Looking at Band-in-a-Box in 2013 on Mac OS X

There’s an amazing piece of computer software for musicians that has been around since 1990. It’s called “Band-in-a-Box” or BiaB for short.

biab_logo_elaborateI bought a copy and played around with it about a decade ago, when I was first learning jazz guitar. But I haven’t used it in at least eight years.

So when I had a recent opportunity to sit in and sing with a very good professional jazz band that has open jam sessions in a restaurant (that’s another story), I decided to invest in an upgrade copy of Band-in-a-Box to help me generate some backing tracks so I could augment my meager rhythm guitar skills and make some practice tracks to learn to sing the songs.

My entire review refers to Band in a Box 2013 for Macintosh, on Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. I did use Band-in-a-Box on Windows many years ago, but I have not seen the 2013 Windows version, and I’m not referring to any features of the 2013 Windows version of the program in this writeup.

Disclaimer

This is not a thorough review; I have not thoroughly learned to use every feature of this amazing program. I have not yet read the entire owners’ manual. I will say in my defense that in the late 1980s I was a music software reviewer for a well-regarded national magazine in the USA; at that time, I would not write a review without spending months using a program and investigating all of its features and shortcomings thoroughly. This is not such a review. I may say some things about this program that turn out to be erroneous because I’m ignorant of this or that function. Still, I believe I have some insights, which is why I’m taking the trouble to write this.

There are plenty of longtime loyal users of Band-in-a-Box who have long ago accustomed themselves to its notorious tremendous quirks and inconsistencies compared to the way that many other computer software programs work. Those people won’t like anything about this blog post; I’m not particularly interested in hearing from those people. I’m writing from the point of view of an outsider looking at the program with a fresh perspective, which I hope you can appreciate.

What It Does, and Does Very Well

Band-in-a-Box has one main function: You put in the chord progression and form to a song, typically but not necessarily a jazz song. You choose from one of hundreds of musical styles, adjust some parameters to taste, and BiaB miraculously generates a backing band accompaniment using a range of instrumentation: drums, guitars, piano, bass, horns, and strings. You can go further by having BiaB improvise melodies and solos according to myriad parameters. What makes all this amazing is that BiaB incorporates years and years of research into the way that jazz musicians play and arrange real live music, and distills this into computer algorithms. They have done this in conjunction and collaboration with quite a few famous living musicians, and the programmers have furthermore carefully analyzed and attempted to replicate the styles of many famous musicians who are no longer with us.

BiaB achieves amazing results, either by creating sequencer tracks in Standard MIDI File format, which it can play internally, or by using what it calls Real Tracks, which are actual audio recordings of performances by real professional studio musicians which have been chopped up, looped, and sometimes pitch- and time-shifted, so you can create playback tracks in any key and any tempo, within reason.

Search around online and find some demo videos for Band-in-a-Box. You’ll be impressed.

BiaB has a great deal of musical intelligence built-in. It will endlessly improvise different performances of a piece of music, based on the user’s input. The user can select various parameters to vary the performance throughout different sections of the song, keeping things simple for a sung verse, or more complicated for computer-improvised solos. The software can figure out and create introductions and codas, change the feel of different sections based on the structure of the song, and do more tricks than I could possibly catalog (or more than I could possibly find out and experiment with on my own).

Musicians have used BiaB for decades to study and practice jazz music and improvisation, and to make demo recordings. BiaB works great for the purposes that most of its users need it to work.

However, I have my own needs and my own desires, which I would imagine don’t mesh very well with the needs and desires of the typical BiaB user.

Now I get to the part of the blog where I nitpick over things that really bug me about this program.

Background

The good news is the Band-in-a-Box is continually developed and improved, and major new releases come out almost annually. This is a very big deal, and one that makes me feel good about using the program.

As you might imagine, BiaB has a large cadre of loyal users who have been working with the program for most or all of its 23 years on the market. With any program of this sort, created by a small independent development company with only a couple of people doing the code writing, this all adds up to a curse. The code in BiaB is very old and has been added onto and patched endlessly. It started out as an Atari ST program, later moving to MS-DOS, then Windows, then at some point about ten years ago they made a very half-hearted port to Mac OS X. (it’s gotten a bit better on the Mac since then). Today they continue to develop the software for Windows and Mac OS X. The other curse is the users. Even though this program can do some amazing modern tricks, like creating arrangements with the Real Tracks using phrases played by real studio musicians, the program still looks and acts and feels more or less just like it did in the early 1990s. In the early 1990s, BiaB did not pay attention to many of the conventions and guidelines for user interface being promoted by the Microsoft Windows developer initiatives. Today, it still doesn’t. Let’s not mention Mac OS X just yet, but we will.

I’ve seen a lot of pieces of small-niche-market software over the years that have this problem: The program is an accretion of the cruft of 23 years, which makes it very hard for the program to be revised, revamped, or made modern. Furthermore, all those users who’ve been on board for 20 years like that cruft, they are accustomed to that cruft, and if the BiaB developers tried to modernize anything, the old user base would howl in protest.

However, I think it’s worth my pointing out some of the crufty problems, because as amazing as this program is, I fear it’s basically been left behind, and it’s so crufty that BiaB is going to have a hard time selling itself to new users in 2013.

When you start the program up, it looks like your modern computer is suddenly running Windows 95, and then you notice that the program’s user interface, in myriad ways, isn’t even up to Windows 95 standards.

Now I have mentioned before that the program today does many things that it could certainly not do in 1995, such as working with MIDI software instruments, the 10GB and more of Real Tracks you can get as add-ons or bundle deals, and the ability to output tracks of audio performances ready to take into a DAW for further work. Let me make one last protestation: this program does amazing and useful musical things and does them well. But I think there’s a lot that’s lacking from the perspective of a user in 2013.

Crufty Problems

Band-in-a-Box 2013 for Mac’s toolbars are ugly, crowded with features that I would guess few people use. Buttons and features look like they were tacked on one after another over decades, without anybody ever stepping back and saying “Man, maybe we should reorganize things this year.”

toolbars
Click to see the whole image

More alarming is that there are many remaining menu items and dialog box items that refer to features that were deprecated many years ago and have nothing to do with the operation of the current 2013 version of the program. In BiaB 2013 for Macintosh, there are feature settings for a Roland Sound Canvas MIDI module (in hardware or software) for playing back musical instrument sounds. The problem is that BiaB has not shipped with a Roland Sound Canvas software module in many years. The current 2013 edition ships with an optional IK Multimedia SampleTank module from circa 2006, and there are no integrated features within BiaB to help the user hook up and work with the SampleTank sounds; if you go looking for them, you’ll find myriad settings for the Roland Sound Canvas software module (along with references to an obsolete Yamaha General MIDI specification) which is not there anymore. The program has tons of configuration settings for some 1990s technology it hasn’t used in many years (and which is not compatible with contemporary versions of Windows or Mac OS), and no configuration settings for the current sound playback system which is itself out of date by 7 years.

