “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar” – which was constructed almost line by line, using nothing but a guitar synthesizer.

 

as well as supporting classical music over the coming years, komplete 9 ultimate is also a natural for, and is eminently suited for, the production of music for films, which is another area that we hope to expand into over the coming years. this acquisition also bolsters the worlds of ambient music, as well as pop, rock, funk, jazz, and countless others – it’s hugely supporting in all genres, especially ambient.

 

we’ve only been using it for a short while, but already, we can see the enormous potential that this software suite has for adding quality sounds to the pieces that we create here.   and, it’s infinitely expandable, too, native instruments have purchased third party sound libraries and bundled them into komplete 9 ultimate, but you can also purchase other third party programs which you can play using komplete 9 ultimate “kontakt” sample player. so we will also be looking to acquire some of the best ambient libraries, which will also greatly expand our capability.

 

before I speak more specifically about what komplete 9 ultimate can do musically, I’d like to apologise to all early adopters and those who own komplete 9 ultimate or “kontakt” or both, I freely admit I am an absolute novice, I’ve been studying the suite in detail, learning the processes, slowly, over the past few weeks, and I do have a basic understanding in principle for most of what can be done with komplete 9 ultimate.   forgive me in advance if I say anything that shows just what a rookie I am at this, or I otherwise put my foot in my mouth – learning something like this can be a somewhat slow and painful process, even more painful when you are no longer young as I am. and – komplete 9 ultimate users – feel free to jump in and correct me, or offer advice or expand on anything I mention here – we are all of us learning at all times…and it’s best to share such knowledge freely.

 

my friend and collaborator ken mistove, my partner in saffron matted voids (the band), is a long time “komplete” user (I am talking about really long time – ten years! – and he has been doing electronic / digital music for longer still), and he warned me that I would be overwhelmed by this program – and, he could not have been more correct. in fact, weeks after it’s arrival, I continue to find more and more incredibly well-thought-out functionality, as well as becoming familiar with the synthesizers and the sample content. and it is almost totally overwhelming – it seems, almost, as if there is nothing this device cannot do…everywhere I turn, everywhere I look, I find something else that makes my jaw drop…

 

 

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – THOSE AMAZING SYNTHESIZERS

 

[ULTIMATE INDEED!]

 

 

so – where do I begin?   well, when it came down to it, even though I was incredibly excited about the sample library, and the sample player (which allows multiple instances of many, many instruments in one session – I had fourteen instruments loaded into a session yesterday, and the software coped beautifully) – it was the synthesizers that I gravitated to initially – because, perhaps, I knew they would be easy to set up and use – familiar. before we purchased komplete 9 ultimate, I had read in detail about the synths, so I couldn’t wait to hear them in person – and I was right about the ease of set up and ease of use: within seconds, I was up and running with “absynth”, a personal favourite synth that seems to favour ambient and atmospheric sounds.

 

but “absynth” is a drop in the bucket, a handful of stars in this incredible universe of sound, and while it features hundreds and hundreds of truly beautiful preset sounds, it’s just one of nine synthesizer models built into komplete. the entire list of available synths looks like this:

 

  • absynth
  • fm8
  • massive
  • monark
  • razor
  • skanner xt
  • reaktor (modular synth system – containing many synths)
  • reaktor prism
  • reaktor spark
  • retro machines (which contains no less than 20 classic synthesizer instruments within)

 

so far, I’ve only truly managed to hear and use five of these synths, absynth, fm8, massive, reaktor prism, and retro machines, but even so, I’ve been utterly impressed with the build quality and the amazing attention to detail – this is precision german engineering like we used to have back in the 60s and 70s!

 

I have created a few test pieces in absynth (consequentially falling in love with it); I created an entire suite of 23 pieces using the fm8 synthesizer dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, I’ve created one very complex ambient piece (which is incredibly atmospheric) using massive “wanders down to the sea”, and for fun, I’ve played some of the classic organs, electric pianos, etc. in “retro machines” – “synths within a synth” which is a strange way of working, but I am getting used to it 🙂

 

in every case, the attention to detail, and the extremely fine level of control over sound in every one of these synths, has been overwhelming and most, most welcome. I have a lot of soft synths, but this collection of nine software synths kind of…blows away the competition, and as my friend ken mistove also said: “you will never need to buy another instrument” – and I can already see the truth in that.

 

while I might not “need” to, of course, there will still be some cases where I will “want” to – I am especially interested in some of the available third party ambient sample libraries, but that will have to wait – in the meantime, I have an awful lot to learn and trial just with the komplete 9 ultimate package itself.

