Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Nature Boy (for solo guitar)

This is my classical/jazz guitar arrangement of the haunting jazz ballad 'Nature Boy'. Put on a pair of quality wrap-around earphones and  click the orange button below:

If you would like a pdf copy of the sheet music, you can contact me at
and I'll zap you a copy. Notation only... sorry no TAB. This is all about "singing" a heartfelt melody, so it may help to internally hear the lyrics as you play. Apply rubato liberally to make it sing and hopefully bring a tear to your audience's eyes.
Here's a sample:

I do these arrangements as a retirement hobby. If you are performing it, allow the ebb and flow of the lyrics to shape your phrasing and dynamics rather than trying to be strictly metrical. There are times to believe in barlines, but this is not one of them. Expressive rubato is the key.

There are more of my arrangements in the sidebar -->

Monday, 11 December 2017

Sweet Georgia Brown (for solo guitar)

I had this doggone tune running insistently round my head for some time, so I decided to shape it into something for solo classical guitar but informed by the sound of barbershop quartets.
To listen to my (Sibelius 7) recording by clicking on the orange button below:

 Here's a sample of the printed score:

If you would like a pdf copy of the complete score (or any others of my guitar arrangements listed in the sidebar to the right), please contact me at
and I'll zap it to you. I do this as a retirement hobby.

There are more of my arrangements in the sidebar -->

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Sophisticated Lady (for solo guitar)

This is my classical/jazz guitar solo arrangement of Duke's 1932 composition "Sophisticated Lady". Listen to the free downloadable mp3 by clicking the orange button:

If you would like to read the sheet music, I can forward you a free pdf if you give me your email address. I do these arrangements as a retirement hobby. There are links to more pieces in the sidebar -->
I am at

Here's a preview:

In the score I elected to include the lyrics and chord symbols, both of which will hopefully be of assistance to performers by clarifying which notes constitute the melody, and by making sense more readily of some of the chords, aspects which can assist memorization.

I gravitate towards pieces like this because they are more harmonically ambiguous and melodically adventurous. "Sophisticated Lady" launches not on the its expected tonic tonic of E major but on chord ii7 (f#m7 on the word 'say'). The first hint of the tonic occurs only in bar 2 when the melody outlines the rising tonic triad E-G#-B ('into your') in spite of contradictory harmonies under them actually leading the ear AWAY from the tonic. By bar 4 the tonic is established more firmly. However, the 'middle 8' modulates unexpectedly to the remote key of Eb with harmonies which underline the emotions suggested by the melancholy lyrics. Words and music are exceptionally well matched... consider the phrase "Is that all you really want?" (bar 25) where the harmonies amplify the emotion.

In bar 3, there is a strikingly colourful chain of chromatically descending dominant seventh chords (D7, Db7, C7, B7), arguably the song's trademark 'hook'. Each may be interpreted as a secondary (or applied) dominant (more properly spelled as a quasi-augmented sixth) of the one which follows. For instance, in the progression C7-B7, the seventh of C7 is the note Bb, but if it is re-spelled as A# may be understood to function as the leading-note pushing towards B7. All these roads lead to Rome - the B7, in turn, serves as a functionally clear chord V of the E in bar 4. In my arrangement of this section, I extended that chain by preceding it with even more secondary dominants (see the last 2 chords of bar 2). 
There are more of my arrangements in the sidebar -->

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Lullaby of Birdland (for solo guitar)

This arrangement of George Shearing's jazz classic "Lullaby of Birdland" is for the classical guitarist or a jazz guitarist who plays fingerstyle. Sorry, no TAB.
 Listen to my (Sibelius) mp3 recording of it by clicking on the orange PLAY button below:

If you would like to read the sheet music, I can forward you a free pdf if you send me your email address. I am at

Here's a snippet:

There are more of my arrangements in the sidebar -->

Monday, 4 September 2017

When Sunny Gets Blue (for solo guitar)

'Blue Lady', Pablo Picasso 1902

This has to be one of the great jazz standards (composer Marvin Fisher), one I recall with pleasure from my guitar-pickin' days. I have arranged it for either classical guitar or finger-style jazz guitar.
Listen to my (Sibelius) recording by clicking the orange 'Play' button below:

 If you'd like a pdf copy of the sheet music, please contact
and I'll zap it to you.

Here's a preview:

If you're performing it, take your time and indulge yourself with some some expressive rubato. Unlike some Youtubers who scamper along breathlessly in a vain attempt to impress listeners, I prefer to respect the deeply melancholic mood of the lyrics. 'Fast' is not necessarily always good. So if you happen to enjoy a particular chord, note or phrase, do linger on it for a moment rather than obey the strict written rhythm. Spending a little extra time on a note or chord is in fact a trick of adding agogic emphasis - ie, simply by drawing attention to it. My mp3 recording (Sibelius 7.1 software) recording does indeed take some such liberties. Dat's jazz.

Besides, the more chromatic the harmony becomes, the more time it requires time to 'breathe' ... the ear needs time to process it. Try imagining Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' at tempo allegro.

Another point: as usual with guitar notation, it is often effective for the sake of sonority to hold the notes of a chord beyond their written value. Accurately notating music in that way can complicate notation to the point of un-readability. Much interpretive responsibility, therefore, rests in the hands of the performer to make appropriate idiomatic decisions about which notes to hold - or, indeed, to shorten.

This is the exact corollary... the choice of which notes or chords to shorten. It was the pianist Artur Schnabel, no less, who quipped: "The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes - ah - that is where the art resides." Mahler appeared to echo that in his comment: "What is best in music is not to be found in the notes." I sometimes draw the analogy of the artist using touches of pure white as highlights in a painting - or even leaving some areas as bare canvas. The strategic placement of pure white silences, even tiny ones, is a crucial tool for any performer.

