Monday, 28 May 2012

Adventures in music: a personal history of composition, part one: the Seventies and early Eighties.

It is my firm belief that everyone — or at least everyone who has a love of music in their soul — has a decent song within them, as surely as everyone has a favourite song. Even Ed Sheeran. Maybe. One can turn the same sensibilities that ordain what songs you like inwards, upon themselves, reversing the polarity of the flow so that you can create what you like as surely as you know it when you hear it coming from other people — or in theory anyway. True enough, not everyone has the same degree of interpretative skill, nor the opportunity, inclination or ultimately the confidence to make music — but composition is not an arcane ability limited to the privileged few.

My first attempts at music composition began when I was about seven or eight years old, sat at my mother’s piano. Like most people confronted with a piano, I worked out how to play ‘Chopsticks’ — the vade mecum of the wannabe pianist — and soon set to the task of trying to play other things. I had no formal tuition for the time being — just regular access to a piano and understanding parents. I think having somewhere where a prospective pianist can hammer away without feeling inhibited or fearful of making noise and banana-fingered mistakes at the keyboard, cannot be underestimated in the development of a would-be musician. During this time of chromatic ignorance, I came up with an idea for a tune that involved several adjacent notes played back and forth in a pleasing fashion. I dubbed this melody ‘Spider’ — evoking as it did a certain busy, spindly quality.

A couple of years later, aged about ten, my father decided that I should learn to play the recorder. This, he reasoned, would improve my breathing technique and enable me to master the asthma I had suffered since I was of school age. I was dead against the idea: recorders simply were not my scene, man — and besides, I always had a handle on the asthma. I never let on to anyone about the times when I would even fake the symptoms, exaggerating my inchoate wheezing to stentorian proportions to wriggle out of games lessons, being picked for sports teams, and, if the situation demanded, even school itself. But this was my father talking, so I stepped to it.

To this day I love the sound of the recorder — there’s a blog article all on its own about wondrous examples of recorder playing in rock music alone — but I despised having to learn and play it. Apart from the poor association it had with me of being the sick man’s instrument, I possessed no practical flair for it and I particularly hated learning to read the music, as rudimentary as the pieces were. Worst of all, the lessons were held during the lunch hour. Unconscionable! I soon set about finding ways of faking my ability on it in the lessons. That was fairly easily done in ensembles, but eventually I bored of even trying to pretend and would simply skive off the lessons by skillfully avoiding my music teacher for the rest of the week. So long as one didn’t sag off each and every week, but maintained a nominal, spectral presence and was prepared to act as lamely as one could when confronted on the matter by my Form Teacher, it was easy enough to reclaim what I thought of as quality time spent elsewhere.

It was an ill-conceived plan, one made with little consideration of consequence, but crucially, ignorant too of expense. I had clearly forgotten that my father was paying extra for this musical therapy and could sense that he was decidedly unhappy upon learning of my seditious truancy. I had to think fast. “If you want to pay for me to learn an instrument,” I ventured with nauseating precocity, “why can’t I learn the piano?”

I like to imagine my father hiding a faint twitch of a smile behind his greying moustache at this point. It was possibly the earliest instance of my successfully negotiating a way for my father to spend some money on me. Prior to this, I’d probably asked my father on numerous occasions to buy me things in toy shops or at the counters of sweet shops and so on, with mixed results, but I look back on this moment now and realise that here I was brokering a tangible deal with my old man: presenting him with an opportunity to spend his money on me in a way he might consider worthy, educational and most of all, keep me in classes and out of trouble. I was bumped from recorder classes over to piano lessons in a trice. The setup was much the same: a weekly lesson taken, if I recall correctly, in the Wednesday lunch hour, but here was something I actually wanted to learn and that made all the difference.

Fortune had also favoured me with a recent change in music teacher. The previous incumbent was a terrifying, short-tempered elderly lady with the wonderful name of Mrs Greatorex. My mind cannot help but conjure up an image of Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter films clad in a twinset at this point and quite frankly that will do just fine. In her place I had Mrs O’Hanlon, a jovial woman with an expansive bosom and a son of about my age, whom I understand she spoiled rotten. She was a patient and chatty teacher, quite happy to spend five minutes here and there discussing her son’s Star Wars figure collection and other things that I found myself surprised and delighted to banter over with a schoolteacher.  She was a nice lady.

My mate Rich, who had stuck out the recorder classes and had become rather proficient, also decided the time was right to tackle tinkling the ivories. A chum who was learning simultaneously; I had in Rich a colleague to inspire and be encouraged by in turn — and possibly a rival too.