 

after my initial very positive experience of playing and using “absynth”, I moved on to “massive”, and I decided to lay out and record a track using four instances of “massive”, each set to a different sound – and I then did a somewhat clever arrangement where I muted sections of each track, to allow other parts to shine through, creating a sort of ever-changing mood – a dark mood, with the sound of wind and seagulls crying and a vision of a bleak, grey storm-tossed day – again, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I could set up four instances in my host (my somewhat antiquated SONAR 8.5) and it coped beautifully – no problem.

 

I also created a short ambient piece within “reaktor”, using the “reaktor prism” synth; a portion of this track remains, entitled “fragment of a lonely molecule” – a truly beautiful sounding synth, which I plan to revisit often and use much, much more…

 

encouraged by the success of “wanders down to the sea” in “massive”, I then turned my attention to “fm8”, in which I created a whole series of tracks (“the rings of saturn”) from “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, as well as some arranged “suites” where I took a set of smaller files and mixed them into long, linear sequences – providing a blended view of the basic tracks, as opposed to the individual view of each piece.

 

a few hours later, I realised I had created no less than 23 tracks using “fm8”, and I am so enamoured of this synth, it has a lot of great, visceral sounds, and a lot of charming, melodic, or dissonant, or strangely jazzy, arpeggiators, and the sheer range of voices available within fm8 is mind-boggling. It was a fun session, and as such, I made the decision to create two eternal albums for komplete: one for “komplete synths” (LINK) and one for komplete samples (LINK).   These have both been up and running for a couple of months now, and while the “komplete synths” album has a reasonable number of tracks, I’ve been very slow to create using the “samples” – but, I will get there, I will – I just need time! 🙂

 

the 23 tracks made with “fm8” and the one piece made with “massive” “wanders down to the sea”, are all uploaded to the “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths” eternal album. I plan on working with each of the synths in turn, and uploading the results, so you can hear what each one of these remarkable sound creation tools can do. If I have my way, by the end of this year, the “komplete synths” eternal album, will have dozens of tracks made with a myriad number of available synths – and I hope I can just keep creating and creating – those are 9 amazing synths, each a master of the domain it covers, and I can’t wait to create more music with all of them – the synthesizers built-in to komplete 9 ultimate are absolutely brilliant!

 

THE HIDDEN GEM WITHIN KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – GUITAR RIG 5

before I continue on to the samples section, I must not forget to mention one of the biggest selling points of komplete 9 ultimate, for me, which is the presence of “guitar rig 5 pro” – I had been underwhelmed by an earlier version of guitar rig, which I got bundled with SONAR, “guitar rig 3”, so I’ve now uninstalled that and I am using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead.

 

what a difference. the preset library is vastly improved, and the range of effects, and the flexibility provided in setting them up in the rack, are simply astonishing – to me, this is one of the most important pieces of guitar software to come along. so after working with the synths, purely for fun, I recorded a handful of pieces using “guitar rig 5 pro” – and I am more than impressed with the sound quality and the presets – it’s an awesome and powerful guitar amp and speaker cabinet emulator, and it has a huge range of high quality guitar effects as well. a couple of these pieces may see the light of day, but they were mostly for reference, and just a way of trialling certain patches and sounds.

 

this is now to the point, since “guitar rig 5 pro” is clearly superior to many guitar processing devices in both the hardware AND the software arena – I am at the point, where I can now happily retire my ailing “line 6 x3 live” hardware pedalboard guitar effects processor, which is now basically redundant (it has served me very well since 2008, but it’s now time to be retired at long last).

 

because I can pretty much re-create every sound in the line 6 using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead, and more – so that’s actually a blessing – no more effects on the floor (although I will always have my faithful “output chain” of hardware effects, harmonizer, delay, reverb at the end of my signal chain) I believe I will now use “guitar rig 5” for most of my guitar sounds, and anything it can’t handle, I can program into my gr-55 guitar synth – so guitars, and guitar signal processing – are covered! and I mean…covered.

 

it’s always very difficult, because over time, you have various tools that you use to record guitar or synths with, and eventually, better tools come along. and, you can run both old and new, that’s not an issue, if you want to – but my preference is to keep effects units down to a dull roar – so I am going to TRY to retire the line 6 x3 live – I mean, it is six years old, which in dog years, is, I don’t know, 70 years or something – and technology has moved along SO FAR since the X3 Live was designed…

 

so for the first week of my fledgling native instruments life, I learned about the synthesizers and I learned how to run “guitar rig 5 pro” – and that was a huge amount to learn, but, I have the basics down, and I can rely on both the set of nine included synthesizers (plus 20 more vintage instruments within “retro machines mk II”) and the extremely impressive “guitar rig 5 pro” interface. I could have gone on working with the synths and guitar rig for weeks and weeks, but I wanted then to shift gears and look at the sampling capabilities of “komplete”.

