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Friday, October 28, 2011

Spectacle vs Resonance

I went to the movies yesterday to see "The Help". Beautifully interpreted from the book, I had been told. But it was sold-out.
"Tin-Tin", on the screen next door, however, was not.
I grew up with Tin-Tin, and loved the comic books. Beautifully imagined and beautifully drawn.

Now Stephen Spielberg takes the franchise, which he bought back in the 70s, into the 3rd Millennium.

He and Jackson have taken on a folklore that goes back many decades. For so many European children and teenagers growing up in the 50s and 60s, the Tin-Tin series were warm and wonderful fantasy, albeit in the believable adventure story sense - as opposed to the mad (but often inspiring) Super-Hero sense.

So how were these modern-day super-heroes of the film-making world going to 'realise' such popular-art icons, for the screen?

The answer? Beautifully. Sensitively. From the pictorial perspective - seductively, given the leap from the 'clear-line' technique of the original 2D visualisation to today's widescreen three-dimensional CGI.
Every shot came with chips!

So was there a problem for the die-hard fan like me!?
Yep.... and a big one.
And it is the common problem that exists everywhere and follows us through all the paths of story-telling in this hyper-commercial world of extremes within which we live.

It's all about the spectacle. Story, it would seem, repeatedly, has been reduced to a largely boring necessity upon which to hang 'breathtaking visions' and moments that are designed to make us gasp; when often the story simply required, say, a cocked eyebrow or a simple double-take. Everything now is so pumped-up, this larger-than-life obsession, especially now that SFX departments can create anything that our imaginations can dream up. continues unabated and, apparently unchallenged.

Yet, in truth, in the days following the consumption of a visual and aural feast such as these spectacles.... story is the only thing we can hang on to. It is the only thing with sense and meaning, that lingers with us. The rest is just bells and whistles.

So here we are, just one day later, and we get to see the original film we had intended to see - "The Help".

Such little history behind the director.... Tate Taylor. Apparently a child-hood friend of the first-time author, Kathryn Stockett. A first book that took 5 years to write and was turned down by more publishers than there are weeks in a year. Yet rarely have I seen a director's imprint be so gentle, a simple but expansive idea cosseted in his hands, sensitive and faithful to all the original ideas behind the book. Wow!

So what should this tell us, in this very modern world of ours? That 'story is king'? That, if we are to make a movie, we should be sure to start with a sure-fire entity like a number 1 book?!
No. Not at all.

Simply that, in art, one should never open one's mouth until one has something to say!
And if you are not the originator.... then be gracious, be respectful of those whose lives revolve around what the rest of us might live and breath!

"The Help" is a great story. One that would work in Roman times, Shakespearian times and in 21st century films too! "The Help" could be re-written as an opera. Any story that big, that universal, translates into any other popular art.

So I am a great reader, a great movie go-er and, first and foremost a great music-lover. Right here in my world this same predicament exists. The lust for pumped-up action in music is there on so many levels - it's scary!
But let me give the worst example first - simply because it is so ubiquitous that it is becoming mind-numbingly 'acceptable' (it would seem).

Rather than getting bogged down in the technical, here is an example that can be clearly heard.
The last album by Adele.

Let's be clear, the songs are good, really good, Adele's singing is fantastic. The album's sound though, is pumped up, exaggerated, unreal and ultimately very tiring to listen to.
I'm not referring to the arrangements or the musician's performances or the recording/production. I'm aggravated beyond belief by the mastering (and probably therefore, final mixing). You just cannot get beyond 3 tracks in succession without your ears feeling like they're being water-boarded. Ouch.

Why? Because of banks of compressors on the mix that ensure that every sound is as loud as the next. Exhausting. It's as if everyone's talking at once.
This destructive habit has been encouraged and made obligatory by mindless novices at record companies that get excited because their track sounds louder. Louder than anything else on radio.
No dynamics; no ebb and flow, no colour or shading - everything bright electric light white, no subtlety... no story.

Listen to one of the Lord-Alge brothers who's name has become synonymous with this 'flat-out' style of mixing explain to a 'lay' audience on the Internet how to get great mixes. Notice that of all the elements of a final mix, tone, texture, colour, width, depth, separation, cohesion, rhythm-vs-melody, clarity, selective equalisation etc etc.... he jumps straight in to his favourite compressors. Right there at the top of his list of things to discuss relevant to a great mix. He's not alone, of course, most top mixers have been obliged to become experts of this one single device. Why because it is at the heart of the 'make-everything-louder' syndrome.

If everything's 10/10 flat out - sooner or later, someone wants to be at eleven!

