Review: “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” And The Academic Attitude Towards Creativity

This week, I’ve been trying to listen to the new Steven Wilson album Hand. Cannot. Erase. I say trying because I really like Steven Wilson and I really like the genres he covers. I love his approach to being an artist in an ever changing industry. He does what I’d love to do: write an album; hand pick great musicians to record, perform and tour it; make it a piece of art, a show, a work that is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated as a whole. The concept, the artwork, the special editions. And as I said, I love the genre, too; a kind of rock/prog/indie/epic/fusion.

© Steven Wilson
© Steven Wilson

We need people like Steven Wilson in the 21st  century to blaze a trail and demonstrate a way of (sorry to say it) making a living from a profession whose market has changed unrecognisably, and arguably, in many respects, doesn’t even exist any more.

I enjoyed his last album, The Raven Who Refused to Sing, VERY much. But, I remember watching a review by Anthony Fantano at The Needle Drop who didn’t enjoy it half as much as I did. His main issue with the album – and in fact, with Steven Wilson in general – was that it was basically just a montage of all of Wilson’s favourite bands and songs; that Wilson had definitely “done his homework” around the genre, but “that’s all he’s really done” (to paraphrase), creating in effect, a regurgitation of work by other artists.

On the one hand, I COULD appreciate the point Fantano was making, but on the other hand, I didn’t think Wilson had crossed the line of plagiarism and was at least drawing influence from his favourite bands and at most, paying homage. Unfortunately, as a fan of his last album and what he represents as an artist, Hand. Cannot. Erase. for me pretty much vindicates all the issues Anthony Fantano raised (you can watch the review here to get the full viewpoint of The Needle Drop) and his analysis of Steven Wilson’s creative process makes sense to me.

As someone who has written a good number of songs – as both a solo artist and with various bands – I know that I have a kind of filter in my head that’s like a copycat alarm. If I come up with something I like, but after playing it a few times I think, “oh, hang on, that sounds too much like… (insert famous song title here)” then I bin the idea and start again. And it’s not so much from a fear of plagiarising someone else; it’s more born from the principle that if I’m going to write, or record, or publish a song, I want it to be a representation of who I am as an individual and what’s going on with me at the time, and I want to bring something into the world that didn’t really exist before. Steven Wilson, it pains me to say (on his new album, at least), doesn’t seem to have a copycat filter.

As a songwriter in a particular genre or genre’s, we’re automatically constrained by certain conventions. Take blues, for example: it’s fine to use a 12 bar structure; we’ll often use  dominant chords, which then means we’ll be using the mixolydian mode; we’ll throw some flat 5’s into the pot; the I, IV, I, V, IV, I, V, chord progression will be our friend; we have licence to play in 6/8 and 12/8 or a swung 4/4. It’s not plagiarism to use these foundations to build on; that would be like trying to sue the chef of a Chinese restaurant for taking some chopped red pepper, beansprouts, onions, chicken breast and noodles and using a wok to fry them all together in sesame oil and soy sauce.

But, the reason I said TRYING to listen to Hand. Cannot. Erase., is because I can’t sit back and relax and enjoy it because in every song I’m not subconsciously thinking “wow it’s so nice to hear someone writing using the established rules and motifs of the prog-rock genre I know and love”; it’s because I’m consciously thinking, “that’s Song Remains The Same; that’s Hemispheres; that’s Great Gig In The Sky; that’s The Manic Street Preachers; that’s Bat For Lashes; ad nauseum…. (Even the cryptic symbols he’s used in his marketing is basically something Radiohead did back in 2007 in the build-up to the release of their album, In Rainbows).

Which brings me to the other subject of this blog title: the problem I experienced with the academic attitude towards creativity at the University I was attending last/this year. After the initial period of getting myself orientated to the Uni, the rooms, the grounds, and getting my head around the course and the variety of practical and theoretical work, I began to realise that the creative subject (fashion design) I’d signed up to wasn’t principally designed for creative people. Let me explain…

You’d think that an educational organisation would assume that people who applied for a course in a creative subject in Higher Education would be creative people, and that the responsibility of said organisation would be to teach people how to physically create what their imaginations were capable of envisaging. But a major facet of the course was based on the idea that the students aren’t already creative – that they need to be taught HOW to be creative. So, how did they do this? How did they define creativity and transmit it to students? By trying to indoctrinate us into believing something that, for me, results in the opposite of creativity, entropy.