I don’t know how long Rich stuck at it, but it was not quite as long as the next two years that I undertook, a lesson each week in term times, during which I made it through the first and second of the basic piano primers: the third one in the series eluded me, but had I completed it, I would have been eligible to attempt Grade One of Piano in accordance with the Royal Schools Of Music’s internationally accepted system of assessing pianistic ability. At school I played my basic, but accurate piano and read my sheet music dutifully in front of my preadolescent peers and their parents at the Christmas and End Of Year concerts. I never felt nervous: I wanted to show everyone what I was made of. To this day, I never feel nervous playing live. I know what I’ve come to do.

Then, sadly, the summer of 1983, my last days at Primary School, saw a sudden end to all this promise. My father made enquiries at my new school as to piano lessons, but none were on offer. Furthermore, the prospect of learning piano or indeed any other musical instrument at the hands of my new music teacher, a pitiful, short-fused, unstable stick insect of a man, was unattractive to say the least. Amid the miasma of different demands made on an adolescent’s life at a new school, the desire for piano lessons faded away among the need to establish a reputation, fight off bullies, make friends and fathom out girls.

It shames me to say that I not only fail to remember any of the pieces I learned, but neither can I summon the names of the books from which I learned. Only now, in fact, as I type this do I recall a supplemental book called A Dozen A Day, with a striking, 1950s Saul Bass-esque cutout cover design which was full of weird, repetitive exercises that were designed to build finger strength, aid dexterity and instill a disciplined regime of daily practice. They were fascinating.

I understand that if a child of a certain age is told — uncharitably, if not truthfully — that their drawing skill is derisory and nugatory, so that they are discouraged to the point of giving up on artwork, their style ‘freezes’, their draftsmanship held in indefinite abeyance, so that as grown adults, their attempts to sketch an illustration is consistent with how they drew as children. So it remained with me and the piano for most of my time at Secondary School. I could be called on to vamp out simple chord progressions, but my need to read music dwindled and took with it my comprehension of all but the most basic of notation. In much the same way as I could, aged ten, tell you what all the signs in the Highway Code denoted, but had neither the ability or incentive to drive a car, I could tell you — can still only tell you — what a crotchet, quaver or minim represented, but had as much chance of assembling them into recognisable melodies as a halibut. Who hates music.

By my mid-teens I no longer considered myself a pianist, a piano player or even just someone who played the piano (there is a distinction, believe me). But the need to make, as Mama Cass so beautifully put it, my own kind of music never quite went away. I would requisition my sister’s Yamaha keyboard, with its hilarious ‘one finger’ chord generator and bossa nova rhythms and create skits onto cassette tapes, with commentaries, gags, silly voices and the most primitive of what I could barely describe as songs. These tapes would rejoice under titles like “Mayhem” and “The Kenny Show” and mostly featured Doctor Positron, aka “Slow Boy” — a rather damaged individual whose curiously warbling, speed-up/slow-down speaking voice was achieved by fiddling with the way the cassette tape negotiated its way around the spooling capstans on the tape recorder. Remember: I didn’t have a girlfriend. The eponymous Kenny, compere of his own show, was a cartoon character I’d dreamed up — nightmared up would be a better term — based loosely on the late DJ, Kenny Everett. Ahhh, Kenny. Kenny, Kenny, Kenny! My creation was capable of the most sadistic, vengeful violence and er, mayhem, indeed — upon anyone I saw fit to put in his hateful sights. He’s worth a blog all to himself. Later. These ‘shows’ played out with as much gusto, implied gore and destruction as mere audio alone conveyed and were as close to The Goon Show as one could get if you were a frustrated, vindictive fourteen-year-old who’d never actually heard The Goon Show and thought of Harry Secombe as simply that fat guy on Sunday evening religious telly who could sing. How wrong I was, on so many levels — but that is also, you might imagine, another story.

I renewed my acquaintance with the piano after I managed to inveigle my way into Sixth Form, aged sixteen, after a disastrous run of GCSE marks. I fell in with a tight-knit collective of musical friends who actively encouraged my hilariously raw, dormant way around the old joanna. Some of the things I managed to unlock with those mysterious black and white keys over the two years I first took — and failed — my A Levels remain with me to this day. By the time I left school aged eighteen, I had recorded a primitive, but  acceptable ‘album’ of music (which included a reworked version of my neophyte composition, ‘Spider,’ no less) and reacquired enough confidence in my playing — without sheet music or conventional fingering — to want to form a band. You can read about my exploits in this venture here. Be kind.


Currently watching:
House season 6 (NBC, 2010)
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (BBC, 1981)

Currently listening:
Holy Diver (Dio, 1983)
Child Is Father To The Man (Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1968)
Blood, Sweat & Tears (Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1969)
Fuzzy Duck (Fuzzy Duck, 1971)
Smackwater Jack (Quincy Jones, 1970)

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