Some of these features are deprecated but the menu items are still in the program years later.
Some of these features are deprecated but the menu items are still in the program years later.

Today, in 2013, computer software programs that provide playback of music triggered by MIDI data do so with internal virtual instrument engines that are integrated into the software through VST or AU plugin support. It’s usually possible to edit the virtual instrument sounds and parameters directly in the host program. This is the case with products like Notion, Sibelius, Finale, Cubase, GarageBand, Logic, and many more. However, it’s 2013 and BiaB for Mac still doesn’t have VST or AU plugin support. On the Mac, one is only able to pass MIDI data out of BiaB and through the OS X IAC Driver pipe and into the aforementioned stand-alone version of IK Multimedia SampleTank. This is particularly awkward, inflexible, and poorly documented by BiaB to boot. If course through Mac OS X’s IAC pipe, it’s possible to configure connections to other virtual instruments (although not standard VST or AU plugins, in the absence of a stand-alone host shell), but again, this kind of patchwork approach just shows how out-of-date and user-unfriendly BiaB is in crucial areas.

Leaving that issue behind, working with the myriad parameters for dealing with variations in musical styles is a mess. All the menus and dialog boxes in the program are ugly and poorly organized. I have to cut BiaB some slack here: this program has a huge range of parameters that do rather non-intuitive things, are hard to figure out how to use correctly, yet result in creating some marvelous and magical algorithmic music composition. I just wish it didn’t have to look so ugly and haphazard.

Click to see the whole image
Click to see the whole image
Click to see the whole image
Click to see the whole image

And there are so many things about using this program that have always been odd and off-putting. For instance, when you enter chord progressions into its “grid” or “spreadsheet” of a skeleton song layout, there’s a field where you type abbreviations for chord names. An abbreviation can take several characters, like “f#dim7”. Well, suppose you make a mistake while typing in one character of a chord name, and you hit the backspace key. You would expect the cursor to go back one character for each time you hit the backspace key, because the backspace key works in this fashion in every other computer program you’ve ever used in your life, on any computer platform you’ve ever worked in. But no, in BiaB for Mac, hitting the backspace key results in the entire string of characters being obliterated and your having to start typing the name of the chord over from scratch. That would have been weird in 1990, and it’s weird today.

I really want to take them to task on how they’ve implemented simple things like where the files go and where documents get saved. On BiaB for Ma, if you create a new document and go to save it, you are prompted to save the document in the BiaB folder in the Applications folder on your Mac! That’s a cardinal sin. Everybody knows that no user documents should ever be saved in the Applications folder. Documents should only be saved in the user’s home folder in either the Documents folder or the Desktop folder. It’s always been that way. It’s never been any different. Now I wonder what happens when you try to save a file on Windows.

Where to save a user document by default is very important, because it has to do with things like reliably backing up user data, and file system indexing and searching. Stow a bunch of user documents in the wrong place, and they are likely never to be backed up or indexed by the automated processes in the operating system that take care of those things for the user. If a user’s hard drive were to fail, a repair technician would not go looking in the Applications folder for data to recover for the unlucky user, and a years of important musical work could get lost.

I’m not up to date on all the details, but it’s obvious that BiaB for Mac does not take into account any of Apple’s latest developer guidelines and requirements about code signing and sandboxing, not to mention guidlines they’ve had for many years about where and how to store user preferences and configurations. BiaB just dumps a bunch of text files into various sub-folders in the Applications folder, where they clearly do not belong, and at the very least should not be visible to the user; they should be bundled inside the application’s bundle and hidden from the default Finder view. Let’s just say that the program works in spite of this, but BiaB would not be eligible to be sold in the Mac App Store without a stem-to-stern reorganization of all these items.

I fear that BiaB equally snubs Microsoft’s current guidelines and requirements for Windows 8 and going forward. I see no evidence otherwise. And I fear that there are hundreds or thousands of BiaB users still on Windows XP who wouldn’t know the difference if their system crashed and nobody in the larger computing universe could figure out where to find the lost BiaB data and documents.

Back to working within the program. The main “grid” or “spreadsheet” where you put together a chord progression seems really daunting to me. It doesn’t look or act like what you would expect to see in a jazz lead sheet or any other kind of sheet music. There is no obvious, visible way to indicate or see beginning and end repeat systems, first and second endings, different sections like intro, verse, and chorus. Why can’t you just click on a measure and put a nice industry-standard begin or end repeat bracket symbol on it? Worst of all is the fact that if you’ve got many measures of chords already entered, I can’t find any way to insert a number of blank bars in the middle of something, or shift groups of bars around in a different order. In other words, if you are composing your own music, and you want to play around with an arrangement or a chord progression, BiaB makes it very hard to do this; to make changes, you may have to write your chord progression out on paper, trash the document you are working on, and start creating a whole new one from scratch.

I have not got the knack of how BiaB wants me to label and tag different measures for things like repeats, changing sections, different endings, intros and codas. There are contextual menus with commands, and there are dialog boxes, all of which ask you to do arcane things and type in strings of this or that. Once you do each operation, there is little if anything displayed on the “grid” itself to tell you what you have actually just done, and whether or not it’s going to take effect. Why can’t the program be revised so that all this can be done with standard music notation symbols, in a user interface that looks like sheet music? You can do this in many other music programs, like Finale or Sibelius (programs which obviously serve different functions) and it seems to me this would be a better way for a literate musician to be able to work with these elements of music.

What BiaB's grid view looks like. Where are the repeats and endings? Don't know. Click to see the whole image.
What BiaB’s grid view looks like. Where are the repeats and endings? Don’t know. Click to see the whole image.
What proper musical structure looks like, and how it would be laid out in Finale or Sibelius. Click to see the whole image
What proper musical structure looks like, and how it would be laid out in Finale or Sibelius. Click to see the whole image

BiaB cannot have multiple documents or songs open at once, and there is certainly no convenient way to copy chords or chord progressions from one document and insert them into another. And why does BiaB quit if an open document is closed? Who wants that? These are things that I would have expected the BiaB developers to address years ago, but they have not.

