Teaching Music History – Without the Lies

Every year I teach the history of music at a school in the UK. It’s a subject that comes with some serious responsibility.

Students are now more ‘global’ than ever and us musicians and music educators who grew up in a far less global land, are providing information and ideas that may shape the views of these truly international citizens. So, we best bloody get it right…

In this blog, I’m going to share my thoughts and experiences on this quite frankly serious subject, they’ve evolved over some time to get here…

I will let you know why I think the bias towards western classical music, in teaching the history of music, is basically a massive porkie pie and needs to go. How our obsession with that familiar western classical historical timeline is actually just silly – and how now is the time to move on and get it ruddy right. If, of course, you haven’t already.

I’m gonna show you my approach and offer some tools for you to use, if you like it of course – you might hate it, you might love it – who knows, you might want to offer me your tools, I’d be happy to consider adding it in. At the very least I hope it starts a debate between us. This is an opinion piece and Im open to changing it.

What’s wrong with how things are?

Lets lay the cards on the table…

Music history is not a linear development. It is a multifaceted and global collection of individual and unique puzzles. (woh there!)

Some schools Ive had the pleasure of working with are developing and adjusting to this idea in a big way, offering an enriched mix, working with hubs and more to bring an inspiring curriculum and context alongside those ‘wig wearing, rather good at music, dead chaps from Europe’. They, against the odds, are vibrant and provide music with context in their day to day running.

However…

Sadly some are not so lucky, many schools still suffer from a stale music department, devoid of vision, and still offers music history completely at odds with the global and abstract reality (blimey that’s a bit heavy! Sorry).

Often completely biased to ‘western classical’ and presenting this in a linear timeline, whilst occasionally referencing a token Paul McCartney…

You know…like ‘today’s lesson is the history of music’ followed by ‘Renaissance (1400–1600)’ then boom ‘Mozart blah blah’…oh and ‘here’s the Beatles’.

Ultimately the end result of offering a western classical timeline without global, or indeed wider context, teaches children an understanding of musical culture and heritage that is in principal not truthful, and one that is unintentionally contributing to negative attitudes towards culture, class and even race. So, this stuff is important!

Of course, teaching about western classical is fantastic and crucial, and please don’t mistake this as an attack on the music or teaching about it. If you teach the western classical musical era’s, I think its’ wonderful (how could you not!?), but my question would be, have you provided context? If not, why should it be aired more than something else? Context in history, is everything.

I’m currently of the belief that music history in schools when biased towards western classical, holding it in higher regard or prioritising it, is wrong and contributes to building a world view that is unintentionally imperialistic and can help prop up misguided and racist viewpoints, and we haven’t even begun to talk about gender… Are you angry yet?…

Sorry, before anyone gets too excited, I did say unintentionally. I don’t believe any are doing this intentionally, as I’ll mention later, us music educators are products of our own education. But its time to step back and to break the mould.

If you leave school only learning about western classical music for your historical knowledge, would you unintentionally hold a belief that western classical music is of higher value than another type of music?… What about Asian musicians or African musicians?… did they get music from the europeans?…weird how those country folk in europe didn’t ever do any music too? did Africans need to be brutally dragged to the US to create the blues? Is a kora a type of fruit?

I know these are extremes, and please if you are a teacher who currently delivers ‘that’ timeline without a global context insight, please be assured I’m not accusing you of ‘racism’, or indeed ‘being’ anything. But I think its an amazing time to change approach, now is an opportunity to provide a truly global approach to music history, for your truly global students.

Our social media accounts, our newspapers, our TV, quite frankly all media is throwing biased information at our busy brains, and the arts are a last bastion of truth.

We live in a world of mis-information, educators lay the foundations, on which future information will sit. I think it is important they are ones of global context and not ones of unintentional bias – they can be fertile ground for some pretty nasty outlooks. In other words, we have a grave responsibility now more than ever.

The music curriculum in the UK is actually helpfully vague, so to purely blame the curriculum here would be silly, even though in GCSE’S for example the bias is still hugely obvious. This is often a cultural choice amongst us educators, again sometimes by accident. Many of us, in fact, anyone who went to school, were most likely brought up on a staple diet of ‘Renaissance to Romantic’ an obsession with ‘ the composers’ and western classical music, so its logical that it would still be endemic in schools as we are now the teachers.

But why is it a problem? Surely Beethoven trumps Bob Dylan? Or the Romantic Era trumps Flamenco? (does anyone use the term ‘trumps’ anymore?… has Donald ruined it?)

I imagine everyone’s answers to be different. But really any comparison is, well, pointless. What’s important is why we learn about these musicians in the first place. In fact why we feel it’s important to teach students about music history at all.

Most agree its undoubtedly good for children of all ages to learn about the history of music; to be introduced to new sounds, to have an understanding of music from around the world and how it developed, how it symbiotically developed alongside cultural, technological and personal developments.

But WHY!!!??? well music history has a wider benefit for all of us. For me the aim in teaching it is to help make sense of the world, to nurture an enquiring and empathetic mind, and to help present old ideas to new minds in the hope they might reach new conclusions.

