Monday, 21 April 2014

On the kithara

I am often in awe of the craftsmanship and ingenuity of instrument-makers (luthiers), so here's a link to a video explaining the workings of the Ancient Greek Kithara, the instrument beloved of the god Apollo. Whoever invented the 'whammy bar', the device which gives this ancient lyre its characteristic vibrato, must have been divinely inspired, as must have Michalis Georgiou, the luthier who patiently rediscovered it.

Monday, 14 April 2014

On Twitter, birds and bards

Somewhat late in the game, I (@AndyLetcher) and Telling the Bees (@TellingBees) have joined Twitter. You are cordially invited to follow us.

Why so long? Aside from an innate mistrust of new technology that borders on luddism (I play the bagpipes after all, a piece of technology honed in antiquity) I wasn't sure I wanted to enter a world that prides itself on its inconsequentiality. The developers of the site seized playfully upon the old meaning of twitter - 'to talk in a quick and informal way about unimportant things' - and so set up a domain that, from the off, was all about knowing irony, the permanent arch of the eyebrow.

I have been persuaded, however, that while this may indeed be the case for the celebrity feeds and other candy floss you find there, Twitter is actually an invaluable tool for the hardworking folk musician. Indeed, some say that tweeting is actually something of a modern day bardic artform, not unlike the blog form which I have clearly embraced wholeheartedly.

Coincidentally, at the same time as I've joined the twittersphere, I've been spending a lot of time listening to and recording birdsong, the study of which rather belies the origins of 'twitter' as a derogatory term.

Take a listen to this blackbird, singing merrily at dawn, just the other day, from a magnolia tree in the next door garden.

Now take a listen to the same song slowed down by 60% and dropped in pitch by an octave. It sounds more like something the BBC Radiophonic Workshop might have produced in the 1980s than a garden bird.

Nothing inconsequential here. Indeed, I think the members of the thrush family could easily serve as totems for the modern day bard for each has much to teach us.

From the wren we learn the importance of technique, for how else could a bird so small produce a song that loud and clear if not through technique? If only my singing were so effortless.

Next, the song thrush. At his prime, a male improvises through something in the region of 140-220 different song types, learned through his lifetime, and so he teaches us the importance of repertoire and of the power of improvisation within a form.

But for sheer enchantment, for the ability to hold the listener transfixed or to send them into some dreamy torpor, it has to be the blackbird every time, which is why I chose him for our record label, Black Thrustle.

Of course, the nightingale possesses all three qualities and so represents the mastery to which all bards aspire and for which a lifetime's dedication is required. Sadly, you'd be hard-pressed to hear one these days.

There is one final member of the thrush family I should mention, the Mistle Thrush. With his speckled breast he's the most beautiful of them all and I've spent happy hours watching him strut his stuff in the undergrowth. But his song remains dismal, one of the few I actively can't bear. Hours upon end of dribbling tunelessness.

The Mistle Thrush reminds us not to be beguiled by outward display but to see through to what, if anything, lies beneath.

For in all spheres of life, not all that twitters is gold.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

We want the funk

Traditionally, and in spite of several funk incursions, Western pop and rock has been wedded to the backbeat. This means in a 4/4 rhythm emphasising the two and the four: one-TWO-three-FOUR. Think: we-WILL-we-WILL rock you.

Just as we're all drawn to different styles of music, different timbres and different scales, so are we drawn to different rhythms - they each have their own personalities. The backbeat can be spectacular, as on John Bonham's behemoth opening to Led Zeppelin's 'When the levee breaks',  but I've never particularly liked it.

In fact, I find it ruins many a beautiful song. What was the producer thinking here?

The foursquare backbeat is about solidity and gravity. You can't dance to it because it keeps your feet anchored firmly to the floor. The best you can do is contort your body in ever more excruciating shapes. Along with Thatcherism and cocaine, I hold the backbeat responsible for the 1980s.

Happily, at the end of the decade an unstoppable tide of electronic dance music swept the backbeat away. Producers realised that if you wanted people to dance, you needed funk.

Funk can be explained quite simply as a matter of syncopation, groove and the semi-mystical concept of the one...

But funk can't be analysed. It doesn't come from the head, or even the heart, but rises up from the fleecy shanks of the loins. I know more than one drummer who, though they get all their beats down with mathematical precision, just don't have it. You've either got the funk or you haven't.

It's more an attitude to life than anything. In fact, I'd go further. For when the physicists finally drill down into matter so deeply they can go no further, they'll discover that the fundamental particle is pure undiluted funk. Funk is life itself.

And though funk, in its current manifestation, is an Afro-American creation, it's truly universal. I've heard it everywhere, from Indian tabla playing to Irish fiddling. It's just that in white Western culture, where the fact that we have bodies comes as a something of a revelation, we must fight continually against the gravitational pull of the backbeat. Funk is our Holy Grail.