These are just a couple of examples of salient quirks; there are many more. Now let’s get back to generating a performance of a chord progression.

At this point, after trying to make some changes in an existing chord progression, generating new improvised versions of an accompaniment and playing them back becomes downright buggy. Some choices and changes in the form and structure of the piece that I had entered seem not to work, the MIDI playback becomes several measures out-of-sync with the grid display, and played-back arrangements sometimes stop abruptly before they are finished. When that happens, I find it’s quickest to trash the document and start over creating a new one. Not conducive to a confident user experience.

Let’s get back to MIDI

The BiaB people would probably counter that they lost interest in MIDI sound playback when they invested in the Real Tracks system, which sounds good in many situations (and less than good in many others). But after playing around with the Real Tracks, I decided to disable all that and go back to good old MIDI data. The reason is a bit complex:

I want to use BiaB to learn about how jazz music is played and arranged. It’s quite gratifying to start with a chord progression and build up the elements of a performance and arrangement and be able to analyze what’s been created. To do that, you need the MIDI data. When BiaB creates a very convincing-sounding performance using time- and pitch-stretched loops of real musical phrases played by musicians, it doesn’t create any music notation to go along with it. When you switch off the Real Tracks and ask it to compose MIDI data instead, then BiaB can display standard notation of the notes being played. It displays notation fairly intelligently, too. It will create complex tracks of strummed jazz guitar in myriads of MIDI notes, but it will display nice orderly quarter-note chords in its Notation display for me to study, so I can learn how to finger and arrange chords on my own guitar.

Notation, notation, notation

BiaB 2013 can display sheet music notation for all the musical parts it creates in an arrangement. Seeing the full musical notation of all this musical algorithmic wizardry is extremely educational to a journeyman musician like myself; it’s the main reason I purchased the program. But the implementation for music notation is only half-done, and leaves me feeling seriously unfulfilled.

As a music copyist who has worked with Sibelius a great deal, and Finale some, I know that music notation is a very complex and arcane art. Putting all those notes in a form and shape and layout that is conducive to musicians being able to read it easily is a formidible undertaking. Applications like Finale and Sibelius have conquered this problem and provide tremendous flexibility to the user in getting things just like the user wants them. Notation files can be saved and edited later; beyond working with the program you are in, data can be exported and exchanged between many notation and music software programs by a free and cross-platform document specification called MusicXML, which is currently owned and maintained by MakeMusic, Inc., the developers of Finale.

BiaB can display standard musical notation of its algorithmic compositions and arrangements, and properly notated at that. It is particularly amazing in that it can show tablature of guitar parts in a way that would actually make sense to a guitarist who wants to learn to play those arrangements. Seriously. There are many other software programs, including the previously lauded Finale and Sibelius, that cannot do this nearly as well as BiaB can.

But the frustrating drawback is that BiaB’s screen display and controls for adjusting the appearance and layout of the music notation is so awkward, inflexible, and buggy that you would not want to use BiaB’s score display to read from in a performance or rehearsal. It has printing features, but what it prints out is so poorly organized and laid out that you would have to flip through eight pages of hard copy to see the amount of music you could conveniently display on one page of carefully-laid out music in Finale or Sibelius or the like. This won’t do for performance in concert.

What would be a godsend would be if BiaB could export its saved arrangements as music notation in MusicXML format, so that I could take these amazing arrangements and export them. I could do further work on the scores in another software program that has better tools for formatting the physical appearance of sheet music: Finale or Sibelius. I could bring a BiaB arrangement in MusicXML into Sibelius, and get really good professional-quality arrangements to print out, or view on an iPad. There is currently no way to do this.

There is a freeware open-source music notation app called MuseScore that purports to be able to open a standard BiaB document and display a chart in music notation, and thence to convert it to MusicXML But what it actually can do falls far short of what you would think. MuseScore can only import and display the simple naked chord chart from a BiaB file. It cannot read any of the actual notes in the tracks of music that BiaB has created from the saved BiaB document.

Now BiaB can export a standard MIDI file, and you can import such a standard MIDI file into programs like MuseScore, Finale or Sibelius. But if you’ve ever tried to do this sort of thing, you know that what you get in your music notation program is not proper music notation at all. It’s the programs’ attempt to parse a ton of MIDI data and display it in notation, and the results are so very messy and inaccurate that there’s almost no point in the exercise.

Back in BiaB, it has generated a very musically sophisticated and realistic arrangement in MIDI data, and within the program, it can intelligently simplify the music notation display of that data in something that makes sense in standard music notation. But BiaB cannot format that notation into something useful and practical that you could print out and read at a gig, and there is no way to get this notation out of the program and into some other program like Finale or Sibelius that is much better at that sort of thing.

How I’m Using It Now

So what I’m having to do right now is this:

  • Realize a MIDI arrangement of a jazz standard in Band in a Box
  • Format and print out the musically-accurate but horribly-wonky-looking notation that BiaB can create
  • Manually key all that music into Sibelius to create a score that I can study and work with, which seems like a great deal of redundant effort
  • Take a Standard MIDI File output from BiaB and import it into Apple GarageBand to create a project where I can record my own rhythm guitar, singing and bass guitar to learn how to perform the song.

It would be totally amazing if a company like those of the developers of Finale or Sibelius could buy out or license the BiaB technology and put it right into their modern music creation and notation environments. But I have no reason to hope that they would want to do that, or see any advantage to having that functionality. And I doubt that the BiaB developers would want to hitch their wagon to somebody else’s company or development environment anyway. BiaB has been all by itself, doing its own thing, for a very long time, quirks and all.

BiaB does so many things amazingly well, yet frequently frustrates me. I suppose I should be grateful that such a program even exists, warts and all, and is surprisingly affordable, even though it’s such a pain to work with. Making music is a tremendously difficult and arduous undertaking, with a steep learning curve all the way. But it’s rewarding.

Hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the First Time, Again

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, the New Trinity Baroque Orchestra performed an all-Vivaldi string concerto concert at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

First up was all four concertos in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance was astonishingly good. I used the word “stupefying” to describe it to a friend. The audience was ecstatic — embarrassingly over-enthusiastic— and cheered riotously at the end of each of the four concertos.

