Saturday, 30 March 2013

Writing for percussion 4 - The Reich Stuff

Steve Reich & homogenous groupings
Here are a few examples of Steve Reich’s composing, which until about 1973 was almost entirely based around homogenous groups of instruments.
Although it’s not strictly relevant, as a taster for what was to follow, have a listen to the opening of his 1966 hit ‘Come Out’. The first phrase is taken from an interview with a Harlem youth wrongly convicted of murder (later acquitted), and the phrase ‘Come out to show them’ is lifted from a recording of that interview. It’s then looped and played on two separate tape machines, with one running slightly slower so that the music phases. More things happen later in the piece, but they’re not relevant here. I strongly recommend listening to this on headphones.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Writing for percussion 3 - Keep it in the family

Percussion instruments by grouping
A great many successful percussion pieces and orchestrations work because the composer has thought about the instruments that can work well together. Treating the percussion department as a toy box to be dipped into with all the discrimination of a toddler high on Sunny Delight is usually the route to a messy, unstructured and wasteful bit of writing.
These groupings are not prescriptive, nor are they meant to be a substitute for imaginative colouring. However, thought put into the timbral palette will lead to a more satisfactory outcome.
Let’s take, for example, the following list of 26 fairly random percussion instruments. I’ve provided links to the Bell Percussion website (an invaluable source of reference for many things percussion related) for instruments that might not be so familiar to you.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Writing for percussion 2 - timpani for the devil

Timpani – what they are, what they do
Timpani – or kettledrums (the same thing, just a more old-fashioned name) – have been largely ever-present in the orchestra from the early 18th century onwards. Originally being found in pairs and of relatively small sizes, they would have been used processionally mounted either side of a horse.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, it’s now safe to assume a set of four, in sizes ranging from 23” in diameter to perhaps 32”, each of which is equipped with a pedal giving each timp a range of about a 6th – varying according to make.
Timpanists despair of anyone ever writing properly for the timps, and I’d love to be able to give you an insight into perfect timp writing, but it’s such a minefield that all I can do is call your attention to some examples of good and bad practice, throw you a few tips, then leave you to be insulted by timpanists. It’s inevitable. Don’t take it personally.

Writing for percussion 1 - I got 99 problems but pitch ain't one

(the full form of this blog, with attachments, is here...  I can't post sound files on Blogger, sadly)
Sound & Noise
(or, I’ve got 99 Problems, but pitch ain’t one)

This is the first part of a 6 part course designed to help with the unique issues of writing for percussion. Each session will concentrate on a different aspect of percussion, and each will have assignments, and on-the-spot writing projects. The composition part of the course will gradually increase, as the course is focussed on composition.
Regardless of your interest, background or future, you will need to know about percussion. It forms a part of every single outlet of contemporary music making, whether that be concert hall, theatre, jazz or dance music (although here the principles of percussion writing will be of more use than the practicalities).
This course aims to explore the language of rhythmic music through experimentation, composition and recording. Some of the assignments will be more relevant to your own needs, some less, but I hope that all will be useful. Each of the six sessions will have a different starting point and should add up to give a 360ยบ look at percussion.
I will be writing up the seminars in full form; this brief is just to keep things ticking over so I don’t get too far behind with my writing!

... see more

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Is it because I is bald?

'Can I see your identity card?'

It’s not really the sentence you want to hear from a security guard, particularly when the only available answer is ‘no’. My first evening in Hong Kong, and I was surfing on a wave of slightly manic energy. The game is to force your body to pretend that it really does believe that it’s 6pm, in spite of the day either being 5 hours long or 29 hours long, depending whether you considered that scant 4 hours of sleep to be an uncomfortable siesta or an overnight fractured sleep.
Trials for the new Economy Class
'Lard Arse' seat were going well

It’s after 6 to 8 hours in the same seat, with someone else’s chair pushed into your face and the disconcerting light from distant LCD screens, that your arse bones really start to complain. A fear of deep vein thrombosis is replaced by the casual concern that bedsores might be a possibility. Air New Zealand has many things to commend it, but a choice of movies in which ‘The Hopes & Dreams of Gazza Snell’ is first on the list of ‘classics’ is not one to brighten the spirit and have Barry Norman reaching for his quill. Apparently, there was a grand piano on the Hindenburg. Now that’s in flight entertainment. I bet that went down like a house on fire.
Insomniacs rejoice!