Here’s their attitude towards creativity in a nutshell:

There can never again be such a thing as originality because at this stage of human existence, everything has already been done.

So how do they teach the ‘creative process’ to their students, based on this ‘fact’? Quite simply:

Take something that has already been made… and just alter it, slightly.

I kid you not.

© orthodoxytoday
© orthodoxytoday

When it crystallised for me that this was what I was being taught to do, I was pretty devastated. The knock-on effect of this way of thinking is that anything that steps outside the box or pushes boundaries is scorned and ridiculed as being ‘wacky’ or ‘avant-garde’ or ‘out-there’. And you actually see this in the whole of academia because really, pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box is, for professors and experts, something to be feared. And the reason for that is that a paradigm shift in any field will cost a lot of experts and professors of that field their jobs. Who needs an expert on the theory that the Earth is flat?

This week, I was walking through a department store, and I saw a dress that just made me think, “that’s such a rip-off of the elements, lines, print technique, patterns and colours of Alexander McQueens SS2010 collection, Plato’s Atlantis. And that’s how my brain is working when I listen to the latest Steven Wilson album. I think Hand. Cannot. Erase. is what all music would be like if the people who create it subscribed to this academic approach to creativity.

The Difference Between Sight-Reading And Music Theory

The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a blur. I’ve managed to keep a pretty full diary in terms of gigs and teaching, but I still got to spend time with family and friends in-between.

It was whilst I was out with friends (also musos and teachers) that the conversation turned to the topic of teaching methods and different students having different aims. Some people want a full and complete education on their chosen instrument; from foundational to advanced theory; the ability to sight-read; great technique; full understanding of gear/equipment; knowledge of different genres and their characteristics. Some people just want to learn a few basics so they can play along to their favourite songs. The majority of people fall somewhere between the two.

The thing I highlighted to my friends during the conversation the other night is that, sometimes people will enquire about music lessons, and they’ll say “oh, but I’m not bothered about music theory – I want to play along to Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, John Legend etc., not read music”.

The fact is, the two things are different. Reading music is reading music. Believe it or not, you can study and work enough to acquire a good ability to sight-read, and not know the basic, fundamental theories of music – things like why we use certain notes or chords together with others and where they come from (If I had a penny for every time a muso has told me a story of how “I know someone who plays in orchestras around the world, but take the sheet music away from them and they’re useless” I’d be able to buy a plectrum by now).

I know some people who are musical snobs and deride the use of tablature (tab) for learning songs on the guitar because in their opinion it’s just “painting by numbers”. Well actually, so is being able to sight-read musical notation; it’s just that you have to learn more rules in order to be able do it. Think of it this way: if you’re reading this, then at some point in your life you spent a period of time learning how the letters of the alphabet sound when you put them together. If I gave you a speech to read out that was written in a language you don’t speak, to a room full of people who do, they’d understand what you were saying even though you wouldn’t. You learned the rules to enable you to read and speak the words, but you wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with the audience afterwards.

Musical notation was invented in a time when there was no means of recording sound, so ink and paper was used to record the music instead. But music already existed, and composers had an awareness and understanding that certain notes worked together in more pleasing and complimentary ways than other notes. Music is arguably a kind of language that can be used to convey information, emotion, imagery even, if you understand how to speak it. We don’t need to be able to read in order to be able to speak.

Music theory is about convention. It’s about learning the established, common rules of rhythm, melody and harmony (like grammar and syntax in English language), which give you the ability to understand what another musician or composer is playing or saying, and gives you the means to compose something of your own; that’s the science bit. The subjectivity of music as an art-form means that once we know and understand these rules – even subconsciously – we can bend and even break them. Thus, new genres, instruments, techniques, and the audiences to appreciate them come along as part of either an evolution of a previous order or a 180° backlash.

So how do we define right and wrong when it comes to what a person needs to learn in their music lessons (the main topic of the conversation the other night)? As a teacher, my responsibility is to know what questions to ask in order to really understand what a student’s aim is. I don’t believe in teaching the same set curriculum to everyone who comes to me for lessons. My job is to teach people what they need to know in order to achieve their personal goal. And it can be a bit tricky because sometimes people don’t actually realise what their long-term aim will be when they start, so it’s an ongoing process of me introducing new aspects of musicianship at different stages and gauging their progress to see if it’s something that works for them or not. And what’s more, some people will come with the above attitude that they’re not bothered about learning music theory but don’t realise that to achieve their personal goal they’re going to have to, and others are open to learning anything and everything but find after a couple of months that they’ve learnt what they needed in order to progress under their own initiative.

