7 Dec 2012

Want a live band? Hate music? Get a Noise Limiter!

I know many of the people reading this blog are professional musicians, and I'm willing to bet whenever we hear the words "Oh, and there's a noise limiter at the venue", we all have pretty much the same reaction.

The Bastard Box 2000 Enjoyment Elimination System
For those of you who haven't come across one of these Scroogeboxes, they work by measuring the volume of the band, and when it reaches a point where you can actually hear them playing, it switches all the electrics off on that circuit.  Some limiters then reset automatically after a few seconds, but others require the band to clamber over to the box and reset it manually. This, needless to say, is a pain in the arse.

There are several reasons why a venue might have a noise limiter installed:

  • Employers are legally obliged to protect the health of their employees, and this includes the exposure to loud and sustained noise;
  • The venue is in a residential area, and the local authorities have placed very strict regulations on the noise levels permitted after a certain time
  • They have been plagued by unprofessional bands that quite simply play far too loud for the comfort and enjoyment of their guests, and need to do something to put a stop to it
All these are valid (though often abused) reasons, but let's be honest here - the main reason for a venue to have a noise limiter is that they want the money brought in by events with a live band, but without having to put up with the actual music.  These are people that quite simply do not enjoy live bands.

What's that bloody din?!
Overly loud bands can really spoil an evening, I agree.  If you're on the dance floor, you end up with your head buzzing and your ears bleeding; if you're trying to have a conversation at the back of the room you end up shouting yourself hoarse.

I am in several function bands, and we never play loud.  We're dead set against miking the drums in small and medium-sized venues (a practice which has also crippled the unsigned band circuit, but that's another matter); the guitarist I usually work with is possibly the only guitarist on the planet you ever have to tell to turn his amp up!  And of course, like most professional bands, we'll always listen to the crowd and turn things down in the rare event that people complain...

But to take a recent example, we played a venue where the noise limiter was set to 90db.  That's about the volume of a fairly powerful hairdryer.  And it had a manual-reset button.  Simply playing quieter wasn't entirely successful, either, as certain frequencies would resonate more than others, so if you hit a certain note while the drummer was on the hi-hat and that fat bloke was just out of the way of the limiter's microphone, no matter how softly you played, the switch would trip.  It was, quite frankly, a nightmare for us, and the guests were thoroughly underwhelmed - not to mention pissed off. You could hear the guests' feet on the dance floor over the music.  When you're nearing the end of the evening, and the drunken wedding party can't sing along to "I Believe In A Thing Called Love" because it might trip the limiter, you know something's wrong with the situation.

So if you must have a noise limiter at your venue, why don't you just make it clear to clients that they cannot book party bands?  Jazz ensembles; solo pianists; string quartets; harpists... these are all excellent options.  But don't string a client along that yes, you're the perfect venue and can cater for all their needs, allow them to go ahead and book the band of their choice, then sting them with the news that the band they've paid good money for might as well play in the car park. 

Don't you realise you're the only person in the room complaining?

If you like good live music and need a party band, jazz quartet or solo pianist for your event, drop me a line through http://www.peterfalconer.co.uk/contact

24 Nov 2012

Donald Fagen Interview...

Came across this little nugget from SongFacts.com, and I suggest you all check it out.  It's an interview with Donald Fagen, one half (with Walter Becker) of Steely Dan.

Link to SongFacts.com Donald Fagen Interview

Steely Dan (a band, not a bloke, named after a dildo in The Naked Lunch) are a kind of fusion Jazz R&B group, who write singularly wonderful songs, full of rich harmonies, intricate melodies, and often darkly comic lyrics.  Plus they can knock out a really catchy toon, folks.

Not the prettiest pair, but they did write the sublime "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"

As with anything that's come from a jazz beginning, they do sometimes straddle the line between edgy and wanky... but I think they always manage to stay on the right side of it.  Some people don't - their most celebrated album, Aja, is not the easiest in the world to listen to, for example.  My favourite albums are Pretzel Logic (1974), Goucho (1984) and the more recent Two Against Nature (2000), but any of them are worth a listen.  You youngsters out there will no doubt have heard their track The Fez sampled in All Saints' I Know Where It's At, and it's also become an unofficial anthem for Matt Smith's portrayal of Doctor Who...

So yeah, Steely Dan - one of those bands that are worth investing a bit of listening time in. 

They're also very amusing chaps.  If you don't believe me, have a read of this letter they sent to Wes Anderson about writing a theme song for The Darjeeling Limited...

15 Nov 2012

Open Piano Competition 2012

In October this year, I was lucky enough to have attended the final of a new and, I think, very important piano competition: The Open Piano Competition.

I think the organisers of the competition describe their ethos best in the About The OPC section of their website:

What makes the OPC different to any other piano competition is the final round
in which we do not divide the so-called 'professional' pianist (e.g., one who has
trained at a conservatoire and whose income derives from playing concerts,
teaching etc.,) from the so-called 'amateur' pianist (e.g., one for whom piano
has always been a hobby and a passion but whose income derives from a full-time career
as e.g., engineer, doctor, house-wife, secretary, etc) thereby creating two separate
competitions which is the preferred method for many piano competitions today, 
rather, the OPC sets the winners from the categories in rounds one and two to be
judged against each other on their interpretation of the music they have chosen.

Antoine Joubert

So the first finalist, Antoine Joubert, was a 32 year old professional pianist from Canada.  He played a Janáček piece I wasn't familiar with (In The Mist), and Beethoven's Grande Sonate Pathetique, a Falconer family favourite.

Graham Rix

The second, Graham Rix, was a 48 year old London-based musician, working primarily in education and with community music programmes.  For years he worked for the Irene Taylor Trust (music in prisons).  A very different competitor to the first finalist.  Graham played a splendid Prelude & Fugue of his own composition, the Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op23, the Lizst Etude d'Execution Transcendante No. 9, and Song & Dance by 20th Century American composer Ned Rorem.  Every note Graham played was absolutely fizzing with joy.  Through the whole performance, and afterwards, he looked absolutely delighted to be there, playing alongside these other excellent musicians, and in front of an appreciative crowd.  It was wonderful to see.

