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.

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.

Four words to chill the soul – ‘But is it prog?’

When did you first get into prog?

If you’d asked 15 year old me what my musical goals were they probably wouldn’t have included playing at prog rock festivals, being nominated for a prog award or receiving positive reviews from Classic Rock and Prog magazines. I was a 90s kid, and liked 90s rock and to be honest Prog wasn’t often mentioned on the pages of Kerrang.

Some of the Creatures have Broken the Locks on the Door to Lab 558 is probably my ‘signature’ song. It’s a little bit prog. 

I like rock music that surprises you. That doesn’t stick with the expected 4/4 beats or the usual chords. But I didn’t know that kind of music sometimes gets called ‘progressive’ until I’d been writing it for several years.

Now I don’t think of my music as ‘pure’ prog. If you just want a copy of the 70s classics, I’m not your guy. But about fifteen years ago when I was teaching guitar, one of my pupils bought in a CD and said ‘I want to learn this’ and everything changed.

He’d bought in a Dream Theater CD. Now, I’m not going to claim to be the world’s biggest Dream Theater fan, but my student called it ‘prog metal’ – a term I hadn’t heard before. And that woke me up to the fact that prog hadn’t stopped in the 70s. In fact it had gone from strength to creative strength, even as the mainstream became less interested.

I got into prog metal, and then went back and discovered the classics, especially King Crimson, but also the amazing wealth of current acts – Knifeworld, The Fierce and the Dead – who are keeping the weird-rock flag flying. I also saw the connections with the prog-tinged acts I loved when I was younger like Radiohead and Mansun.

All the while I was writing my own music, so it seemed sensible to start getting in touch with prog radio and podcast producers.

Flash forward a year or two and I played my first prog gig supporting Alan Reed (ex of Pallas) at the now defunct Peel in south London. I played my 5 song cycle ‘The Miser’s Will’ and instead of people looking at me like I was mad, I sold out of the last copies of that album before I’d got off stage.

I’d found my audience. People who loved music that surprises, who like lyrics that tell a story, that want their musicians to explore a wider pallet.

Not long after I travelled with guitar player extraordinaire Matt Stevens (The Fierce and The Dead) to Summers End festival to play on their acoustic stage. That nailed it for me – the audience were really supportive and seemed to get what I was doing. I had found a place I fit.

Here’s a rough ‘bootleg’ recording of my acoustic set at Summers End festival in 2014. 

Is my music prog? I’m not really interested in boxes, and I’m not trying to sound like anyone else. But do I love prog, and has that influenced my songs? Yes, absolutely.

What about you? When did you first get into prog rock? Let me know in the comments!