 

SAMPLING – THE HEART AND SOUL OF KOMPLETE ULTRA

[REAL INSTRUMENT SOUNDS – AT LAST!]

 

the list of sample-based instruments is even more impressive than the list of synthesizers:

 

  • kontakt – the main user interface / sample player for all sampled instruments:

 

kontakt is a very powerful environment, that allows you to load multiple instruments (built by native instruments, and many other vendors as well), which can then be routed either each to their own output (for maximum recording flexibility) or they can be routed to various stereo or mono sub-mixes – really, whatever your heart desires. you can save overall “presets” in kontakt itself, so if you hit upon a winning combination, say, “abbey road drums 1960s” and “scar-bee rickenbacker bass” and “guitar rig 5” you can save that configuration, including whatever output configurations you have, as well as the specific settings of each device – to a kontakt “preset” – for easy recall / re-use..

 

another positive aspect of the kontakt sample player is it’s ability to play not just native instrument plug-in instruments, but also, instruments made by third party vendors such as soniccouture, waves, scar-bee, g-force, and many, many others.

 

each instrument that is loaded into your kontakt session, also has a page for it’s settings, where you can choose instrument presets, adjusting the sound of the instrument until you are happy with it – then, you save your changes – then, you save your kontakt preset – and all of the instrument settings are saved as part of your “overall” kontakt saved preset – fantastic. so you can create very complex presets, that contain your favourite instruments, set just the way you want them, which can be recalled instantly in any combination – it’s absolutely outstanding.

 

here is the seemingly never-ending list of sampled instruments that come with komplete 9 ultimate.

 

  • action strings
  • session horns
  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • evolve
  • session strings pro
  • evolve mutations
  • evolve mutations 2
  • battery 4
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa (a personal favourite)
  • balinese gamelan (another personal favourite)
  • maschine drum selection
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • rammfire
  • scarbee jay-bass
  • the giant
  • vintage organs
  • alicia’s keys
  • george duke soul treasures
  • scarbee a-200 electric piano
  • scarbee mark I electric piano
  • scarbee clavinet/pianet
  • berlin concert grand piano
  • new york concert grand piano
  • vienna concert grand piano
  • upright piano

 

bear in mind that each one of the above instruments, has a broad range of “presets” giving you as many different optional sounds for each instrument as is possible, “muted”, “picked”, “fingered”, and so on – so it’s not just a “rickenbacker bass” – it’s a rickenbacker bass that can be configured from anything such as a very timid, high pitched highly eq’d clean bass sound, to various much louder presets that emulate different sounds that this bass is capable of, and that includes both DI and “amped” sounds, so you get an enormous range of flexibility with every instrument listed above!

 

as explained elsewhere, those settings can be saved as part of a kontakt “preset”, so you could have one set up with a super clean, thin sounding Ricky bass, and another with a very distorted Ricky played through an emulated British amp – two EXTREMELY different “bass guitar” sounds from the same instrument.

 

In the classical world, the options are of course, much different to the options for a rock instrument, so for violins, you would have a huge range of various playing styles or articulations, legato, staccato, pizzicato, and so on – and just about any kind of articulation you can imagine, including some rather obscure ones, and also, it’s incredible to get these precision articulations, and of course, as with all quality samplers, there are also extreme velocity choices, so that you can emulate the velocity that you would apply to the real instrument, on the keys of your keyboard instead. all of these options are on every instrument where they exist, although some instruments may have just a handful of possible presets or articulations, others may have dozens – maximum real-life playability issues have been addressed as much as humanly possible.

 

 

…not to mention a massive range of high quality software effects and audio processing tools included in komplete 9 ultimate:

 

  • solid EQ
  • solid bus compressor
  • solid dynamincs stereo compressor
  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • vari comp compressor
  • enhanced EQ Equaliser
  • passive EQ Equaliser
  • transient master Equaliser
  • driver distortion unit
  • VC76 FET compressor/limiter
  • VC2A electro-optical compressor/limiter
  • VC160 drum compressor
  • the finger – live performance and remix tool
  • the mouth – generates melodies and harmonies from any audio input
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect

 

 

for full details, have a look at the product page on the native instruments site:

and here is the effects page on the native instruments site:

 

 

my first foray into the world of sampled instruments was a piece I created using various sampled elements, entitled “the giant’s causeway”, which contains three sections:

 

1)     “the giant prelude” features “the giant” cinematic instrument (a cinematic / orchestrator / ambient piano kind of sample set) – I played one take, which was best, and that became “the giant prelude” – perfection.