As good as it was, I don’t intend to write a review of the performance, but more to write the thoughts that it evoked about why I love Baroque music in historically-informed performance.

All of us who like this music have heard old music from bygone eras played on modern instruments by a large orchestra of players focusing on modern performance techniques. That’s certainly how I heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons the first several times I heard it. New Trinity Baroque’s performance was the first time I had heard all four Seasons concertos performed in the same program by an early music chamber orchestra, and it was a revelation. It was truly like hearing it for the first time, as if all the previous recordings or performances I had heard merely hinted at what the music was all about. The husband of a friend of mine in the audience said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard the Four Seasons really interpreted, as opposed to just played.” This experience is common to all early music chamber groups if they are any good.

It’s quite amazing that New Trinity’s small chamber ensemble — only three violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, harpsichord and chittarone, and of course with no amplification of any sort, in a small church, in front of an audience of 90 people could, well, rock that hard. Hey, I grew up on hard rock music and Rolling Stone magazine. I made a colleague chuckle when I described this performance of New Trinity’s by saying “the entire ensemble just killed.” That’s the sort of language most in my generation would reserve for the stand-up comedy of Eddie Murphy or a rock concert by Prince. But I must be honest in saying that from my point of view, that’s the best way I can explain a concert of classical music played that effectively. I went on to describe this New Trinity Baroque concert by saying, “stupefying virtuosity, carefully rehearsed and meticulously executed, yet full of emotion and passion.”

One of the things that New Trinity Baroque reminded me of is that Vivaldi wrote some astonishingly evocative programmatic music, or tone poems, with The Four Seasons. Symphonie Phantastique? La Mer? Forget about it. Maybe Scheherazade is in Vivaldi’s league.

Most of the effects of what Vivaldi created, in my opinion, get lost when you hear them played by a “modern” orchestra. Here is why.

Early music takes some getting used to, for an audience comfortable with “modern” orchestras that play modern instruments. The differences are particularly stark with the string instruments.

The group I work with, the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, some years ago suffered a bad review of an otherwise okay concert written by an inexperienced, practically clueless music reviewer. She kept using the word “sour” to describe the strings’ sound, and implied that the instruments were never in tune anywhere in the concert. What she didn’t realize was that the instruments were perfectly in tune, and so was the music they were playing: the problem is that she was used to hearing a “modern” string orchestra where the players all use modern steel-stringed instruments and use a great deal of vibrato on all the notes they play. That vibrato, the rapid, small fluctuations in pitch around each central note, which is a characteristic of string playing in the last 125 years, makes all the pitches and intervals “blurry”, and smooths out and sweetens the sound. But this is not the sound that Bach and Vivaldi had at their disposal, so they didn’t write music for these kinds of timbres.

When Baroque music specialists play strings, it is on instruments with strings of sheep gut, not steel, and they use very little if any vibrato. They orient the intonation of the pitches and intervals in their playing decisively toward pure intervals, what we call meantone tuning, or just intonation, and not to the one-size-fits-all compromises of equal-tempered tuning used by the modern piano and guitar. In the modern era’s equal-tempered tuning, the intervals of major and minor thirds in a chord are wide of the mark and cause audible “beating” of clashing overtones. They are all quite out-of-tune compared to the pure intervals you can achieve on the fingerboard of the violin, viola, cello and bass, and in the human voice. The player with “modern” technique adds a generous dollop of vibrato to blur the distinctions in intervals even more.

With a Baroque string ensemble, all the intervals are stacked up purely in tune, with little or no vibrato to make anything drift or wobble. And sheep-gut strings, when bowed, create a different timbre, a different combination of overtones than steel strings do. Some people describe the timbre of a Baroque string ensemble as “pungent”, though I don’t like that characterization. I’ve heard one vocal musician who was not accustomed to early music tell me that singing in her choir with a Baroque orchestra accompanying them actually gave her a slight headache, because she was not yet accustomed to the stark, pure sonorities.

With The Four Seasons, each movement is accompanied by a sonnet that explains what Vivaldi is trying to convey. I had forgotten how heavy and violent the “Summer” concerto is supposed to be. Vivaldi tells us it’s about a farmer watching a heavy thunderstorm erupt into a hailstorm. Standing, pelted by hailstones, he watches as it ruins his wheat crop. New Trinity Baroque pelted out a fusillade of sharp sounds that, while perfectly consonant and tonal and measured, just as Vivaldi composed it, would startle the most jaded hard-rock music fan right out of their seat. Music doesn’t have to reach decibel levels that would damage your hearing in order to make all your nerve-endings fire. It just has to be played right.

Similarly, Vivaldi write passages in the “Winter” concerto that are absolutely sharp, spiky, and spine-tingling. You can feel the frost creeping over your windowpanes while you shudder in the cold. In the terraced crescendos of the opening of the first movement, pure, sharp intervals stack up one on top of the other, creating layers of palpable tension hanging in the air, until the lead violin bursts out with peals of cold sonic energy.

When modern-style string players try to interpret this on modern instruments, it can sound too smooth and blurry, too sweet. A small ensemble of gut-stringed instruments cannot “cut through the mix” and project like modern-style steel-stringed instruments; yet in Vivaldi’s setting, they can be far more cutting and clear and effective and energized than a much larger ensemble of modern instruments swathed in vibrato. You just have to experience it to appreciate the difference.

Now of course an effective performance of Baroque music has a lot more to it than just intervals and intonation. There are many expressive and interpretive techniques that skilled musicians bring to the task of revitalizing this music in what they call the historically-informed performance style. Any musician who plays this music will tell you that they are in the middle of a lifetime of learning to play expressively in more ways than I can convey in one essay. New Trinity Baroque’s performance this time around reminded me of one salient aspect of historical performance. There are many more.

I’m not implying that Baroque music and its resources are inherently superior or more effective in musical expression than a modern symphony orchestra playing music from the late 19th or 20th centuries. Far from it: music that more recent composers wrote to make use of the resources of more recent orchestras works most effectively when played by the same sort of orchestra playing the same sort of instruments that the composer wrote it for. So from Mahler to Philip Glass, you want a modern symphony orchestra. Those musicians wrote for those timbres and sonorities, and for instruments that could handle all those key modulations and remote tonalities and complex chordal dissonance. But for Bach and Vivaldi and Telemann, and even Mozart, you are missing a lot if you fail to experience them in meantone tuning played on instruments like those played in those peculiar times, played by musicians who study how to try to get back to the composers’ original intent.