Adam Kosmieja

The third finalist, was 26 year old professional pianist Adam Kosmieja from Poland.  Adam had perhaps a less varied programme than any of the other competitors, playing the Chopin Polonaise Fantaisie, Op 61, and Gaspard de la Nuit by Ravel; however, his performance of these two pieces had me absolutely spellbound from the start.  I have never been a fan of Chopin, who despite his fascinating harmonic experimentation I've always found a bit self-indulgent (if you hear a bit you like, don't worry because it's sure to come up again eight times in a row...), but this performance has made me decide to go back and take another look.  And the Ravel, which I'd not heard before, was so stunning that it moved the chairman of the jury, Dr Leslie Howard, to remark upon just how lucky we pianists are to have such a vast range of wonderful music to choose from, most of which never gets touched purely because of the amount of stuff out there!

Dominic Piers Smith

Fourth came a remarkable character, Dominic Piers Smith.  A 37 year old from the UK, he won 1st prize in the 2012 Paris International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, and was staking his claim for a prize here, too... but by day he is chief aerodynamics designer for the Mercedes AMG Formula 1 team.  He's designed cars that Michael Schumacher has competed in, for crying out loud, and here he is playing in the final of an international piano competition!  Excellent.  His programme, delivered with flair and exuberance, consisted of three pieces from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Op 75, the Lizst Etude d'Execution Transcendante No.12, and Los Requiebros, from Spanish composer Granados' suite Goyescas

Viviana Lasaracina

The fifth, and youngest, finalist was 24 year old Viviana Lasaracina from Italy.  Though still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, she has already won and been placed in several international piano competitions, and she is definitely a name to look out for in the future.  She played the first book of Debussy's Images, and numbers 1-4 from Rachmaninov's Musical Moments, Op 16, and absolutely blew me away with her delicacy, articulation and power.  A wonderful performance.

Valentin Bogolubov

Finally came Valentin Bogolubov, aged 64, originally from Latvia but based in Canada as a pianist and conductor.  He played a wide variety of pieces, including two by Graham Lynch, the Impromptu in E Flat Major No 2 by Schubert, a brace of Schubert songs as transcribed by Liszt, and two pieces by Prokofiev, the Prelude No. 7 Op 12, and Suggestion Diabolique from his Four Pieces for Piano Op 4.  This last piece is a furious, firy work of demonic horror, which Valentin performed absolutely effortlessly - not only were the crowd (and the judges) thinking, "How does he do that?", but also, "How does he make that look so easy?!"  Asked about playing in the competition, Valentin said "Participating in the Open Piano Competition makes me feel young again."

The Results

1st Place: Valentin Bogolubov
2nd Place: Viviana Lasaracina
3rd Place: Dominic Piers Smith

Given the standard of the competitors, it's very hard to argue against that outcome.  But what's wonderful is seeing how the first three places are taken by a 64 year old man, a 24 year old woman, and, in the nicest possible way, a hobbyist!

Here is a link to audio recordings of the finalists' performances:

and there are plenty of other interesting goodies on the OPC website.  The 2013 competition takes place in Turin, Italy, between the 7th and 12th October.  I sincerely hope the competition continues to generate interest and offer pianists all over the world, of all backgrounds, ages, and all stages in their careers, the chance to play in the wonderfully exciting environment a competition can offer.

6 Oct 2012

Daisy's Story: How to defret a bass

Earlier in the year, I bought a new bass.  My normal bass is a lovely Fender Precision, but I've wanted a fretless for a while.  However, I don't really have the cash to buy one right now, and if I had, I probably couldn't justify buying another bass with it anyway!

So I decided if I could find a half decent fretted bass at a bargain price, I'd have a go at defretting it myself.  At Alfie's Musical Instruments in Brighton, I found the perfect candidate.  They'd marked the price down on this thing so much because, due to its unusual appearance, they simply couldn't sell it.  So for the "make me an offer" price of £100, I picked up Daisy:

I admit, to my shame, I initially tried it out as a joke.  It became clear quite quickly, however, that there was nothing - absolutely nothing wrong with this bass.  It's a Daisy Rock short scale bass, with Seymour Duncan designed pickups, and it sounds cracking!  Plus, with the short scale neck, it's really nice to play - easy as you like.

Daisy Rock, if you haven't heard of them, make guitars aimed at girls.  Now, personally, I don't see why that means they have to be shaped like flowers or hearts - there's nothing particularly masculine or feminine about a Fender Strat (though I appreciate the argument against, say, a B C Rich Warlock).  However, they've more recently moved away from the 'novelty' shaped guitars and have some really nice looking gear.  More importantly, they're lighter, with shorter, slimmer necks, making them more suitable for players of the generally smaller-handed female gender.  They're also very well constructed (being formed initially by Tish Ciravolo as an offshoot of Schecter, becoming its own entity in 2003).

So I had my bass.  Now to, er, deflower it!

What you need:

Clockwise from left: soldering iron; wood filler; flexible wood filler
applicator trowel thing; sandpaper (assorted); wood laquer; fresh pot of tea;
strainer; mug; screwdriver; pincers

The most important part of the toolkit, obviously, is the tea.  For this project, I chose the Thé Mélange Madeleine by Hediard of Paris.  It's a black tea, with aromas of orange and vanilla.  Great for any time of the day, but particularly for a quiet afternoon sit-down.  And for defretting a bass.

Now, onto the main business. The first thing you'll have to do is remove the neck from the bass (this assuming, of course, that you've got a bolt-on neck on your bass.  If you haven't, well, I guess you've just got to be a bit more careful with the paintwork on the body!

I was terrified about this.  Thought it was going to be a massive job, and that I was going to bollocks up the whole instrument somehow.  However, it really is as simple as removing the screws from this little back plate.