It's the same with the movies. Take a delightful 'flat' artwork illustration like the original Tin-Tin books and read the stories that unfold within both the words and the pictorial representation. Then experience the Spielberg/Jackson movie version. It's a bombardment - relatively. Non-stop action with almost no  thinking time, no space to linger and feel things. Hollywood throws out the same ethos through both sound and vision - everything maxxed out all the time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Availability vs Mystique

We've all become so used to the post-internet phenomenon of bands and artists, particularly those just starting out, sharing their everyday moments with the world. Video-blogs, YouTube postings, Facebook images of the faces and voices behind the music. In what way does this enhance the listening experience?
For example, whilst listening to "Nothing Compares to You" would it honestly sensitise or amplify the wide-eyed compassion of Sinéad's beautiful performance were we able to watch social-media-video of her lollygagging the night before or bitching about her record label? (no offence Sinéad, merely hypothetical)... so thank goodness it doesn't exist!

Am I being naive or is every listener of these times completely convinced that the artists of today are all actors - entertainers even? Does this celebrity-oriented era keep us removed from the true content of an artist's words and emotions?

For those of us that love to lose ourselves in music, the moment that a song really hits home is often a complex one... although it may not seem to be, it is full of all the abstract connectivity that music plays upon. A song, for example, may have a melancholic feel in just a couple of lines but it is at that moment that the underlying sadness of your day finds a connection. Some songs may have the ability to touch us in several ways simultaneously, each contact reaching deeperj inside us.

Like reading a book, listening to music creates mental pictures, raises ideas and questions within us. At these moments it is tremendously helpful if the voice behind the lyrical delivery stays clearly communicative - focused, not confused by contradictory, or at best irrelevant, images in the side-bars of our life.

Whereas, seeing the artist or band appearing live in concert can, with even the simplest stage presentation reflecting the mood of not only each song but individual lines, magnify the lyrical and emotional sensibilities. I don't think we need to see writer/performers 'looning around' backstage on someone's hastily uploaded iPhone.

Of course, artists are 'real people' and they have 'ordinary lives' - but that information should be saved for 'revealing' books written many years after the event. Something for the die-hard fan who needs to know everything about their favourite 'legendary' artist.

Let us grow into an 'awareness' about the artist through their music - with that understanding being born of a gentle musing, often sub-conscious, on how they are as people, not just how they look, but how they behave, how they laugh, whether they can show joy, or seem sensitive.
Is the singer actually as confused by the subject matter of their current song as the lyrics suggest - or is it fiction? For me, we should be left to wonder.

To many, it may not matter either way. But for those of us that like to believe in a story, film or song, this extra everyday interference seems invasive... or, at the very least... unnecessary. With each day, harder to avoid.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Some thoughts on the Steve Jobs in my life

I assumed when I joined in the fray and started this blog, that it would be about music and related aspects of expressing oneself through the popular arts. However, the passing of Steve Jobs just yesterday needs a big mention as it has affected me greatly, both from an empowerment perspective - with his extraordinary vision and incredible focus on giving me the tools not just to make the music, arrange it, produce it and ultimately sell it to my audience - and his inspirational ideology.

I have often used Steve's model in the context of my work as a record producer: don't make products (or records) that you believe might 'fill a hole in the market' or that 'research indicates could sell well'... no, just design and make the product (or record) that you most want to buy! The music that you most want to hear.

That's it! Gloriously simple.

You don't have an idea that good at the moment? Then do nothing until you do. And take the consequences, because, guess what, the changes of fortune that that might induce in you will almost certainly be the trigger for new and meaningful communication with your market (or audience).

As far as I know from those who knew him well, Jobs never 'made do'.
He had the idea for the iPad long before the iPhone... that's many years! But it was that very vision that lead him to realize the timing in the world was out of sync with his desires at that moment. But not by much, the uber-frustration of so-called smart-phones (sic) needed tackling first. The drive for that decision came, like most things Jobsian, from his own frustration and disappointment with good ideas badly designed and/or implemented. Those lacklustre devices that hinted at really useful things but never delivered. With the exception of RIM's Blackberry - albeit a one-trick pony with little future.

If you are an artist, a creative music writer for example, then...

a) don't open your mouth until you have something to say (I grew up under that dictum) and...

b) when you are ready - say it loudly, clearly and with the sentiment of the idea's origin.

Unfortunately in this television-driven music world (Simon Cowell being this generation's Val Parnell)... music is not being seen or felt as a medium that can change the way we feel... 4 minutes later.
Although I believe it can and will again.

Steve Jobs literally changed my life. More than once too. 
Most of all though, the thing I take away from his life and knowledge more than any other is exemplified by this list of things that he didn’t do...

••• He didn't invent the GUI, the mouse and the principle of a 'window' on a computer screen - but he made them all work in a way that real people could understand and immediately, instinctively use.

••• He didn't invent the all-in-one-box computer - but he made it look and feel like a thing to have in the same room as all the things you treasure (not tucked away in an office).