As I’ve often said, no matter what kind of music I’m listening to — and if you know me you know that I’m equally passionate about rock, jazz, and all forms of contemporary commercial music as I am about classical music — you know that I like to get back to the roots of whatever music I’m presented with. When I heard the amazingly daring bebop jazz improvisations on the “standards”, I wanted to know where those tunes came from, and that’s when I went back toward the direction of the earliest decades of Broadway and writers like Irving Berlin. Before that, I had heard Walter Carlos’ Switched-On Bach in my early teens, more than ten years after it was recorded and released, and that is when I woke up to Baroque music. I heard these wonderful interpretations on the Moog synthesizer, and they excited me for what they were. But it set me on a journey to learn about the source of that music, its roots — and that led me to early music and historically-informed performance.

I feel that I can appreciate any style of music and any group of musicians as long as they are intelligent and skilled, and earnestly understand and live and breathe the music they play at its most basic level of interpretation. This is why I love groups like the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and New Trinity Baroque, and I feel so privileged to have them perform right in my home town.

My interview with Steve Hackett, March 2000

It recently came to my attention that I’ve never published this interview, which was for a short feature that ran in Guitar Player Magazine in the July, 2000 issue.

Steve Hackett is a guitarist best known for his work with the band Genesis from 1971 through 1977. Since then he has mostly worked solo, alternating from electrified progressive rock to projects based around acoustic classical guitar. He has remained popular and successful throughout Western Europe since leaving Genesis.

At the time Guitar Player Magazine assigned me to conduct this interview, Hackett had not performed in the United States in many years. The occasion for the interview was that he had secured distribution to sell his  back-catalog of solo albums in the United States. The result, seen a few years after the interview, is that Hackett was able to do some successful limited touring in the United States. In 2010 Genesis, with Hackett, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Interview with Steve Hackett
Friday, 24 March 2000
by Wheat Williams
Phone interview from Twickenham, England
Copyright © March, 2000  by Wheat Williams
All Rights Reserved

Wheat: Do I understand that Guitar Noir, Many Sides to the Night and Tokyo Tapes are just being released in America for the first time?

Steve: I think some of them are being released for the first time and some are being re-released. I think in Guitar Noir’s case it’s re-released. As far as I remember correctly that was out on Viceroy for awhile. I may be completely wrong there. I find that, as ever, the distances between countries mean that it’s a far more complex equation. The idea of simultaneous worldwide release is no longer a reality, and really hasn’t been the case for about the past fifteen years or so. It’s just the way it goes.

Wheat: Is there any chance that Sketches of Satie and Darktown are going to be released in America?

Steve: I think it’s inevitable that they will be. But they always seem to have to wait their time until the deals are done. And as we don’t have a man on the spot to do that for our company, it’s always a kind of long distance fishing expedition.

Wheat: Maybe you ought to talk to Robert Fripp.

Steve: So many of us are in this position. Robert and I used to communicate at one time.

Wheat: When he had his own record label?

Steve: No, no, no, many years before that, before he worked with Peter Gabriel in fact, we used to talk quite regularly in the mid-70s.

Wheat: He’s regarded as one of the more successful people in terms of starting a record label where the artists own their own masters and doing their own marketing and all that.

Steve: Well, that’s what we’re doing in this country. We seem to have got the situation sorted out in England and in most of Europe. America always seems to be more difficult for us.

I was just reading an e-mail today from somebody who was saying they couldn’t find products by the various other artists, and he included people like Alan Parsons Project and many others. And I thought, ah, there are many more people in this position than I’d imagined. There were many names that I consider to be well-known in that list. This is just part of what happens to music from musicians of a certain age or a certain era. It’s just the way it goes.

Wheat: Let’s get right on to talking about Sketches of Satie.

Steve: Sure.

Wheat: I noticed that tracks 10 through 15 are for two guitars, and no flute. Is your brother John playing guitar or is this a double-track thing that you did?

Steve: That’s a double-track from me. John is specifically playing flute.

Wheat: Does John have his own career as a working musician?

Steve: Yeah, John has a couple of things on the go. There’s an outfit called Symbiosis that he does albums with, and which is basically mainly improvised stuff, atmospheric stuff. And then he’s worked with the English Flute Quartet. He has fingers in a number of pies in the classical world, but this is the first time he’s been a featured artist on a record.

Wheat: Satie originally wrote all these pieces for solo piano?

Steve: Yeah, that’s right.

Wheat: And the two of you worked out the transcriptions?

Steve: Well, it was a team. There was my brother and a woman named Sally Goodworth who did the tempo mapping. In other words she played piano versions of the songs on a MIDI piano so that we had the score both written out and recorded.

Wheat: And she played them in your transpositions, or you did that with the MIDI data afterwards?

Steve: It’s a complicated process. We did versions with flute and piano first of all which were just rough to audio then we did versions on piano with MIDI so we had references. Then we replaced the flute on the flute and piano versions. Only then did I play guitar to that. It sounds like a really arse-about way of playing it, but there are several reasons for that.

Wheat: Please tell me.

Steve: Okay, number 1, the Satie music doesn’t actually fit on the guitar. You have to keep retuning. The lowest note that’s played is actually not just an E below the lowest E on a regular guitar, but E-flat, a semitone below that. To get notes which were outside the range on the high end, I’d use harmonics. So to my mind it wasn’t possible to play arrangements that do it justice just sitting down with the two of us.

I’m trying to think how to describe the technical process. I spent a long time doing the guitar parts and the flute parts were done actually relatively quickly. But the guitar work took quite some time. Because the harmonies are very complex and plus I wanted to make sure it was recorded very, very cleanly. I think it’s a totally squeak free album.

Wheat: Can you play these live?

Steve: We can do some of them. We were rehearsing this up recently. But in the main, John’s not really up for touring. He’s got other commitments. It’s basically an album I don’t think you’re really going to be seeing us doing that live. We might do the occasional radio performance or the odd TV thing but we’re not really touring it around halls.

Wheat: Do you think that your transcriptions and your arrangements of Satie are something that other classical guitarists are going to want to get ahold of and perform?

Steve: To be honest, I think you would need a guitar quartet to be able to do, or certainly a trio, to cover the bases that I did. I don’t think it’s possible even with two guitarists. It would be too cumbersome. I don’t suggest it.