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy

Once that's done, you're only dealing with the neck itself rather than having to wield the whole thing.  So now to remove the frets.  The ones on Daisy, it turned out, were held in place with these little teeth on the sides of the frets, so they just needed a good tug with the pincers to get them out.  Other makers, however, sometimes stick a blob of glue on the bottom of the frets to keep them in place - so if that's the case, you'll find things a lot easier if you heat up the frets with the soldering iron to melt the glue before pulling them out.  Don't be too rough with them - you don't want to rip a bloody big hole in the fretboard.  I managed to get away with a minimal amount of flaking around the edges of the slots in the end.

Apply Heat

If you can't get pincers, pliers work just as well

Once you've got all the frets out (bloody therapeutic, let me tell you!) you need to fill the slots they've left behind.  Get your wood filler and apply with your bendy palate knife thing, then when it's dried, sand down the whole neck so it's nice and even.  Coarse paper to get the larger lumps off, then a finer paper to get things nice and smooth. 

Sandy... oh Sandy...

Nearly there.  Wipe the neck down with a damp cloth to make sure you've got all the dust off, then once it's dried you can start varnishing. 

Do thin, even coats across the whole thing.  Take your time!  This is where the tea comes in handy.  Have a cup in between every coat.  I did four coats in the end, which is sufficient.  Some people prefer to use epoxy rather than lacquer, as this gives a slightly harder, glassier surface, which is conducive to faster playing and a slightly brighter tone.  However, Homebase were all out, and my bass playing ability wasn't really worth the drive to Wickes to get some. 

Once you've done, and the lacquer is dry, get the finest grain of sandpaper you can find, and give the whole fretboard one last going over to get it nice and smooth.

And there you go - your very own fretless bass.  I can tell you, the sense of achievement is marvellous, especially if DIY isn't your thing.  I'm the sort of guy who does a lap of honour if I successfully change a lightbulb!

In all her glory!

When it comes to stringing the thing, you need flatwound strings.  Partly because they make for a much more smooth sliding action, but also because roundwound strings, when they vibrate, act like a saw on the wood underneath, and you'll bugger your fretboard right up.

So to finish, if you'll please excuse my bass playing ability, here's a quick demo of what Daisy sounds like in action.  I'm over the moon! 

how to make a fretless bass how to defret a bass easy defretting covert fretted bass to fretless

4 Oct 2012

National Poetry Day

Apparently it's National Poetry Day today.  So here's one my dad wrote years ago:

An ape was sitting knitting
Sitting in the sun
An ape was sitting knitting
When someone shot a gun

The ape stopped sitting knitting
Sitting in the sun
The ape stopped sitting knitting
And lay down instead

30 Aug 2012

Fancy Dress Costume Review! (Warning: rambles)

Product Placement Alert!  It finally happened, folks - I sold out to The Man.  I made a deal with The Devil. 

Actually, what's happened is the lovely folks at Jokers' Masquerade have asked me to review one of their costumes on the site.  And here at Falconer Towers, we're complete fancy dress nuts, so of course I was up for it! Yes, I know this is a music blog, but fuck it - it's my blog and I can write about whatever I want. Hmpf!

They asked me to choose a costume from their website, which was perfectly straightforward to navigate.  Each costume page also suggested extra accessories to purchase and make the costume complete.  My choice of costume for review was this delightful Sherlock Holmes costume, complete with magnifying glass and pipe set. 

Ironing: it's elementary

Very dandy I'm sure you'll agree!  It's a good quality cape, doesn't feel like it's going to fall apart in two minutes like a lot of shop-bought gear you get.  The dearstalker is suitably ridiculous.  Meanwhile, the pipe and magnifying glass are nicely put together - the pipe's not functional, but the magnifying glass works a treat!  I was investigating the shit out of the garden with it, I can tell you!  Everything fit marvellously, and due to the nature of the cape it probably would have fit a larger or smaller person no problem, though unfortunately I didn't have one to hand to try this out. 

I put it to you, sir...

As you can see, while the gear arrived properly packaged, there was a bit of folding and scrunching involved (the cape came in a flimsy but functional suit bag, but the hanger had snapped so it had all fallen to the bottom), which of course I didn't bother ironing out before these photos were taken.  I'm sure Sherlock himself wouldn't have bothered with such a thing.  My own Mrs Hudson, however, when asked if she would perform the necessary sartorial sprucing, suggested in no uncertain terms I "Fuck off and do it yourself."  One simply can't get the staff these days...

But all in all, very pleased with the costume.  If I turned up to a party wearing it, everyone would say, "Good Lord - you've come as Sherlock Holmes!" Which, of course, would be the goal.  Quickly dispatched, well packaged, everything in the size ordered, no bits falling off... grand.  And I'm pretty  confident I could wear this thing to a dozen parties and it would still be in good nick. Good job, Jokers' Masquerade!

So of course the big question is: Home-made costumes or Shop-bought?  Well if you buy a costume ready made, to be honest there's always that whiff of cheating about it.  I mean, yeah that penguin costume you've bought looks great, but what about the guy who spent hours perfecting his pervy uncle costume? (I've got a photo of this very thing somewhere, but I'm buggered if I can find it. Gutted!)

My personal favourite costume I ever came up with was for an 80s-themed festival, which I attended as a Bullseye contestant:
Shirt £12; Jeans £4; Trainers £6. Thank you Tesco
Complete with this SERIOUS hair cut with real hair extensions:

That is real hair.  Fitted using a glue gun.

Part of the fun of it all is trawling the charity shops, finding the perfect bad shirt or whatever.  Buying from a website is just too easy in some ways...

... but then again, isn't the fun of it just that people look good?  Who cares if it's been bought or made?  Just so long as people get dressed up in the spirit of things - and God knows not everybody can be arsed to wander around charity shops like a crazed rag & bone man.  And not everybody is handy with a needle and thread - that Spiderman costume you envisaged doesn't look quite as good as the real thing, does it?  Washing some pyjamas on hot so they shrink, popping on a balaclava and stapling a print out of the Spidey logo to your chest?  Not great.  You'd have been better off going to Jokers' Masquerade and buying one!