So in reality, the printed music might be understood as a sophisticated form of mudmap, a mere catalogue of suggestions. Spinning it into magic is up to you, the intuitive performer.

 There are more of my arrangements in the sidebar -->

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

CHOIR (for SATB Choir)

"The more we sing, the wider ground we make to play in...'
This is a pivotal theme in "Choir", but the big punchline comes only at the very end.

In 2014, at the Jaipur Literary Festival in the Indian state of Rajasthan, there was an interview and poetry reading with the impressive Scottish poet John Burnside. John read a short poem (‘Choir’).  I liked it, have requested John’s permission to use his words, and set it to music for conducted SATB divisi choir.

 As you listen to the music (3' 42"), I highly recommend following the words on the printed music score (below) because my computer-realized choir can only sing in ‘vocalize’ (text-to-voice recognition isn’t yet an option in Sibelius music software). You can scroll through as the music proceeds (I recommend the 'fullscreen' option offered at the bottom... it will open in its own separate new window).

 Next, connect to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, and click the orange PLAY button...

Some musings about the setting of words to music...
As a composer, my inner ear is normally full of purely musical ideas. I float around in a faraway bubble-world full of instruments, bird-song, and electronic/found-sounds. But when words get involved, whoa – everything suddenly changes. The audience’s attention is instinctively drawn to the words, the human element, because their meaning is more familiar, graspable, measurable. By contrast, instrumental music means, well, itself.  Unless it is an instrumental arrangement of a well-known song – in which case everyone sings along, mentally imbuing the music with a secondary layer of meaning, an emotional/associative layer.

Mountain Landscape with Rocks'  (John Martin, painted 1851).

The presence of words in music parallels the presence of those tiny heroic figures at the epicentre of colossal Romantic landscape paintings – irresistible eye magnets.  Human ears are hard-wired to home in to the lyrics of a song far more readily than to its purely musical elements. Who on earth is likely to maintain attention all the way through instrumental cover versions of Bob Dylan's "Ballad in Plain D"?  Brian Eno in fact recorded several songs with nonsense lyrics specifically to make this point, and jazz/scat singers exploit it with no apparent shame.

David Byrne quipped that "Singing is a trick for getting people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily."  Indeed, the music in most popular songs serves as a mere vehicle for their lyrics - which are often crass, unpoetic, and cringingly second-rate. Voltaire commented that "anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung", and Rossini appeared to concur when he joked "Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music".

But here, on the other hand, with John Burnside’s succinct poem ‘Choir’, we have a fine piece of literature framing the loftiest of sentiments. All my previous disdainful comments about song lyrics can henceforth be confidently ignored. If I can project John’s poem to the world’s attention by using music as a vehicle, so be it. Burnside’s choral metaphor, if pursued, could save the human race from itself.

Wow. Faced with such a literal Herculean challenge, I decided to unhitch myself from the conventional rigidities and expectations of formal ‘musical structure’ and allow the flow of words and mood to determine what happened from moment to moment during the composition process. Spontaneity, meh! As John Burnside himself put it during his JLF interview – “composing from the lip” – a neat way of encapsulating a non-structuralist worldview.

 As a result my music mostly demonstrates a healthy disrespect for the usual circle-of-fifths musical grammar, conventional functional root progressions and predictable tonal goals.  Mood really does = mode here. It’s a wild ride through some unrelated keys. Heinrich Schenker would doubtlessly blow me a raspberry, but I care not a fig. Chord structures vary from conventional to quartal and crunchy, with shades of dissonance made slave to word intensity and changing mood. And shock horror, Mr Schenker, the piece actually ends on a higher tonal plane than where it started (C-centric lifting to D)... but that neatly parallels the poem’s spiritually uplifting philosophical agenda.

Some house-keeping details:
1. At the mention of polyphony (bar 22), you may detect the stolen opening of J.S. Bach’s Sinfonia No.11 (Three-part Invention, BWV797).  Bach’s dissonances are utterly delicious - my hero. 

2. At bar 20 the canon sequence isn’t a real canon, but hey, I just wanted the yummy colour of those chromatic mediant harmonies – so there, suck that.

3. The recitative fragment (bar 30) should preferably be sung by a suitably extroverted Alto soloist rather than the whole alto section. If there is no suitable Alto volunteer, a heroic Tenor could ride to the rescue with one or two Altos perhaps helping to re-balance the Tenors’ part, if needed.  Find the best solution in your circumstances. A little understated humorous bombast might be entertaining in live performance, perhaps framed by a chorus of bobbed heads at the super-corny cadences of the intro and outro. This solo is perhaps the only spot in the piece where some operatically expressive vibrato could prove a bonus. Otherwise, the wobbles are generally counter-productive to harmonic transparency.

...and speaking of live performance, there is a choice of two endings for the impossible-to-sing word ‘breath’.  Both deliberately make the ‘-th’ audible. See the last page of the score. Neither ending is possible on the recording because the music software can’t deal with a pure ‘th’ sound (as it has no pitch).