So, I think I can safely summarise and say…

The purpose of learning the history of music is to understand the world we live in.’

The ‘world we live in’, is a crucial statement. Not Western Europe, or the United Kingdom. ‘The world’.

So when we learn about ‘the world’ its probably safe to suggest we might need to explore beyond the walls of the EU. Actually, ladies and gentlemen, there is a whole world of culturally rich musical heritages which have enriched our own personal musical lives far more directly than Handel or Bach, and its a teachers responsibility to ensure that is explained.

So to sign things off before I get stuck into in my humble offerings of approaches. I want to say this…

Of course Western Classical Music is relevant. Its a fantastically crucial piece of the puzzle. In a puzzle the pieces come in different shapes and sizes. They are interlocking, they are a part of a whole.

In music education giving children one piece of the puzzle, without demonstrating equal value to the other pieces, or in fact informing them there are other pieces out there, is a massive failure to culture and children.

We can not present every part and piece, nor should we, but we can offer a variety of pieces, show them how they fit together and encourage enquiry to find more.

If we do this we help students to continue a life long approach to enquiry, we show them that culture is intertwined and not hierarchical. We crucially have the opportunity to show them they too are a piece of a puzzle.

How do we fix it?

Here’s several key points I think are really helpful in explaining musical history to all ages, some are completely original some have been inspired by many of the amazing teachers I have had the pleasure of working with. You can obviously use your initiative on whats suitable for what age, but the principals will remain the same. At the very least it might be good brain food.

‘Smash the linear timeline into a chaotic and abstract explosion.’

yup, even for the little ones. Because music didn’t develop in a straight line, anything other than that is a lie. Of course when looking at one specific culture you will find a relatively linear development. But when we present musical history its likely in a school you will have to do so i a short timeframe, you’ll want to give an overview and make it simple… the danger is in your attempt to simplify it, you will completely miscommunicate the idea of how music developed.

Instead focus on small elements within music. And of course offer specific timelines within that. For example a lesson on a specific instrument. Looking at the guitar for example, we can see it develop in various different countries simultaneously and at different times. Or in fact looking at one genre of music, or one specific technology that developed music.

‘Look at four points of investigation and explore musical history.’

The Person
The Society
The Technology
The Art

These four points or aspects of study are fantastic lines of enquiry to offer to older students, or in fact use to underpin or choose the area you are teaching for all ages. These four categories are the most obvious umbrella terms of development in musical history. For example you could look at the personal/emotional life of a specific musician. The affects of recording technology on folk music. The scales in Hungarian folk.

‘Examine your own musical history.’

Its a tried and tested technique of history teachers. History is all around us. It makes us what we are today. My first lesson is to examine our own personal musical histories. Getting students to speak to parents, grandparents, examine their own musical experiences, if technology, politics, personal circumstances and feelings etc played a roll in who they are today, musically.

‘Understand that your musical knowledge is limited’

I can’t say for sure, but it’s very very likely that like me and everyone I have ever met, you are purely a product of your limited experience. You have your own musical history which informs what you believe should be taught as ‘important’. Don’t listen to yourself. Try to offer inspiration to enquire for the older children and inspiration to experience for the younger, rather than facts which you think are key.

So that’s all from me. It’s just ideas. Offerings. But whatever you’re opinion, the responsibility of teaching a cultural history is real and I hope somehow this blog at least made you question how you teach it as an educator or indeed how you respond to it as a student.

Thanks for listening.

C

Online Guitar Group

Since lockdown began, I have been running an ‘Online Guitar Group’

Every Tuesday @ 7pm we delve into a new style, song, technique or artist.

Sessions are held on Zoom for approximately one hour. There is no pressure to be heard so even the most shy player is welcome.

All abilities are catered for from beginner to pro. Sessions are ‘pay what you want’, so whatever your financial situation you can enjoy.

Interested to find out more? Wana join our next session?… email me contact@chriswoodsgroove.co.uk

Essentially the sessions are group guitar lessons, there is the opportunity to ask questions, contribute, or perhaps you just want to sit and listen. We are a real mix of abilities from absolute beginner to pro, we are friendly, supportive and enjoy all styles.

From the Beethoven to the Beatles, Radiohead to Billie Eilish, Gypsy Jazz to metal. I’ll be visiting it all.

Just drop me an email to find out about joining or ask any questions.. contact@chriswoodsgroove.co.uk

Listen, Learn, Play Along, and Enjoy.

 

Capo Evolution – Part 2

We invited guitarists from all over the world to join our online guitar orchestra… this is what happened.

Capo Evolution’ is a piece I composed, commissioned by the G7th, The Capo Company, for an infinite number of guitars. All styles and abilities of guitarist were welcome; players were invited to learn one of four parts, film it on a smartphone and upload the video to be a part of our online guitar orchestra.

It’s been an amazing process, with players joining from across the world. Thank you to everyone who took part, thought about taking part, and supported in a way they could and of course thank you to G7th for their vision and support.

In this blog, I want to talk about WHY. Why I believe getting together to make music, regardless of ability or background is so important, and why the results are often so stunning?

