Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Air clarinet

I have often 'ghosted' through pieces prior to an audible run through. This involves holding the flute, clarinet, saxophone (or whatever) and just moving the fingers. It saves tiring the lip unnecessarily as well as the ears of anyone in range. In a group situation it also prevents the sonic chaos that ensues when everyone is trying to practise their part at the same time.

As a reed and pipe player this method has a few shortcomings, one being the accurate pitching of the note, especially on the flute where a controlled overblowing is required to determine the register in which one is playing along with subtle changes in the embouchure to adjust the timbre and tuning.

Imagine my delight when a student arrived the other day and told me he had discovered air clarinet and this enabled him to practise at night without disturbing the neighbours. I assumed he meant either what I call ghosting or else imagining holding the instrument and moving the fingers as required. The latter, especially when applied to scales or other patterns of notes, I find a sure fire cure for insomnia.

What my student meant, in fact, was the removal of the reed and then playing as normal. He assured me he could hear the notes and that it gave him a sense of how much air would be required to play the piece. When I put this to the test I found that I could hear the notes fairly accurately in the chalumeau (bottom) register but that they were unsurprisingly absent above that. And while it may be satisfying on some level to blow into the instrument it is of little use in determining the breath control that will be required when playing 'for real'. Unlike saxophones and flutes, which have conical bores, the clarinet is a cylinder and it requires far less breath to make it speak. I do run short of breath on occasions but more often I find the problem is finding the time to expel unused air from the lungs where it has gone stale.

Still, 'air clarinet' gives the instrument the kind of cool cache it probably hasn't enjoyed since Artie Shaw was at his peak. It's definitely a term I will coin.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Disappearing sounds - the British Bulldog

I recently played at a very individual pub called the The Cidershed, or the Shed for short. A wonderful venue with none of that 'straight from the catalogue' theme-pub nonsense. There is a fair amount of railway memorabilia, including full sized buffers and signalling gear, as well as the biggest collection of hand-cranked sausage mincers I've ever seen clamped to the rafters. The selection of real ales on offer was well-chosen to provide variety of strength and flavour.

It was a Friday evening at the end of a rather stressful week and this was the second gig of the night. The beer that most captured my mood was called Bitter and Twisted. The landlord's generous offer of free beer to for the band did little to cheer me up as it was my turn to drive and I knew a pint at most of something low-strength was all I should imbibe. But the charm of my host and his hostelry worked its magic and I was steered in the direction of something called Summer Gold. My mood lightened considerably.

But it is fun to caustic on occasion and this latest celebration of a disappearing sound is just that. It has a sonic dimension, although I admit feeling a little mischievous when I apply a 'disappearing sounds' tag.

Although he lives in an upstairs flat, is out at work all day and shares a small garden with me (and my children), my neighbour decided to buy a puppy last year. Don't get me wrong. I have no quarrel with dogs in general, or even this dog in particular who is friendly and who can’t be expected to clean up after itself. And it can hardly be blamed for being so severely inbred that it struggles to climb stairs, run about, cock its leg or do other things a dog usually does. As a national symbol it seems perfectly appropriate for a post-colonial power searching for its soul in Britain's Got Talent.

OK, so now you know I'm bitter and twisted about this dog. And just because my kids can no longer play on the grass and visiting woodwind students have to watch their step. But why is a bulldog a disappearing sound? Well for one, the Kennel Club has bowed to pressure to change the rules regarding the breed in order to ensure healthier animals in the future. This means the gravelly wheezing of sleeping bulldogs, as they try to get air through narrow nostrils in deformed faces, will become a thing of the past. The dog in question, Arthur by name, sleeps on my neighbour's kitchen floor and at night this sound reverberates through my part of the house at night. I have tried to capture it but I fear the volume level may be only subjectively loud because of the relative peace elsewhere.

And a second reason for the great British Bulldog being a disappearing sound affects me only. It's more a case of a disappearing audience. Yes, I'm moving out; and I will leave the sound of Arthur's claws on my neighbour's floor (my ceiling) behind. And as another neighbour has just installed his new baby in the room next to my bedroom the timing could not be better. Detached house here I come!

Monday, 8 June 2009

What is an ocean drum?

Some years ago I helped to set up a 'music and movement' project with the grand ambition of bringing sessions to a 'culturally deprived' rural area. At least that's what it said on the funding application: one has to choose the language and buzz-phrases of the moment if one wants to get the gig. Our client base included adults with learning difficulties and Downs Syndrome and I wanted to get satisfyingly tactile and chunky instruments, both for them and for the other beneficiaries of the scheme. Amongst the kit I amassed was a 22" ocean drum made by Remo.

As a child did you ever roll marbles or pebbles around on a metal tray? There is something fascinating about the way in which the weight shifts as they roll or slide about the surface. And of course the sound. To be honest, and with apologies to Remo and other manufacturers and suppliers to the music stores of the western world, it never really said 'ocean' to me. Even now it's a name that rankles slightly - too literal and too leading.

The main problems with a tray of marbles from an educational point of view are firstly, it's not especially portable and secondly, there's a strong chance of spillage and all that entails. Enter the ocean drum, the shape of a bodhran but with a skin on both sides. There are dozens of ball bearings inside the drum and these roll around to make distinctive sound. They come in various sizes with 12", 16" and 22" being common, at least in the UK. although the 22" (About 55cm) never fails to impress primary aged children, by virtue of its size alone, they can find it rather unwieldy. Children also seem to like the ones with pictures of sea life visible inside. Personally I find them rather kitsch (Finding Nemo anyone?) and even more prejudicial to proper listening than the name.

