Thursday, 30 September 2010


Once in a while, you come across an artist whose work, in whatever field that happens to be, resonates in a way that goes beyond simple liking.  So it was for me recently, when I came across Icelandic jazz pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs.  But although music – or any art - can have a profound effect on us, attempting to rationalise why we respond to certain music in the way that we do probably isn’t a particularly useful thing to do.  Even if we get to an answer, it’s unlikely to be ‘true’ in any meaningful way – just a made-up theoretical rationalisation - and anyway, even if I do manage to come up with an explanation, so what?

Nevertheless, the question still bugs me.  The penalty, I suppose, of having once been a scientist, of having a mind that habitually looks under the surface for explanations of things.  Plus this particular response is rather special.  More than just liking – this music seems to speak a language I naturally understand.  It’s the kind of music I’d like to think I’d create, if only I were that good.  Which obviously I’m not.

It was Steve Lawson who introduced me to Sunna’s music, via Twitter.  Steve is a tireless ambassador for other people’s music; by his own admission this publicising almost certainly leads to more sales of others’ music than of his own.  I’ve learned to trust Steve’s recommendations - they’re always worth listening to.  (Which isn’t to say I’d always rush out and buy them.  But even the weird stuff - of which, if judged by conventional attitudes, there is plenty - is good weird stuff!)  So without knowing what to expect, except that it would be interesting, I clicked the link in Steve’s tweet.

Half way through listening to the title track of ‘The Dream’ for the first time, I knew I was going to buy the album.  No question.  Even at that very first hearing, it made sense.

That might seem an odd thing to say about a piece of music.  What stood out wasn’t that I liked the tune or the motifs (which I did), or admired the musicians (which I also did) or enjoyed the soundscape (yep, that as well), but that it made sense.  The musical ideas develop and flow in a way that just seems ‘right’ and therefore deeply satisfying.  The harmonic movement, the way the instrumental lines weave together, the pace, all feel natural – there’s plenty going on, yet I don’t have to struggle to keep up.  The multi-layered patterns in the music seem in some way to match patterns in my brain.

Overall, the effect on me – and this is of course a very personal response – is invariably energising, buoyant; this is music to listen to when I need a lift.  It’s not that it’s superficially happy, but it seems to have a deep optimism.  I’d like to think that’s Sunna’s personality showing through.  In some mystical, magical way I come away feeling a boost in confidence.  In a word, I feel more centred, as though part of me is finding self-expression simply through listening.  Curiously, the only other piece of music I can think of which has quite this effect in such a personal way is one which has a lot in common with Sunna’s music.  That’s ‘Little People’, from Gwilym Simcock’s ‘Blues Vignette’ album.

The scientist in me would love to know what’s going on in my head as I listen.  It’s a very active form of listening; this music messes with my brain – in a good way.  I wonder if it is making neural connections that somehow mirror the neural patterns of those positive feelings?

In the end though, all the rationalising in the world dissolves into nothing once the music takes flight.  Never mind the whys and wherefores – I’m simply grateful that Sunna’s music is.  And I have a strong sense that so far we’ve only had an introduction, an aperitif.  There’s a whole banquet yet to come.

Especially resonant tracks for me:
The Dream
A Garden Someday

Friday, 17 September 2010


How do any of us get to be where we are now? Meticulous planning? Driving ambition? Blown by the wind?

I never planned to play bass guitar. As a teenager, when you might have thought I’d have been sitting in my bedroom picking out the bass line of tunes playing on pirate radio stations, I was barely even aware of bass guitar. (Yep, I’m old enough to remember pirate radio… maybe it’s because you don’t get a lot of bass on the 2 inch speaker of a tiny/tinny portable transistor radio that I never noticed it). My musical interests at the time were largely centred around classical music; I even played the violin, as leader of the school orchestra. Odd choice, as I was never all that fond of the violin as a solo instrument. If I’d chosen cello, I might still be playing it now. But that’s another story.