 

2)     “allegro in a minor” features “action strings” (which include moving passages of strings created with an “animator” function – which is truly awe inspiring)

 

3)     “giants on the causeway” following, the third and final section of the piece; features a manually played drum part;/ the scarbee “rickenbacker bass”; and a truly beautiful flute and strings mellotron sample, plus a short solo on a vintage organ.

 

“the giant” instrument just blew me away, I did a take one take of a sort of reverse piano strings/unknown kind of sample, and it came out totally usable – in one take!!! I will absolutely be revisiting this instrument, and I could see creating large, ambient compositions using JUST this instrument.

 

once “the giant” section was recorded, I added in the “action strings” instrument, and spent quite some time writing and laying out a short violin quartet piece in the key of a minor. note: this is where the “staff” view in SONAR becomes invaluable!) while short in duration, the SOUND is amazing, it sounds so incredibly real (because, let’s face it – it IS real!) because of the use of the strings animator – which gives you real “sections” or “passages” of bowed strings – in a significant number of styles, legato, staccato, pizzicato and more. this section took me a while to complete, but eventually, I did finish it to my satisfaction.

 

the third part of this unfinished piece was a rickenbacker bass line, set against some manually played drums, finished off with a live mellotron take, flutes and strings – plus a short solo on a vintage organ – and I have to say, the scarbee rickenbacker samples are out of this world – there’s even a “british” setting which gives you a roaring live distorted chris squire sound that just blows you away. even on the clean settings, this instrument screams “I am an authentic ricky bass” – and the distorted scarbee bass part just SOUNDS amazing…

 

this piece remains unfinished, but I always considered it as a test piece, a learning curve, a learning tool, a learning experience. I did rough mixes, and kept the three sections separately as demos, but I don’t believe that this piece will be published, but if it does, it would definitely be “the giant” piece, possibly the string quartet, and doubtful, probably NOT the rickenbacker section…which SOUNDS great (especially the distorted ricky bass line!), but wasn’t (necessarily) a great piece of music…

 

so “the giant’s causeway” went onto the shelf, however, since it was my very first piece (beyond playing a few synths) – proper piece – done with komplete – I was happy enough with it. I learned…

 

I will very, very probably attempt the piece again; I would retain the original part one, since it’s a live, take one, that is basically flawless, I would rebuild and expand the string section, and completely revamp the “prog trio” of drums, bass and mellotron/organ at the end. so – I am keeping the shelved demo as a reference…for now.

 

I then turned to an instrument that I was very, very curious about, “west africa” – I lived in east africa for four years, and learned to appreciate african music back then (especially congolese music) so having high quality samples of african instruments was a very exciting prospect to me.

 

I first constructed a “duet” of two koras; one, playing midi patterns emulating a rhythmic picking cycle, and another kora, where I played melodies “free hand” on top of the moving background. I did two takes, both of which I enjoy, but since I am not entirely happy with the melodic content on either (although the second take is actually quite good) I have also shelved those – and since then, much more recently, I sat down again with the kora duet template, and create a third piece, another kora duet, entitled “the heart of africa” – and this take, I think is quite decent – and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these amazing sounds.

 

I plan to practice on all of the west african instruments, and I hope to arrange more complex pieces of music involving west african drums, flutes and stringed instruments…a side project that will keep me busy for years! I would never have dreamed that I would have a sideline in african music one day – but I will, because I love african music, and the more I work on it, the better I will get at emulating it…

 

after the two shelved kora duets, which were followed very recently by the successful kora duet, I then turned to my first use of “multi” instruments, and, with the invaluable assistance of ken mistove, I eventually learned and understood how to create multiple instruments within a single instance of kontakt – and once I “got” that, I could sit down and attempt a full on piece of sampled music.

 

I randomly selected a preset “multi” instrument from the evolve mutations instrument, and it proceeded to load 12 instruments that created one of the most atmospheric, eerie “drum kits” I have ever heard.

 

it took a couple of tries, but eventually, I got a good quality drum track, and then I turned to the other instruments. a proper bass part was in order, so I loaded up the scarbee pre-bass (amped version) and got a nice, full bass sound – recorded a bass part to go with the drum part – and again, very impressed with the scarbee instruments, they seem to do a very good job of getting the authentic sound of classic instruments sampled to perfection – the “pre” bass (i.e. based on the classic fender precision bass guitar) is another one that is of the highest quality, as the scarbee rickenbacker bass samples are as well – Native Instruments has scooped up two fantastic bass instruments from scarbee, and it’s a great acquisition – I hope they adopt more scar-bee products, I really do.

