Studying Composition at Uni

I studied music at Roehampton University. Not exactly a world-renowned institution for music, but I applied late in the day and wanted somewhere I could study part-time. It was a bit of a last minute decision, but a good one.

Some of what I studied was a waste of time, and in common with a great many students, I found most of the course tutors lacking. However, my composition tutors were great and I learned a huge amount from their modules.

Electroacoustic/Acousmatic music

I did a couple of modules looking at electroacoustic or acousmatic music. This is a classical approach to electronic composition that comes out of musique concrete. One of my favourite examples is this by Adrian Moore:

We’re used to to thinking of music in terms of harmony, melody, accompaniment. Much electroacoustic material simply can’t be thought of in those terms – there might be tones, but they aren’t necessarily going to be tuned notes. There might be foreground and background, but accompaniment and melody aren’t the right terms. Instead we can think of gesture and texture.

Gesture is almost analogious to melody – it’s those sounds that are focused, moving, perhaps in the foreground – almost a solo voice that moves through time.

Texture is more likely to be in the background, perhaps more static – a feeling that stays for a time rather than a moving foreground sound.

Music as sculpture

The biggest lesson I took from having a go at this kind of music was in putting all those seperate sounds together into one piece. With harmony, melody, rhythm and all the ‘normal’ musical ideas out of the window, I found that my main concerns were things like pace and shape. It seemed sensible to leave long pauses of silence, or to worry about whether the gestural material joins together properly. Tiny details seemed incredibly important, and much use was made of the volume and panning automation in Logic.

Learning about electroacoustic music took me out of my comfort zone. It made me really explore some of the things that can be done with technology, and made music seem more than notes and chords – it’s also about timbre and shape and feeling and texture.

‘Proper’ music

I did lots of more regular composition at uni as well. I don’t really have any recordings made at the time, but the bassoon piece in the middle of this very sensible episode of my old podcast written for my sister’s recital was written just after I left uni.


This piece, Firecracker, was written for a string quartet – probably incompetently – but became a louder more guitary piece on my recent Murder and Parliament album. A lot of the pieces on this began life when I was at uni.

Do I think everything I did at uni was worthwhile? No, and much of it had a classical bias that I found maddening. But I learned a lot about how to write music while I was there, and I‘ve used those skills every day of my life since.

Why I don’t write personal songs

My dad died when I was fifteen. Cancer. In my memory it was a few short moments from him complaining of chest pains in our kitchen, to him being close to death in King George’s hospital. It was only a few months. I remember it as being both instantaneous and lasting forever.

At the time I wrote some songs about it, but ever since I’ve held back from that sort of writing.

My lyrics are not about me. There’s a style of lyric writing that is ultra-confessional and sometimes it’s brilliant – Tori Amos has some amazing songs that are all about the most painful, heartbreaking moments in her life – but I can’t do it. I tried when my father died and for a fifteen year old I think I did the experience justice, but now I can’t imagine singing songs about such personal episodes of my life.

For me music is transcendent, which is just a pretentious way of saying escapist. Escapism gets a bad rap in art, as if it’s somehow shallow, but I absolutely don’t think it is. I want songs that tell you a story along to a rock drum beat with some funny chords and silly solos. I want to do – in a different style – what Iron Maiden do. Cos singing songs about dreams and monsters and science fiction stories and taking lots of other people of a journey is more fun, more mature and more of a challenge than writing about your own feelings.

I’m sure I read once about Bjork telling Thom Yorke that he should be less self-indulgent. That the audience matters more than his feelings. I’m not sure if he ever really got that, but it’s something I’ve always felt pretty keenly. The point of music is to evoke emotions in others. Going around emoting is doing exactly the opposite.

To be honest, because of that I find confessional writing a little dishonest. You can’t feel heartbroken all the time. That break-up from fifteen years ago can’t possibly feel as raw now, as you sing it for the thousandth time, as it did when it was an open wound and you happened to grab your guitar. Whereas that fictional story? That’s true every time you sing it.

Having said that, here’s a recording of a song from when I was 15 and all emo. It’s not a bad song in my opinion, despite the obvious influences and lack of singing lessons.

My songs aren’t about me, and how I’m feeling. They’re about the audience and how we can all feel something joyful and silly and escapist together.

We recently marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, which is why it’s on my mind. I’ve lived more of my life without him than I lived with him and I am sure all my memories are more than little inaccurate.

My mother was a music teacher, but actually my dad was just as much an influence on my music as my mum. During the period when he was ill I borrowed a four-track recorder from my school and started to figure out how to record songs. Our bathroom was next to my bedroom, and it was when my mother was helping my ill father in the bathroom that he heard me messing about with this four-track recorder and suggested to her that they buy me my own four-track. So in more ways than one, all this music is his fault.

But I don’t write lyrics about myself, and I certainly wouldn’t write a blog post about anything so personal. So you didn’t read this, it isn’t here.