So, I hope that this blog has gone some way in explaining my take on the matter, and that it’s of benefit to you whatever your relationship is with music. As always, I’ve added some more songs to my acoustic set: All The Kings Horses by Robert Plant and No Distance Left to Run by Blur; I’m continuing to practice the songs I’m playing in the working band and work is ongoing on the next Tim Green Band E.P., which we should begin to record by the end of next month.

Thanks for reading. Comment and discussion are welcome.

Depping

I had the pleasure of depping on drums last weekend for Doncaster-based 50’s/60’s band, BakbeatZ. Their drummer Paul unfortunately hurt his back at the beginning of the week and hadn’t recovered enough to gig. Wishing him a big Get Well Soon!

The Prep

If you’re a working dep, chances are you’ve already got a good repertoire of songs; and especially as a dep drummer, you’ll have the ability to play songs that you’ll have heard a good few times, but haven’t played before.

Here’s some tips to follow if depping is something you’re considering:

  • Make sure you’ve got all the gear you’ll need, and look after it! You don’t have to spend £1000’s on shells, cymbals, hardware, mics and leads. If you’re on a low budget, know how to get a good sound out of your kit through tuning and damping and do your research on cymbals. For the price of a lower-grade cymbal pack, you can put together a much better set by buying second-hand cymbals individually on-line. And a lower level shell pack can be transformed with good heads, tuned and (if needed) damped properly. Mic-wise, the bare minimum you’ll need is a kick-drum mic and an overhead (like an SM57) which, with proper placement is more than enough to play a large pub or medium sized club.
  • Have a professional attitude! I served my musical apprenticeship under a band manager who had the very highest standards, and I couldn’t have learned under a better teacher. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best drummer in the world if you can’t get through a gig without drinking 10 pints or annoying the events organiser. As a musician, you’re representing the band and you’re representing yourself. You need to be able to turn up at a venue and if the rest of the guys you’re playing with haven’t arrived yet, introduce yourself to a member of staff and find out who you need to be dealing with; introduce yourself in a confident manner, find out where you need to park, where you need to load in, what the set times are, where you’ll be getting changed – and then when the other members arrive, you can relay all that info to them and make their job easier too. Don’t get drunk, don’t swear during conversation, and if a punter approaches you for a chat, be friendly and courteous.
  • When you’re initially contacted by a band, get them to send you a set-list immediately and if possible, any recordings of gigs they may have. It’s pretty common for bands to put their own spin on a track or play it with their own feel or style, so ask, ask, ask. Are all the tracks played as the originals – it could be the studio version, it could be the Rockpalast 1994 version. Do they do any medleys? What about endings? There might be 7 or 8 tracks that fade-out on the recordings so how do they finish them?
  • If their set isn’t obscure, just grab an A4 pad and go through each track making general notes. TRACK NAME, NOTES, STOPS, ENDINGS etc. If it’s a simple song but I haven’t heard it before, I think of another track that’s more-or-less the same tempo and time signature and use it to cue myself in. If there are any tracks that are a bit more complex or tricky, have your own system of writing out a chart that YOU understand. You don’t have to notate a full track on staff paper (unless it’s a reading job, but then if you’re taking on those gigs, you shouldn’t have an issue anyway). Below is an example of how I’d write a simple chart for the Michael Jackson song Rock With You:
    Rock With You - Drum Chart
    Rock With You – Drum Chart

    As you can see (apologies for the creases), I write a bar of beat, then how many of that bar I need to play. There are some specific signature fills in the track, so I just wrote the note groupings for those.

  • Try to build an on-line presence and a real-life network. Get to gigs, jams and open-mic nights. Get to know the people who make up the live music community in your town/city. You could go around gigs with business cards and approach bands letting them know who you are and what you do and that you’re available.
  • Finally, make sure you remember your sticks….

The Gigs

George and Dragon
The George and Dragon, Whitley Bridge

We started out on Friday night at the George and Dragon pub at Whitley Bridge, Just off J34 of the M62. I went there to see AVIT Blues Band on Halloween 2013 and played there with southern rock covers band Sour Mash last summer, and I was looking forward to visiting the place again; it’s a great all-round venue. Fantastic food (with an excellent Sunday roast), live music every weekend and just a real ‘heart of the community’ feel to the place. The Landlord and Landlady, Howard and Janet, really set a great example of how run a thriving local pub.