 

finally, I worked at overlaying a section of grand piano, courtesy of the “george duke soul treasures” instrument, an absolutely stunning set of riffs recorded on grand piano, electric piano, organ and other keyboards – and all simply classic – great sounding samples!

 

in this case, I actually reached the maximum possible number of instrument that can be crammed into one “kontakt” session – so once again, familiar theme emerging…I abandoned the piece unfinished – again. in order to complete it, I will need to mix down the drums and bass together from the unfinished session, and move to a new session to overdub many george duke piano samples atop the pre-mixed (bounced) bass and drums – and at that moment, I didn’t feel like going through that process.

 

instead, I set it aside, and I moved on to my next test piece, my next “komplete” learning experience.   I wanted very much to try the “session horns”, so I built a short introductory piece, entitled “softly, softly we go”, which featured a group of horns, in a nice reverb room, with a “soft” instrument setting, playing a mock classical theme – a lovely sound, and as far as it goes – a good intro or lead-in piece to some larger production.

 

to follow the horn intro, I wanted a drum track, using the abbey road 60s drummer (because I wanted to learn how to compose drum tracks) so using this instrument, I built a nice long drum part, with various sections, and some fancy fills, and I have to say, although completely unadorned, it’s one of my best pieces yet.

 

finally, I sat down and re-made my kora duet, creating a much better backing track, and, hopefully, performing better melodic lead parts atop the pattern generator rhythms.   that, “the heart of africa”, and my unadorned abbey road 1960s drum part, is where I am right now with sampled instruments – and using kontakt to create drum parts, using the abbey road 60s drummer – could not have been easier – in short order, I had the process down, to where I could build an intelligent, varied and interesting drum part quite quickly – the whole thing took less than an hour.

 

but – the piece remains unfinished, again, I have kept two separate demos, one of “softly, softly we go” – my gentle, quiet horn intro – and another of the untitled-so- it’s-called “abbey road drums 1960s” aka “run into town – run 1” for reference, I hope to probably re-make the horn part, make it more concise, and create more space in it, and of course, I then need to decide what goes on top of my beautiful, recorded in abbey road studio no. 2 drums. sigh… (note: eventually, of course, a Rickenbacker bass part went on top of the drum part – and then, a host of live energy bow guitars…),

I also had an absolute blast doing a bass solo with the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, “amber waves of grain” – over 10 minutes of sheer Rickenbacker tone.

another aspect of komplete 9 ultimate is the undeniable fact that it is making certain instruments and software, no longer useful, it is literally making them redundant – as komplete can do the job more easily, with better samples, with a mature GUI (kontakt) than earlier third party apps can, or, better than older hardware effects can L.

 

so in this case, for example, while I will probably install my old drum machine software, which is called “BFD2” (this was utilised heavily during the making of “gone native”), I will only do so, so I can see and use the drum kits / samples it contains – which I would use via kontakt within komplete – NOT through the much more difficult to learn, and use, BFD GUI.

 

in a way, I really don’t NEED BFD any more, because I have several sampled kits from abbey road studios, plus, I have “battery 4” and a few other percussion based instruments – there is functionality and samples far beyond what BFD offers. so as I say, I would still use their kits (which sound great) but not their interface J.

 

so, if I am honest, komplete has made the following software and hardware items redundant:

 

redundant software:

 

bfd2 drum machine software + sonar’s session drummer 3 drum machine software – replaced by:

 

  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • battery 4 (massive drum machine / sample player, with many, many drum kits)
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa
  • balinese gamelan
  • maschine drum selection

 

note: both bfd2 and session drummer 3 are still available to use, either by using their kits from komplete / kontact, or by using their own GUIs if desired – but, not sure I would ever use either again given the list above.

 

redundant hardware:

 

 

line 6 “x3 live” guitar effects pedalboard – replaced by: guitar rig 5 pro, plus, sampled guitars and basses:

 

  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • rammfire
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • scarbee jay-bass

 

 

 

“digitech” TSR24-S hardware 24 bit reverb unit – replaced by:

 

  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect
  • galbarnum breeze 2C reverb (reverb plug-in for SONAR) – additional reverb choice “outside” of komplete itself
  • all four of these reverbs can be “called” from within SONAR, so it’s very, very useful to have access to these high quality effects, even for improving content that was not created in komplete 🙂

 

plus

 

  • eventide “space” hardware reverb – this is part of a permanent installation of three hardware four hardware effects that sit at the “end” of my mixer output chain – so, the final stereo output of the mixer, goes directly to these four hardware plug ins, and THEN to the sound card.

 

I’ve learned over time, that certain effects sound best in “front” (so just after the guitar, as part of your mix, occupying two or three stereo pairs on the mixer) while other effects work best “after” the mixer (such as pitch units, delay units, and absolutely, reverb units).