If you’re not familiar with some of my other more community-minded orchestral projects, have a cheeky look here to see.  https://chriswoodsgroove.co.uk/guitarrevolution/

UNIVERSAL SUPERPOWERS and UNICORNS

Music is an exclusive thing. I know it’s not what you expected to read at the start of this blog, but it’s something I have observed. Music in so many parts of the western world exists as something excruciatingly exclusive. And no, I’m not talking about the class system, the one percent or free musical education in schools…

Fame and success is a divisive thing that dominates music, people’s perceptions of something being good or bad, measured by success, usually alongside fame or Ferraris.

This measurement of music continues in the supposedly more ‘serious’ realms too, away from Facebook Likes and fast cars. Schooling, grades, your musical ‘pedigree’, ‘are you classically trained?’, ‘Oh did you go to the royal college?’… etc.

Then we even have the very simple perception of music as an innate thing; perfect pitch, the ability to be a ‘singer’ or ‘not a singer’, the ‘I’m tone-deaf’ crowd.

Of course, it is all utter, tripe, poppycock, hogwash and baloney (hopefully some slang for everyone there).

These divisions, this exclusivity, exists because it makes us musicians feel better about ourselves and makes the non-musicians feel better about not being musicians. It’s a mutually beneficial agreement that helps everyone to make sense of music. Because music is…. magic, and sometimes it’s hard to understand or articulate.

This is where I appreciate I might lose you as a reader. Sorry, but yup I said ‘music is magic’, and I’m very serious. I think music is a thing that connects people on a level that we can NOT explain or in fact measure. I know that will wind up some of the sofa physicists, but hey, its fun to ruffle some feathers…

(I’m not a total nutter, I understand sound is measured in a million different ways, as indeed are brain patterns in reaction to it. But, the process of musical communication (i.e. playing together) or even the way we individuals react to listening is something of a mystery – seriously, it is.)

So., as far as I’m concerned, if it’s a mystery, it is, therefore, magic…. along with Santa Claus, unicorns, Brexit and money trees.

More than just magic, it appears to be a UNIVERSAL SUPERPOWER. Because unlike Santa Claus, unicorns or Brexit, or growing a tree that excretes money, it’s something we can all actually do; a supernatural power and not just an illusion… we can all ‘do a music’, you just might not like it.

Even Katy Price ‘did a music’ once.

So… now we have established that, let’s look at why I like to do these projects involving any old dick and harry joining in…

ROOM TO FOCUS

Hopefully, you took my suggestion that music is a universal superpower fairly seriously. I’m sure there is a way to word it slightly less sensationally, but where’s the fun in that! This ‘fact’ is the sole reason I love to work with music that is accessible to all players.

I totally accept musicians operate on different ability levels of course, particularly in the realm of accuracy. But if for a moment you think about music as a magical, amazing thing, which is about emotion, humanity and not precision…

(which it is, isn’t it?)

… you can then understand that if a piece of music is built with some reasonably simple physical limitations (by which I mean using ‘minimalist ideas’), all musicians are on an even footing. The pros and the erm… not so pros. The music becomes an exercise in the ability to ‘focus’ and to really ‘get into it’… also called ‘flow’ if you fancy some further reading – Instead of an exercise in, well, exercise.

“Capo Evolution” was another project based on this principle. Using relatively simplistic parts, it gave room for players to express themselves without having to sit in a state of panic about what comes next. The result is, I think, something that sounds great musically and offers something extra; the sound of people coming together to play music without ego or exclusivity… and that, ladies and gentlemen, is real magic.

Happy Christmas x

Chris

Capo Evolution – Part 1

Capo Evolution…

Some background…

I had been toying with the idea of writing a piece of music for a guitar orchestra for ages, but it wasn’t until Steve Harvey (then editor of Acoustic Magazine) called me up that I thought I would ever do it.

Steve got in touch while I was doing a clinic tour in Switzerland for Martin Guitars. The timing was incredible; I’d just had a week of performing concerts almost exclusively for guitarists. Every time I do a clinic concert, (and in Switzerland that’s usually to between 50 and 100 guitarists) I have the distinct feeling that the audience would be far more comfortable with a guitar in their hands. Bloody guitarists. 😉

With that in mind, that very week I had started composing a piece of music for many guitarists, I just needed the ideal opportunity to air it and, ermmm, finish it!! It just so happened that Steve also got in touch that very week with an offer for the Groove Orchestra to perform at The Olympia for the London Acoustic Show… the perfect opportunity.

The rest is history… many of you know the story from there. If you don’t click here… I then went on to extend the idea into “Orchestral Evolution” in 2018 – 2019 and then here we are today with ‘Capo Evolution’ working alongside G7th.

So… what do I want to share with you about this project?

Well.. composing a piece of music that is to be recorded through a phone has its challenges. On top of that, composing with the capo in the spotlight is difficult, and the community element of just getting people to do it! Here are some experiences I’ve gained from taking on these challenges that you might be interested in reading. At the point of writing this, you can still join us… click here to do that.

