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:
An interesting article appeared in The Sunday Times last weekend (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1542923.ece) in which music critic Dalya Alberge interviewed composer Howard Blake (of The Snowman fame) who expressed the view that both the BBC and bodies such as the Arts Council have been promoting “avant-garde” artists at the expense of composers who want to write “tunes that do not grate on the ear”. This has certainly been my feeling for many years – but now I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Howard Blake on this. I actually studied composition with Howard Blake for a short time and I have to say that he was a kind, gentle and encouraging teacher and I learned a great deal from him in a short time. I have the utmost respect for him and his work – I love both his piano concerto and his violin concerto!
I was in contact with Howard Blake at a time when I was being interviewed for a place at one of London’s music conversatoires. My interview at the Royal College of Music was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was quite clear that I didn’t stand a chance of being offered a place simply because my music was far too traditional and melodic for the college’s avant-garde taste. A year later I did secure a place on the composition course at the Royal Academy of Music, albeit on the commercial composition course, which was far more tolerant of a traditional, melodic style.
And that’s where I agree with Howard Blake about the BBC (and music for television in general). When was the last time anyone writing for television composed a really memorable tune? The seventies and eighties gave us many good examples of really good television theme tunes – The Good Life; To The Manor Born; Open All Hours – and soap operas such as Howard’s Way and EastEnders, both from the pen of Simon May. The last really good signature tune to come from the BBC was that of Keeping Up Appearances, composed by Nick Ingman early in the 1990’s. I can’t think of anything better since then. And don’t we all want a stonking good tune to sing along to when our favourite TV programme comes on? The theme tunes to Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge are good enough, but just try singing them right now – I bet you’ll struggle!
It’s when it comes to the Arts Council funding etc that I might take the opposite view. As I have already alluded to earlier in this blog, I have decided, after many years of working in a traditional style, to discover a new, more avant-garde voice for myself because I now feel that the discovery of new ways of working is maybe of more value that replicating the past with a few minor tweeks.
Howard Blake does go on to say that “there is the view that tonal music has all been done by the great composers and one should therefore be looking for new expression. Nobody would disagree with that. But that does not mean excluding music with melody”. One cannot really disagree with this, and the conclusion I come to therefore is that there needs to be more of a balance in the funding and support of composers by bodies such as the Arts Council – supporting composers writing in a variety of styles, both the avant-garde and the more melodic.