My journey of music

September 15, 2015

I first remember listening to popular music on the radio in small-town New Zealand. It was everything from Richard Tauber to Hank Williams. Tex Morton was my earliest favourite. There was an old phonogram with a handful of 78s that I wasn’t allowed to touch, but one day I found myself alone at home with a record that had somehow been left there, perhaps by Uncle Bill. It was Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly. I played it about half-a-dozen times, listening intently for the return of the big people at any moment. I swear it was a spiritual experience for me (I would have been about eight years old); the rhythmic and melodic twists and turns mesmerized me.

So I got into rock ’n roll and then in my adolescence a little jazz and some light classical. In those days New Zealand had punitive import restrictions in place on luxury goods from outside the British Empire, and American music came within that ambit. So we were not exposed to a whole lot of African-American music. Singers like Paul Robeson were released there, but my early exposure to gospel music was via Mahalia Jackson, who came across as a raving Christian. There was much we missed out on, so when Booker T and the MGs put out Green Onions it came like a revelation, and as for Duke of Earl by Gene Chandler, well, that was what real music was supposed to sound like. But there were the Everlys and Elvis, and there was Runaway by Del Shannon, and To know him is to love him by The Teddy Bears, and Come softly to me by The Fleetwoods, and Donna by Ritchie Valens, and The Wanderer by Dion, and He’s a rebel by The Crystals, and so much more, so life was good.

The first records I bought (at age 16) were I get around by the Beach Boys and It’s over by Roy Orbison. Then one Sunday I was visiting my girlfriend when a strange song came on the radio that stopped us both in our tracks. It was Only a pawn in the game by Bob Dylan, and I didn’t know that you could write songs like that. It was like a whole new world opened up for me. The Beatles didn’t mean much to me at first – I preferred The Rolling Stones although that was only an image thing (bad boys) – but it soon became impossible to ignore them. Then one day in early 1967 I was working in a burger bar when they played the latest Beach Boys record, Good Vibrations. I had already been writing songs but that day I decided I really really wanted to be a song-writer. Up until then I’d listened to most popular music and scowled to myself “Oh, I could do that,” but when The Beatles’ Yesterday appeared, and then Good Vibrations, I had to admit despite my narcissistic ego that I couldn’t do that. But boy, I wanted to try!

Musically, I have a small handicap. I’ve never been able to master an instrument. I just don’t seem to have that hand-eye-ear coordination thing that is required. I probably also have a slight touch of ADHD; I just can’t do practice – I’m restless and have to be always on the go. So I’ve had to teach myself what I could. I tried to study piano once but it really screwed my head up and I ended up selling the piano after about six months (I wasn’t in great shape emotionally). But what I could learn I did, especially a bit of theory and – eventually – basic guitar; a little finger picking and the first-positions of the commonest chords. More recently I smashed my left hand in a pushbike accident so I’m even more restricted now.

(Incidentally, Lionel Bart, composer of Oliver, never played an instrument either, and nor did Irving Berlin. Berlin had some kind of arranged piano that he could play in one key, then push a lever and the whole internal mechanism would shift and without changing his fingering in any way he could carry on ‘playing’ in the new key.)

My earliest efforts at song-writing were…, well, it’s hard to convey how truly awful they were. They were in the most limited of rock ’n roll styles, sounding like something that even a New Zealand pop group might throw away (and New Zealand pop music was dire!) I think the first thing I discovered was changing the rhythm to jazz-up something. Then the melodic leap to a high note to grab attention. I wrote some promising melodic phrases but never knew where to go with them. I had no understanding of form. But I experimented and kept at it, and I kept a list of all the songs I wrote, and of the dates I wrote them, searching for some signs of improvement. Took a long time to find any.

Then when I was 21 I read that some British high-brow had said that The Beatles were the best songwriters since Schubert. I had no idea as to whether this was right or wrong, only that it implied that Schubert was the benchmark for song-writing. So I went out and bought a collection of Schubert songs sung by Werner Krenn with Gerald Moore at piano. It took a bit to get past the barrier of classical singing (no one talks like that so why do they sing that way?) but I decided to force this new music into my brain by playing it in the background constantly – in the shower, over breakfast, drifting off to sleep at night; I must have driven my girlfriend crazy. But I cracked the code, and soon became able to understand the values and parameters – to reliably distinguish the good bits from the bad bits – and they weren’t even great Schubert songs; rather, they had been selected for their obscurity.

I went through most of Schubert’s best songs, and I still think that Wanderer’s Nachtlied (Uber allen gipfeln) is the finest song ever written. I also discovered John Dowland (Sorrow stay), Robert Schumann (Mondnacht), Modest Mussorgsky (Mother of God), and even Anonymous (Miserere my maker). Claude Debussy’s Mandoline remains the ideal I strive for in my own song-writing (and I think I nearly get there sometimes in songs like Amy all the way). And there was Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and the rest.