Bringing people together…and that whole apathy thing

If you followed my blogs on Guitar Revolution back in 2017-18, you would know that this kind of community-minded project flits from being inspirationally well-received to, well, being received with utter apathy.

I explained in blogs at the time of getting that project together, I would feel pretty down about the brick walls I would be hitting, the apathy, the ‘nearly take parts’. That in itself was a huge learning curve, which led me to a conclusion. A conclusion that helped immensely this time around and I’d love to pass on…

My conclusion on this stuff, one which I’ve taken my time over, is that people… like me… have lots of sh** going on. It’s obvious, but you’ll find most conversations after gigs with low attendance are not so empathetic, and I’ll be there agreeing too. The reality is that, actually, people are busy, happy, sad, tired, doing exciting things, doing pointless things, amazing things, terrible things, battling things, fighting things, loving things. So, when someone breaks out of that to get involved in something I’ve created, I’ve come to learn to be insanely grateful and hugely understanding when they don’t… although the reality is underneath I’m battling with the ‘oh you’re just staying in to watch Netflix’ kind of vibe, I do believe that even getting 20mins of one persons’ time is a real privilege.

This project has been easier; fewer brick walls and as for apathy, well, I guess by making it online it’s been more accessible. After all… it’s easier on many levels. But, there are still countless people who have ‘nearly’ done it. I can genuinely say this time around, I understand that. If you’ve taken part in any Guitar Revolution projects previous or indeed this one, I am genuinely overwhelmed by gratitude for you taking the time and effort to do this. If you ‘nearly did’ or ’never intended to’ because ‘you didn’t have the time’ or etc. I understand, I really do – thank you for even thinking about it. Thank you!

In a world of Facebook Likes and YouTube views and cats playing the piano, we often tend to place too much value high quantities and miss the detail, the human connection.

This gratitude has led to really being able to see how amazing doing this online has been… it’s a community music composition without boundaries. The below video is a pairing that Simon at G7th did to show hows parts 1 and 2 sound together… it includes Glenn Roth from the US and Tanaus Luis from Spain. That’s just one pairing that shows two players from geographically disparate spaces coming together, there are plenty more which you will see and hear about on release… but you have to admit, the idea of these two guitarists appearing together is really quite beautiful?

Composing for a Mobile Phone…

There’s lots of conversation around mixing for the modern mobile or laptop speakers, but for a good reason, there is very little around composing for a piece of music that is to be recorded through a mobile phone.

For me to make this project viable, it has been a huge driving force…. being able to film your part on a mobile phone is integral to the success of the project. It’s also potentially a weakness since mobile phone mics are, well, not a studio-quality mic… and they also tend to add bucket loads of compression. Hmmm….. tough call!

So, my process of composition was to focus on ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’. To play to the compression, and account for lack of detail. So, essentially creating something very percussive, but with the scope to be as melodic as I like.

I tested and tested and tested on my own mobile and finally found a riff, (part 1) which really played to the strengths of the humble mobile mic – and I then began building around it with the same principals in place. When the clips started to come in, even the most melodic parts were cutting through nicely!

Composing for Capo…

This has been fantastic. When I compose for more than one guitar a huge focus it to create a part which can be as simple as possible. Because, humans have limits… and if the parts is simpler the player however good has a chance of playing it with more expression, better tonal quality, better, well… better. I’d be excited to hear someone disagree, but its certainly what Ive found. So with the capo in hand I have the opportunity to keep things even simpler. I can have parts that span the guitar neck giving huge tonal variation but keep things simple which in my mind makes things… better!

watch Daniel Burne play all four parts to see what I mean…

give it a go.

hope you enjoyed reading my ramblings… I’m always keen to hear from anyone with all thoughts, feelings or ramblings.

cheers
C

‘In Pareidolia’ Part 1 – Album art and what it’s about

In this short blog, Im going to explain a little about the album ahead of its release, give you a look at the artwork and an insight into the tracks…

This album, I guess like most albums, has been a long time coming. Over the past few years I’ve been playing, and I mean that in the most fun sense, with sound.I have been exploring the guitar in every way possible like always, and matching it with some unexpected instruments too.

The guitar has always been the focal point of course… and this album ‘In Pareidolia’ is not an exception. Each track has been an exploration of the guitar in a different way. Whilst you’ll hear a substantial helping of drums and double bass… the majority of what makes up this body of work is the humble guitar.

Sometimes twenty of them, sometimes an electric one, sometimes a really expensive one, sometimes a broken one from a charity shop…

On my journey of the past few years of sonic experimentation I have found myself in a world of tones, textures, shapes and edges… not a world of notes and numbers. Its not always a nice place, its sometimes uncomfortable, unnerving, its always emotional. Importantly the sounds and songs Ive been creating have not sat into a simple or explainable context. Whilst there is a story attached to many, the experience is abstract, personal to the listener. This is what I wanted to portray in an album; an impressive exploration of colour, tone, texture and emotion….but also something that each listener can find something new in – something that is a personal perspective for you.