PS: This piece isn’t as easy to sing as your average barbershop quartet, so I have prepared four mp3 files (Soprano, Alto, Tenor Bass) as tools for individual ‘note-bashing’ practice prior to group rehearsal. On the Alto track, for example, the other three parts are ghosted into the background a little in order to project the Alto line for learning purposes. By comparison to the proper recording, these tracks are relatively bland, being bereft of most of the nice hairpin dynamic shadings and agogics of the original, but they are, after all, only intended as workhorses to privately assist individual singers. Each mp3 begins with an incipit of a rising arpeggio of the stating pitch cues as usually given by a conductor. If you would like copies of these four mp3s, contact me at and I can email them to you (no cost, as with all my stuff). Just acknowledge me as usual in any programs or announcements as the composer, and focus due attention on Mr Burnside's fine poetry.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Fibonacci's Private Fantasy in C major

Oh no, I've dabbled again with those addictive Fibonacci numbers. Get yourself some good wraparound headphones or connect to a decent sound system, crank up the volume, and click the orange play button:

Like my earlier piece Fibonacci's Rabbits, its form and content are based on a musical expression of the number series, in terms of pitch (where the unit is the semitone) and also in terms of time. In the first example below, the unit of time is the 32nd note, and the pitches each rise by the corresponding number of semitones:
Technically, the Fibonacci series can be understood to begin with zero  (viz, 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, etc), so by rights I ought to have started my music with a very brief silence. But as silence theoretically precedes the beginning of every piece of music (except in supermarkets, of course), I decided that this was just an academic w*nk and no-one except me would notice its shocking absence.

As with 'Fibonacci's Rabbits', the climax of the piece comes at the golden mean - as you'd expect - and I'm sure you'll detect the sudden aggressive change in mood just after the half-way mark at 1' 15". It effectively cleaves the piece into two unequal sections (AB) the B being shorter than the A in the proportion of the golden mean (0.618). To account for this shorter time-span, the underlying bass figure is consequently slightly speeded up in the B section, but still retains its Fibonacci ratios, of course. This B section, besides being announced by the aggressively louder instrumentation, is tempered and made somehow more familiar and 'gentle' by use of the diatonic C-major scale in the upper instruments (the numerical 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 13th, and 21st notes of the scale, ie, c d e g c' a'' g'''. This generates an entirely different harmonic feel by comparison with the A section, even though the original Fibonacci-derived bass continues to the end, complete with its naughty G-sharp, and finds itself at odds with the major scale environment. Parallel universes, multiple existences.

Overall, the music is clearly C-centric, ie pivoting around the pitch-class C as the epicentre of its sound universe. Given the pitches in the Natural Overtone Series (closely related to the Fibonacci series), the triad of C-major therefore cannot help but be prominent. But there is that unrepentant G-sharp to spice things up a little and introduce some delightful (and badly-needed) irrationality. Several bars before the climax, there is a somewhat 'brittle and quiet' sounding region where the harmony swings vaguely towards G, the V chord, although it is deliberately ambiguous with that  G-sharp lurking in the bass. This is reminiscent of the old classical 'Development' section, and is even introduced by a subtle V/V applied dominant.  So in fact, the piece is extremely traditional in its overall tripartite XYX form, redolent of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Nothing new to see here, Mr Mozart, move along now. But hey, what the hell... listen anyway. You might even like the noise it makes.

Confused? You should be. The form of the piece is deliberately ambiguous, with a 2-section format superimposed over a 3-section format (Note that 2 and 3 themselves are Fibonacci numbers). The 2-part AB aspect derives from the golden mean of Nature, as revealed by the great mathemagician Fibonacci,  and the 3-part XYX aspect derives from Nurture, the artifice of human creation. (Some might argue that the 3-part form should be labelled XYZ, given that the last part is so considerably less chromatic than the first. Whatever, my thesis is still valid:- whatever you want to call them, there are still 3 sections. Making art ambiguous is not yet illegal in Australia - (well, at least not until Snot Morrison's inevitable coup dumping Malcolm Turnbull).

Instrumentation: a variety of synthesizers and handbells, as per Sibelius 7.2 software. This time there is no score - maybe until someone asks for one.

Mrs Fibonacci Baked a Pie.

'Questa Fanciulla Amor.'.. Francesco Landini's magnificent mediaeval masterpiece

Francesco Landini, composer, musician, and instrument maker.

My latest offering is not my creation at all, but that of superstar Francesco Landini (1325-1397). I've been a flag-waving Landini fan for decades, and in particular of this piece, so I wanted to share it. It's a pity that my computerized rendition uses vocalise instead of real words, but the lyrics are in Italian anyway. The music is disarmingly simple, but the haunting melancholic melody lingers with you after the show. In fact, historical anecdote has it that the original 13th century audiences were so emotionally overcome by this song that 'their hearts burst out of their chests'.

Get some good wrap-around headphones or a decent sound system, and click the orange Play button:

If you would like to follow the 3 pages of the score, here it is, along with the lyrics. Scroll through as the music plays:

The music is categorized as a Ballata, derived from the Italian verb 'ballare', to dance, and is also a form of Italian poetry in the form AbbaAbbaA (my version is but an abbreviated sample). But even though it has its ancestry in dance music, I feel it should not be performed too fast, as many on Youtube like to do. True, many dances have evolved over the centuries - the stately Sarabande, for example, used to be a rollickingly fast folk dance in its early incarnations, as did the Waltz before it became so sylized. In Landini's work, however, the delicious little passing notes in the accompaniment can offer moments of yearning dissonance, yet most performers gallop recklessly over them without giving one's ear the time to savour. Sure, any music can be sped up to become dance music, but in this case that would be to mask the essential melancholy and brooding at the heart of the lyrics. Imagine the Beatles performing their song 'Yesterday' in a fast country rock style.

Instrumentation was not specified in Landini's score, as was often the case in those times. I have chosen viols to accompany the voice, as well as a lute. There was no lute indicated in Landini's score, but it was common practice for a lutenist (or a harpist) to join in, mostly doubling the lines of the viols. It helped the ear to pick out the viols' lines, much in the same way that an artist might etch the edges of objects with a line of black or white. Given the relaxed attitude to instrumentation in Landini's day, it would even be ok to perform the music with lute alone to accompany the voice, but a piano?  Nope - that would cross the red line. Violin/cello can replace the viols in modern performance, but tend to be much brighter and have a stronger 'attack' due to the greater bow-hair tension. Maybe bring out the mute?