Anyway, back to the identity card. I was in the shopping area and was looking around, reacquainting myself with its singular charms, when I was approached by two policemen. The conversation, almost Wildean in its coruscating energy, went like this;
Policeman 1: Can I see your identity card?
Me (our noble hero, fighting against the brutality of the police state): No, my passport is in my hotel room.
Policeman 2: Can I see your identity card?
Me (aha! They won’t fool me, playing this good cop / bad cop interrogation technique): No, it’s in my hotel room.
Policeman 1: Can I see your identity card?
Me (this one’s for the people. Rise up! Rise up! You have nothing to lose but your chains!): (looking through pockets, rifling through wallet) I’ve got my credit card and my hotel pass…
Policeman 2: You don’t have your identity card?

Now at this point two things fluttered through my mind.
1.    No wonder Chinese police are feared worldwide for their Poirot-esque intuition and deep understanding of the criminal mentality
2.    Was I about to be dropped into a Kafkaesque world of lost identity and bureaucratic entanglement by my two Sino Centurions?

Policeman 1: You come with me
Stony-eyed defender of the state

And off he scuttled, I knew not where. I could have made a run for it, but I was wearing flip flops, and I didn’t feel it would be terribly sophisticated to be arrested in flip flops. If I’m going down, I’m going down in Dune, I assure you.

He looked back, and barked again. ‘You come with me’, and I followed. I was determined not to travel at his scuttling pace and deliberately affected an English stroll, as perfected by years of colonialism. Every ten paces he would look back, fretting at my ‘oh look, a butterfly’ disinterest. This is how the proletariat fights back against the granite-faced carborundal oppressors of the state... This was I, standing shoulder to shoulder with Marx, Guevara and Ricky Tomlinson. I was half way through the Red Flag already… ‘The people’s flag is deepest red…’ I began, then remembered I was in a communist state. I didn’t want to look like a lickspittle lackey of the totalitarianists.
There are another six verses of this, you know...
Up two flights of stairs and along a corridor, we came upon the police offices. An officer sat behind a desk. Policeman 1 ululated at him in Cantonese. He addressed a question to me, one probably embedded deep within the masonry of the building, probably one the desk itself could have voiced.

Policeman 3: Can I see your identity card?

I confess I was starting to find this funny, although the possible outcomes worried me. I was taken to another, smaller room and asked the same question, this time by three police officers. But then, just as the tale started to lose its dramatic narrative, there was a twist;

Policeman 5: What is the number on your identity card?
Me: I don’t know
Policeman 5: Why not?
Me: (slightly baffled) Because we don’t need them in the UK.
Ha! Take that, Pol Pot! It’s Winston Smith standing up against O’Brien! Orwell would be proud.
This is how it was. Honestly.

Policeman 6: Is this your identity card?

And they showed me the identity card of a man with whom I had only two things in common. I was Gwailo – white (literally, a ghost person), and I was bald. Nothing else linked us beyond our gender. He was fat, had glasses, and was younger than I. I laughed, told them it was somebody else’s identity card, and pointed to where my glasses should be. I got out my credit cards and pointed out the different name. I didn’t quite go so far as to point out the meso- as opposed to the endomorphic comparisons of our corporeal stature, but I was tempted.
How I look to a Chinese policeman
How I look to me

I said something along the lines if ‘is it because I is bald?’, and Policeman 1 laughed.

Policeman 6 laughed. Policeman 5 laughed. Policeman 1 apologised profusely. I was led out to the outer office where Policeman 3, once the situation had been explained, laughed along. We were all becoming best friends and Policeman 1 was still apologising. On arrival downstairs, Policeman 2 found considerable amusement in the account.

So we ended the whole farrago as bosom pals and by having added to the total sum of hilarity in the world.

But that’s not how it seemed at the start. And I’m only sorry I didn’t manage to fart in their office as a final act of defiance against the police state.

‘Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the red flag flying here…’

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Your tourism mission… should you choose to accept it…

(To save myself a bit of typing from now on, I’m going to use the international sign IDR for rupiah – InDonesian Rupiah. Thank you for your understanding)

Mountain. Distance. Mists.
First stop – we had to see ‘the volcano’. Little was I to know that two weeks later, volcanoes would become a very big thing in Indonesia. At this time it was just something to see. We drove for 1½ hours. In the last 15 minutes the clouds descended and the mists rolled in reducing visibility to naff all. Perfect.