It’s not fully released just yet but will be in a matter of days….

to hear about it first, join the mailing list…

Scroll down further to view the artwork, track listings and more…


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ARTWORK:

Carrying on with the theme of things being about an original experience, from YOUR perspective, I wanted to try my hand at creating original artwork for each CD… crazy I know. In reality I will be releasing about 10 to 20 hand made CD’s. Whilst the main image below will be for the main CD.

I’ll get more stuck into how this is done later, but for now… here’s a couple of the images that came out and will be appearing on the digital release.

TRACK LISTINGS:

1: Rhythm Museum. (MUSIC FOR GUITAR ORCHESTRA)
Those of you who have caught a recent show would have heard this one. Its a piece for a guitar orchestra, with treated guitars (aka paper between the strings). The concept is a rhythmic and cultural museum coming to life at night.

2:Mirror and Wish. (MUSIC FOR ELECTRIC GUITAR AND DRUM KIT)
This blends a classical guitar technique with some seriously odd, yet subtle, electric sounds, strange time signatures and drumming from my friend Matt Pittori. The idea was to create something orchestral sounding with just the two instruments.

3: The Hunted (MUSIC FOR GUITAR ORCHESTRA)
Mainly nylon strung guitar here… but a mix of steel strung too. In my head this track built up out of images of some intensely edgy nature. Who knows what you’ll see…maybe puppies and chocolate.

4:Banneret (For Mum) (MUSIC FOR GUITAR AND DOUBLE BASS)
No prizes for what this one is about. I wrote it originaly for solo guitar and then begun to develop a double bass part later. It is is of course written for my mum. Its emotive and strong. Bass frequency friend Ben Taylor on Double bass on the recording.

5:Ukulele Septet (MUSIC FOR 7 UKULELES AND DRUM KIT)
I had been toying with a riff on the Uke for a while, and after jamming it out with drummer hero Matt Pittori it became a bit of an obsession. It’s supposed to be an explosion of energy, just like the Uke itself. When we recorded the drums I kept describing the drum part to Matt as a frustrated out burst….

6:Saol (MUSIC FOR GUITAR AND DOUBLE BASS)
This has been gigged for a year or two. Originaly as a solo guitar piece. Its about as traditional as the album gets. Ultimately a jazz guitar piece that represents the ups and downs of day to day life. Ben on bass again.

7:Hold For Now (MUSIC FOR GUITAR ORCHESTRA AND DRUM KIT)
A guitar orchestra with a drop C is always a good idea 🙂 and theres a splashing of slide guitar here. The drums courtesy of Matt are as lazy as we could make them. Its a break from time, one of those starring out the window moments.

8: Some Idle Tuesday (MUSIC FOR GUITAR ORCHESTRA AND DRUM KIT)
The title is taken from the Baz Lurman song Sunscreen….
‘Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing
Bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
Never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday’

Its fine advice. And I sadly found it to be true… one tuesday, around 4 pm.

9: In Conversation (MUSIC FOR GUITAR ORCHESTRA)
If you’ve been to my recent one man show you would have experienced this track. Its a conversation between two people. Sat indoors on a rainy day. Two guitars take on the conversation and the guitar orchestra emulates the surroundings and reacts dynamically to the conversation.

9:OPTIC (MUSIC FOR GUITAR, DOUBLE BASS, DRUM KIT and TONGUE DRUM)
This piece is the first time on the album I have bought in something other than guitars, drum kit or double bass. We have the subtle skills of David Youngs on tongue drum. The piece has no intentions whatsoever… its just a look at sound, a look at life. The triplets at the end of the piece nearly killed me.

Orchestral Evolution Part 5 – Recording a Pop-Up Orchestra

In this part of the blog we are lookng at the final performance of Orchestral Evolution (a modular piece of music for a pop-up orchestra, for all instruments and abilities), and how I went about recording it.

This blog would be really helpful for anyone working with music in the community, looking to record a large ensemble, or for someone after an affordable pro mic …. read on for more..

You can watch a short documentrary about Orchesral Evolution here….

Our challenge was to record our performance and of course to be able to live mic the performers so we could boost sections of our ‘pop-up Orchestra’ if we needed.

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We needed a condensor mic, that was pro quality, durable, but also realistically priced. There is a reality involved when mic’s are used in schools; school budgets are tight, so a mic needs to be replaceable at a reasonable cost. Plus we want a setting that is relaxed and not focused on ‘OMG! please dont knock that mic over’.

Enter the Audio-technica AT 20202. This mic is around the £80-£90  mark. Whilst it’s light, its also built like a tank. Importantly it has no added buttons on the mic, so its ‘un-interfear-able’ during live performances, particularly awesome for working with young students who are likely to wana touch the mic…

Now for us, we had a digital mixer and plenty of xlrs etc. But it’s worth mentioning that the AT2020 can come as a USB only version. So no need for audio interfaces and all that milarky if you dont want too.

The AT 2020 has an improved Cardio pattern… which might mean something to you it might not. If it doesn’t; basically … the majority of the sound is picked up from the front, so its kinda the perfect level of directionalness.