Five interesting facts about ocean drums:

  • They actually originated in Nepal, a land-locked country in the Himalaya and a long way from the sea. The intention was, however, to imitate the sound of water.
  • You can hit them with a soft beater like the one in the picture. You cannot hit them hard with a drumstick without risking splitting the skin. Treading on them is also out.
  • If you hold one in both hands and shake the ball bearings vigorously between the two skins it produces a loud sound like thunder or crashing waves.
  • They can have a very calming affect on fidgety or agitated children and those with SEN (special educational needs). They have a mesmerising quality. Lying down and watching the ball bearings roll around from underneath is rather like being under water.
  • Although they are given all sorts of aquatic associations, don't leave them in a cold damp place for any length of time. I did and the ball bearings went rusty. It still sounds as good but, if you lie underneath, it feels more North Sea than Mediterranean.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Why do birds sing?

Although I do enjoy the occasional dip into New Scientist, the great thing about having no attachment to empiricism myself is that I can happily entertain all kinds of crazy notions. For over twenty years now my partner and I have practised chakra chanting - singing tones into each of the seven energy points, or chakras, of the body (according to some eastern belief systems). We learned it from a charming old hippy who subsequently moved to a remote part of Wales. Apparently it is based on a north Indian Buddhist tradition, although we have modified it to suit ourselves, but I couldn't say for certain and for once I actually like knowing nothing for certain about its origins. I am happy to be free of any of the restrictions that come with dogma.

It makes us feel good but I doubt I could prove that. I have some vague idea that it's to do with vibrations and the fact that humans are largely made of water. We don't do it to attract mates or to warn others off our territory, although I know people who sing for at least the first of these reasons.

This morning I heard the wood pigeon in the picture calling from the roof of my studio. It put its whole body into it - a large sound for such a small creature - and followed up with a thorough preening session. I have reason to believe it was courting and, when another male pigeon arrived they shared the space peaceably for a while before the singer flew away. So, obviously not defending its territory then.

Could it be that some birds, in addition to whatever other reasons they may have, sing because it makes them feel good? Because it vibrates their molecules in a health-giving manner?

While photographing the pigeon I caught a rare glimpse of an urban woodpecker and that was enough to make me feel good.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Synaesthesia and other holiday reading

Once in a blue moon I buy a copy of New scientist. It's good for camping: too small to catch the wind and with pages that are stapled together. I bought one at the station before boarding a train for the coast last weekend. I like to feel I know what's going on in the world of science and I get the gist of most of the articles (although the one on string theory felt like wading into quicksand). There's usually at least something interesting about sound. Fellow blogger Cogitator drew my attention to a NS item about echo location in humans in response to my blindfold post last month.

In the issue dated 30th May there were three articles directly relating to sound. The first to catch my eye was a snippet: 'Music eases baby pain'. Apparently it reduces the impact of minor invasive procedures. What sort of music isn't specified but presumably not the Dead Kennedys.

A slightly longer article 'Play together to stay together' suggests that music developed in order to increase cohesion in social groups. Apparently musicians are better at forming attachments to others. This surprised me as I have met many misanthropic musicians although I have not catalogued the encounters scientifically.

Synaesthesia is a condition in which the afflicted (or blessed) makes strong associations between one sense and another. They may taste shapes or numbers or else hear words or sounds in colour. The BBC has touched on this subject recently and, if you're curious, New Scientist was reviewing the book Wednesday is Blue: Discovering the brain of Synaesthesia by Cytowic and Eagleman (MIT Press). According to the article, evolution selected for the condition because it increases creativity. Apparently the condition is more common amongst artists and musicians.

Sensibly I also took time out to enjoy the North Norfolk coast.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Music in Literature

J K Rowling has had a lot of stick for the quality of the writing. As one who has read each of her books aloud, some more than once, I have often been tempted to send her a thesaurus, care of her publisher. But that would be churlish. She created a convincing world, spun a complex and riveting yarn and the quality of language improved greatly in the last few books.

Furthermore, anyone who uses their novel to draw attention to the importance of sound gets my vote.

For those unfamiliar with the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore is a benign, immensely powerful yet endearingly humble, wizard and headmaster. He represents all that is good, in contrast to his nemesis, Voldemort, the personification of evil. In the first volume it is this prominent and high status character that Rowling uses to express the value of music.

In chapter seven, as the students of Hogwarts are drawing to the end of the school song, she writes:

Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand, and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest.
"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"

Monday, 1 June 2009

June's Game of the Month

Every month I post a new, and absolutely free, music game at www.playwithsound.com where clicking on 'this month's free game' will take you right to it.

June's free music game is called Echo Me and is highly adaptable. It can be played with voices or instruments, can be made harder or easier and can be played educationally, but enjoyably, with children from five to one hundred and five. So versatile is this game that it can be played in a few odd moments as a filler or can be stretched for as long as your group has an appetite for it. And this can be a long time if you build it up in steps, as suggested, and add instruments to the mix. Have a go and let me know what you think.