Wheat: So on some of these pieces, when I hear one guitar, I’m actually hearing multi-tracking of different tunings?

Steve: Yeah. I basically did it line by line you understand. So I didn’t keep track of of how many guitars there were at any one point. There might be as much as four at one point; there may be as little as one. This may well upset the purists; however, the ends justify the means, always, for me.

Wheat: So what classical guitar composers and performers have influenced you?

Steve: Well, if I could upset the apple cart a little bit here, I think the best music for classical guitar was never actually written for the guitar. I think it’s the transcriptions of Bach that Segovia did. That’s still the best guitar music, as far as I’m concerned.

Wheat: And it’s never been surpassed?

Steve: Never been surpassed, really. You know, the additional harmonies that Segovia added himself, things that were often solo violin or cello, have yet to be surpassed.

Wheat: Did you study classical guitar early on, before your career started?

Steve: No. I’ve never had any formal training other than the fact that for the past few years now I have been working with a guitarist named Theodore Cheng. He’s been doing transcriptions of my pieces. And we sit down and we give each other guitar lessons. I’ve passed on what I can do to him, and he passes on what he can do to me, and it’s very nice. It means that nobody is Herr Professor. Nobody is the Meister Glockenspieler, if you know what I mean. And neither of us has to lord it over each other. We just appreciate each others styles and techniques.

Wheat: Are the transcriptions going to be published?

Steve: Yes they are. And so far we are doing some on the Internet. I think they’re actually up and running.

Wheat: You’re just making those freely available?

Steve: No, as ever, one’s running a business. And have to recoup their costs. Quite a lot of my life has been spent working on these classically inspired ditties, so I’m pleased that they hit the airwaves.

Wheat: Is some of A Midsummer Night’s Dream included in that?

Steve: Yes it is, yeah.

Wheat: I have not had a chance to listen in depth to all these records, but I just love the playing on Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s very evocative and totally original.

Steve: Oh, thank you very much. You know I read some notes about Rachmaninoff. Many of his detractors said that he was too Romantic and that it wasn’t original, and he said, I don’t try to be original, I just try to play the music that I hear in my head and that’s been inspired by lots of people, including Tchaikovsky, etc. And I think that’s very honest.

That’s the way I approach music. If it comes out as original, fine, but I’d rather have something that was evocative. I think that’s a good word. In other words, it makes you think about something else. And you’re not quite sure what that thing is. Whether it’s magic, or if it comes from some deep spiritual source, we don’t really know, but it has a question mark. Why does it stop me in my tracks?

Wheat: Was A Midsummer Night’s Dream a successful album for you?

Steve: Yes, it’s been very successful. EMI in England signed me up for that one and they did a great job promoting it, and I was thrilled. It was a top-ten classical guitar album here for about two months. It was a total vindication of all the ideas that once got me in a lot of trouble, a lot of hot water.

Wheat: For instance?

Steve: It got me booted off my original record label, Charisma.

Wheat: For being too classical?

Steve: Yeah, for being too esoteric, airy-fairy, you name it.

Wheat: Have you heard Rick Wakeman’s Return to the Center of the Earth by any chance?

Steve: I did many years ago.

Wheat: No, the new one that just came out last year?

Steve: Oh, really? No I haven’t heard that.

Wheat: It’s Return to the Center of the Earth.

Steve: Really? A reworked version? No I haven’t heard that.

Wheat: It’s a pretty sad story actually. He collapsed and was in hospital from pneumonia as he was finishing the album. He could not do any touring or promotion of the record and it kind of just sank like a stone. It was a major international label, a huge symphony orchestra, and it’s beautiful stuff, but this is about a year ago. Patrick Stewart is the narrator. Wakeman took sick and there was no promotion, there were no live gigs, it was very sad. And I thought it was great music. But anyway, that’s ancient history already.

Steve: Yeah, well, let’s hope he recovers. We spent some time together over the years, Rick and myself. He had a TV show here called “Gas Tank.”

Wheat: Yeah, well, we don’t get to see that over here.

Steve: Well, it was a while ago, a long time ago now. It must have been early 80s. I did a guest spot on there, and we ended up playing together.

Wheat: Let’s talk about Darktown. Are there some contemporary artists that influenced your experimenting with sampling and looping and lots of digital editing in the music?

Steve: Many of them. It’s difficult to say a specifically. You’d be surprised at the things that I listen to and like. Like the Beastie Boys, there’s a band called Garbage that I like very much. I liked their first album very much. “Stupid Girl” I thought was a great single. Great guitar hook. One little guitar note that’s just such a fantastic sound. So I do listen to contemporary stuff.

Wheat: And on this record, your engineers, Roger King and Ben Fenner really came to the fore.

Steve: Oh, sure, and Jerry Peal. Yes, I think that the album was a massive engineering feat.

Wheat: Tell me about it. What was the recording method?

Steve: Well, instead of having a traditional band, in the sense of you have musicians lined up…take Garbage–three different producers are involved with that. All the guys in the band are producers. And I find that very interesting. So the band, for me, was three different engineer-producers who worked with me, and they’re all immensely talented people. I can’t sing their praises enough. There are other people playing on my album, but so much has been done from the producer-engineers’ archives.

When somebody who’s an engineer-player-programmer turns up, he’s usually got a suitcase full of their own sounds and samples. For instance, two days ago I was working with Roger on some rock stuff here at home. And I said to him, I got a lyric in a song that talks about the harbor lights calling me. It’s a jokey kind of tune. I said, “have you got the sound of a harbor, something like that?” And he did. Lo and behold, he had a CD of the sounds of a ship’s bell and a kind of foghorn, I think it was a lighthouse sound.. And it’s just wonderful. In stereo, those two sounds are on the track. And I’m amazed, you know, the things I’ll suggest to Roger or Ben or Jerry, that obviates the need for me to go on location with a microphone myself. I love personalized sounds as well, don’t get me wrong. I don’t do everything by myself, but I don’t think that covers half of it. But I have no prejudice. At the end of the day, whether it’s specimens or whether it’s to unique specifications, it really doesn’t matter. If it does the job, then that’s fine.

I do think there’s a tremendous difference between sampled strings and real strings.

Wheat: Of course.

Steve: As there is between a guitarist and a sampled guitarist. Even that I’ve used from time to time if I thought it was interesting. Again, one hopes to have no prejudice.