So for ‘Orchestral Evolution’ we needed a mic to solve all manner of problems… We had no idea how big our orchestra would be, but we did know we needed mics that could handle all instruments, be pretty directional so we could have a degree of control. Whilst at the same time, not be hyper directional to the extent that we need a mic for every couple of instruments….its a big ask!

I got in touch with my friends at Audio-technica for advice, and the experts pointed me in the direction of this AT 2020 and boy were we happy, for all the reasons I have mentioned already and more.

In the end we used 8 mics. As you can see from the above video clip and the below diagram the mics were fairly evenly placed…in the natural cemi-circle of the orchestra, with 2, then 2 and finally 4 along the back.

I’d recommend the AT2020 to everyone. Keen to hear other thoughts and reports on other mics too, just drop me an email or comment below. I hope this blog has been helpful 🙂

Orchestral Evolution Part 4 ‘Ready To Go’

In my previous blog I delved into some of the key ideas behind the composition. Creating a piece of music for a pop-up orchestra of all instruments and all abilities.

A modular piece of music that can be moulded and shaped in an infinite number of ways.

This blog is the last instalment before our final performance….and includes the scores.

The piece is ready to go, we have been into various school’s working away and workshoping the music and ideas, so in this penultimate instalment I wanted to give you an insight into some of the last minute ideas and of course to take a look at the music and how I have delivered that…

The composition was finalised in mid february, after finally finding a melody Im happy with…(helped massively by my high-tech guitar adjustment)

And getting the oportunity to try some of the more basic parts out on instruments I litterally cant play….

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The piece currently consists of around 8 loops for each section of the piece and they varied in degree’s of complexity. As you would have realised from reading the previous blogs…the idea was never to challenge the physical element of playing much, but more to offer stimulation for the mind, so to help players be able to focus and get in to flow. The plan was to offer students the chance to be part of a truly contemporary and relevant orchestra – working on playing and connecting to the detail in the sounds and textures rather than overwhelming and unconnected mechanical and physical mastery. I wanted this piece to help students master actual music/sound and the emotional communication of that, rather than mastering their fine motor skills, which so much of our musical education seems to aim to do…so each loop has been written with this in mind, a musical meditation of sorts.

You can view the music for each part here. You’ll notice each loop has a philosophy at the bottom, and crucially is notated in a variety of different ways to make it as accessible as possible. Have a look here….

PART A – ALL LOOPS
PART B – ALL LOOPS
PART C – ALL LOOPS

So have a look, let me know what you think. We’ve already been workshopping the piece in a variety of schools…

My next blog post will be after the performance. Wish us luck…

A huge thanks to Rachel and Michael all the soundstormers for quite literally keeping it on track, Dave Mastrocola and his wonderous team for making the bourne session so brilliant, Karl Hayman for being so supportive and making me feel so welcome at Leaf, Chris Block for getting together so many players and his orchestral tips, Helen Prentice for being fantastic, Chloe Inskip for making feel so welcome. Ben Taylor and Christian Ballistrari for being so helpful in the workshops and Andy for being great even though hthe snow stopped us, John K Miles for his time, advice and seriously helpful insight, Audio-technika for the support (more to follow!) and of course every single young person who took part so far…. wow! 🙂

Orchestral Evolution Part 3 – ‘Modular Music’

In my last blog I delved into some of the compositional ideas going into Orchestral Evolution. Looking at how we can bring the best out of players of all abilities, by working in a minimalistic way.

This week I wanted to talk about how that minimalism is also rooted in being modular! Hopefully it will give you an insight into how I’m writing for a pop-up orchestra and maybe even get you thinking about your own compositions…

When we create music, the tendency is to create manageable ‘blocks’ of music. A ‘block’ of melody, a ‘block’ of rhythm.

A verse, is a block of music, so is a chorus. A ‘bar’ like this thing…

Is a ‘block’ of music.

Us human folk have this amazing tendency to break things down into manageable chunks. Our day is broken into seconds, hours, am or pm, days or weeks, seasons, breakfast, lunch… you get the idea. The reason you and I do that is, of course, probably because we have been culturally conditioned to do this, and that’s because it’s worked very well for …well…like ages…

It helps us, and others, to be able to comprehend what is happening. It helps us to summarise when explaining and even subatize when understanding. (Thats one for the teachers out there!). Ultimately it not only helps us, it helps those we are explaining ideas or concepts too.

As Ive already mentioned we do this in music all the time. And interestingly I think we are doing it increasingly so…

As more and more people use computers (DAWs of all shapes and sizes) to create music the idea of working in ‘blocks’ is becoming a really tangible physical reality, rather than a concept…

Just look at how Logic ( a common DAW) looks… just look at those ‘Blocks’ of music.

And the thing is, for the composer it works really really well as it gives them the feel of perspective, and a sense that the task is manageable. The end result is also something that is extra tangible for the listener.

