My musical influences

My Musical Influences

After well over a hundred written songs I find I tend to write two kinds: Songs about things that actually happened to me, artistically enhanced if successful, or story songs: Made up stories turned into song. What are the stylistic influences for my writing?

There is a lot I like about Country music, the story telling and the harmony vocals and the (often) sparse arrangements. However, I have no time for the macho-sentimentality of much mainstream country “product”.

The main album at the moment on my (CD) turntable is Darrell Scott, Long Ride Home: He is one of my all-time favourite musicians. Not only is he a fabulous instrumentalist on a whole raft of instruments (and one of the greatest acoustic guitarists I know), he is also a phantastic singer and a phenomenal songwriter.

Who else? A perennial favourite is Emmylou Harris – a voice to go right under my skin and a musician of impeccable taste, both in her choice of material (she does not write much herself) and in the collaborators she picks. There are wonderful albums in every one of the last five(!) decades, the first ones of course with Gram Parsons. My absolute favourite (if you insist) is her album Wrecking Ball. Listen and be amazed.

Others: Lyle Lovett, the late, great Guy Clark. Townes van Zandt, who cannot really be described as a great singer, but who else writes such weird and wonderful songs “…the poets are demanding their pay and left me with nothing to say.”? K.d. lang, Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams, Carol King, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen.

Elvis Costello was for a long time a great favourite, not so much nowadays. I still think his first album My Aim is True is his best, angry, gritty and with a great band on it (not the later Attractions), an American band who, if I am correct, became Huey Lewis and the News.

What bands? I grew up with a lot of Prog Rock, which I don’t tend to listen to much these days. Bands I still like are Little Feat, Earth, Wind and Fire (both for great ensemble playing and the latter for their deeply philosophical lyrics “…remember you can choose not to loose, find your groove and be a winner, WINNEEEEEEERR”). Pink Floyd I always liked for the wonderfully unhurried quality of their music, almost completely unique in that. The Nice, for the complete opposite: power, steam, accelleration all the way.

And then there are the Jazz and Classical collections: I have almost exactly as much Bach on the shelf as I have Miles Davis, about 20 albums of each. I’ll talk about Bach and Jazz some other day.

Music that matters #1

Music that matters #1

Much music that we hear does not matter. It is the same old same old, copies of what’s gone before. Backgrund noise. But then occasionally there is music that matters. That goes under the skin. One such concert I visited two weeks ago.

It was part of the Ruhrtriiiennale, a series of international music, theatre, art and performance events in the Ruhr area, typically in ex-industrial locations such as the wonderful Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum. This particular concert took place in Dortmund in the equally wonderful but much smaller Zeche Zollern in Dortmund, in the old engine room.

The engine room turned out to have an acoustic like a good church, so all was well for a magnificent concert by the ChorWerk Ruhr, a young choir based in Bochum who sing on world-class level with finesse, sense for balance between the voices of the (not overly large) choir the likes I have never heard before. They often program very old music with very new music to startling effect.

The concert was „Memoria“, which combined works from a Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria with music from the 20th century by John Cage und Morton Feldman.

Even though the sound world of de Victoria is strictly functional, that is, the sound follows harmonic conventions and the expected tension and release of the developmental necessities that were a given in the musical world of the Renaissance, there was again and again an impression of static sounds hanging in the air for moments before they shifted again.

And this effect was taken up and amplified later on in the works by John Cage and, most amazingly, by Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Here we had no musical development as such, in the same way that in Mark Rothko’s paintings there are no ‘themes’ explored, just swathes of seemingly uniform colour presented, Feldman presents static clusters of sound (the choir plus percussion, which again played no rhythms as such but provided colour – a quiet drum roll on a bass drum or clusters of tubular bell or vibraphone sounds).

A static sound hanging in the air for a while, then a completely and unrelatedly different one a moment later. In the same way that Rothko’s paintings would hang side by side, each just an impression of a colour. As it were a ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ fit for paintings of the Rothko kind.

The only thematic or melodic sound happening was in some of the later ‘pictures’ (my idea, not Feldman’s) the viola playing a simple haunting melody, which was repeated during a few of the static sound clusters.

A quite amazing musical experience: Feldman’s music to start with (nothing whatsoever European about it) but then sung in such an angelic, otherworldly way by this phenomenal choir from the centre of the European heartland: The Ruhrgebiet. Magnificent.

My advice to anybody would be: Check out ChorWerk Ruhr, you’ll be amazed. I will follow them around, maybe not to the end of the world, but around the country.