Since then it’s all been about classical melody for me. My first song-writing efforts had been dire, then I went through a virtual addiction to Dowland and Schubert and everything I wrote sounded like them. This lasted a couple of years at least. It sure put me off-side with my friends; no one in the age of The Beatles was able to share my enthusiasm for classical song, although to me the one led quite logically to the other.

I also discovered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I don’t think people raised within classical music can appreciate what a real shock it is when someone from outside the classical tradition finally discovers Mozart. My only exposure to him had been the tinklings of music boxes and as accompaniment to breakfast cereal advertisements. It’s actually music of the Golden Mean, and when one first discovers it the effect is mesmeric. People say he’s perfect, which he kind-of is, but if all music aspired to be like Mozart we would have a very limited repertoire. People use the word ‘inevitable’ to describe his music, but that’s really an outsider’s term; people who actually create know that at every moment when composing one faces innumerable choices, many of which are equally good, the final selection really reflects the sensibility of the artist rather than the realisation of any ideal form.

I became hypnotized by Mozart, especially his Fifth Violin Concerto which I had running through my head for at least three years afterward; I had the Henryk Szeryng version. I eventually had to consciously avoid Elizabethan music, Schubert and Mozart altogether because I seemed to just drown in them.

My first genuinely good songs came in about 1971 (I had been at it for about five years), after I’d left New Zealand and classical music behind me, and my girlfriend and I moved to Sydney and then to Brisbane. I knew I had to strike out and write in a more deliberately contemporary style. That’s when I wrote songs such as If she were here from my first album (The Past). I felt immensely proud, and after I returned to New Zealand (minus the girlfriend, woe was me!) I promptly entered them into a song-writing contest, and of course they were rejected. I’d been aware of the vast gap between what I was trying to do and popular taste, but the songs that won were sobering indeed, for they were rubbish. I realized I’d arrived at a place that was far removed from current trends. The ‘scene’ had left me behind; David Bowie wore a dress, Glam-rock was in the ascendant, and here I was trying to write authentic art-songs (although I still actually enjoyed much of the new pop stuff, especially Roxy Music!) I was also told by a musician friend some time later that the manuscripts I submitted, although fairly clear, looked ‘unprofessional’ and would probably not even have gained a hearing. Ah well, I survived.

The separation from the girlfriend was really about our inability to communicate, and as a kind of self-therapy I decided that from now on I would concentrate on the lyrics much more. I had always read some poetry, though not a lot, but now I threw myself into it. I’d been very keen on poetry in adolescence and had memorized large chunks of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat and William Blake’s works, but that had all slipped. Now I threw myself into Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound and others. I also decided to try to simplify my song-writing, to write simple tunes with much better words than I had done before. Not a lot came from this, but I wrote some comforting love-lost songs.

About then I went through a lovely period exploring all the avant-garde music that was fashionable at the time. It was 1973 and I got into Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia and Visage (with Kathy Berbarian), Terry Riley’s In C, Steve Reich’s It’s gonna rain and others. And I checked out the avant-garde from the past, especially Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and William Walton’s Facade. New Zealand seemed to have relaxed its import restrictions and I found I could now get all manner of stuff. UNICEF put out a series of folk music from around the world, about 30 albums, and I probably had half of them – Tibetan shawms, Balinese gamelan gong, gypsy dances, Portugese Fado and the rest, along with Sabah from Lebanon, the Bulgarian yodelling folk-choir, Olatunji’s Drums of Passion, and some others. It was also the time of greatest experimentation in jazz, with Don Ellis’ Electric Bath and Albert Ayler and Sun Ra and so forth. I soaked it all up, but again, it was something of a barrier with most of my friends.

Along the way I discovered Erroll Garner, the jazz Schubert, creativity flowing from every pore (like Schubert, Garner too was diminutive), and as far as I can make out he never fitted comfortably within any of the jazz ‘schools.’ Musichound Jazz describes him as a “one of a kind player with an instantly recognisable style,” who never learned to read music, wrote standards such as Misty, was a dazzling virtuoso and a supreme improviser (as Ian Dury put it: “There ain’t half been some clever bastards!”) It’s his lyricism that I find most appealing. And I suspect that there’s a little revisionism going on because my understanding is that Garner was sorely neglected within jazz; he was mostly known as the composer of Misty but not a lot more, the big names being Coltrane, Davis, Mingus and others. I may be wrong but I suspect that his reputation is now stronger than it was during his life. (And by the way, his Complete Concert by the Sea recording has just been expanded to a 3-disc set, re-mastered and re-released by Legacy).

Next I started hanging out in the local folk club, the Poles Apart in Newmarket, Auckland. I still have a great fondness for that place and its then-manager Frank Winter who was very kind. It was long past the folk boom and audiences were becoming less precious. I wrote songs such as Jesse James and Wanda then. This was my second group of good songs, simpler and earthier; I’ll be putting those two out on my second album.