I have added musica ficta in the manner of the day. These are accidentals which were not written in Landini's score, but which he knew the performers would insert according to commonly understood practices of the time. Why bother writing them in if you know your performers will do it anyway?  However, those once-common understandings have long since disappeared down the black sinkhole of Time, so in this day and age we the un-tutored are in danger of believing literally in what we see on the music page before us. Oh, the deadly traps for trusting young players of early music.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Vivienne and Pamina's Lament - with apologies to Mozart

My apologies to Herr Mozart for meddling with his masterpiece. From The Magic Flute comes the aria 'Pamina's Lament'...but this time with a difference.
Pamina sings sadly about the love she thinks she's just lost. But she doesn't have to weep - Mozart masterfully ensures that the music does most of the weeping on her behalf. All she has to do is sing the notes he wrote.
But as I listened I began hearing counter-melodies in my head, so rashly decided to add a second voice, an alto, so Pamina wouldn't feel quite so alone and abandoned out there on stage. Her alto-ego, maybe?

Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, get a Kleenex, then click the orange PLAY button...

Yes, there are words - in English (my own adaption from the German). But you won't hear them on the recording bcoz Sibelius music software doesn't yet allow word recognition, only 'vocalise'. If you'd like to follow the words on the printed score , you can scroll through in this link, which will open conveniently in a new window. You can also download it free if you wish.

Everything in the music is pretty much as per Mozart's original, except of course for the Alto voice, so don't expect it to sound quite the same as your favourite Mozart CD. There are a couple of tiny inconsequential tweaks to the instruments. Oh yes, and I transposed it all down from g-minor to f-minor to help Pamina cope with that screechy high B-flat. Now it's a more manageable A-flat, still appropriately high as a scream of frustration and sadness. Yeah yeah, I know that Laments back in Mozart's day were supposed to be in g-minor, and that f-minor was traditionally a nasty key (slightly 'out-of-tune' to twenty-first century ears) which was generally reserved for heralding the imminent onstage appearance of witches and demons, not nice princesses and heroines like Pamina... But hey, we have to use Sibelius's default of equal temperament (even when using voices!), so the old conventional assumptions around mean-tone 'key-colour' don't really apply here. It's 2015.

With that in mind, I've slightly stretched Wolfgang's dissonance limits as well, but always in the interests of the music's pathos.  In bars 21, 25, and 30, the Alto's Ab intentionally strains against the G of the prevailing harmony. Its resolution is teasingly delayed - a perfect mini-metaphor for what the music is all about.

One comment on the many performances of this aria which I have heard. Most allow a broad vibrato to destroy the sensitivity of Mozart's harmonies. Sometimes the vibrato is so wide that it effectively negates the harmony - I'm never sure which note the performer is actually trying to sing. As the saying goes, "there is delight in singing, but none heareth besides the singer". Respect the harmony above all, and prefer to reserve vibrato mainly as an ornament towards the end of a note's envelope.

PS I had fun with another Lament, too. Have a listen to Vivienne and Dido's Lament (in a new window) and you'll also find out what happened to my poor old grandmama Vivienne, and why she teamed up with Ms. Dido. (Again, my apologies to Mr Purcell :) ...but he's like deadybones too, so he can't fight back, ho ho.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wynde
(for female duet and string trio)

A house once owned by one of my great-great-grandfathers in the chilly 
'hill-station' of  Nainital, Uttarakhand State, in northern India.
Freezing storms frequently blow down from the nearby Himalayas, even in April.

Feeling chilly? Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones and listen to my arrangement of Blow, Blow, Thou Winter WyndeClick the orange PLAY button...

Alternatively (in particular if you are on a not-so-smartphone), you can access my recording at its original SoundCloud URL by clicking here. Either way, my mp3 file is downloadable and free.
My recording was synthesized using Sibelius 6.2 software which, unfortunately, cannot yet be persuaded to pronounce lyrics. The two voice parts are therefore only in 'vocalize' style, but you may prefer to follow the words on the score, available here on Scribd, free, downloadable, and copyright-free in the public domain. This link should open in a new window, enabling you to scroll through the music while listening.

All I ask of intending performers is that you acknowledge Peter Gore-Symes as the arranger.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Vivienne And Dido's Lament - a soprano duet

Vivienne Agnes Bennett, aged 18 years in 1911.
My latest piece memorializes my maternal grandmother Vivienne Agnes Stokes (nee Bennett) who I never met because she committed suicide in 1928 in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This music sings of Vivienne’s agonies, both before and during her untimely death.
OK. it's confession time. In case you hadn't guessed, it's not my piece at all, it's Henry Purcell's, from his short opera Dido and Aeneas (1689). Henry's greatest fan, Peter Gore-Purcell, shamelessly made off with His Musicke and with some deft surgery tacked on one extra soprano voice - that of Vivienne, who (according to her daughter, my late mother Noreen Stokes) was a sensitive musician and highly competent pianist. Thus, adding my own metaphorical cornflour to Purcell's already-delicious musical soup, the texture of the original solo aria thickens into a duet. I justify such audacious sacrilege in part because Purcell loved duets and wrote many.
Nevertheless, I hasten to point out that Vivienne and Dido's Lament remains merely an adaption - but it demanded to be created, as it was becoming a thorough nuisance ricocheting round my head. Purcell is the towering Artist, I remain the admiring apprentice.
If you're unfamiliar with Purcell's original, you could hardly do better than first to hear Emma Kirkby and her crystal clear soprano voice on Youtube, accompanied by the languid sound of a 17th-century viol consort. Viols resemble the human voice even more closely than modern Strings because their notes have a slower 'attack' due to the bow-hair being less taut. The clip begins with the short recitative sung by Dido to her maid-servant Belinda, sadly informing her that she intends soon to stab herself. During the orchestral postlude, she is accompanied offstage by Belinda and carries out the deed. The above link will open in a new window for convenience.
Listen to how things change when Vivienne joins Dido in a suicide pact. Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, then click the orange PLAY button...