 

so, reluctant as I am to do so, it’s probably time to retire the “digitech”, and rely on the three high quality reverb units within komplete 9 ultimate – as well as galbanum’s 2c “breeze” reverb software – which in itself, was and is probably a replacement for the ancient tired “digitech” rack mount 24 bit reverb, not to mention the eventide “space”, which again, in itself, is probably a replacement / improvement over the digitech.

 

In a perfect world, I’d love to just run everything, and in some respects, I have been doing so, I’ve certainly kept a number of hardware devices running that I have replaced several times over – so I have to bite the bullet now, and actually remove the older, noisier technology, and whether I will or not, it seems that software synths and software effects are gradually taking over my set up, which is actually not unwelcome, and I hope that this summer, when the studio is moving, I can re-arrange the studio to support a less-hardware dependent sonic environment.

 

Purchasing komplete 9 ultimate gives us a lot of that software, bleeding edge software synths and effects, awesome high quality samples, and other factors, such as the emergence of very sophisticated applications for the ipad tablet and also, for the PC. In future, I will probably end up using a very hybrid system, were some tracks are created on the ipad (and eventually, too, mastered and mixed – tools have emerged…), and then moved into komplete, and then mastered and mixed in SONAR and/or komplete and/or Adobe Audition (where I do a lot of my simpler mastering now). The fact that I can do these processes in multiple “places” gives us an enormous amount of choice, it’s absolutely fantastic what can be accomplished.

 

Other tracks would be created wholly on the PC, using PC software only to create, master, and mix them.   Still others would involve the use of “real” instruments, guitar, synthesizer, keyboard, kaoss pad, percussion, etc. which can be processed through software packages such as “guitar rig 5” and also, the studio quality effects within komplete 9 ultimate. The RC-24 and RC-48 reverb units are especially absolutely lovely, they sound great, and I am really enjoying them.

 

The appearance of a massive army of music applications on the apple ipad, has changed forever the way I make music. Over the past few months, I’ve been scoring classical, acoustic guitar, and alternative music using a notation application called “notion” – and I can see myself exporting tracks from notion, and then importing them into komplete, to add the highest quality sampled instruments to the basic instrumentation created by my original score on the ipad.

 

I will absolutely be using a combination of pieces:

 

  • music created wholly on the iPad (which WILL include guitar and loop work, not just synthesizers – thanks to some truly quality guitar applications such as BIAS, Ampkit+, and GuitarTone)

 

  • music created using the ipad and my guitar or guitar synth

 

 

  • music created entirely on the PC, not utilising any ipad applications, the kaoss pad, or any “physical instruments” such as guitar or bass

 

  • music created using the ipad, the korg kaossilator, my guitar or guitar synth, bass guitar, live keyboards courtesy of various software synths, and anything else I can throw into the mix

 

(I call this last one the “all instruments” set up – it allows me to use, in a completely live setting, guitar, keyboards, kaoss pad, ipad, and of course, a lot of effects units, including loopers). The looper captures the live performance, and the output of the looper is optionally run through the pitch pedal, the delay, and the reverb (my standard set of output live hardware effects pedals), and finally recorded in SONAR.

 

The arrival of application-based music meant that my record-keeping was really thrown askew, because you can create so much amazing music so quickly with applications, I realised early on, I would need a special forum to create them in, so before things got out of hand, I split my recorded music collection into two distinct areas:

 

Music Dave Stafford – the traditional home of most traditional recordings, anything involving real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, and looping thereof – which may also include the occasional ipad or kaoss pad in a guest starring role – they are not banned, it’s just this is the home of more traditional instrumentation.

 

App-Based Dave Stafford – there is a folder for each app, containing both sessions and finished product, I am so glad I did this now, because now whenever I complete any piece in an app, I have a specific place to store it, from which to upload to Bandcamp, or Soundcloud, or to my website – or for whatever purpose I need it for.

 

This means that any very hybrid music, that crosses over between these two broad categories, I’ve chosen to move that kind of music into the “Music Dave Stafford” folder, because it contains the real instruments, which is really the main characteristic of the music in this folder – the presence of real instruments, played in real time or looped.

 

The arrangement is working well so far, I am not surprised by how many app folders I already have, and as time goes on, there will just be more and more, but I think that’s brilliant – and the emergence of more and more sophisticated application music creation tools, is almost irreversibly moving me more towards app-based music – my next eternal album is focussed on one of my more recent app acquisitions – the iVCS3 , a perfect replica of the 1969 beast of a synth that powered the sound of early roxy music and early king crimson – one of the first truly sophisticated modular synths, and the application version is uncanny for it’s realism – it’s a fantastic, primitive, visceral, wonderful device that spits and fires, drones and warbles, and has a fantastic set of pre-sets, too – including the famous never-ending synth pattern of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – and it’s very, very odd to hear that playing on your ipad, from an emulation of the device it was originally created on!   The makers have included the Who session as a preset – amazing!