Now this isn’t to say its a new idea in music. But, undoubtedly the introduction of such visual ‘blocks’ or such a focus on modules of music in DAWs, (thats digital audio workstation if ya didn’t know…the programmes we use to record music) means its becoming something that ingrained in composers heads and listeners ears…

‘Modular music’ is simply there all the time, its incidental, because its almost always part of how a human works. In fact its so common place that as a composer your focus often is to remove the sense of ‘modularness’ by desperately trying to blend sections together. Battling with the inevitable.

Now… My piece Orchestral Evolution has some unique challenges, firstly the fact that I don’t know what type of instruments I will have and secondly how many of them (thats the joy of a pop-up orchestra). So short of writing the composition in its entirety when I first meet the musicians I basically have to create a composition which I can work around the situation.

So…how? what is the solution? The solution is to be modular, really modular. Instead of letting modular thinking be the incidental and inevitable approach it will become the focus and strength of the piece. To create blocks of music that can be placed together in an infinite number of ways, according to the sound I want to create and the situation with which I am presented.

Doing this means I can really work with the players that I have. In other words; ‘the piece works for the players rather than the players working for the piece’. It also has another major affect… that the performance will be original to that orchestral line up. Cool huh?.

It also means that as the ‘conductor’ I can act as a DJ/Producer, bringing loops in and out, change different parameters within the piece as I go…perhaps I will make ‘loop A’ or ‘block A’ louder, or maybe I want to to make ‘Block B’ to have more of an aggressive feel to it. I can communicate all that as a conductor. My roll as a composer and conductor becomes one that is truly live and truly musical, working with the players in a symbiotic way…responding to the sounds the players make and the facial expressions the audience pulls. 🙂 🙁 😉 🙂 🙁

So if you like… we are somehow dragging the orchestral composer and conductor into a new modular, more musical and modern age.

Check out the previous blog to see some of the modular examples used already and how Im using these ‘blocks’ to give players the chance to get into ‘flow’ and really ‘get into’ playing the piece.

and in the meantime…

Want to have some fun with making modular music… give this a go.
https://musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/Melody-Maker

Orchestral Evolution Part 2

This is an ongoing blog delving into the process of composing ‘Orchestral Evolution’ a piece of music for an infinitely sized orchestra of all instruments and abilities.

The piece has been written by The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra in conjunction with Soundstorm, the Music Education Hub for Bournemouth and Poole. The project is for young people of a huge range of ages from schools in and around Bournemouth – Funded through support from Arts Council England.

If you are a teacher wanting your school to be involved, or you have any questions you can email contact@chriswoodsgroove.co.uk or direct to Soundstorm rachel.Sene@Bournemouth.gov.uk

In this instalment of the blog Im going to be revealing some of the processes involved in composing this piece…

I want to create a piece that unites and inspires those playing and listening, overcoming the various challenges of the pop-up orchestra. So the concept behind this piece has two very specific important points.….

 1. Be emotive and powerful –  to help draw the players and listeners together

 2. Be minimal/simplistic at heart – to bring out the best in, and play to the strengths of, each player.

This is the foundation and subject of the work. No images of lakes or political statements here… this is a piece of music to bring people together and to bring out the best in the individual and the orchestra.

Point one, be emotive and powerful, is going to be relatively musically straightforward. Although I will delve into that a little in this blog, the main challenge is point two, how to bring the best out of each player. In other words, rather than simply challenging each player within an inch of their ability how do I create a piece of music that allows each player to flourish and develop whatever their skill level. Crucially, without loosing sight of creating something musically emotive and powerful.

After thousands of cups of tea and hours of gazing thoughtfully out of my living room window, I have borrowed a simple principal from my previous ‘Guitar Revolution’ project. The principal is to work with incredibly repetitive and simplistic patterns, which enables players of all abilities to reach a ‘state of flow’ and to enable all abilities to focus on articulation and detail in a near macro way.

Sound complex? – In other words…. base the piece on a simple idea that gives everyone the space to play it amazingly. – by the way I recommend looking up ‘flow state’.

Borrowing from ‘Guitar Revolution’ I took a basic repetitive quaver pattern alternating between two notes. Now the choice of those two notes is quite important at this stage. I’m looking to create something powerful and emotive (remember point one), however many of the instruments and players I will be working with may only be able to manage a few notes. In the case of clarinets and trumpets for example this is likely to be D,C,Bb and E. So I need the repetitive pattern I am basing things around to create a tention or emotional feel when placed with these notes….

To cut a long story short I settled at the repeated pattern of G to A#. Of course, at this point I have no idea if there will be a clarinet player or ten…oh the joys of the unknown! 😉

Once we have this simplistic pattern we can then begin to play with the articulation. Experimenting with what notes we accent, and really bring it to life.

Here’s an example of the part played with accents on  the ‘and’ of 1 and the ‘and’ of 3. At this early stage of composing I tend to use ‘Guitar Pro’ a programme as powerful as sibeliues but a bit more user friendly….Its purely for perspective to get a feel for how things might sound – it also only costs about 20 quid.

