Being the youngest sibling from a musical family, I had the great good fortune to hear music-making at home every day when young. I've often pondered on which pieces from those days continue to influence me today. Last year I consciously returned to one of them … the second movement from Handel's Suite in G major HWV441 … as the starting point for the 9th set of my Songs without Words project which is dedicated to my eldest sister, whom I remember playing the piece. (Click on the link HERE to see this set of piano pieces.) To the best of my knowledge, I am yet to lean on early memories of my mother's party piece at the piano - Leander Fisher's 'The Robin's Return' - but that's not to say it hasn't had its subconscious influence… One of my stronger childhood musical memories is of another sister and my brother playing Henry Geehl's piano duet arrangements of three movements from the Bach cantatas. Whilst 'Jesu, Joy of man's desiring' (as it is more usually known) may be the best known of these, my memories are haunted by the second: 'Sheep may safely graze' (Schafe können sicher weiden'). Looking back, I think this is where my appetite for rich harmonic progression was born. Constructed in a ternary sandwich form, the opening section conveys a calm pastoral scene in Bb major, underlined by the tonic pedal at the start of the introduction. The first phrase of the chorale melody gently takes us to the sunshine of the dominant, and the next phrase briefly visits the woolly warmth of the subdominant; but for these passing inflections, however, the opening section is a reliably diatonic staple diet - almost like grass. It is the middle section where my nostalgic memories of harmonic adventure courtesy of my siblings lie. It is often true that we only know something by experience of its opposite. Safe-grazing is all very well for us sheep, but Bach 'shows' us a less placid, untroubled world in this passage. Almost immediately we are rounded up and taken into the darker world of the relative minor; but that does not suffice for Bach - two bars later he takes into the more sorrowful C minor. But this tonal route map is only a dry headline. The wonder is the harmonic mastery with which this journey is steered with all the cunning of the wisest of sheepdogs. As early as the second beat of the section (b.213) the we feel the gravitational pull of G minor with a chord of VIIb - the inevitable tonal destination is only confirmed a bar later. Thus apprenticed in the minor side, the subsequent route to C minor is wonderfully prolonged: its shadow is felt as early as b.224 but its confirmatory cadence is only reached at b.263. How is this achieved? Through assured use of subtle chord inversions: V7d, Ib, VIIb, Ib, V7b, Ic, IIb, V7d and Ib, each delaying the unequivocal perfect cadence. Complementing this harmonic mastery is a melodic contour that is magnificently expressive - mostly high in register, incorporating an expectant rising sequence (b.23-24) and having the widest leap of the piece so far: a swooning diminished 7th that - with Ab and B - can only belong to C minor. It is easy to think that momentum in music - a highly desirable quality in many instances - depends on rhythm: one only has to think of the driving rhythms on snare drum and xylophone (among other instruments) in the development section of the opening movement to Shostakovich's 5th Symphony with its insistent anapaest pattern (though, of course, Bach got there first in the opening movement of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto!). However, harmony too can create momentum: Bach signposts the next harmonic or tonal destination and we are captured by the music's desire to move in that direction. To my mind, the best is yet to come. From C minor, after a ritornello passage, the middle section continues and carries the music to another minor key - D minor (relative of the dominant) and onwards back to G minor before, via descending sequence (to balance the earlier rising sequence) to close the middle section in F major, ready - through a dominant-tonic resolution - for the da capo return to Bb major. And here again, progression of harmony drives the music on, and the masterstroke is the sleight of hand in b.31 where we sense a brightening of the tonal weather as the E natural leads us into F major at b.321, but the return to major tonality (and safe grazing) is fleeting: by b.322 we sense an immediate coldness of D minor. The sheep are once more bleating. With a deft touch, Bach points the moment with an octave leap in the melody, quite literally a moment of heightened tension: The cantata from which this movement is taken, 'Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV208, was written by Bach for the 31st birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels on 23 Feburary 1713. Recording this extraordinary movement today in 2020's strange world of Coronavirus lockdown, linked by modern-day technology to a violinist 150 miles away in Liverpool, how fantastic it is that Johann Sebastian's sublime harmonic creativity of 307 years ago can speak to us of safe grazing set against a dark backdrop. And how grateful am I for those early musical experiences of hearing my siblings play such great music! Thank you.