 

I’ve been playing the iVCS3 recently, and I have recorded a number of tracks, which while not quite ambient, I am happy enough to give them the name “drones” – so, some elements of ambient, then, but, some other, harsher elements too.

 

I believe I recorded about a dozen tracks, a few of which turned out to be somewhat substandard (clearly a beginner with the device, you can’t win them all!) but I believe that about eight tracks have survived and are some cracking representations of what this amazing synthesizer is capable of. I’ve mastered three of the tracks, and I hope to work on the rest this weekend, with a view to get the album posted before Monday – that’s my hope, difficult to say if I really will make that date – I shall try.

 

The pieces recorded are simply remarkable, no thanks to me, my involvement is minimal, but, I did need to be involved, it’s strange, in that when you “play” the iVCS3, you don’t often really use the keys, you more often use the knobs to create variation of a running theme. I was very intent on getting some excellent tracks out of the device, so I very, very carefully and very gingerly turned knobs, until I understood what each one did…and then I felt free enough to really experiment, so I really branched out on the last few numbers, which were all longer-running pieces, one of them extending to over ten minutes.

 

So I have momentarily, turned away from working with komplete, but that’ not to say I have stopped, in any way – it’s my intent to work with komplete as much as my schedule with allow me – and my first goal, is to take a complete bass and drum track, that I did a lot of work on, and see if I can create a proggy version of it, complete with precision prog guitaring – that is my goal for this piece. So komplete is waiting for me, and as soon as I get back to it, you can expect a slow but constant stream of music, of many, many kinds and styles, to be built with the remarkable toolset available within komplete 9 ultimate – an awe-inspiring piece of music software that if you had told me about it 20 years ago, I would not have believed you, I would have said it was impossible for such a thing to exist, on a computer…

 

But – exist it does – and we really wanted to step up a bit, and have the capacity and ability to create a much, much broader range of sounds than we previously had available – and the nine synths and the many, many sampled instruments within Komplete, gives us just that! And – the future – there are many amazing instruments available that will run in Kontakt, so we do plan to pick up some of them over time – the first acquisition will be a very special tool, meant to bolster the ambient sampling capability of the studio – soniccouture’s remarkable “geosonics” instrument.

 

This remarkable third-party instrument, which runs in kontakt without issue, manufactured by soniccouture, is comprised of four different musical “sections”, each one representing a season, and many of the sounds have been sampled from nature, all over the world, and compiled into this unique instrument – and some of the “combinations” of sounds they have created are truly remarkable. So I have “geosonics” on my wish list…and I also have a large number of other third party instruments that I would love to add to my sample player set up 🙂

 

In any case, I cannot recommend native instruments highly enough; who have patiently worked on kontakt, reaktor, and all the instruments that plug into them; and Guitar Rig, one of the most amazing software guitar processing packages I have ever seen –and their choice of subcontractors, i.e. companies that have created unique and very special instruments, which native instruments have added to their product offering to make it more attractive. That includes but is not necessarily limited to Soniccouture (whose “gamelan” instrument is included in komplete 9 ultimate – one of my favourite instruments so far – have a listen to my gamelan-created track “bird of paradise”), Scarbee, who make the amazing “rickenbacker bass” instrument (and several other bass and guitar emulations, too!) – which you can hear on “run into town – run 1” or “run into town – run 2”– that thing is just so amazing sounding, completely authentic, and when you couple it with a high quality sampled drum track, it sounds completely real – because of course, it IS completely real.

 

That…is the beauty of sampled instruments. They are real ! Therefore…they SOUND real.   Which is a good thing 🙂

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Twilight Time, my friend.

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

on the road to red…

Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.

Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.

The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen!  It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.

now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.

It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.

There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.

I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night.  Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.

Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…

And sometimes, what happens is remarkable.  There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.

For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.

Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”.  This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”.  The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.

Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.

But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music. 

And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !!  It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.

I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.

Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions.  You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.

The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).

That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows.  So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!

Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record.  It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.

For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set.  Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.

This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade.  it’s starless…and bible black.

I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.

Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.

I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).

It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly.  “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂

I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”.  Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.

All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.

I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened.  Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play.  And play – he does.  With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.

Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing.  They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that.  The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !

But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.

You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.

Available in fine music shops everywhere.

