Did James Corden do Adele a favour ?

Having read about all the brouhaha surrounding James Corden’s curtailing of Adele’s acceptance speech at the Brits, I decided to look for the infamous moment on YouTube, and see what had actually happened.

Having watched the incident, it seems to me that Corden actually did Adele a favour. Clearly, once the singer began speaking, Corden suddenly thought: ”Oh my God: she’s actually a) got nothing worth saying and b) she surely won’t want her fans hearing her speak, surely ?”

Articulate and poetic: image credit The Metro

You see, as soon as popstars start speaking, quite often the bubble is burst. Far from being a tortured genius, giving voice to the anguish lurking inside our innermost and private souls, we find they are mindless, inarticulate morons, for whom the act of speaking in public actually lets them down.

Even the Speaker of the House of Commons is reported as saying he is ”disappointed” at Adele’s speech being cut short. Then again, that’s probably because, had Adele continued her presumably erudite and witty speech, he would have looked even better in comparison.

Bravo, James Corden: in cutting Adele’s doubtless winningly articulate and profoundly insightful speech short, you did her (and her Marketing Machine) a great service. If I were her management team, I’d be thanking you.

Vocational links build partnership with local music provider

With musical provision across the country facing a bleak future as county music services are scrapped or gradually phased out, and with arts organisations in general struggling for support, it’s a relief to see some positive news for music provision.

News this week that Hertford Regional College has forged a partnership with Playsomething Academy, a Ware-based music tution provider that recently won the Music Maker Music Maker prize at the Music Industry Association Music Awards. The academy provides musical instrumental tuition to over a thousand pupils.

Award-winners

Winners all round: image credit Hertfordshire Mercury

The diploma course offered by HRC in partnership with the academy is an opportunity for pupils to combine tution with the chance to gain relevant industry experience, a significant factor in the increaingly competitive popular music sector. Appropriate vocational links with relevant industry sector partners is becoming an increasing element not only in vocational colleges, in courses at diploma and foundation degree levels, but also at university level as well.

Let’s hope more educational insitutions follow suit, and help improve the fortunes of music providers across the country at this dark time.

You can read the full article here.

Seasonal anti-Cowell movement

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and to join the annual fight against the Simon Cowell / X Factor cynical manipulation of the charts to get to the Christmas no.1.

In recent years, this has involved Rage Against The Machine and John Cage’s meditation on silence (or ambient noise, depending on your point of view), 4’33” in campaigns heavily backed by Facebook. This year, so incensed are people at Cowell’s battle with the Brighton-based charity ‘Rhythmix,’ (a battle from which Cowell sensibly withdrew: any result would have been a no-win PR situation for the Senseless Cowell PR Juggernaut), that the campaign is to push Nirvana’s anthemic Smells Like Teen Spirit to no 1 ahead of the usual manure from the Cowell Stable.

As reported in today’s Guardian, Nirvana’s record label Universal has announced that it will be releasing a limited-edition 7-inch of the song: campaigners announce this as terrific news of the label’s backing of their campaign, I’m not so sure – surely the label can see lots of a) good publicity renewing interest in a back-catalogue piece and b) lots of money.

Perhaps, though, Universal intends giving some of the proceeds to the charity – otherwise, they’re in a similar position to the famous swimming baby on the cover of ‘Nevermind.’ Perhaps they’ll be making a donation to the charity from the profits made; now that truly would be Christmas cheer…

Lyrics ruined: Jean Michel Jarre’s Zoolook

You know how it is: a friend suggests to you an alternative hearing (or ‘mis-hearing,’ perhaps) of some pop lyrics that you’ve known well all your life hitherto, and from then on, you just can’t hear those same lyrics any other way.

A bassoon-playing friend of mine shared a liking for early Jean Michel Jarre, but totally ruined my experience of the first track of his 1984 release, Zoolook, when she said, ”Ah, the voice in the background is saying ‘Please pass me a liqourice allsort!”

Now, I’m not sure what the sampled voice is saying on the track, but I’m pretty sure Jean Michel Jarre isn’t talking about his favourite confectionery in the album

Listen for yourself: it’s impossible NOT to hear ‘liquorice allsort” now, isn’t it ? The sample returns at different pitches (the first instance is at 25” in the clip below), but it’s now inescapably talking about sweets.

(And wherever you are, Sam Gurney: you’ve ruined Zoolook for me for ever!).

What lyrics have been ruined for you ?

Out of tune is out of tune…whoever is singing.

”That’s DREADFUL!” my wife yelled at the television this weekend, as I was watching bits of this year’s Glastonbury Festival. ”It’s SO out of tune!”

album coverTo be fair, she was right: and she’s a professional singer, so she should know. I was disappointed as well; we were watching Elbow’s slot, which was shockingly out of tune. I’ve written elsewhere about my enthusiasm for Elbow, with their intelligent lyrics and songs that reward multiple hearings, and their album, Build A Rocket, Boys!, released earlier this year, has kept on growing in my affections. But this live session was pretty frightful: so I turned it off.