One of my favourite maxims : ‘You’re born with a million lives; you die having had one’. Some of the lives I might have had, I am sure I will never be able to imagine; but when – as sometimes happens – I am asked ‘if you hadn’t done music, what would you have done instead?’, my answer is always the same: architecture. Like many boys, a favourite toy was Lego, but in the late 60s this wasn’t a case of sets of specific bricks that made one particular thing; rather it was lots and lots of square and rectangular bricks, a few windows and roofing tiles. I made buildings: houses, castles, churches. These were not to some set picture on the box (actually the Lego was stored in old biscuit tins, I seem to remember), but each time different – products of my imagination. My favourite thing was doing the roof when there were gables with gulleys and subsidiary ridges. When I was at school, my best subject at O’ level (as it then was) was Mathematics, closely followed by Geometric and Engineering Drawing. Now there’s a subject! Strangely, I didn’t do O’ level Music, just lots of practical music: piano, organ, violin, singing and keyboard harmony every week, and orchestras and choirs each day. In a different school, maybe the Music would not have been so encouraged, and then what? I suspect the answer would have been architecture. Curiously, architecture is in my family: it was my father’s creative skill, and it is my nephew’s career (Simon Knight Architects) – very talented he is too. Thinking it through, I see the two as very similar: both fill a space – architecture’s space is physical, music’s temporal; both need a structure to make the edifice work, and both have a surface above that structure which is received by the passer by (architecture through the eyes, music via the ears). Each can be savoured much more deeply by the committed admirer, both are dependent on manipulating with technical knowledge wedded to creative imagination conduits for the architectural / musical concept – architecture via materials such as concrete, timber and glass, music with instruments such as strings, winds and brass. Both have to be realised by other specialists – builders and performing musicians. One can draw further parallels with aesthetic and style, commissioning briefs, site / performance venue, budgetary constraints, etc. Sometimes the two get very close: Bruckner’s symphonies come to mind – one can almost see pillars and arches as you listen to them, and symmetries in his love of inverted motifs. Next time I meet up with my nephew, I must ask him which architects design buildings that are most like music.
I was playing at a school Chapel this morning; sadly, St. David’s Day was unmentioned, but I didn’t let it pass: Vaughan Williams’s Prelude on Rhosymedre before, and an improvisation on Men of Harlech as afters.
I sometimes ponder how much of my musical instinct comes from my Welsh genes: my maternal grandfather’s father came from Montgomeryshire and my mother has often told me how they both would ‘naturally sing in harmony’. I feel harmony is probably my strongest musical instinct too; I often improvise on rising and falling chromatic scale.
[caption id="attachment_936" align="alignnone" width="261"] My Great Grandfather: Albert Joseph Owen
b.30th July 1884, Rock House, Trelystan; d.1965[/caption] Of all hymn tunes, Cwm Rhondda is just about the best known and most lustily sung. I recall with some profound echo within the singing of this hymn at my Great Aunt Dorothy’s funeral a few years ago. Not only were my siblings and I giving it our lustiest 4-part harmony, but there was everyone else too: for years Great Aunt Dorothy played the piano for a Male Voice choir, and they had turned out in force. At the end, the Priest gently rested her hand on the coffin and said with a sense of joy: ‘Oh Dorothy! Can you hear us? The singing’s amazing!’ The fulcrum of Cwm Rhondda is, of course that dominant 7th, the one that all Welsh men linger over, stretching out that inevitable need for fulfilment until everyone has felt the pull and can then savour the arrival in the promised land of the tonic. What a glorious, thrilling sound to grow up with; what an inspiring example to have the men around you creating this for you with nothing more than their combined voices. How this tradition should be sustained and valued. Hapus dydd Dewi Sant!
Yascapi, Bolivia August 2008I am in a home that could hardly be more remote from my own: an adobe brick, single-storey abode that has as much accommodation – a room – for the family I have come to visit as it has space for the family’s pigs. This is Demetrio’s home: the 12-year old Bolivian boy whom I sponsor. I have known Demetrio for three years through the photographs I have in my home back in England (courtesy of the charity acting as intermediary) and the letters and crayon drawings that I have received from him. Today is special: today I find myself in his home, with his mother, and sister Norma. The journey here has emphasised just how far apart we live. Not one, but four aeroplanes brought me from England to the old university city of Sucre, Bolivia. This morning Andrés, the charity’s local man on the ground, met me in his jeep at my hotel and we have driven for some four hours to reach the hamlet of Yascapi, setting out before sunrise. The first hour was on a tarmac road; thereafter we were on rough tracks across an uncompromising landscape, passing through only one village along the way. Finally, on the wide, barren plateau of the altiplano, we spied the few roofs of Yascapi where approximately 200 people live. To our eyes, spoilt by first world excess, it is not immediately apparent how. There is a beauty here: the purity of mountain-top air and lack of modern intrusions briefly tease the mind. The beauty does not make life here comfortable though; it does not hide the utter desolation. There are no mains utilities: Demetrio’s daily routine starts with a walk before dawn to collect water for his family. The nights at this altitude are bitterly cold, and the climate not conducive to agriculture. Any entertainment, should life offer any time for such trivialities, will have to be homespun. Demetrio’s home is not even in the main hamlet but out the other side by half a mile or so. Here I talk in my broken Spanish to him, and Andrés talks in Quechua to Demetrio’s mother who has no Spanish. Remarkably we are treated to a cooked lunch, after which I try to teach Demetrio how to play with the frisbee I have taken with me: quite a challenge in the thin air that comes with being 4km above sea level. Andrés soon tells me that we should go back to the main hamlet and we all climb aboard his jeep, leaving Norma alone tending her pigs. A little way down the track we are greeted by the women of Yascapi. They have dressed in their best – a local costume – and are waving white flags as part of a