We arrived early, so we sat and had a drink in lounge area and soaked up the atmosphere and Howard even brought us some food over while we waited. Once we’d set up and sound-checked, we went over things like stops and endings and the specific feel the guys wanted in a couple of the tracks. The gig went really well; the place was busy and there was a party of ladies raising money for a breast cancer charity, so there was a raffle and a game of “Musical Bingo” in aid of that. Check the place out at www.georgeanddragonwhitley.co.uk and be sure to give them a like on Facebook.

The next night (Valentines Day) we played the Imperial Club in Mexborough. This was very much a local gig for the band and the atmosphere was fantastic. Lots of friends turned up to support what was already a very well attended night and the sets couldn’t have gone better. For me, The Imperial has a really cool feel to it. It kinda makes me think of a bar you might find in a southern US state, where you might have a country band, a stand-up comedian, a saloon brawl. They have lots going on including two bands each weekend and an open mic night on a Thursday. They’re also real ale champions, with their own brewery no less!

Depping on drums with BakbeatZ
Depping on drums with BakbeatZ

An altogether thoroughly enjoyable weekend; not bad to say I’d got the manflu too. I finished it of with my usual Tim Green band rehearsal on the Sunday. We took a song that we’d been working on and completely rearranged it to make something that’s kinda blown us all away.

This weekend is my last full weekend without a gig until November. So I’m spending it working on my solo acoustic set. I’ve added some more John Martyn songs to it, and the beautiful Restless by Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Back on bass next weekend with Slither, where I’ll be providing backing vocals for the first time with the band… wish me luck!

Up North

sunderlandIt’s been another good weekend of gigging and rehearsing. I finished our third and final warm-up gig with Slither, playing a slightly higher pressure club gig on Saturday night at Dubmire WMC in Sunderland for the agency who we’ve got the holiday park contract with for this year – so we had to be on top form.

I’ve always enjoyed playing North-East clubland. The majority of the clubs up there who have live music every week are still busy, the people are great and the clubs themselves are nice venues to play. Dubmire WMC was no exception. The concert room was £2 on the door and it was pretty full, the smaller lounge room for those just wanting a drink and a chat was busy, and there was also a large games/sports room with a couple of snooker tables and big-screen T.V.’s showing the football which was also full.

We received a warm welcome and went down really well. The highlight of the gig for me was when we dropped Thorn in my Side by the Eurythmics. You could tell it was a track rarely heard by the audience as it’s not a clubland standard. It’s a great track in itself, and so many people sang along and danced.

On Sunday morning, I met up with the Tim Green band for a rehearsal. We ran through some of Tims new material – which I love – and had a general catch-up after a few weeks break. Check out the website, timgreenband.com for news and updates of forthcoming gigs and releases.

I’m currently learning some songs for a solo acoustic guitar set that I want to put together. I’m at home on stage if I’m part of the rhythm section, but I’m not at all comfortable sat downstage centre on my own with only a guitar and my voice to keep me company. So as well as taking the opportunity to improve my picking and vocal technique, I want to gig this set to build my confidence as a solo performer. A few of the songs I’m working on include:

*Going to California
*The Cookoo
*Cello Song
*May You Never
*Shape of my Heart
*Road Trippin

I’ll also be starting a youtube channel where I’ll upload songs and do short video lessons where I’ll cover different styles and instruments as well as talking about concepts that I’m thinking about at the time.

To finish, I found this very funny satirical blog this morning on wordpress: http://tyrannyoftradition.com/ If that’s your cup of tea, head over for a good chuckle.

Back on The Road – Part Two

gooseThere’s an old maxim that’s used in medicine – “Do not attempt to cure what you do not understand.”

How had I seemed to have ‘killed to goose that laid the golden egg’? Did I really not want to play any more? Was it the travelling? Was it the songs? Was it the venues? Do I just get restless?

Until I could figure it out, I just needed to have a break from it. So, I carried on teaching and got a bit of other part-time work to help pay the bills. I backed off from the jam-nights but kept my oar in musically by depping with a couple of local club bands on bass, drums and guitar, and also worked with originals artists like Tim Green and his blues band and had the privilege of helping put together a live band for the rapper Jay Mya, with Adam Bingham and Mike Ward on hype/backing vocals and the great session musicians Rich Rowley on guitar and Sam Robinson on bass.