So yeah, if you want a good costume in a hurry, or need help with a more sophisticated outfit, I'd definitely recommend buying or hiring one.  Let's be honest, you're not going to attempt to make a gorilla costume yourself, are you?  Or indeed your Bernie Clifton jobs (I'd fucking LOVE one of these!)

Personally, I do like creating my own monstrosities as well.  The thrill of the hunt, trying to work out just what sort of trousers a 1970s geography teacher would have worn (pretty obscure party theme there, but that's fine!) 

Come on, then - send me your best fancy dress photos.  I'm on twitter at @falconermusic which is probably the best place to send me a pic, or feel free to comment and leave a link!  I'll post the best ones on here.  

1 Aug 2012

Voice Of Drums!

We need to talk about drumming.

Basically, I've dabbled with drums for a fairly long time, but I've never really pushed myself.  And being self-taught, I've found I've tended to work around my shortcomings rather than try and fix them.  So lately I've decided to take the drums a little more seriously, and this led me to my latest musical adventure!

At the beginning of this week I attended the three day Voice of Drums summer school, run by acclaimed drummer and percussionist Terl Bryant (John Paul Jones; Iona; Sadie And The Hotheads).

The purpose of the school was not just to help people with their technique, or to learn dozens and dozens of new patterns, but to think differently about how to express meaning through drumming.  In other words, not just keeping a beat - though that of course is vitally important!

So on the first day we went through various warm up techniques and rudiments, followed by a session with another excellent drummer Stu Roberts, who introduced us to various Latin rhythms and co-ordination exercises.

Stu Roberts, teaching like nobody's business.

At the end of each day was a recording session, where each student would learn a little more about mic choice and placement, playing to a click track, and how to create a drum part that would fit in with a track appropriately.

The second day started again with warm ups and rudiments, before moving onto the kit to start exploring how to express different emotions and concepts with the drums.  The idea behind this is that in any great recording, whatever meaning the song has should be reflected in every instrument - not just the vocals.  That may sound like the most obvious thing in the world, but there are so many producers who treat the drums like a glorified metronome, when they could be so much more.  Similarly, there are too many drummers (we've all worked with them) who don't think so much about the meaning of the song as they do about getting the next really cool fill they've learnt in there somewhere, whether it works or not.

Terl in the driving seat

The third and final day featured amongst other things a workshop with Hungarian drumming superstar Gabor Dornyei.  Gabor is primarily a jazz fusion drummer, and he taught us a great mix of musicality, playing technique and practice methods that gave us yet more things to think about at the end of three days of fantastic teaching.

Oh, you're going to play all those? Ok...

So what did I get out of it?  Well first, it was a great opportunity to work up close with some top working drummers - all three have staggering lists of credits on stage shows, live acts and studio albums.  Not only were there plenty of new techniques, and ideas on how to practise, as well as what to practise (which I found particularly helpful), but also that constant reminder that the drums should be treated as an integral part of the music, not just a timekeeper. 

Not only that, but there was a draw at the end of the course, which I won! And here I am with my prize - a Hardcase snare case!

Grinning like a fucking idiot. I never win raffles!

Voice Of Drums runs every year down in West Sussex - you should check it out if you're in the area (though some students travelled down from as far afield as Darby).  Whether it's drumming, dancing or juggling, I always think any kind of immersion camp like this is great for people wanting to get themselves kickstarted, intermediates wanting to really get going with the things they've already learnt, and more advanced learners who have plateaued a bit and want to shake things up.  So yeah, check it right out!

Thanks again to Terl for organising the whole thing - it was a great success as far as I was concerned, and I know the other students had a blast too.  Got a great deal out of it, and I'll definitely be back next year!


29 Jun 2012

How to choose your wedding first dance song

The dress, the venue, the catering, and the band are all sorted... but now as if you didn't have enough decisions to make, you've got to choose the song you'll be dancing to for the first time as the happy couple!

Some people are lucky in that they've a very clear idea of what they want to dance to on the day - they've had it in their head since they first decided to tie the knot, so choosing a first dance song is a piece of (tiered) cake.  But it's not unusual to feel at bit of a loss - especially if dancing isn't your thing...

It's not for everyone.

But don't despair!  Here are a handful of tips to help you decide on the Perfect First Dance Song for your wedding. Read on!

First, Forget your Feet

Don't worry about your dancing ability just yet.  The first thing you should do is think about the kind of atmosphere you want for your first dance.  Do you want something Slow and Smoochy, something Fast and Fun or something in between?

Slow And Smoochy Dance: The Slow Wobble

If you're not too sure on your feet, this is a great option.  The guests will go all dewy-eyed watching you there together, and as there's not too much movement going on they'll be able to get plenty of photos.  And they'll especially love it if you punctuate it with the occasional twirl from the bride.  It's also one of the few times in the whole evening you'll be able to have a (relatively) private conversation between the two of you!

Dancing cheek to cheek...

So what song to choose for this?  Obviously, it's going to be a ballad of some sort.  Some popular tracks I've played/heard at weddings recently have been:

A word of warning, however: some of these songs might feel a bit long.  You don't want to spoil a beautiful three minutes of bride & groom loveliness with an extra two-and-a-half minutes of uncomfortable shuffling and a restless crowd.  The more traditionally-minded might like to break things up by starting the dance with the bride & her father, with the groom taking over from the father after a minute or so.  It's probably best, after a couple of verses and choruses, to invite the guests to dance on the floor as well, of course.  Alternatively, you could always edit the song down yourself using a simple audio editor such as Audacity.

Burn This Disco Out: The Fast Dance!

Some would say the faster dance is more suitable for those who are a little more comfortable on the dance floor, but if you're after more of a party atmosphere, then it doesn't matter if all you can do is stomp about like a nut - the important thing is that you're having fun!  And of course, if you start to feel a little exposed, you can always invite the other guests onto the floor with you.