So, if you can hear past the terrible midi sounds, you would have heard a repeated pattern with a pulse that is more interesting than 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Now… This would be very achievable for most levels of player (Im thinking guitars, ukuleles and keyboards here!). But we can really start to have fun by using the orchestra to our advantage and have opposing accents from a different group of players. Like this example…

Suddenly we have something more interesting, and definately working towards a phillip glass intensity and something that would create a state of flow in even the most distracted of players.

By sharing the complexity within this part between two groups we give each player the room to really focus and flourish without being overwhelemed. In other words it gives them room to think…whilst making the music even more powerful.

Of course we can take things further and share this simple part out amongst for sections all playing different accents… like this:

At this point the complexity has literally taken away that beautiful quality we previously had, or atleast not added to it. Interesting how simplicity can even become too complex. If you look at the notation you will see that the accents have begun to in some cases cancel each other out, so without introducing a crazy and possibly unachievable pattern which goes in and out of phase, it just wont work!- so two parts it is then.

With my foundation riff in place, my next stage is to head to ‘Logic’ and quite literally begin playing. Using Logic gives me a bit more flexibility and a bank of sounds that are a little more realistic, but remember this is only here as guide for me to take to the real life players. In my next blog I’ll delve into how I did this…and how everything is focused on being modular in order to be flexible. In the mean time, here’s 30 seconds of a sketch for you. Hopefully you can hear our foundation riff that I have been exploring in this blog, played by two sections of the orchestra.

Orchestral Evolution Part 1

What is Orchestral Evolution?

A brand new commissioned score for a revolutionary ‘pop up orchestra’….

A piece of music for an infinitely sized orchestra of all instruments and abilities. The piece has been written by The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra in conjunction with Soundstorm, the Music Education Hub for Bournemouth and Poole. The project is for young people of a huge range of ages from schools in and around Bournemouth – Funded through support from Arts Council England.

Students from every type of school ensemble traditional or unusual, from orchestras to jazz bands, an after school ukulele club to the in house rock band are all invited to learn the piece with me and a visiting member of the Chris Woods Groove Orchestra, in a morning or afternoon workshop. (27th Feb: AM or PM 28th Feb: AM or PM 1st March: AM or PM 2nd March: AM or PM)

Further content will be made available for free online, to help students practice and further develop their playing.

All of the groups will then be invited to join a mass pop up orchestra hosted by one of the participating schools ; to perform alongside some of this country’s finest players as part of ‘The Chris Woods Groove Orchestra’ at a one off inspirational concert. Interested?..get in touch by email contact@chriswoodsgroove.co.uk or direct to Soundstorm Rachel.Sene@Bournemouth.gov.uk

The Project was born out of an idea to inspire students, irrespective of their interest in classical or contemporary ensembles, to help all students engage within a modern orchestral setting culminating in a shared finale. A focus on making the orchestra, and orchestral thinking inclusive and exciting. Soundstorm approached the CWGO to bring these aims to life.

Over the coming weeks as I compose the piece I will be writing about my processes, successes, failures and more in this blog. So sign up now to watch it grow.


Why?

As many of you may know who are reading this, in septmember of 2016 I launched a project entitled ‘guitar revolution’. A piece of music for an infinite number of guitars, all ages and abilities. You can find out more here.

After an oversubscribed launch at the london olympia we went on to tour the pop guitar orchestra project across the uk. Bringing together hundreds of guitarists of all ages to perform together. It was an inspirational process. From two angles it has to be one of the most satisfying and exciting things I have done as a musician and composer…and has inspired this next project.

Firstly because of the social element; the idea of bringing together people of all ages and abilities was idyllic in concept and idyllic in practice. To work with people who may not spend every moment of their life playing an instrument is seriously refreshing. There is a genuine passion that hasn’t succumbed to the gigging fatigue that many of us ‘professional’s’ have. There is an almost more pure love for the music, and this pure passion comes out in the playing regardless of physical skill.

Secondly the process was a compositional conundrum. And a compositional challenge is one that feeds creative thinking. In short, composing for a mix of abilities is a challenge. Having boundaries to keep within, though, is often really constructive. I had to compose to be prepared for huge unknowns (how many would turn up to the pop up orchestra) and crucially I had to compose something that was simple enough to be played by the most beginner player and crucially simple enough and intuitive enough to have room to be an expressive performance.

So here I am again in a new compositional scenario, with similar challenges but also very exciting new ones…here’s what Im facing with Orchestral Evolution

1.Composing for all abilities.

In this project whilst it is only open to school children, it is not for one specific age or ability. So within the the parts there must be room for all abilities. And crucially we want it to be an enriching experience for all, so there also needs to be value in it for even the most accomplished player.

2.Composing for an unknown orchestra (unknown instrumentation)

This time, its not just guitars. We are making a truly modern orchestra welcoming all instruments. But it is a pop-up orchestra  so until the day of the workshops I wont know what Im dealing with. Do we have ten violins? three bassoons and a hundred ukuleles? or… well, ultimately it could be anything. So I need to categorise the instruments in a non-traditional orchestral way.

Over the coming weeks, as I compose the piece I will be blogging about the processes and experiences. Ill be sharing audio clips and maybe even a video or two too.

Drop your email in the sign up form to stay up to date.