So I was outraged when, later on, we changed channels to – Popstar to Operastar, which my wife watches religiously. For anyone who hasn’t suffered this travesty passing as popular entertainment, stars are plucked from the world of pop, and each week have to sing an aria from classical opera or other well-known piece; previously, these have ranged from Nessun Dorma to Volare and the ‘Love Theme’ from The Godfather. Some of them are popstars long confined to Pop Jail, who are looking for a platform to revive a career long since passed into the doldrums. I have little time to listen to music as it is, and I certainly don’t want to hear people singing pieces badly when I am able to.

In their defence, it is something of a challenge for pop singers to master major arias in a week, particularly if the songs are in a foreign language, but it’s a pretty terrible panoply of pop singers willing to sacrifice their dignity on a Sunday night. One risks hearing music being sung badly whenever you turn on the radio – and Radio 3 can be just as guilty as ClassicFM of broadcasting performances by singers which are astonishingly mediocre – or going to hear live performances; it’s part of the joys (and perils) of being a music consumer. But turning on a programme where you’re guaranteed to hear performances ranging from the cringingly mediocre to the breathtakingly awful – senseless, surely. (And don’t start muttering about ‘The Journey’ and ‘How Far They Come,’ it won’t wash).

Here’s a small example: try to stick with it for as long as you can…

So I can’t fathom why my wife watches it, or indeed why anyone would. Especially when she wants out-of-tune live stage sessions by Elbow turned off. It doesn’t matter what you’re singing, or to whom: out of tune is out of tune. Elbow were somewhat disappointing: but Popstar to Operastar is simply hideous.

In the doghouse: more trouble for Amy Winehouse

Boozy floozy ? Image credit The Daily Mail

It’s no wonder performing musicians get such a bad name.

A video posted on YouTube of part of beehive-hair-wearing Amy Winehouse’s Serbian gig last Saturday (via today’s Guardian) shows the singer giving performers a bad name.

The frustration of the audience is clearly audible in the amateur footage, which seems to show Winehouse struggling to maintain an on-stage presence; at about two-and-a-half minutes into the video, she clearly makes an effort to adopt the hair-massaging, body-stroking movements of a sexy stage-siren, but it doesn’t work at all.

I was reading Alan Bennett’s second collection of autobiographical and critical writings, Untold Stories, over the weekend, and came across a passage where he criticises musicians for always turning up late and not being all that professional. As a performing musician myself, this naturally aroused my ire. Then I saw this footage of Amy Winehouse definitely not giving a public performance her full professionalism, and had to concede that, on this occasion, Bennett does have a point.

I feel sorry for Winehouse. But I feel more sorry for all those professional musicians who do give of their very best when performing, but who end up tarred with the same brush as Winehouse because she, as a high profile performer, behaves in a way which reflects badly on us all.

Update: 22 June: in today’s Guardian, news that Winehouse has since cancelled all her remaining tour dates.  She has also allegedly refused to collect her fee for the disastrous Serbian gig performance. Perhaps some moral flame still flickers in her: it shows a commendable moral sense, if it’s true.

It only takes four notes: Shine on you crazy diamond

It’s said that the most important parts of any piece of music are the start and the end: those are the sections that listeners will remember the most, how a piece opened and the last part they heard.

The beginning of a piece of music is, like the beginning of a television theme tune, important; it needs to engage the listener and keep them interested enough to continue listening to what will come next as the piece unfolds.

Music does this in different ways: the gentle undulating strings at the start of Handel’s Zadok the Priest lull the listener into a trap, giving little clue as to the shattering choral entry that follows soon after; the nervous string ostinato at the start of Walton’s First Symphony after the rising dawn of the horns;

the titanic, rising shape at the start of Also sprach Zarasthustra;

or the heraldic fanfare at the start of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. There’s the rise and fall of the melodic line in Eleanor Rigby, the spiky introduction to Superstition by Stevie Wonder.

For me, a great introduction, or melody in particular, is one that only has to unfurl by just a few notes, and you recognise it immediately. A lot of today’s pop and rock music begins in such a fashion as to sound immediately like all the other pieces bouncing around the charts at the same time.

There’s something deeply resonant about that guitar riff in the opening to Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond that means it can be no other piece; you only have to hear those first four questing guitar notes, hanging in the air, to know at once what the piece is. There’s a lengthy introduction, underpinned by a pedal chord of G minor, with a meandering improvised melody shared between keyboard and guitar, creating a sense of expectancy. And then the guitar plucks a four-note riff which hangs in the void…

The shape of the phrase is a significant factor not only in its memorability, but also in what it does – or rather, doesn’t do. The first two notes, Bb – F, describe an open fifth, suggesting the key of Bb – this is instantly negated by the third note, G, such that the phrase has described an arching minor seventh – G – Bb – F, and the ear expects the next note to be the missing dominat degree of the scale, D. But this doesn’t happen – instead, the phrase moves over the missing note and articulates instead an E natural. Coupled with the preceding G, it suggests now C major, the subdominant harmony of G; those four notes have suggested three separate keys – Bb, G minor, C major – in the space of four steps.

By the end of the phrase, the listener’s tonal ear is confused: what key am I in ?
Is it the major, the relative minor, or the subdominant ? To have articulated all these keys and created such harmonic uncertainty with only four notes is a truly brilliant trick.

You only have to hear those four notes, in any context, on any instrument, to know the piece they come from. Genius.

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