You've got it, and you're gonna flaunt it!

Here are a few examples:

And that's not all!

Depending on what's important to you on the big day, you might be inclined to put a little more work into the dance itself.  It's quite common these days for couples to take a few dance lessons, or even employ the services of a First Dance Choreographer.  Just do a quick Google search for ones in your area, but if you're in the South East and fancy something with a bit of Swing, I can heartily recommend Swingland, who specialise in Jive, Lindy Hop, Charleston and other similar styles.

Me and the the missus doing the Charleston

Or something really different...

One of the best wedding first dances I ever heard about was by a young couple who ditched the whole thing and got all the guests up for a massive round of The Hokey Cokey!

But of course, the really important thing is that you pick a song that means something to you, so that whenever you hear it, you smile and look at each other with that gooey look in your eyes - and whether that's "How Deep Is Your Love" or "Highway To The Dangerzone" is nobody's business but yours!

1 Jun 2012

Einstein On The Beach

What follows are the scrawlings I made in a notebook whilst watching the opera Einstein on the Beach - scored by Philip Glass, choreographed by Lucinda Childs, and directed by Robert Wilson - at The Barbican Theatre, 2012.  There was a little confusion over the naming of the various scenes, as I had only glanced at the running order beforehand.  Aside from having an idea of Glass's minimalist style, and the knowledge that the opera was 5 hours long with no plot or interval, I had not prepared myself by reading up on what each scene contained, or what I was to expect musically or dramatically.  The notes were made by information coming in through the eyes and ears and going directly to the pen - the brain was, for the most part, bypassed in order to achieve maximum sensational enjoyment!

So, as people are entering, we're faced with one girl at a desk miming typing on some sort of keyboard and another...


... on a mouse.

"These are the days, my friends."

Orchestra pit slowly fills with chorus (Cons; grey trousers; white short sleeves; braces; white faces; smiling, surprised)
Pause on way up stairs

The bloke next to me is wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a black turtleneck with no apparent irony.  He also smells very musty.  Like he's spent a fortnight in a library or a second-hand book shop in Shoreditch.

"It could be very... fresh!"

Photo of child by lake.


Child holding cube of light on gangway up high. 
Conch shell underneath
Girl walks back and forth (upstage - downstage - upstage) holding pencil?

Red jumper enters downstage. Seems delighted.

Music a mechanical, contrapuntal mash.

Red jumper's writing in the air with chalk now.

Big argument over seats on the row in front.  Getting quite heated. 

Meanwhile, a train enters upstage left.

And exits as soon as it entered.

Another dancer's just entered downstage left.  Think she's operating a train or something. 

Argument resolved - people here first are on the wrong floor!

Ooh, the train's back again.

Poor girl's been walking backwards and forwards at about 120bpm for 7 minutes now with her left arm at 45degrees.  Must be getting tired.

Paper aeroplane on stage.

Photo of a train now.  Ah, this part is called "Train."

More train operators!  And the walking girl's trying to controll something with her hands.  Could she be the... conductor?

The train (sorry, engine) has a mannequin with a red beard in the driver's cab.  Now the train operators are joined by a triangle of string and a shalf of light descends centre stage. 

After 11 minutes, the engine and operators leave.  Walking girl continues and red jumper speaks. 

More paper aeroplanes from the kid, little tyke!

Operator's back.

"It would be somewhere."
"The [xxx] are like into this."

CAUTION! Slow moving newspaper reader.

"Like into where like that it could be so like that into..."

Girl runs on; everyone freezes momentarily... then walking girl starts up again!  Running girl has the conch! It's all happening...

Right, the train driver's not a mannequin - he's smoking a pipe.  Conch girl has been stood still listening for five minutes. 
The platform the kid's on is leaning over, and walking girl is going nuts. 

And we're now into Trial 1. Walking girl was walking for 22 minutes.  Fat bearded stage hand clears up the paper aeroplanes.  They're bringing on desks with various papers, orbs and jars. Conch girl's still listening.  Red jumper's lost his jumper but he's still writing in the air.

Benches, gallery, movable floor with a massive fitted sheet.  Or is it a bed?

Flute's going right through me!

Stage now in darkness (apart from the chair on the right apron).

Lights back up. 

Every so often you see one of the keyboard players stretching his hands out, presumably to avoid R.S.I.

Enter 3 blokes and a red indian with a massive staff.

They've brought lunch.

Gallery fills. 

"Hear me"

Two secretaries filing nails.

Defendant (?) comes in; bed lights up; judges enter - big black guy and the kid.

Fuck, there's Einstein on the violin!  Where did he come from?!

Why are the jury wiggling their fingers?

The court is now in session, which is the judge's cue to pour sand into a tray. 

No, they're writing - that's a press gallery, not a jury.

Did I say secretaries?  Sorry, I meant stenographers.

So far the two judges have announced that this court of common pleas is now in session four times.

Bloke on the bench doesn't like the book he's reading.  Enter camp man with a black briefcase with lights on it.

"If you see any of those baggy pants..."

Fuck knows what they're on about now.  Ah, it's "Mr Bojangles".

I wonder if this trial is that of the fake Mr Bojangles the song's about... After all, the writer met "Mr B" in a jail. 

"This is about the things on the table."

So far they've named three Beatles.  Not Ringo.


Is that a badly photocopied cross section of a lemon?

Ooh, there's a slow-motion fight breaking out!

They've stopped now.

Blonde wig says "No!" She says it a lot.  She's not happy about something.

Massive picture of a beaker.  All men are created equal.  65 minutes in...

Clock and a compass.  The clock, naturally, is running backwards.  Did I mention thr bloke on the bench who doesn't seem to be enjoying his book? He's been holding it up and shaking his head constantly for fucking ages...

Einstein violin solo!

Looks like a total eclipse of the lemon...


Now they're all gathering downstage with their lunch.  I'm starving.  That chap still doesn't like his book. 