When you hear the song the Mighty Boosh were parodying, you realise that the quest for the funk has only just begun.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Konnakol: Cycles of Time

Anyone who went to the smaller, earthier festivals of the late 1990s might remember Jabberwocky, my first proper band. We were a bit rough round the edges but the spirit was strong. One of our finest moments was playing under the Great Oak in the Stone Circle Field at Glastonbury. I have plenty of memories but few photos: here's a rare one of us playing at Oxford's Catweazle Club.

Jabberwocky playing at Oxford's Catweazle Club, c. 1998

For a little while we were joined by an extraordinary tabla player, Tom Simenauer, otherwise known as Tabla Tom. Although that collaboration lasted only a few months, it was one of the most exciting and inspiring of my musical career. Tom not only brought an extra layer of groove to our medieval, psychedelic, pixie-funk (an under-explored genre if ever there was one), he also introduced some rich rhythmic complexities from Indian classical music, pushing our music and our musicianship in the process. I was left hungry for more.

Indian rhythms are some of the most complex in the world. No matter what drum they're performed on, tabla, mridangam, ghatam, kanjira or dhol, they seem to dance about the musical timeline, playing merry havoc with our impoverished Western sense of what tempo means. Somehow Indian musicians hold it together, never getting lost and always arriving back on 'the one' to produce breathtaking moments of climax. That they do all this while improvising is remarkable enough but what seems so incredible to the outside observer is that they do so without the use of notation. Everything is learnt by ear: you sing the rhythm before you get to play it.

In South Indian Carnatic music this rhythmic singing is called konnakol and if you haven't heard it, it's truly extraordinary.

After playing with Tom I always intended to go to India to study music but it was never the right time. Something else always came up. You know how it goes. But now thanks to a couple of brilliant resources I'm able to study konnakol at home. I haven't been so excited about music practice in a long time.

I started with a DVD by John McLaughlin, the British jazz guitarist famous for his Indian collaborations, and Carnatic percussion maestro S. Ganesh Vinayakram.

It's very good and McLaughlin's enthusiasm for sharing konnakol is infectious but I found it went from basic to advanced rather quickly. I fully intend coming back to it but in the meantime I'm working my way through the much denser but more methodical Solkattu Manual by David P. Nelson.

I've always struggled when it comes to reading rhythm in Western music notation. I think I must have a kind of musical dyslexia because my brain freezes and I can't translate the symbols on the page to the beats they're supposed to represent. By contrast, konnakol makes complete sense to me. I'm only halfway through the book but I'm already doing things that I would otherwise have found impossible, for instance weaving ever-faster five-syllable patterns through a five beat cycle.

This is because in konnakol you don't actually have to do any counting. Rather, you mark time physically, clapping out the time cycle (which might be three, four, five, seven, nine or more beats long) with the palm, the fingers and the back of the hand. Watch closely in the video above and you'll see that's what the musicians, and some of the audience, are doing - that's why they never get lost.

Then, you speak out the rhythm over the cycle using special syllables. Those syllables are designed to trip easily off the tongue. Try saying one two three, one two three, one two three out loud. How fast can you go before you get tongue-tied? Now try saying ta ki ta, ta ki ta, ta ki ta. You can go much faster.

This combination of clapping and speaking makes learning rhythm a kinaesthetic experience, one reliant on body memory not reading or counting. It's a process that employs some of the first cognitive skills we learn as infants. 

Furthermore, it possesses an impeccable logic such that, like sudoku, you know when you've got it right. Every new rhythm is a riddle, baffling at first, but so obvious once you've cracked it. The more rhythms you learn, the more you feel your neural circuitry being rewired and the easier it gets. Learning konnakol is therefore deeply satisfying, though what starts as an intellectual challenge quickly becomes embodied knowledge. Konnakol writes rhythm directly into the body.

I like to think that by studying konnokal I'm also getting a tiny insight into our own lost traditions. The way you have to study directly with a master; the memorisation required; and even the playful sparring between the musicians in the first video above, all strike me as particularly bardic. Classical Indian musicians start training as children and study for at least twenty years; if Caesar is to be believed, so did our Iron Age bards. It's pure speculation, I know, but I can't help wondering if there were some connection between the two.

There is definitely a spiritual dimension to konnakol, should you choose to pursue it. As McLaughlin says, rhythm both 'governs the universe' and 'connects us all' and in konnakol there is sense in which our earthly, microcosmic rhythms connect us to the great macrocosmic cycles of time suggested by Hindu cosmology.