Alternatively (in particular if you are on a not-so-smartphone), you can access my recording at its original SoundCloud URL by clicking here. Either way, my mp3 file is downloadable and free.
Please listen through a quality sound-system or enclosed headphones, or you may lose the very necessary bass-line (I assure you that you'll be wasting your time if you listen through your tinny laptop speakers). 
My recording was synthesized using Sibelius 6 software which, unfortunately, cannot yet be persuaded to pronounce lyrics. The two voice parts are therefore only in 'vocalize' style, but the lyrics are simple enough to follow anyway...
iiiiiiiiiiii When I am laid in earth
iiiiiiiiiiii May my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast; [repeat]
iiiiiiiiiiii Remember me, but ah! forget my fate. [repeat]
However, even if you don't read music well, the easy-to-follow words in the printed score will surely assist in understanding the two singers as they interweave.  The pdf score is available here on Scribd, free, downloadable, and copyright-free in the public domain. This link will open in a new window, enabling you to scroll through the music while listening. All I ask of intending performers is that you acknowledge Peter Gore-Symes as the arranger.
Vivienne's story
My mother (pianist Noreen Stokes) was ten years old when her mother Vivienne died mysteriously behind closed doors.  Her father promptly passed her and her brother into the less-than-willing care of disinterested grandparents, and never confided anything to them about their mother’s grim death. Consequently, mum was haunted throughout her life by the grotesque questions of How and Why. There was an impenetrable wall of silence which she was still too cautious to broach even when, as an elderly man, her father visited us in Singapore in the mid-1950s. The awful secrets died with him, much to my mother’s great remorse - she regretted never being courageous enough to ask.
Then, unexpectedly, only about 2 years ago, by which time my mother was 92 and almost blind, one of her relatives unearthed my grandmother's death certificate from the just-released Zimbabwe Archives. On it, the coroner's conclusion was "Arsenical poisoning (Suicide)". And if the gritty detail of an associated family legend is also accurate, it wasn't pretty, and I’ll spare you. I felt reluctant to relay much of the news to Mum in her old age for fear of traumatizing her further. To stir it all up again somehow seemed unkind, too late, and pointless in the end. But now that my mother has also passed away, I feel the personal need to write it out of my system, almost as if on her behalf. Indeed, I can well imagine Vivienne on her deathbed, dearly wishing she could have sung Dido's very words "forget my fate" to her devastated young daughter who was waiting anxiously in the wings for any scrap of news.
In Defence of the Indefensible: re-writing Purcell
Borrowing a canonical masterpiece such as Dido’s Lament and being arrogant enough to alter it risks obvious accusations of gilding the lily ...or worse. Why would you attempt to "improve" the Mona Lisa, you ask. Well, when standing on the shoulders of giants, one can see a great deal further... but by the same token one also has much further to fall. I stand accused of Aggravated Rebranding, and can offer little by way of excuse, but beg you to [a] excuse my indulgence, and [b] expect the unexpected. Be boldly prepared to suspend your disbelief. Above all, don’t hope that your beloved Dido will sound the same as that treasured CD in your collection, or of course you’ll be disappointed.
But in one sense Purcell's music hasn’t been altered. I have very largely preserved his original Dido in musical formalin (apart from a few tiny - but dispensable - tweaks to the accompanying strings). Even the Intro and Outro have been kept pristinely intact.
Purcell's key of g-minor also remains unchanged, even though I looked sideways at Vivienne's high A and toyed with lowering the key of the entire aria to f-minor. However, every Baroque composer worth their salt knew that a modulation to g-minor was the appropriate Harbinger of sadness, tragedy, and death, the musical Grim Reaper of the myth-oriented seventeenth-century operatic world*. The key of  f-minor was usually reserved for scary scenes foreboding the appearance of Witches - hardly suitable here. No question about it - Vivienne must bravely keep her high A.
 It’s just that I added one extra vocal line... one that Henry may not have thought of. Composers of mediaeval motets got up to this kind of lark all the time. For today’s lovers of mid-Baroque music, however, habituated to a comfortably familiar armchair ride with one of their favourite pot-boilers, tolerating even the smallest alteration or add-on can be a mighty tough ask. This can be true even when the arranger has attempted to “write-in-the-style-of" ...let alone adding cheeky non-idiomatic touches! But what the heck - on this occasion, I feel recklessly impelled to bypass our stuffy 21st-century cultural gatekeepers. Yes, I'm afraid you're going to have to be brave, grit your teeth, and deal with it. History is on my side.
Nuts & Bolts
Purcell built Dido’s Lament using the standard Baroque device known as the Ground Bass, a short melodic phrase repeated many times in the bass. It is literally the ground, the foundation, upon which the music is constructed. It just rumbles on forever, over and over, like Old Father Time grinding relentlessly on.** This particular Ground descends slowly through chromatically stepwise notes, analogous to a chilly staircase stretching out before one’s feet, as if leading down to the grave. To emphasize its vital role, and to assist the listener to remember it, Purcell decided to quote it solo as a lead-in before the voices begin (highlighted in blue). In this excerpt, string parts have been omitted:
 The constant recycling of the Ground Bass throughout the aria serve to underscore Dido’s obsessive, circular thinking about her loss of her lover Aeneas, the painful recollection of happy moments, the sick-hearted imagining of alternate outcomes.***
Interestingly, in the orchestral postlude immediately after the singing is finished and Dido and Vivienne are doing away with themselves, the first violin performs a similar falling chromatic line. It slowly sinks down through the same octave span, but in a much higher, far more 'celestial' pitch range. Achingly beautiful, melancholy and spacious... but just a little spooky once you realize the intended allusion to Dido sinking down into her grave. It could also be thought of as the ghost of the Ground Bass, especially given the gothically hollow sound of the very last chord (which, in the consciously anachronistic tradition of mediaeval cadencing, conspicuously lacks its usual "padding"... in this case the G-minor triad is bereft of its expected B-flat).
 Purcell was a master of the expressive devices such as the suspension, essentially the art of using strategically-placed "wrong notes" to heighten emotional poignancy. Of this, Samuel Butler once quipped that "discords make the sweetest airs”. I find it deliciously ironic that the wrong note is usually the most beautiful one.
Dissonances from such "wrong" notes, glittering and flashing like tiny inset diamonds, are frequently found scattered across Purcell's scores, often serving to intensify a sad word or phrase. Metaphorically, they could be felt as little stabs of musical pain. In Dido's Lament, Purcell mostly contrives to make these dissonances fall in pitch in order to resolve (or "correct" themselves). The first example occurs promptly in the opening phrase "When I am" in which the first of the two notes allocated to the word "laid" strains against the new harmony. The second half of the word is consequently drawn strongly downwards - as if by irresistable gravitational heartstrings.  
 This falling gesture imitates the profile of the voice of a person sobbing in grief, “the spirit sinking step by step, straining to recover, then sinking again."*** This manipulation of dissonance, that sweetest source of musical sorrow, with its consequent ebb-and-flow of tension, lies at the heart of the genre and character of the Lament.
 The attentive listener to Vivienne's part may also detect a gradual transition from Consonant to Dissonant, from Sweetness to Bitterness, from Clarity to Confusion. I imagined Vivienne's thoughts beginning to jumble and panic as the poison began to take hold as she gradually faded. As a consequence, her notes increasingly collide with the other lines in the music: and therein lie opportunities for further moments of dissonance and dark despair.
Unlike Dido, however, some of Vivienne's dissonant "wrong" notes actually fail to resolve or "correct" themselves. These constitute some of the non-idiomatic touches to which I referred. Their musical tension is thereby prolonged and unrelieved - which I felt was exactly in accord with the spirit of Vivienne's story, its sinister absence of answers. They are my mother's torments over How and Why.
 Another exquisite feature of Purcell’s song is the insistent, even desperate, repetition of “Re-mem-ber me”, the four repeated notes evoking the tolling of some distant funerary bell, or (as Alex Ross put it), “a Morse-code signal from oblivion”. Goose-bump material. Of course I retained Dido's repeated notes (how could anyone do otherwise?), but made Vivienne's fall chromatically - in the spirit of the Lament. In fact, most Vivienne's shorter phrases tend to fall, whereas her longer lines mostly invoke the contour of arched sighs (screams, perhaps?), rising first before the inevitable plunge down.
 Finally, during the agonizingly tender string postlude, both Vivienne and Dido depart this world. The crucial difference between them, however, is that Dido is merely acting an operatic role.
And there's the interesting fact that Dido's phrases often don't consistently align with the Ground Bass - except at structurally significant cadence points. The vocal phrases drape themselves freely and at length over the short and rigidly repeated bass. Purcell understood that overlapping like this in such an irregular manner would not only generate interest through contrast, but would also facilitate an almost constant rainbow spectrum of harmonic hues to add to the pathos of human feeling. Genius, sir!  Hats off to Mr Purcell - I've stood by his grave next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. On the other hand, I haven't yet managed to locate Vivienne's grave - which only intensifies the mystery, like a closing sentence conspicuously lacking its full-stop  
Vivienne Agnes Stokes (née Bennett) in 1927, the year before she died.
  By way of irrelevant post-script, it's interesting to note that the practice of using a Ground Bass (or 'Obstinato' Bass) originally came from the rollicking late 16th century Italian peasant dance called the Ciaccona (Fr: Chaconne), whose typical bassline repeated a simple 4-note descending fragment such as G - F - Eb - D.
Some later composers (such as Purcell) merely filled in the intervening chromatic notes and slowed the tempo down in order to allow more complex harmonies extra time to "breathe". With these touches of the compositional brush, the formula for what had been regarded as a raunchily daring 'Tango-like' dance was transformed into the tearfully languishing Lament. In this sense Purcell was not a ground-breaking innovator [ouch - excuse the pun] ...he had inherited an existing recipe then proceeded to adapt and distil it masterfully into a connoiseur whisky.