Lunch appears to be a biscuit and a cup of tea.  The Indian, however, has no lunch.  What does this MEAN?

Oh no!  They're all late for something!  Spotlight on Blondie as we move into Knee 3.  Some sneezing.

Oh no, we're only just going into All Men Are Created Equal.  "Kalamazooooooooo!"

Philip Glass the Feminist.  Red jumper is writing again.

"Would it get some wind for the sailboat?"

Amusing speech by a feminist speaker, delivered by judge.  Some people laughing louder than necessary so we all know they "get" it. 

EINSTEIN violin solo heralds the actual start of knee 2. Stenographers back at Apron L.  Seem to be telephone operators now.  Some pussy lightweights are leaving for a toilet break.  Pah!

She's not a phone operator. I think she's selling something.  Optitian?


BERN, SWITZERLAND 1903! (Or was it 5?)

Dance 1: More contrapuntal mash with discordant siren noises from vox and alto sax.   Meanwhile, shit loads of ballet going on.

This is exhausting.

Dancers just keep on coming.  It's like a kalidoscope except with dancers.  Dressed in grey and white.  Well, more like mushroom than grey, really. 

It's like a fucking insane version of Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue.

While this dancing's going on, I should mention - the speech delivered by the Judge wasn't humourous; it was the over-the-top delivery that got the laughs.  "Male chauvenist pig" got a big one, but then I am at the Barbican...

So Dance 1 gets a round of applause, and we're into "Night Train."


Chair on Apron R; Conch on L.  Ooh, the light's gone out on the chair.

Curtain up to a lovely crescent moon and the back of a train with one bloke in a tux and a black girl in a maid's costume, singing at eachother.  Can't make out a word of it. 

Ah, it's the same music as Train, only sung rather than played.

The bloke next to me really does fucking foy. 

Tux is on the observation deck now.  Moon's waxing, but it's in a C shape, so either that's wrong or we're in the Southern Hemisphere.  REFUND!

Oh, the lass isn't in a maid's uniform - looked like that through the window.  She's on the observation deck now and it's just a lovely white dress.  Aah.

Are those fucking things even called aprons?!

Is this slowing down or is the keyboard player just getting tired?

"Lassie, Lucy, Laffa"

I think he was just getting tired - they're still going.  Few split notes here and there.  Can't blame him - poor fucker's been playing the same half dozen notes for about 2 hours.

Drama - they might be about to hold hands (after counting to 6 a few dozen times).

He takes her in his arms! (1, 2, 3, 4...)

She's singing up to 3; he's stuck on "fi, fi, fi"

And they part - oh no!

Fuck me - she's going to shoot him!  She's taken 5 minutes to get the gun out, mind. 

Moon's eclipsing randomly... she's grinning; he's terrified - brilliant!

And here's conch girl!  Cutrain down.  Think this is Knee 3.

Two hours and ten minutes in, and I'm getting my pillow out. 

Beautiful choral arrangement of "123123123123121231212312121234121234123412312312341212 etc"  Meanwhile, stenographer girls point at an x/y axis.

They're all calculating and counting in the air.  And why not?

Knee 3 gets a clap, and we're on to Trial 2/prison.  Same set as Trial 1.  Judges already in position.  Stenographers entering - and here are the chaps on the benches.  Reading boy there, but no Indian this time.  He still doesn't agree with what he's reading.  When he starts nodding, I'll get worried.  Defendant in a white frock.

Bench gang, mini judge and half the court set have exited stage left; scenery dragged off with ropes.  Stage hands bringing in a suit, some chains and a blanket.  And a lolipop. 

Defendent writing around on the bed.  Bars come down, and prisoners enter. 

Prematurely Airconditioned Supermarket.

Chorus in this section's amazing.

"I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, and there were all these aisles, and there were all these bathing caps that you could by, that had these kind of 4th of July plumes on them.  They were red and yellow and blue.  I wasn't tempted to buy one, but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach."

Occasional random screams from female prisoner. 

She's put on the white drape (turned out to be a skirt) and some pearls.  Guy enters - 3 WINKS from girl - guy exits.  She puts on tux and produces machine gun.  That was clever- how did she get those trousers on?

Now in chains; now with a lolipop.  What the fuck?

And she's gone!  BTW - one of the prisoners has a red beard - JUST LIKE THE TRAIN DRIVER! 

Brief Bojangles reprise. 

By "brief", I mean about 8 minutes.

Just over half way through, and I think this is "Ensemble".  Einstein's back in his chair, with violin.  Defendent is behind a gause at the back seat on a chair.  Gause gone; defendant in the blue dawn of a new... something. 

Ah, we have "I Feel the Earth Move" - referencing Carole King, Peanuts (I think), Santa, David Cassidy, "This could be very, like..."

Did I mention David Cassidy?  I can't see what I'm writing.  DJ Schedule for WABC New York.

Dance 2.  Just as fucking INSANE as Dance 1.

Couple of squares of chocolate to keep us awake for the next 2 hours. 

I've got the giggles.  I think it's hysteria.  This will be the music playing when my brain finally snaps.

Fucking turtleneck keeps trying to tap out the ever-changing rhythms in these fast contrapuntal sections.  Of course, he can't.  That doesn't stop him from wafting his stupid fucking fingers about.  That said, I'm sure I must be getting on his wires with this writing.  Sorry!

Dance 2 is a lot less dissonant than Dance 1, I must say. Still absolutely batshit crazy, though.

Einstein has a page turner - he's been playing semiquaver runs non stop without a single break for 25 minutes now.- staggering. 

Knee 4, which features male chorus singing "doh ray me fa soh" to notes that don't bare any relation to the major scale, and stenographer girls lying on glass beds while Einstein continues to fiddle.

You lose all sense of time with a piece like this.  I've no idea how long it's been going on now, and I'm not sure I mind.  Quite soothing.

The chorus appears to be brushing its teeth.  And they then display their tongues to the audience.  Ace.