It was chance that started me playing bass. My son happened to have one, as well as his other guitars. With his classical guitar, he was a member of the Hertfordshire Guitar Orchestra, and so when I had to drive him to fortnightly rehearsals I figured that, rather than sit and twiddle my thumbs for 2 hours, I could take the bass along. After all, I could read bass clef since I also played piano; I’d messed around with guitar, like most teenagers – how hard could it be to follow a simple bass line?

Then I started playing in church. Again, by chance, the MD also directed occasional shows for a local amateur dramatic group, so I got invited to take part – 42nd Street was that first show. One thing led to another, names get passed around MDs, and ten years later I’m losing count of the number of shows I’ve played for. Six so far this year; that must be something like a hundred songs learned. (And forgotten – I’ve never mastered the art of memorising; always have to have dots in front of me).

I’ll be honest; it wasn’t the music that drew me in to playing for shows. Although once in a while something special comes along – like Rent, or Spring Awakening, or The Last Five Years –some shows are frankly nothing special musically. But it doesn’t really matter – what I get from these shows is something else. It’s the joy of making music as part of an ensemble – team spirit, if you like - where the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts; it’s being part of a wider creative enterprise; it’s giving pleasure to the audience; it's getting to hang with some amazing, talented, wonderful people. And it’s about learning and growing as a musician – learning to listen to what the others are playing and to what those on stage are singing; watching the MD for those cues that that tie the music to the action; incrementally improving technique; oh, and buying more gear ;)

Chance plays its part. But it’s how we respond to the opportunities that chance brings that shapes the course we take. Sometimes you have to grab an opportunity with both hands as it flies past, not quite knowing why, not knowing where it will lead, just because it holds possibility – even though you don’t at the time know what that possibility is, just that something new and unknown beckons. A piece of unwritten future waiting for you to join with chance and help shape it.

Fifteen years ago I’d never touched a bass guitar. Now it threatens to take over my life. All down to chance, and recognising and being ready to grab hold of that possibility.

Saturday, 11 September 2010


Why is this so hard?

It seems I’ve got out of the habit of communicating.  Oh sure, I talk to people, though maybe not as much as I’d like to.  Most days it’s just routine stuff – I’m hardly conscious of it.  Someone says something, my mouth opens and words come out, but it’s little more than a basic stimulus-response reaction.  What they say triggers a memory of a related experience, or a repeated opinion; or sometimes the flip-side - sometimes it triggers a learned what-not-to-say.  But all of it could almost be programmed – standard patterns, forever repeating.  I’m not sure I’m even present whilst it goes on.

Even my thoughts, such as they are, follow familiar pathways.  Nothing new, nothing original, nothing controversial – just the same old circles, worn into a comfortable track.  

Maybe it’s the path of least resistance.  Or maybe it has to do with purpose, or lack thereof.  Not enough reason to stir these torpid grey cells out of their stupor.

That’s actually a bit scary.  If all I ever do is to give an autonomic response to stimuli, then take away the stimuli and I become a vegetable.

This, you see, is why I said I wasn’t ready.  With nothing else to write about, I figured I’d try writing about why I have nothing to write about.  And end up going round these well-worn circles.  It was largely because I had nothing new to say that I drifted away from my old blog.  (I had to correct that last sentence; I originally typed the old blog – unconsciously disowning it in the very words with which I describe it).

Clearly I must have thought something had changed – else why would I have gone to all the trouble of creating a new blog?  

The act of creation was part of the reason – simple though the design may be, it was fun playing with the new Blogger template design tool.  But that can only be a means to an end, not an end in itself.  

Take a look down the sidebar.  The blogroll is still there, with those friends I read for who they are, not for what they write about.  (I confess though that I don’t visit their blogs so often these days.  I got into bad habits of reading in Google Reader, but that can be too impersonal, putting one at arm’s length from the writer).  But above that are some other links – mostly also to blogs, but this time themed.  Music, photography, hills and mountains, and what I’ve called worldview.  The first three of these have been my primary loves ever since childhood; I figured that if I’ve stuck with these for so long, they must mean something to me, and that must be a source of inspiration for writing, mustn’t it?

Ah, yes.  That was what prompted me to start blogging again.  Took a while to remember, but I got there eventually.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Not yet

I was mistaken. I'm not ready for this yet. Oh, well... Another time, perhaps.