••• He didn't invent the mp3 player - but he made it work brilliantly and become supremely practical.

••• He didn't invent the Smartphone - but he devised a small new portable device that also made phone-calls.

••• He didn't invent the tablet computer - but he replaced it with the vision he'd had many years before because we all knew how it should be by then - we'd been primed by Jobs’ own devices already.

What Steve did do was... make the things that he most wanted to buy.

I urge every songwriter that may happen upon this ramble to take away the same notion...
just sit down in the silence of your listening... and write the song that you most want to hear!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

MIDI, 30 years on - friend or foe?

In the early 80s I was at the forefront of the then mind-bending new music technologies. I had been involved a few years earlier in the build-up to the international agreement for a worldwide standard for interconnectivity between electronic musical instruments (primarily keyboards) - MIDI. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

Initially the language was aimed very much at keyboards being able to remotely ‘play’ other keyboards in tandem, thereby expanding the sonic combinations exponentially. Up until that time, telephone exchange-style patch-bays and routing boxes producing mountains of cable-spaghetti with converters and adaptors producing both triggers pulses that sent start and stop commands plus Control Voltages that transmitted pitch information. The language of MIDI was, nonetheless, much more of an arrangement tool, than a compositional aid.

The classic 70s image of keyboardists such as Vangelis and Rik Wakeman literally surrounded by a circle of synthesizers, organs, electric pianos et al, spreading their octopus arms in all directions, disappeared in a handful of years as MIDI cables allowed several instruments to be played at the same time in perfect unison.

It was all new and fascinating. Once all that mad control voltage and trigger-input data had been reduced to a one-size-fits-all technology, it became seductively beckoning to devise another ‘standard’ that could harness that data and invent a system that recorded it. Then it could be played back.

In that brief moment, an ideology, not a million miles away from the early exploratory days of home computing, was realised and developed into a ‘modern-day’ version of a sequencer. A recording device to capture endless information attached to chords, rhythms, melodies and sounds that together would create a new kind of control over sound and music.

As with any great new invention - a quantum jolt forward comes at a price. As a byproduct of that new and fascinating precision, the happy accidental moments, which as before, required ‘instinctive response’ (and often immediate ideas to circumnavigate potential disaster for example) became constrained to the point of suffocation.

With each new step towards the ultimate total harnessing and control of musical expression, came less and less opportunity for error and improvisation. That improvisation is what keeps the music alive and reflecting ‘feeling’.

Music composed and arranged on a computer that utilises both rhythmic quantisation and auto-tuned instrumentation is tantamount to reading music as opposed to hearing it. For those of us who can, when we read a score in our mind, without an instrument to hand, we may hum along but it is our imagination that is doing the hearing and the conducting. It is much like visualising the story whilst reading a book. With computer-controlled recording, we are getting the precise placement notes and interval/harmonic relationships but with no conducting, no overall homogeneity, no feeling.

Let’s not forget that the only commonality between almost all great quotes on music over several centuries lies in that word - ‘feeling.’ That’s what music does…. creates feelings for others to encounter. The artist conjures up feelings for their audience to experience. That’s it.

Fishing or Flexing?

As I alluded to in my last post, the most common process at the onset of any writing session in this day and age is one of what I call ‘fishing’. Throwing up loops in today's software-driven recording device that gives a rhythmical bed to sit on whilst tootling with a MIDI keyboard plugged into an endless variety of sounds until a little something sounds juicy or appealing enough to constitute a first layer.

Followed by more noodling... a kind of improvising with oneself. Whilst that can have its uses, one must first acknowledge that it isn’t really improvising with anyone. How can it be?...the first layer is now fixed and therefore irresponsive, in any way, to further input or playing.

If we think about that; that’s like starting the construction of a building with a quick sketch, liking it enough to keep, sculpting a further level based on that momentary thinking… and setting off to build the rest of the skyscraper from those unplanned beginnings. Let’s see if it falls over.

The great thing about a bunch of players in the same room, improvising from scratch (or a sketch), is that as each musician plays in concert with their fellow performers there is a constant process of change, exchange and adaptation.

That process is, in each and every minute, reacting with a unique individual response, born out of each particular player’s feeling or experience of that very moment. That’s an amazing amount of input data, reacting constantly to change. Something a software program is unable to do. And almost all music is written and composed on software systems, in this millennium.

The writing process needs to remain alive as long as possible. By staying super-flexible, it breathes, bouncing with readiness... like a world-class boxer, prepared for any assault from any direction. Able to change plans in an instant as he further understand the ‘state’ of his opponent.

The great thing about the unexpected in music is that it pulls on all aspects of the fellow player’s techniques and thinking, which in turn, pushes them outside their comfort-zone and into moments that they hear - as if they were not the ones to play it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Be THAT good....