Wheat: Tell me about the actual recording process. Was this recorded to digital tape, was it recorded to ProTools?

Steve: Okay. The Satie album is all ProTools.

Darktown was put together in tandem with many other releases over a ten-year period. So that meant that it started out on a Studer 24-track analog machine. It went round the houses. ADAT recordings have been included. ProTools recordings have been included. So there were many different formats that we used. Lots of different levels of transfer that had gone on. But at the end of the day, I don’ believe that’s to the detriment of any of it.

Wheat: I was not aware that you spent ten years recording this album.

Steve: Yeah, Darktown was ten years in the making. It’s gonna be a little complicated to explain this. I really wish I could give you the short answer. Mainly because of the politics surrounding it. There were many other projects that were easier to get off the ground whilst I was recording Darktown. Many other things.

There was, if I remember correctly, Guitar Noir, the Blues With a Feeling album, all of the other ones that you’ve received, were done after the start of Darktown, which was material that I always had that I was always putting to one side. There always seemed to be something else that was more pressing.

I was in love with lots of the tracks that were on Darktown, and I was playing it in my car for ages and ages and thinking, “Will this material ever see the light of day?” Also, during that period we started our own record label. It takes awhile to set those little things up! You know, we built our own studio, our record label Camino Records.

Wheat: Is the studio in your home?

Steve: Most of the studio is in my home, and we are building another one near where we have our office.

Wheat: And where is Twickenham? I’m not very good with British geography.

Steve: Okay, on the map from London, Richmond is side-by-side with Twickenham, which is the other side of the Thames. Richmond would be perhaps the better-known internationally, but Twickenham is kinda the home of rugby.

A lot of French nobles escaped during the French Revolution to Twickenham, which was a more sought-after address in the 1700s I believe. And lots of things were built in the 1790s, lots of Twickenham was built at that point. There’s a more picturesque part which might correspond with another area called Hampstead, which is now a London suburb. I totally recommend it. Richmond is fantastic, and has a wonderful park with deer that roam free. Walk up to them and feed them if they’ll let you. And Richmond has the river which is it’s a very beautiful town. Lots of musicians live in Richmond and Twickenham.

Wheat: And how long have you lived there?

Steve: Since the early 80s.

Wheat: What guitars are you playing these days?

Steve: Well, electric guitars, still the favorite, really, would be the Les Paul original that I have, from 1957.

Wheat: Is that the gold top?

Steve: Yeah, gold top. And I don’t care what Spinal Tap say, it’s still my favorite. And I’ve got another electric, I’ve got a Fernandes Japanese guitar which has a Sustainer pickup.

Wheat: Is that patterned after a Les Paul?

Steve: It’s a Les Paul shape, it’s black. It looks like a Les Paul Custom from a distance. I’m staring at it right now, in fact. It’s called a Burney.

Wheat: Is it an off-the-shelf model, or is it something that they built for you?

Steve: It’s one that they built for me. They built this one with a Floyd Rose tremolo and a Sustainer pickup. I have to say, it’s a wonderful guitar.

Wheat: Do you use a Roland MIDI pickup?

Steve: No, I haven’t got a Roland MIDI pickup on that one. I’ve got a Gibson Les Paul with a Roland MIDI pickup, and they look, from a distance, practically identical.

Wheat: Is that from your GTR days?

Steve: I think it is from the GTR days.

Wheat: I’m laughing because just about three months ago I saw its counterpart, belonging to that other guy named Steve from GTR. I went to see Yes and interviewed Steve Howe and he had his. His is cherry red, I believe. You have its counterpart.

Steve: I’ve got the black version. The cherry red versions look very nice, I must say.

Wheat: How do you record guitars? Is it a bunch of digital effects and straight to the desk? Do you mike amplifiers?

Steve: I try to employ all techniques so that we don’t get too stuck with one kind of sound or one kind of approach. I use a mixture of amps and a mixture of DI effects.

Wheat: What are your favorite amps?

Steve: Well, what I tend to use for recording these days is a Peavey Classic 50 which I originally bought as a harmonica amp. And just found out that it happened to sound great with guitar. It also sounded great with bass. I’ve recorded John Wetton’s bass through it and before now, and that sounds fabulous. It’s really a copy of the Fender Bassman that the harmonica players used to like using. So ironically, there you are. There’s this amplifier that was built for bass players in the 50s that harmonica players liked to play through at one time. Tweed-covered, and the levels of distortion were just right for harmonica. The Peavey Classic 50 has got many of the features of the Fender Bassman, but a more controllable level of distortion.

Wheat: What are the speakers on that amp?

Steve: They’re 2 x 12s. But in my time I’ve used, with some satisfaction, HiWatts and Marshall. In my new studio I think I’m going to try some Marshall gear again. With the size studio that I have at home, there isn’t enough room to mike up a Marshall stack. But I don’t feel it’s limited my sound. I’m pleased with what I’ve got. I do move away from the home studio at times, especially to go and record orchestras and what have you, but yeah, I’m interested….

[Break while the tape is turned over.]

I’ve also got a Groove Tube amp that I like to use. I’ve used it sometime recording DI in the studio and I’ve used it live as well. That’s a great sound, I must say. And I use a SansAmp as well, but I use it as a preamp in my amps.

Wheat: Was Genesis Revisited: Watcher of the Skies recorded in your home studio?

Steve: Yeah, partly recorded at home, but the drums were recorded in other studios, as was the orchestra.

Wheat: Was that pretty much an ADAT project?

Steve: That was an ADAT project. Yeah. In fact I’m very glad to have moved on to ProTools since, because it was really too big a project for ADATs.

Wheat: Do you do some of the ProTools recording and editing yourself or do the engineers come in at that point?

Steve: No, I that’s basically an engineering function. I prefer not to be involved. I’m a great fan of technology, but some people have called me a technophobe because I don’t particularly like punching the buttons. I like to listen. I must say, and I like to have a dialog with at least one other person. I find it ideal. A musical conversation between two people is great. I think three people, you’ve already got an argument.

Wheat: That’s a great quote, Steve.

Steve: Form a group at your peril.

Wheat: Do you think you’re ever going to function as part of a group again? It’s been 15 years I guess since GTR.

Steve: I think that is unlikely in this lifetime. However, recently I’ve been hired to play guitar for one or two people. And I may be part of their band for the project.