* Baroque audiences were easily able to hear the key changes, not because they possessed the facility of perfect pitch, but because the Meantone Temperament (tuning system) of Purcell's day caused each different key to be tuned in its own characteristic and unique way (also known as 'key colour'). A modulation to the key of g-minor was automatically associated with Grief, Pathos, Tragedy and Death. Other keys signified different states. For more, click here to open an information page in its own window.      xxxxx
** Incidentally, whether listening to Purcell's music or my version of it, I recommend the experience of sending your ears down to the Ground Bass and focusing on it, rather than the voice[s]. If you've not tried that before, the outcome could be revealing, and you may never hear the aria in quite the same way again. Perhaps think of it as "X-ray listening". The voice is easy enough to hear anyway in this piece, and will take care of itself. 
 *** Alex Ross. Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues in Listen to This. Fourth Estate, London, 2010, p.41.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Trio Nearly in C-minor (Bach Corrects a Student's Composition Exercise)

This trio (for Flute, Bb Clarinet, & Contrabass), bears the sub-title "Bach Corrects a Student's Composition Exercise". Although the title suggests a lighthearted "the-dog-ate -my-homework" attitude, the music is nevertheless a serious two-minute micro-essay encapsulating a musico-pedagogical issue which bothers me deeply. In fact, one might claim that the entire future of serious music composition - and acceptance by audiences - depends on discovering solutions to it. Yep, it's another angle on the "old-VS-new" debate. 
Rather like fiddling with prayer beads, my piece obsessively counterpoints the melodic fragment (at left) which is to some extent counter-intuitive to "normal" diatonic musical syntax.  It stubbornly resists 'working' in the conventional ways which the diatonic ear has long been propagandized to expect. Trio Nearly in C-minor sets out to reconcile this "square-peg-in-a-round-hole" issue, and at one point even gets the benefit of a little subtle encouragement and modelling from the Master (originally, of course, in red-ink quill pen).
Connect your device to a decent sound system or enclosed headphones, and click the orange PLAY button. Apologies in advance for the lousy quality recording - my Sibelius file corrupted [grr]. 

Alternatively, if you're on a smartphone, you could listen to the music at its original URL:
And if you wish, you can read the pdf score here.
The transposing score is here.
Both the music (mp3) and score are downloadable and free. Prospective performers are only requested to acknowledge me as the composer on programs, fliers, sleeve notes or announcements. I'd also be kinda flattered if you let me know, too :)

A genuine forensic reconstruction of the real face of J.S. Bach.
In this link, you can witness a historically unprecedented gallery
of photos of Bach as a child, a teenage rapper, and even one taken
during His previously unknown concert tour to Thailand in 1733.
 Trio Nearly in C-minor is a token attempt to absolve myself of the sin of years of preaching the Holy Musical Rules (yes, 'those' Common Practice Rules handed down to you on tablets of stone from Bach and Moses during those endless Harmony & Counterpoint tutorials). Thou Shalt Not end a piece with a first inversion. Thy Leading Note must rise, not fall. Parallel fifths or octaves are sinful, etc etc. Sure, you could recite them too?
 I knew that continuing to teach The Rules, ultimately, was to knowingly collaborate in creating a poisoned chalice for the future of Composition. There I was, assisting to brew up an educational potion which had the potential to cause serious long-term paralysis of our culture's collective creative/receptive mind. A doh-ray-mi straight-jacket to anaethsetize the creative musical brain which had been born free-and-curious. What had I been thinking?? OK, here comes the excuse: I had to earn a living, mate. Yep, some people do it for money, lol. (Blush) This still happens in educational institutions ranging from the "ta ta tee-tee ta" pre-school variety right through to undergraduates honing their skill at writing four-part harmony. Been there, done the lot. Cramped a lot of imaginations. Ruined countless lives.
 Music Composition is surely the ultimate candidate for nomination as a Rule-Free Creative Zone. Therefore it bothers me that The Rules get handed on so unquestioningly, usually with rather vague understanding of why they even exist, or who made them up. People have been fed the idea that music is somehow controlled by inviolable universal natural laws which could not possibly be questioned. Musicians get awarded impressive Degrees and Diplomas for reproducing and obeying The Rules. They then go out and, in turn, pass on their half-knowledge to other victims, usually younger and powerless to resist. And thus the cycle repeats down the generations... a virtually identical process ever since the start of the 19th century when musical academies kicked off in a big way. And even Arnold Shoenberg's commented wryly that "Zair iss shtill a lot off goot music to be reeten in C-machor, ya?". Yes, undeniably true - I've done heaps myself, of course - but my point is: Why limit oneself to a bread-only diet?
 The problem is inflexible and difficult to tackle - music is arguably THE most conservative of the Arts. Most people will accept innovative modern art, architecture, literature, etc, as a cool thing, but when it comes to music most folks, even some "music lovers", just want something familiar and easy, a safe and predictable armchair ride, mindless chewing-gum for their ears.
And from the music teacher's point of view it is all too easy to continue to teach an established method which clones exactly such safe and un-challenging panaceas. You can buy ready-made mass-produced text-books divided into neat eminently teachable chunks designed to fit conveniently into semesters. To teachers, the alternatives seem all too hard, requiring too much thawing of mindsets, re-jigging of knowledge, curricula, texts, and test papers... and probably wouldn't even occur as useful (let alone desirable) to most conventional musicians.
 Yes, one certainly needs to know [and understand] The Rules sufficiently well in order to break them successfully, but they are but one of the many systems of musical thought which have evolved over the last 2000 years or so.  How about if schools were to codify and teaching the style of the Notre Dame School of 12th century Paris? Or the Burgundian School around Dufay with their ear-tickling cadences? Or the Palestrina Style? The Debussy Style - (which actually requires parallel fifths)? Pan-Diatonicism? The Schoenberg-Webern Style? Quartal harmony? Minimalism? Raga? Micro-tonal scales? There are so many possible musical universes and systems apart from the narrow constraints of our beloved Bach. You need to break eggs to make omlettes.
Many contemporary composers who have consciously challenged and overcome the mental shackles of their Education (and, consequently, have grown Ears to Hear) are certainly using all these alternative doctrines - and more - but (crucially) their audiences, the vast public, are mostly limited to making judgements according to the fosillizing doctrines of Bach - whether or not they are aware of it. ("I dunno the first thing about music, mate, but I do know what I like, eh"). Indeed, they may not know a Leading Tone from a First Inversion, but they do have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding (albeit untutored, 'naive' and rigid) of what constitutes 'normality' in western music.
 Theirs is is an inarticulate understanding, partly intuitive, partly acquired, which has been absorbed simply by years of unconsciously hearing and absorbing "normal" music in locations ranging from supermarkets to concert halls. Everyone's a sponge... to varying degrees. Everyone will "learn" that just about all western music from Machaut to Mozart to Madonna has structural elements in common when it comes to topics like harmonic progression/regression, phrase structure, melodic conventions, key/tonality, form, etc.