Now: "Building"

Woman in the window, writing in the air.  Tapping on the desk.

You can hear the musicians starting to get tired after nearly 3.5 hours of playing.  Jazz tenor sax solo!  Reader's back.  Still doesn't like it.  Maybe this scene will tell us why?  Lovely chorus in this. "Actors" now at front of stage in various poses.  Woman still writing; reader still shaking his head.

Flautist seems to have a rest for his left hand attached to the flute.  Stage full of human mannequins.

They've spotted the ?teacher.  Except reader. 

Exiting; sax solo still going, still impressive.  Lovely tone.

Maybe reader's not disagreeing - he's just moving his eyes over the page really fast.

And next: Prelude.  Ooh, Keys 2 had the wrong patch selected.  Poor bloke sounds fucked!  This is a tocatta type job, by the way. 

Hang on. We had a solo organ piece that might have been Cadenza, followed by a simpler organ piece that involved a horizontal strip of light being pulled to a vertical position over 10 minutes.  Maybe more.  4 notes.  Now we've another organ piece with solo voice "aahing" over the top while the light strip is hoisted vertically off stage.  This, therefore, must have been Cadenza, Prelude and Aria.

Hour and ten to go.  This should be plenty of time for Spaceship and Knee 5.

I think this is spaceship - Boy in a glass box with clock being hoisted up into the air above a smoking pit.  Choir at back in boxes with some of the musicians for some reason. 

Choir comes in and I shat myself.  Terrifying.  Einstein back with his violin.

Another guy trapped in a box going horizontally across the top of the stage with a compass.  Space & Time, innit.  Somebody in black with a torch walking backwards and forward while a chap with a telescope looks out. 

Two smoke-filled domes have appeared in the middle of the stage, like a massive frog peeping up.

Back-forth walker - is that the z axis?  Oh man, this is starting to...

Everyone's shouting unintelligibly at eachother, and there's a bass clarinet in the house, people!

"Will it get some wind for the sailboat?"

Rocket on a string flying across the stage as Einstein plays on...

Everyone seems delighted as the train driver (bld, in black overalls, carrying two torches, covered in dust and working the z axis) appears.  Stuff of nightmares.

It's not the driver - I mistook his charred and bloodied jaw for a red beard.

Stenographer girls have appeared from under the domes.  Massive diagram of the explosion of an atom bomb lowered, covering whole stage.

Knee 5

Stenographers on bench reprising various bits (including fresh & clean and Bojangles)

Something's coming - think this is a bus!

It's is a bus.  The driver's telling a story!  Ah, that was lovely.  Lovely, lovely.

4 and a half hours of performing - we applauded them for about 7 minutes.  Seems unfair.  No, sorry - 5 hours: they started as the audience were entering.

Well that was incredible.  The stamina of the performers; the subtleties in the music that kept pulling the rug from under you, moving you along on a wave, or drilling into your skull like a crazy hag with a drinking proble.  And the way things slowly began to make sense once you'd been worn down.

How do you go about writing something like that?  Or choreographing it?  Or learning it?  Or playing it?

Amazing.  But although it was wonderfully enjoyable, the tossers on the row in front saying "And you know? It really didn't feel like five hours?" were talking shit. Felt every last minute of it!

That said, I'd happily see it again tomorrow night.  Superb.

Me just before the show.

Me just after the show.

[Photos (c) Lucie Jansch]

5 Apr 2012

Papa's Got A Brand New Bass!

I've been after a fretless bass for a while now, but unfortunately there are too many things on the go right now for me to justify the expense.

However, when browsing in a second hand guitar shop today, I came across a real bargain.  A bass guitar that actually sounds pretty decent - Seymour Duncan pickups and good intonation - but which, due to its, er, unique appearance the shopkeeper had been unable to sell in the four years it was in his shop. 

And here, ladies and gentlemen, it is:

Daisy Rock Bass

Yes, that's right: I've bought a Daisy Rock bass.

Daisy Rock still make flower-, heart- star- and butterfly-shaped guitars, but they appear to be trying to move away from those and push the more conventional bodies on their catalogue.  I can't for the life of me think why... 

So this is the bass I picked up for a criminal £100.  I intend to convert it into the world's first Daisy Rock fretless, using my own two hands, some pliers, a soldering iron and some wood filler.  Watch this space, folks!

22 Mar 2012

Song Titles

A lot of writers start with a song title, and that gives them an idea of what the song might be about, and therefore what sort of music would go with it.  Plus, it's an advertising line for the song.  If you're flicking through an album and you're faced with the following track list:
  1. Breakup song
  2. Love song
  3. I love you
  4. Captain Corelli's Buggered Off
  5. Sad song
  6. Song for my father
... which track are you going to skip to first?  Exactly.

So where's a good place to find a song title?  Well, my current favourite source is newspaper columnists.   Newspaper headlines aren't always poetic enough (from various newspapers today: "Murdochs to Testify"; "Betty Ford's Son Eulogizes Former First Lady"; "Indonesian Volcano Erupts"; "Met Chief Under Pressure"; and, of course, "Brooking Good" - another story about Kelly Brooks in her pants).

Columnists, on the other hand, and especially editorials, don't need to sum up the news story (the readers will already have read about it earlier in the paper), so they just have to sound enticing.  For example: "Fixing The Holes"; "The Sky Falls In"; "Fade To Grey"; "Absolved Of Blame"; "Wrong Target"...

But pick up any book and you'll find something.  Here are a few from a random page in Speak, Memory, the autobiography of Vladimir Nabokov: "Linden Avenue"; "Conventional Ghost"; "Persons Unknown"; "Some Mysterious Stranger"... or 1791 - Mozart's Last Year by H.C. Robbins Landon: "Rewrite The Second"; "Outside The Line"; "Language Misleading"; "New Intrigue"; "Dresden 13"... or even the classic Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich by James A Yannes: "Diamond Colours"; "Sleeping Carriage"; "For All Intents And Purposes"...