We parked at a good viewing spot, perhaps 5 miles from the volcano, and dutifully took pictures. I wasn’t over-impressed. See one mountain, you’ve seen them all, and I want my volcanoes to be like they were in my World of Wonder Annual, 1971, spewing molten lava and coated in dense clouds of smoke (rather too prescient, sadly). This was a big hill with a few clouds.
Statue with skirt. That's a
lot of material...

More fascinating to me were the silly details. Why did every statue have a skirt on? Why did most cars and motorbikes have raffia fascinators bedecking their radiators and wing mirrors?

It turns out that Bali is the island of the gods – Pulau Dewata. Everything has a ceremony and every day has something new to celebrate. The predominant religion is Hinduism, and today we were being treated by a day to pray for modes of transport. Our taxi driver was having his wife’s family over later so they could decorate all their cars together, and pray for them.

Someone's been practising their raffia work

I don’t mean to be sacrilegious or to mock others’ beliefs, but I was momentarily reminded of that episode in ‘Father Ted’ where Ted explains to Dougal that God probably doesn’t have a Saint whose job it is to look over Pop-Tarts, that would be silly. That job was probably handed out to an angel or such like, whose role would include all types of breakfast cereal.

We were about to drive off again when we were stopped by a man with a whistle and a stick. We’d parked in his parking area, and he’d specifically whistled to make sure people stopped while we were parking and he was about to whistle to let us pull out. Kind man. He wanted his fee, which was IDR1,000 – about 8p. I wasn’t going to argue.

Our lovely restaurant. Bill not shown

We also stopped for lunch in a restaurant with a view of the clouds that masked the mountain. The food on offer was fly-ridden buffet, that had presumably been sitting there for as long as was needed to draw in the phototourists and the Canon fodder. It was the most expensive meal that I’d had since arriving in Indonesia. A tourist trap, at last. I’d got what I wanted.
Restaurant toilet. Hygiene certificate not shown

We left the restaurant and looked for our driver. It was raining heavily, there were dozens of identical cars, and my companion and I looked at each other. Neither of us knew the registration number of the car or had taken the trouble to find out the taxi driver’s name. Nor what make of car it was. We gazed at the line of cars, receding into the mists, like a Ford Dagenham car park…

Could things get any better? At least I wasn’t in Karawaci. I was happy.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Bali... 36 hours and counting...

What was Bali like? Hard to tell. It was something of a staging post between two airport visits, in many ways.

Having spent weeks in the grimness of Stalag Karawaci, anywhere would have been a breath of fresh air, so perhaps Bali was wasted from that point of view. Southend would have been a delight, frankly.

In my time in Indonesia, I’ve now been on four Garuda Airline flights (the national airline) and not one of them has left anywhere near on time. We finally arrived at our hotel at 2am, hardly feeling at our best, and were immediately garlanded with flowers and offered fruit punch. Yippee.
Do I look like I
need a garland?

The hotel was indeed amazing. I was told that my room had been upgraded into one overlooking the sea. If you looked carefully enough you could, indeed, just see the sea through the trees, but that was an estate agent speaking there. I wasn’t going to complain, though.
The view from the sea. Spot
the 'sea view' hotel

The change from Karawaci was absolute. There was space, clean air, things to see and do and yes, an industry that had grown up around tourism.

There was an urgency in the air. Basically there was one free day. How to fill it with THINGS? Bali was full of STUFF. It had EXOTICA. What if I came back from Bali and hadn’t ticked off a single THING on the MUST-SEE checklist? I’d never be able to live down the shame.

The hotel had a tourism officer. What did we want to do? We explained about THINGS and STUFF and EXOTICA and the MUST-SEE checklist and he nodded sagely. He could satisfy all our whims and he would book us in for the 8.30am trip tomorrow. No, no! we cried. This was URGENT – there was only today.

A tremor of concern crossed his brow, made a right turn at his integrity lobe and reverse parked in the section of his cerebellum marked ‘profit’. No problem, of course it was no problem. His friend would be at the hotel in 10 minutes to pick us up. For two of us it would cost 850,000 rupiah – about £70. For that we would get our English-speaking taxi driver guide all day and he would take us to… at which point I glazed over. I’d see it when I get there. I allowed the ‘keen and grateful’ look, honed in years of marriage, to engrave itself on my face.

The game was up. Let slip the dogs of tourism…