Steve Martin has a memorable quote that has stuck with me like glue since reading his book 'Born Standing Up', mostly because it echoes so completely my own ideology...

"Be so good they can't ignore you!

Quality control and the music business have never been routine bedfellows. Often for good reason, as some of the most outstanding tracks of the last 50 years of contemporary pop music originated out of little more than errors, stumbles, naivety and ignorance.

Of course, for every one of those accidental, yet undeniable, moments there are a thousand others that lay in the trash-cans of half-hearted, misguided or just plain 'empty' attempts. But enough gems that should, in theory, never have been allowed out of a 'professional' recording studio on the basis of their writing, arranging, performing or recording, have found an audience.

The premise of being that good is a million miles away from the typical mindset behind the beginnings of any new song written by the vast majority of would-be songwriters (in fact, most 'professionals' too).

Why?… because, with the downfall of the major record labels, the particular baby that went out with that bath-water was the A & R man.

The Artist and Repertoire figure was originally, exactly that…. someone who signed the Artist based on not just discovery, but far more importantly, long-term fostering and guidance... at the same time as selecting, discovering and/or commissioning their upcoming Repertoire… songs.

The primary duty of the A & R man was to help the artist find great songs to sing... and then as singer-songwriters and self-writing bands developed their own composing & lyrical skills, the A & R man would offer the artist/writer an objective opinion, critique... along with suggestions for further and different collaborations (often in cahoots with the writer’s publishers).

Primarily though, they became the all important first-stage filter for the artist’s ideas. If the idea was not good enough, the worthwhile A & R man would have alternative suggestions at the ready, and the people-skills to implement them.

As the hey-day of creative music ‘editorial’ shows - Warner Bros in Los Angeles in the 70s housed an incredibly impressive array of A & R men who, un-typically, were also top Record Producers of their day...people like Lenny Waronker, Russ Titleman and Ted Templeman. Between them they signed and/or coached (A & R’ed) the likes of Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, The Doobie Bros, Van Morrison, America, Little Feat, Van Halen, Little Feat, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Cooper and Rickie Lee Jones

But now here we are in the 3rd Millennium… new young artists with no guidance at all. Their young healthy egos with no critique, no wall to bounce their ideas off. No negative, albeit constructive, assaults to defend their new works against. As I have mentioned often in my Workshops, it is well-known and understood widely that if you are a budding author, you must first find a book-publisher who, whilst being already sympathetic to your general writing direction, will highlight weak points, character flaws, plot holes and confused structure in an effort to strengthen the book as a whole and aid the author’s ability to express both their primary points and their sub-text. In the book world it is not only common, but generally considered essential - from both the author and the publisher’s perspective.

It would appear that at this time, the 4 minute song does not demand such evaluation, such study and critique. Apparently it either works for the listener or it doesn’t… there is, after all, so much choice out there on the fabulous InterWeb! Why bother fashioning one sole gem? Polishing every facet of one single jewel? It’s only a pop song!

But then listen to Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” - Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” (I mean really close your eyes and listen... 100%) or Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”.

These jewels contain every aspect of brilliance in pop music. Firstly a great song made up of clear powerful ideas expressed in finely tuned lyrics and beautiful melodies; orchestrated with thoughtful arrangements both original and expressive in both the biggest picture and the minutest detail; produced by a mind with an equally clear vision that recognised when it was enough, not too much and beautifully balanced in every sense.

I am about to start a new ‘entity’ that will collect the best examples of the first of these ingredients. That is the song that is shooting for this level of excellence; from writers who may be unknown to those with experience but no wish to be lost in Major label-land (what’s left of it) anymore, or those that do not want to remain equally lost in Internet Wasteland. The mechanism will be announced shortly here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

20 reasons a song can succeed

1 - An undeniably memorable chorus melody

2 - An undeniably addictive repetitive riff

3 - An undeniably memorable chorus text-hook

4 - A universally appealing subject, individually expressed

5 - An occasional sonic logo that leaves you wanting to hear it again.

6 - An overall arrangement/production that leaves you wanting it again

7 - An overall style that puts it firmly in the style-of-the-moment

8 - A rhythmical groove that is undeniably infectious

9 - A repetitive/hypnotic chant-like vocal phrase

10 - A complexity to the arrangement / production that needs many plays to digest

11 - A story to the text that keeps you glued through to a satisfying conclusion

12 - A unique extraordinary vocal / collective performance

13 - A singer’s charismatic vocal character / timbre

14 - Inexplicable mystique / magic to the overall arr / prod

15 - Uplifting quality that just makes you flat-out happy

16 - Sympathetic emotion that harmonises with your state of mind

17 - Pace and excitement that infuses the listener with energy

18 - The totality relaxes and soothes the troubled mind

19 - Surprising / unexpected twists and turns that tease or please

20 - Reassuring familiarity that comforts