traditional dance. Where there is dancing there will be music. Sure enough Yascapi’s local band are there: a group of four men. It becomes apparent that word of our visit preceded our arrival, and for the people of Yascapi, not used to seeing visitors, still less one with a pale skin, that is reason enough to party. Parties are not so different continent to continent: music, dancing, laughter. I do as I am bidden: climb out of the jeep and join the dance. These musicians are a remarkable quartet. They play homemade instruments, for where would they possibly go to buy them? One plays a large, booming drum, made from an old oil drum covered with a skin, most likely llama. This is strung over his shoulder. He beats it with a single crudely constructed beater: just the one because his other arm has been amputated above the elbow. His three fellow musicians play various types of pipe: variants of notched recorders, two straight and one curiously curved. It occurs to me that there is a lot about this music-making that I should find appalling. All four men have been in the party mood for some time and copious amounts of the local brew – a maize beer called chicha – have been imbibed. Whether this is taking its toll is hard to say, but the drum beating is irregular both in rhythm and tone: the full-blooded hits boom, other more glancing blows provide unpredictable variations. Meanwhile, though it is apparent that the pipers are all intending to play the same melody over and over again, there appears to be failure to agree on exactly how it goes, no matter how many times it is played. Each of the three players fades out from time to time – perhaps even for them the lack of oxygen is a challenge when it comes to blowing a pipe – but after a moment they resume with renewed vigour, though not necessarily from the same point as the other musicians have reached. These three pipes can be really rather shrill when a new burst of energy seizes the player, and it is not readily apparent that all three share the same equal temperament when it comes to their tuning scale. And here I am, a professional musician, who regularly encounters live performances in churches and concert halls around Britain. What do I make of this extraordinary cacophonous din? A strange thing happens. Perhaps it is the altitude, or the spinning around in circles on the arm of a local lady in a dance whose steps are completely baffling to a novice, or the effects of increasing amounts of the, frankly, foul chicha that is frequently urged into my hand for immediate dispatch: I have no time to analyse the situation. Whatever it is, I am starting to realise something. This music, for all its unrefined qualities, is true, genuine, authentic and joyous music-making. It is not music to be recorded and sold, or to be touted round the touristic hotspots of Latin America, or to be recreated in front of a ticket-buying audience. It is of the moment, of the place, of these people. It is being played to unite the residents of Yascapi on this unique day in their hamlet’s history, to capture and express their excitement, to create the best atmosphere possible among the locals, and to honour their visitor: me. No other music would convey all this here and now. A polished, meticulously prepared performance would not capture the moment or be shared by the locals as representing their world. These four musicians, inebriated though they are, are offering us a remarkable amount of themselves: the time they spent making their instruments, the way they treasure musical sounds that have accompanied them and their forbears in this remote landscape for generations, the warmth of their personalities in the fervour with which they play. All this they communicate through rather unpredictable thuds of the drum and squeals of the pipes where their Quechua mother tongue and my phrasebook Spanish fall short. It dawns on me that little I have experienced in all my musical life has got me so close to the heart of the musical instinct in mankind. This day was indeed a long journey: not just the four flights and hours bumping around inside Andrés’s trusty jeep (it was most certainly worth the puncture on the way back that evening). It is the best part of four decades since my musical education started with a first piano lesson. Through school, university and my professional life I have pursued and held dear the great music of our western world and its potential for profound utterance about the human condition. Now in my 40s, here I am in remote, high Andean Bolivia finding a new sense of wonder in a music that would seem to contradict much of my musical heritage and its values. There was no musical colossus of the stature of a Bach or a Beethoven in Yascapi today. Nonetheless, I have been deeply affected by the music I experienced. Back in Sucre that evening, sitting in a bar, the sounds of the Yascapi band still circle inside my head. I resolve to return home and share my experience of this music, and to explore the world’s kaleidoscopic traditions of music with a more open and enquiring mind
The Musical SketchbookIn order to trigger your imagination, you may like to try one of the following approaches:
- Imagine a piece you might play on your instrument
- Imagine how you might express a mood you have been thinking recently
- Imagine how you might capture a non-musical thing in music; animals, places, weather conditions, times of day, etc. are all good potential topics for music
- Imagine how you might explore a musical journey of opposites: quiet to loud, low to high, slow to fast, etc.
- Imagine how you might put a poem or set of lyrics to music
- Imagine a pattern of notes that could be used repeatedly and also imagine how the pattern might gradually change as it is repeated
- The energy level of the music
- The tempo of the music
- The dynamic of the music
- The instrumental and vocal sounds required for the piece
- The register of the music
- The rhythmic feel of the music
- A sense of the texture of the music
- A sense of the tonality required
- The rise or fall of a melodic line
- A melodic shape
- A bass riff
- A chord progression
- A rhythmic groove
- A distinctive texture
- Continue the idea with enough continuity to make a sentence
- Sustain the essence of the idea further but with some changes to create a further sentence (or several)
- Retain some aspects of the idea whilst introducing a more significant change to create a further paragraph (or two)
- Create the start of a new chapter with a contrasting idea, whilst keeping enough consistency of style and substance to prevent the contrasting section from sounding as though it should be in a totally separate piece.
- Listening to silence
- Sketching some ideas
- Thinking how ideas can be extended, developed and explored
- Composing the piece - thinking of the structure of phrases, sentences, paragraphs and chapters.