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.

the music of the moment

sometimes…I do feel frustrated when my life gets in the way, and I can’t find time to sit down and write about music, or, worse still, play music, mix music, work on music – but that’s what happens, there are these little obstacles and problems that pop up, and you have to deal with them, there is no option…but I do get annoyed when I fall behind on any (annoying) or all (really annoying) aspects of music.

unfortunately, I did lose a little bit of momentum with the recent, extensive work on the release of the physical CD of “gone native”, but I am getting caught up now, and this weekend should be the final session, when I can (hopefully) send the audio master away to the pressing plant next Monday and then just wait.  I am very much looking forward to it, I had no idea that the artwork would be so tricky and so time consuming, but I am happy in a way, because I’ve learned what’s expected (in 2012 terms) for physical CD manufacture – and that is useful for the future!

I can’t believe it’s been ten years already since I originally stopped manufacturing CDs, and went “all download”, but I feel strongly that “gone native” is an extremely important work for me, being the culmination of my craft as it were, a representation of my guitar playing based on the last 41 years or so of recording, performing and just playing the guitar 🙂 – so, a proper CD release was absolutely on the cards all along.

however…some progress at creating music, both past and present, is also being made; last weekend, I did find time to return to mixing audio and preparing video for the first time in about three weeks, and I think I managed to mix five or six tracks in total, including a couple from the “synthraga sessions” (there are four more of those waiting for me to mix this weekend, and, so much more…) – but again, the frustrating aspect of that, is that these are tracks that I recorded back in May !

talk about a backlog – but, I did make a start, a few tracks got mixed, video clips were prepared; and hopefully, if I can just find a few hours each weekend, I can keep mixing audio and prepping video…and eventually, in a few months, I may actually “catch up”…well, whether I do or not, I will just keep going…

meanwhile, new music creation still goes on thanks to the world of apps, with two new pieces emerging on the fairlight this week, I decided to see if I could create ambient music on the fairlight, and it’s quite challenging.  my first attempt, entitled “nightfall: silence”, is still languishing, incomplete, in the application, just three bars long – however, an enormous amount of very, very interesting music occurs in those three bars!  I think that runs about a minute, or something like that – because, I set the tempo to 5 beats per minute – something I’ve never done.  I then used a lot of very odd samples, pitched very low, and this strange, movie-soundtrack-like piece of music emerged.

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with a tempo less then 30 bpm, and usually, more like 120 bpm!  but I thought I would try 5, and, something else very strange and glitchy happened – I sequenced a single note, a low C on a bowed acoustic bass – and it just repeated, as if it were looped, for the entire measure !  so suddenly, I had this very slow; very low, and very ominous loop like sound to build my strange ambient piece around.  I have no idea how, or if, it will turn out – but – so far, so good…

it sounds like nothing on this earth, it’s more atmosphere than music, it sounds like the strangest, most ominous incidental film music you ever heard – and it was never meant to be that, but with my “automatic writing” bowed low C note, how could I go wrong?  and, composing at a crawl, it’s an utterly surreal and very strange experience, you place notes into the sequence, but your mind can’t quite get around just how slowly they will unfold when played back…

today, september 13th, would have been my Dad’s 82nd birthday, so in honour of him, I created what should have been my second ambient fairlight composition, “eighty-two”.  this uses choirs, humans and orchestras, and one lonely percussion voice, the finger cymbal, which proved to be crucial about half way through the creation process.

it started out very choral, with big, deep, minor chords, which then took a sudden chromatic slide down, with a few very strange harmonies as the chords descended; this developed into a nice little piece, very lovely but also a bit wistful or sad…but then, just as it seemed to be developing into something very sombre, on a whim, I added a quick little finger cymbal solo in on top of a copy of one of the orchestra/choir “chords” – and suddenly, my would-be ambient fairlight piece became quasi-ambient-techno-electronica!! much to my surprise.

I developed three different measures of melodic finger cymbal, some of the notes insanely high pitched (so high I had to boost their individual levels so you could actually hear them!), which sound fantastic against the deep, low, choral backdrop of orchestra and choirs.  then I did one percussion run, with just a deep bass/orchestra backing – then one without any backing, then brought the bass back in, then the full choir and orchestra, and then eventually, returned to the original, chordal, choral motif…ending with a strange, solo four-note finger cymbal run – three whole notes followed by a cropped 1/16th note for that “sudden finish” that I love so much.

 

in just 30 minutes, “eighty-two” was complete, not what I expected, but as it turns out, I think the almost accidentally-created finger cymbal melodic section is a real highlight, and it made the piece, it really did.  so, my second ambient piece, actually became my first electronica piece.  you never know what will happen when you compose on the fairlight!