After that I had some hard travelling, gave music away, went to university and eventually got a day job; all another story. I stopped writing songs and hardly touched my guitar for the next thirty years. I worked as a therapist, but I continued doing writing courses, had some publications, and for a few years edited a professional journal. It all increased my word skills.

One day a few years ago I was speaking with an old fellow about music; he was Polish, 92 years old, and had been raised within classical music. I told him I was disillusioned with music, tired of the old figure-ground approach (or lead instrument/vocal plus accompaniment) that was everywhere. He insisted I listen to Anton Bruckner. It took a while to understand Bruckner’s language, but eventually I was completely blown away by him.

Words can’t explain my reverence for Bruckner. The phrase ‘horizontal writing’ has been used to describe his style of composition, which derives from Richard Wagner but is pure music rather than being mere accompaniment to a story-line. It is the music of the inner life; not for nothing do music companies use huge nature scenes of mountains and valleys to illustrate his records and CDs. The mighty struggle to ascend some developmental peak, the astonishing vista that opens up to one when standing atop the pinnacle, the gentle cascade downwards through the valleys and hamlets of some new life-stage, and then seeing far off in the distance another even higher range of peaks to aspire to, and the inevitable struggle towards yet another mountain-top. It is the music of the soul’s biography.

Today I look at my two favourite composers with very mixed feelings. Schubert was the composer whom it is most often suggested had the most natural or spontaneous talent, an endless well-spring of melody and inspiration. Actually, it wasn’t at all spontaneous or natural; Schubert struggled for a long time to develop the skill; his first great song – Gretchen at the Spinning-wheel – came after about 200 earlier efforts, some of which are terrible. In contrast, Bruckner is considered to be the least talented of all the great composers; although he is extremely tuneful he seldom wrote an actual song structure, and only a couple of good ones, his melodies mostly coming as fragments and decorations. His motet Ecce sacerdos is probably his best, and the forerunner of his fantastic Te Deum, which is another of my all-time favourite pieces.

They were also the two most tragic of the great composers. Schubert died at 31 from syphilis and complications, and it’s likely that his astonishing outpouring from his last year-and-a-bit reflected his knowledge of his impending death (and the fact that Beethoven had just died probably freed him up also). Bruckner was a very neurotic fellow who remained a virgin all his life and had numerous eccentricities, even spending some time in an asylum, and may have been the most fascinating person psychologically who ever lived. Schubert appears almost normal alongside Bruckner (although Schubert was only four-feet eleven inches tall, a not-insignificant factor in his motivation), and it seems that he spent almost his entire waking life composing. Bruckner never really got started composing until about age 40, and never really became successful until about age 60 when his Symphony #7 took off. They couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet ultimately they were very similar in that both lived entirely and unreservedly for their art, and both quite consciously set out to explore the depths of the heart.

But the lesson is clear – their output depended at least in part upon the tragic conditions of their lives. It’s a lesson I’m extremely wary of.

Anyway, suddenly I became passionate about music again. I was 60. Bruckner led to Wagner, and then to song-writers who had been influenced by Wagner (or studiously refused to be) and that led to Gabriel Faure and Henri Duparc. Faure is also beyond praise, but Duparc is something else.

The structure and tunefulness of Duparc’s songs are what first surprises. For almost all of them, through-composing and angularity are the norm; they almost teeter off-balance yet always poise is restored. The best of them – Invitation to the voyage and Phidyle – are larger-scale works with several sub-sections which seem to flow from some shared base, and in which the melodic possibilities are driven to the limit. The artistic mind guiding them is functioning at a different level, with the overview of a Wagner or a Beethoven or a Mahler. The surprising twists and turns, plus the constant utter tunefulness, erotic even, of most of what has come down to us, is truly unique (although Michael Head’s extraordinary The Estuary comes close, though from a very different sensibility). Unfortunately he had some kind of nervous breakdown when young and destroyed most of his work and never composed again despite living to quite an old age. Only ten quality songs from him remain.

This would have been about late 2007 through 2008, and I remember wondering if I could still write songs. So I gave myself three months to find out, and every morning and night while riding my pushbike to and from work I tried to compose. I wrote some rubbish at first but then I came up with Amy all the way. It seemed like the universe was giving me a message and I’ve been writing songs on and off since then.

Next I got into Pro-Tools, the production package. To me it’s the eighth wonder of the world because it has enabled me to realise what I hear in my head and to put it out in the air. I retired in November 2014 and I’ve been making music since.

Now (late 2015) I’m getting a website built (thanks John), upgrading my equipment (iMac, Adam A7x monitors, buying more instruments, and getting my first CD pressed.

Tomorrow the world!

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