Spirit Box released today

I am very pleased to announce the release of Spirit Box, my new EP.

It’s a collection of murder ballads with songs about evil clowns and overzealous butchers. It’s about death and ghosts. It’s acoustic and noisy and dark and murdery.

You can stream it on bandcamp, download it, or buy a CD with two bonus tracks.

Murder ballads and other dark songs

I’ve always enjoyed songs about the darker things. Songs about characters in extremis, pushed to the edge and pushing back. Songs about murder, and killing and weirdness. Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the darker traditional folk songs.

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when I started to love songs like that. I’ve always liked heavy metal, which has its fair share of horror songs. As a very young child I liked musicals, and that’s stayed with me, even though a great many musicals suffer from not being Sweeney Todd.

But wherever it started, I like music that’s melodramatic and macabre. Here some inspirations:

Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads

Where the Wild Rose Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue is one of a great many Nick Cave songs I could have picked. The juxtaposition of a pop princess and a raving madman stoving her character’s head in then putting a rose between her teeth works beautifully. What I particularly love about this is that if you were listening with half an ear you could be forgiven for thinking this was a cheesy love song, rather than a murder ballad.

It’s also unforgiving and bleak. Apparently the older, more traditional murder ballad folks songs would contain verses where the murderers get a proper comeuppance. The law, or at least justice, would find them. Not so this song. The tradition changed, particularly over in America and murder ballads just focused on the dastardly doings of the antihero. This Nick Cave song is definitely in that tradition. There is no light. He just kills her. And yet musically it is a straight ahead, simple song.

What’s he building in there?

The same cannot be said of Waits’ What’s He Building in There. That ain’t no normal song. This is character, through and through.

What I love about the video in the link above is the melodrama. It is dark, but the audience are happy to laugh as well. What’s often missing from more experimental stuff on record is the audience reaction. Laughing is okay. If it’s weird, it’s weird.

Waits’ songs aren’t always about murderers, but so many of them are populated with these weird, over the top characters who get up to all sorts of strange things. I know people always focus on the unique character of his voice, and rightly so, but for me what stands out are the protagonists of his songs.

Sweeney Todd

I couldn’t write about the music that has influenced me without mentioning this show. Sweeney Todd has a special place in my dark little heart. I’ve never seen a live show so blood soaked and gleefully, messily, violent. And Sondheim is a genius, isn’t he? The words are genius, the accompaniment grotesque and perfect. And there are moments of real beauty in the melody, but every one of them is undercut with an air of menace.

In short, I like ’em dark.

What about you? What dark, storytelling songs would you add to my list?




New EP Announcement – Hear the first track “Butcher Boy”


 

I am very pleased to announce my new ep of murder ballads Spirit Box is now open for pre-orders.

It’s a noisy collection of acoustic songs about murder and mayhem.

The first song ‘Butcher Boy’​ tells the story of a butcher who practises his craft on customers he doesn’t like.

​’Ashes’ is about a man who, having murdered his wife, decides he isn’t happy with the urn full of ashes he got in return. So he uses a ‘spirit box’ ghost hunting device to try to find her again.

​’August and Whiteface’ tells the tale of a pair of murderous clowns, and the finale ​’And The Voices Sang’ returns to the murderous ghost hunter just as he is giving up hope of ever contacting his wife again

You can pre-order the download, or the CD digipack that has two extra songs ‘Here Love Dies’ and ‘Paper Scissors Stone’.

Or you could just join the Immoral Supporters club which includes all of the digital stuff I’ve released, plus a discount on the CD.

I’ve never been to Durham

In 2016 I was nominated for a prog award. I was in the ‘limelight’ category for new comers. I didn’t have a chance of winning of course, but I was very, very happy to be nominated.

The Beast of the Air – I have to admit, this is here because I love the song and video. Not sure what it has to do with the rest of the blog post…

By this point I was working with prog-related independent record label Bad Elephant Music and they had released my album Fit the Fourth. So here I was, a signed artist, nominated for an award, heading to the awards ceremony with my label boss. I was the big I am.

My record label boss might have had opinions on my album being late.

There were 43 tables in the venue, and we were on table 43. And then things got worse. The programme claimed I was from Durham.

I’ve never been to Durham. I can only assume the researcher at Prog Mag took a wrong turn on google somewhere. But it was a fun evening nonetheless, as you can hear in this entirely true story (by which I mean largely made up, very silly story) below.

The main serious point in amongst all the lies in that video is this: I was nominated in the same category as an act produced by Paul Draper from Mansun. I loved Mansun when I was younger, especially their album Six which I regard as a modern prog masterpiece. So I was well chuffed at being nominated and regard this as a highlight of my career so far.


Hello you! My latest release ‘Spirit Box’, a ‘concept EP’ about ghost hunting and murder, is out now. Evil Clowns, murderous butchers, failed attempts at ghost hunting, what more could you want from an EP? Here’s a link.