I started revisiting and exploring previous creative outlets of mine – most particularly drawing and painting. I discovered the work of the German artist Paul Klee, who for me was the most amazing painter I’ve ever seen and I love the prints of his ‘Colour Table: 1930’, ‘Haus on Wasser: 1930’ and ‘Federpflanze: 1919’ we now have in the living room. My passion for fashion design – something I’d considered doing in my early teens after first seeing the work of Lee (Alexander) McQueen – was reignited by a visit to the V&A Museum where my partner and I saw the Italian Fashion Retrospective held there last year.

All of the above, together with a friend of mine starting their own clothing label and asking for my input in it lead me to begin a fashion degree at Doncaster University Centre. I enjoyed the course, mostly because I was doing something so completely different for a change, but something happened before Christmas that meant that for my degree, the writing was on the wall and, although I managed to continue for another month, the situation wasn’t sustainable and other things had to take priority. The phrase “life’s what happens when you’re making other plans” summed it all up pretty well. Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to have the very best of friends, and when you have that, life can throw whatever it wants at you – you’ll always get through it.

alI’d had a good break, I’d spent time doing other things, and through it all, music was always there in the background and I’d had plenty of time to think about what it meant to me. And come the beginning of this year (and I say this with a rye smile) I felt like Al Pacino in Godfather III – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” lol.

I said I’d wondered just what it was that lead me to burn out and quit playing full-time before; how it had happened. I now know that the answer lies in the Daoist philosophy of the importance of balance in all things. The irony of learning the importance of balance is that to gain an understanding of it, you have to take things to the extreme.

Like my friends, music has always been there for me in hours of need. I feel very blessed and lucky that I have the opportunity to get back on the road, doing what I’m best at. I also feel very lucky that I’m able to pass on my understanding of music to other people through my teaching. Out of everything I’ve ever done in my life, nothing brings me more happiness. It’s comforting to know that I’m really helping other people achieve what they want to achieve and that if anything happens to me, I’ll have left something behind that’s worthwhile and the knowledge I’ve been gifted with will live on through others.

It felt good being back on stage this weekend and my new band-mates, Kim and Karl and I have established a good rapport. Last warm-up gig this weekend at a club in the North-East. I’ve spent these gigs making sure I’ve got my parts down and know my cues, and then between now and March, I’ll be getting my backing vocals down.

Can’t wait to get the show on the road!

Back on The Road – Part One

Playing with the Warning Tones, 2012-2013

I’ve just had my first weekend of gigs with my new group, Slither – a high-tech trio. We played a couple of warm-up gigs in preparation for an up-coming holiday park contract running from March till the end of October – our last gig falling on Halloween.

I’ve been a full-time professional musician and private music teacher since January 2012. Until then, I’d been teaching music in my spare-time, playing with various original and covers bands and working full-time Monday to Friday.

I’d played music on a variety of instruments all my life, but never knew that if you really want to, you can make a living from it without having to get a lucky break that makes you or your band a famous, big-selling outfit. I’d never heard of a “working-band”; I didn’t know about agents; I didn’t know that the doors are open for a tight act with a professional attitude, decent gear and P.A. system, and a van to carry it – along with the band – from gig to gig.

MY lucky break was just learning those things.

I played around 5-6 nights a week for nearly two years. I’d gig all weekend and spend every other night I could playing at local jam-nights and open-mic nights. I felt like all my life, the reason I was here had been right under my nose, but I’d missed it because I’d been too preoccupied with the normal stuff that everyday life throws at you to think outside the box. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep it up back then.

Something else I’d never really heard of was “burn-out”. I played, and played, and played. Eventually, I got sick of all of it. The tedium of playing the same songs every night – whether with the band I was working with, or even at the jam-nights. The travelling: being in a van for hours and hours, leaving in the early afternoons and getting home at 5am – 5hrs there and back. The WAITING: when you’re a working musician, you might actually be on stage for 2hrs out of every 12 – the rest is travelling, setting up, waiting around and packing everything down and back into the van.

So I ended up in a bit of a crisis. I was in a place of having to ask myself a pretty scary question: if you get completely disillusioned with the one and only thing you’re supposed to do with your life – the sole reason you’re here – THEN WHAT??