However, I have to say the award for greatest song title of all time has to go Joe Tex for the absolutely superb (and totally genuine) You Might Be Digging The Garden (But Somebody's Picking Your Plums).

I Gotcha!
Whether they're poetically elegant, ball-grabbingly direct, or just make you grin, what are your favourite song titles? 

9 Mar 2012

Live Music Act passed!

The Live Music Act means venues in England and Wales with a capacity of under 200 will no longer need local authority permission to hold performances of live amplified music between 8am-11pm.
Are there people out there in the know who can tell me if this will help put a stop to the disgraceful amount of Pay To Play scamming that goes on across the country (and especially in the capital)?  God knows the Musicians Union have been as much use as an ash tray on a motorbike in this matter...

Read more on MusicWeek.

27 Feb 2012

The Radio Still Sucks

So in an interview with the London Evening Standard Noel Gallagher said, '"Fact of the matter is that great music died quite a while ago."

"Remember when there were all cool bands in the chart? Oasis, Blur, Pulp and The Verve.  Now it's Jessie J and fucking Duffy.  Everybody's got records "featuring" somebody else: it's either a shit rap about somebody's struggle, or just fucking shit music set to some reggae backbeat sung in some transatlantic fucking accent. And then they'll throw some Cockney in just to keep it fucking "real".'

"Y'see, wharritis right, is... fuckn..."

Now, this article isn't about Noel Gallagher vs Jessie J in the songwriting stakes.  What I'm more interested in is the idea that "music's just not as good as it used to be."  People have been saying this for years - if it's true, music's been getting steadily worse since about 1642. 

Let's look at this week's Top 10:

  1. Gotye - Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra)
  2. Emeli Sandé - Next To Me 
  3. DJ Fresh - Hot Right Now (feat. Rita Ora)
  4. Flo Rida - Wild Ones (feat. Sia)
  5. David Guetta - Titanium (feat. Sia)
  6. Jessie J - Domino
  7. Nicki Minaj - Starships
  8. David Guetta - Turn Me On (feat. Nicki Minaj)
  9. Gym Class Heroes - Ass Back Home (feat. Neon Hitch)
  10. Will.I.Am - T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever) (feat. Jennifer Lopez & Mick Jagger)
OK, so at first glance he's certainly right about records "featuring" somebody else.  Staggering!

But what about the quality of the music?

Gotye is a Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist who's been earning his stripes for quite a while now.  This track isn't quite as good as his superb 2006 hit Learnalilgivinanlovin but it's still an excellent song with an interesting production that means it doesn't just sound like the rest of the top 10.

Emeli Sandé is an ok singer and a hard worker - not just a stage school pop princess (though she does keep using that annoying turn on the "You will find him you'll find him next to me" line that's so horribly popular with everybody who graduates from the BRIT school), and the song's a well written anthem with a great production by Craze & Hoax.

The first David Guetta track isn't bad - he's got a knack for a good build up (better demonstrated in his Kelly Rowland collaboration When Love Takes Over), and Jessie J's Domino isn't a bad song at all, even though it's already starting to sound a bit dated.

The rest of the chart, though... The Flo Rida and Will.I.Am tracks are particularly horrendous, while Nicki Minaj's output continues to grate, and DJ Fresh  - a legend on the Drum & Bass scene - has nothing special to offer here.

So we'll say it's 20% good 'uns; 20% not bad; 60% garbage.

Chart composition, Late February 2012

Now let's look at the chart from Mid August 1995, when Oasis released Roll With It. (Chart courtesy of Everyhit.com)

  1. Take That - Never Forget
  2. Boyzone - So Good
  3. The Original - I Luv U Baby
  4. The Outhere Brothers - Boom Boom Boom
  5. Seal - Kiss From A Rose/I'm Alive
  6. TLC - Waterfalls
  7. Corona - Try Me Out
  8. Diana King - Shy Guy
  9. Blur - Country House
  10. Suggs - I'm Only Sleeping/Off On Holiday
So in this chart we've got the sublime Kiss From A Rose - great song, wonderfully sung, with legendary producer Trevor Horn pulling out all the stops.  Country House, which I hated at the time, is a tremendous record from every perspective (once you learn to block out Damon Albarn's mockney affectation) 

TLC's Waterfalls is canny - bit repetitive but catchy nonetheless.  Lovely, crisp production too.  Diana King's Shy Guy is pretty bland if inoffensive, as Noel would say "set to some reggae backbeat sung in some transatlantic fucking accent."  Jamaican patois was in at the time, though (Remembering Shaggy with a shudder, and that dickhead on Peter Andre's Mysterious Girl).

I'm Only Sleeping is a good song, but Suggs's cover is completely unnecessary.  The Original's track is probably ok if you'd just come back from Ibiza and didn't know any better, but I'm afraid I can't be so generous to Try Me Out - I think if Corona's entire output were buried somewhere in the Gobi desert the world would be a better place.  Boom Boom Boom is just moronic.  So Good is a dangerous title to give a song that's so mind-numbingly bad; lazy songwriting and production... while Never Forget is similarly ironic, given that it's so forgettable I'd completely forgotten the chorus almost before it had even finished.

The Roundup: Seal and Blur provide our 20% of good 'uns; TLC and Diana King provide the middle ground; and the other 60% should be destroyed.

Chart Composition - Mid August 1995

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Whether you're a musician or a music fan, it's annoying when you hear the latest number one, and it's utterly terrible, but I think we can take comfort in the fact that  the charts have always been rubbish.  Even going back to the sixties, The Beatles' Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever was kept off the top spot by Please Release Me by Englebert Humperdink!  We remember the best music, because its quality ensures it lasts that little bit longer, and we tend to forget the dross.

What lives in your memory as a great year for music?  Have a look at a few charts at Everyhit.com and see just how rose-tinted your glasses are - if you can find one that's 80% classic hits and 20% forgettable garbage, I'll eat my hat!

"Every now and then, I turn it on again, but it's plain to see that the radio still sucks."
- The Ataris
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