This mute concensus, those understood commonalities of musical grammar and syntax are precisely what permits musicians to improvise together without rehearsal. They "know" the language - they intuit its grammatical conventions. Through sheer experience, they have learned the traditional hierarchy of probablities - a B7 chord is highly likely to be followed by some sort of chord based on E, not E-flat. The average listener (and even some musicians!) will instinctively squirm if phrases aren't symmetrically equal in length, if they can't tap their foot because the beat is ambiguous or absent, or if the harmonies deviate significantly from the expected Cycle of Fifths. People often prefer to reach for the OFF button than be forced to actually focus attention in the same way they would if, say, reading a book or (especially) the more passive activity of watching movies.
The end result of limiting options, simplifying and cloning musical education is that the average person tends to emerge with a clamped mind about what is Right or Wrong, Good or Bad in music. Those who become music students end up being able to write a stylistically correct Bach Chorale (in fact, so correct that it's boring as batshit), and that ol' magic just, well... evaporates.
At this point the proverbial elephant in the room ought to be apparent to the observant reader: relatively few musicians of any age - or audiences, for that matter - are likely to be craving new Bach Chorales in the year 2012. There are heaps of them out there to nick anyway, if you need to google something up for next Sunday's choir...
Let's face it, The Rules are nothing but a codified instruction manual for imitating the very specific style of music used in Protestant churches in (northern) Germany during the first half of the eighteenth century. A fairly narrow slice of musical history, one might observe. But even today that slice is preserved in historical ether and presented as Eternal Immutable Law to unsuspecting young devotees. The teaching of these precepts mostly happens in sterile tutorial rooms, soundless but for the scratching of pencils and rubbers. Very few students can actually hear anything they've written, but hey, they obeyed The Holy Rules, step-by-step, and passed their assignments with an A+.  May we present you with your shiny new BMus degree... now Go Ye Forth and propagate likewise.
In terms of a liberal Arts education, this is totally outrageous propaganda in the league of Chairperson Mao or Joe Goebbels. The method has fossilized into little more than a musical notation version of a "Join-the Dots" puzzle, a Composing-By-Steps 'How-To' Manual for tone-deaf people who can't hum two consecutive notes in tune let alone distinguish the three notes of a triad. It offers prescriptions which allow novices to write complex counterpoint which doesn't actually sound entirely "wrong", even if it is terminally klutzy, awkward, and uninspired, the dumbed-down musical equivalent of literature's opening line "It was a dark and stormy night". And for goodness sake, don't embarrass people by asking them to explain WHY they can't end with a first inversion, make their leading note fall, or write [gasp!] parallel fifths.
Yes. We. Can.
In my piece Trio Nearly in C-minor, Bach personally intervenes at one point to suggest a harmonisation of the melodic fragment in the style to which He is accustomed. I'm confident you'll detect when it happens (Clue: it's the bar in the score marked Lento Serioso Quasi Chorale). You'll be relieved to know that during that fragment He committed no parallel fifth sins. Bach judiciously decides to squeeze the fragment into the tonal straight-jacket of C-minor. To our ears, His sweetly familiar harmonic language with its formulaic predictable cadences homing in relentlessly towards the inevitable tonic c-minor chord seems, in this context, to be oddly and ironically out of place ...even 'wrong', or at least inappropriate.
The poor student whose work he is correcting :) thankfully appears to be entirely unrepentant - except that the piece does actually end on a (albeit extremely brief) token triad of C-minor as a polite concession to Great Teacher. It's as if the music's embarrassed not to cadence in C-minor, having spent most of the piece nowhere near C-minor or any other type of minor or major for that matter. And [*shock*] the final triad isn't even in first inversion! My my, isn't tradition tenacious?! But hey, ya haff please the teacher if you vant to pass, ja?  Er, 7 out of 10 was OK, I suppose... Hmm, let's see, what do I need to do to score 8 next semester?
Dear Reader, having joked thus, I must emphasize that I certainly do not disrespect Bach. On the contrary, if you've heard my other compositions, you'll know that I meekly worship His music, and take his Holy Rules seriously. They are part of the cultural DNA inherited by all of us, practising musician and non-musician listeners alike. But unless we really do want yet another Chorale, The Rules should only be a point of stylistic departure, merely one of the available options in the 21st-century's incredibly rich Global Style Buffet. An unexpected mixture of systems, even conflicting ones, can produce interestingly tasty results: fusion cuisine comes to mind. Impossible opposites can be a great source of inspiration, if you grant them an educational visa to enter your mind. Someone should tell the Music Educators.

For your delectation and relief, here's my latest piece of Concept Music, cereally composed over breakfast this morning with the textbook Harmony & Counterpoint for Dummies open on my lap.
The easy-to-perform musical score goes as follows:
..... 1. Close your eyes and gaze into your Blackness...
..... 2.  ...then into that Vast Silence begin to imagine a
........... .tender duet between a Whale and a Mosquito.
..... 3.  Allow them each to solo, then to sing together.....
..... 4.  Gradually allow the performers to fade away. 
..... 5.   When the music is finished, open your eyes and
..... 6.   if you enjoyed the performance, applaud.
*Try performing the music again to discover if it is the same on the second time around.
*Try performing it a third time with animals/sound-sources of your own choice.
Thankyou thankyou thankyou
You've been a wonderful audience I love you all.

Apologies for the noise in this recording - there was a problem with the file [grr *shrug*].