Certainly, back in Jabberwocky Tabla Tom used to chide us for not starting our songs at the beginning of a time cycle, something he'd always been taught to do by his guru. For while we'd be chatting or joking or working out how the song should go, he'd be keeping the cycle going, if not physically then in his mind's eye, making sure always to begin the music again at the beginning. In India the cycles of time keep turning even when we're not playing. I find that image rather beautiful.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

On tradition

Here's a video that I've posted before of Wod playing in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I wrote both of these tunes. They're Hanter Dros for Breton dancing. Take a listen to the second which begins at 4.48. It came to me while driving home after a gig along the A303 so I called it The King's Barrows.

It's always an honour when other musicians like your tunes enough to want to play them and the King's Barrows seems to have caught on. Here it is played by English fiddler Sam Sweeney (at 3.15). In his expert hands the tune has taken a new direction. It's a little faster and he gives it a slightly different rhythmic emphasis, a different push and pull, such that it would be harder to dance a Hanter Dro (not that that matters). You could say he's englishified it.

If you'll indulge me further, here's the same tune played by Moore, Moss and Rutter. Now it's been turned into an arrangement, complete with key change, and it would be tricky to dance a Hanter Dro to it.

And that's exactly how tradition works. Every musician takes a tune or a song and, probably without even thinking about it, plays it as they hear it. Nothing stays the same, nor should it for this is the very process by which the tradition stays alive.

Even in the two years since that video of Wod was taken, the way we play the tune has changed. We've found new variations, new ways to swing it (though in truth, it's been playing us). Tunes are like children. Once we've brought them into the world, we have to let them go. They have their own lives to lead.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

from Kahil Gibran, The Prophet

Saturday, 1 March 2014

International Bagpipe Day 2014

I was driving home round the M42 when I had the idea. I'd just got myself elected as Publicity Officer for the Bagpipe Society and I was thinking about ways to promote both the Society and this rather wonderful ancient instrument of ours. Then I had it. We needed an International Bagpipe Day.

The question was, how do you initiate such an event? Is there some central authority that regulates Potato Week and International Women's Day and all the rest, to whom you must go, cap in hand, to plead your case?

Apparently not. No, all you need is an idea and sufficient people to run with it. Magic really. And that's how March 10th became International Bagpipe Day.

Here I was lucky to find Cassandre Balosso-Bardin, an enthusiastic ethnomusicology PhD student studying the bagpipes of Mallorca (and with a contact list as long as your arm) who organised the First International Bagpipe Conference at SOAS in London in 2012. SOAS put its might behind publicity for the event and before you knew it there were bagpipes on Breakfast TV and on Radio 4's Today programme. IBD went viral and global.

Well, in a week's time, on Saturday March 8th, there's to be a Second International Bagpipe Conference, again at SOAS, and again organised by Cassandre. I was lucky enough to be on the panel selecting papers for the event and I can assure you the line-up is pretty tasty, with presentations on pipes from Belarus, Greece, the heavy metal bagpipes of Germany...the list goes on. I'm particularly excited that Eric Montbel will be giving a paper as he was a major influence on my playing when I was starting out. There's a special concert on the friday night, and a bal on the Saturday featuring young French hotshot, Julien Cartonnet. 

Tickets are still available, but you must book in advance. If you can't make it, not to worry, as there will be bagpipe-related events happening all over the place. And if there isn't one near you, why not start something?

It's amazing what can grow from simple beginnings.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Five notes that changed the world

Rocking Minka to sleep, or trying to at least, I find myself making up silly lullabies. The scale I reach for instinctively is the major pentatonic. It's warm, soothing and has no jangling edges. It's perfect for the job.

For those unfamiliar with music theory, the major pentatonic scale, as its name suggests, has only five notes (as opposed to the usual seven of the Western system). If you have a keyboard to hand you can find it by playing all the white notes from C to C but missing out the fourth (F) and the seventh (B). Alternatively, just play the black notes, starting on F sharp.

The pentatonic scale is found the world over. It's particularly associated with the music of Africa and China but is found pretty much everywhere, not least within Scottish bagpipe tunes. If you play the same notes of the scale but starting on the fifth you get the minor pentatonic, the scale most often used on the Native American flute. There's a strong case for arguing that, whether major or minor, the pentatonic scale is a universal.

Lacking the two most colourful degrees of the ordinary major scale, or any of the crunchy blue notes, it's nigh on impossible to play a bum note, hence the pentatonic tends to be the first scale that would-be improvisers learn. But it's precisely that sunny lack of tension which has meant that up to now I've never really known what to do with it. Preferring my scales more piquant, I've always found it rather uninspiring.

That clearly demonstrates a paucity of imagination on my behalf for in India, where the scale is known as Raag Bhopali, masters like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma can find endless permutations within those five notes.

Clearly the lessons of fatherhood are as many as they are unexpected.