The film “Boyhood” will never so much as enter the top forty of my favourite films – it was too long by a least one third of its running time and the storyline lost its way and went severely off-piste of me around half way through the proceedings. The music choices, however, were clever – and one real musical gem was the song “Hero”, which propelled the band “Family of the Year” from relative obscurity to well-deserved fame.
The subject matter – the burden of responsibility faced by someone growing up and reaching maturity – was almost too perfect a fit for the film. The emotion expressed in the song is very direct and emotional.
But of course I’m listening with the ears of a composer who hears things in terms of construction and technique. Quite apart from the obvious beauty of the melodic line and its accompanying harmonic progressions, what, for me, makes the song so successful in building and maintaining tension and momentum is the interesting fact that it doesn’t use what we call a “perfect cadence” even once in the song until right at the end – after the singing has finished. Every verse ends on an imperfect cadence – or, in the language of the layman, sounds unfinished, as though wanting to move on rather than finish. I would love to know if this was intentional on the part of the song writer. I suspect not, and that it was pure serendipity, growing organically from the feelings expressed in the words. But I think that maybe this element of the song’s construction turned what might have been merely a nice song into a really great song.
We’ve all heard of the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”, but few of us know the true meaning behind the words. The first published record of the song dates back to 1744 but there is also reference to a square dance bearing the same name in a 1665 publication. The longer version of the rhyme conjures up an image of 16th and 17th century London where each district is synonymous with a particular trade. For instance, St Clement’s was associated with the nearby wharf where merchants landed citrus fruits – hence, oranges and lemons. Money lending is also at the heart of the rhyme – or, more pointedly, those who are indebted to others and are unable to pay (“When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey”). The rhyme ends with the chilling words: “And here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head”. The great tenor bell of St Sepulchre’s Church, near the Old Bailey, would toll at 9am on a Monday morning, signalling the start of any hangings due to take place that week.
I decided that I wanted to compose a piece about the little song which would incorporate the sounds of the bells of St Clement Danes, in London – but if I were to do so it would have to use an actual recording of the bells themselves, and this is exactly what you hear in the extract below.
The recording of the bells has been manipulated and transposed as desired and the bell sounds are interspersed with over-lapping chords which create poly-chordal harmonies. This over-lapping of chords and the resulting poly-chordal harmony has become an important feature of my newly acquired compositional style which is always still developing.
I hope you’ll enjoy the extract from “Lemons; St Clements”, below. If you’re on a laptop this music is best heard through either a good set of speakers or through headphones in order to really appreciate the intricacies of the sound:
I’ve talked quite a lot so far about the thinking behind my decision to radically change the way I compose. I haven’t spoken very much yet about the nitty-gritty of how I intend to work.
Although I’m now working in the field of electronic/digital music, I’m not interested at all in using equipment costing thousands of pounds, having huge banks of all the latest sounds at my disposal and a plethora of other gadgetry. I’m much more interested in using what I currently have at my disposal to create something of interest. So, what do I use? I currently use Sibelius and Cubase software. In my work so far I’ve been working in Sibelius to create fragments of music in score. Suitable sounds are chosen and these are saved as sound files. I should say, once again, that I’m not interested in using orchestral sounds to sound like orchestral sounds. I have no interest in a clarinet sounding like a clarinet. In fact, quite the opposite. I use a number of effects in order to manipulate the sound and create something new and different. These sound files are then pasted into Cubase where I begin to use them rather like a collage artist, placing them, layering them, manipulating the sound further.
As I’ve said before, I’m something of an art lover, and art is something which I find particularly inspiring. I see so many overlaps in the creative process of both art and music – colour, texture, etc etc. One artist who has inspired me in recent times is Harald Vlugt, a Dutch artist who, among other things, creates the most extraordinary collage art. One such piece which I’ve seen close up is pictured below. I love the idea of being able to do in music what he does in art!