There’s something going on at the moment. I’m playing with some people that worked with the following bands: the Cocteau Twins, Spiritualized, Echo and the Bunnymen, Portishead, and Massive Attack.

Wheat: That’s marvelous.

Steve: Yeah. It’s a totally different crowd, much younger, but they seem to be giving me greater freedom to do pretty much what I want on top of their stuff.

Wheat: Does the band have a name?

Steve: Don’t have a name yet, no. They have a record deal. But it’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Suddenly, after all these years.

Wheat: I’m sure you were an inspiration to them for long before they called you up on the phone. They’ve got all the Genesis stuff in their heads.

Steve: Yeah. I think they’re as unprejudiced as younger players can be.

It’s Liz Fraser and her husband Damien. who are putting together the band. It’s a much younger scene.

Wheat: It sounds very exciting.

Steve: I played on two tracks on what’s become an album. I hope it materializes, now, you know, because hey, who knows what could happen? They could the band could break up, their record company should go bust, they might divorce. I should be wary of talking about things in the future too much! The people that are involved with those bands are aware of what I’ve done. It’s great. I must feel like Ronnie Scott felt when Phil Collins called him up to play sax on Face Value. Yeah, I’m pleased. And the nice thing is so far they have given what I’ve done a prominent place in the mix. It’s not just a case of wanting the name so that it fits the corporate image. They hired me cause they like what I do. So and that’s a refreshing change, believe me.

Wheat: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about the Tokyo Tapes. Was this really just a one-shot show?

Steve: We did four gigs in Japan. By the third gig it was just turning into a really great band. But hey, you know, it would have been nice if we had taken that everywhere, but everyone had their own life to lead.

Wheat: Has that one sold well?

Steve: Yes, it has, yeah. It’s been one of our best sellers for Camino.

Wheat: What kind of sales figures are we talking about on Camino?

Steve: You’d have to ask my manager Billy about that.

Wheat: You don’t concern yourself with that part of it?

Steve: Well, I do and I don’t. But I’d rather not be misquoted. Suffice it to say we’re in business after several years here now. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because it isn’t. I mean I think decisions are made very carefully. But because we make in-house albums, I think the money is very well spent.

Wheat: You get a good return on your investment?

Steve: We get a good return on the investment.

What tends to happen is I may re-record a track as much as two or three times if I think that’s necessary. But that’s somewhat easier theses days due to ProTools. You keep the things that you want and you lose the things that you don’t. You know the concept of the demo record versus the master has become much more blurred in the past twenty years, really. And it’s much more flexible.

Wheat: I want to ask you this only because it’s in the first sentence in the bio that they sent me. They refer to you as the inventor of tapping. I know what they’re referring to, “Return of the Giant Hogweed,” aren’t they?

Steve: Also, “The Musical Box,” there’s a tapping solo. That was in ‘71. And there’s also a tapping solo, on Selling England By the Pound, the first track, “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.”

Wheat: [remembers and hums the lick]

Steve: Yeah, that one [hums along].

Wheat: Where did that come from? Did you just pick that up out of the air? Was there some other artist that was doing that?

Steve: No, no, no, no. It was my idea. I was just very frustrated one day that I couldn’t do the things that J. S. Bach could do on the keyboard. I suddenly realized that with the fuzz box that I had at the time that I didn’t need to pick every note. You could hammer on and off with one hand and use the nail, which I was using, the flat of the nail. I still do, which is a technique which no one else uses. As far as I’m aware of, everyone else uses the fingertip for it. But I use the flat of the nail to hammer on and pull off.

Wheat: Do you think that you directly inspired people like Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan?

Steve: Well, I would have to say that those people’s recordings appeared later than mine. So it may have been parallel development or they may have listened to what I’d done.

Wheat: We’re hoping that Darktown and Sketches of Satie will be available on this side of the pond.

Wheat: Are you doing much live performing these days?

Steve: No, not really. But I’m gonna be doing some dates in Italy in the summer. I’m putting together a band at the moment, and then I’m possibly going to do some gigs with Elizabeth and Damien if all goes well.

Wheat: When was the last time you played the States?

Steve: Oh, a long time ago now, isn’t it. Was it ‘92, ,93, ‘94? Can’t quite remember but it’s awhile ago now.

Wheat: Have you got any hopes for coming back over here?

Steve: I’d like to tour there from a position of strength rather than having to do every thing that’s on offer. It’s gotta be economically viable. I hate saying that kind of stuff, but you know I’m sure. I miss it all. I miss the clubs, I miss the theaters, I miss the stadiums in the States. And I miss the American audience, which has been wonderful to me.

Wheat: You know this just occurred to me. I saw them two years ago in a rare visit outside of Montreal, but have you ever heard of a group called The Musical Box?

Steve: Yeah, I’ve heard about them and I’ve heard that they create faithfully the era of 1973.

[Discussion of The Musical Box]

Steve: The presentation became very important to us as a band. That’s another reason why I find touring these days an immense drawback. Normally I want to take a presentation. I don’t really just want to stand there with a single light bulb and do it. But, yeah, if it’s up to me, I’ll deliver Disneyland on stage. There’s an aspect of that, Disneyland with music, I think is the real aim, isn’t it? It’s music to transport people and take them to different places.

Wheat: You had the opportunity to do that in the 70s with Genesis.

Steve: Many of those shows benefited from that. I think that the era of ‘73 was one whereby, I mean I wouldn’t say we necessarily peaked, musically, at that point, but we came pretty close to it. I mean I liked so much of what we were doing then, and the presentation, and what have you.

Wheat: The stuff of yours with Genesis though that really grabbed me and affected me the most was Trick of the Tale and Wind and Wuthering.

Steve: Well, I think we were getting more professional. We were playing to larger audiences, we had bigger budgets, and.

Wheat: But I just loved the writing, the pieces.

Steve: I thought you meant the live shows.

Wheat: I’m not old enough to have seen you live at that point, unfortunately.

Steve: Right, fair enough.

There was a lot of interesting stuff that was written after that period in time. I’m just remembering a time when it seemed to me that the live presentation and what we were doing on album seemed to be very much in sync. When we started to get our own light show and when we started to move into that area of controlling the environment and paying special attention to special effects, sticking out for it, and I think sticking out for what we believed in individually. I think it was a good time.

Wheat: Did you undertake some of that theatrical presentation and lighting in the Tokyo Tapes shows?

Steve: Yes, some of it did. We did have a presentation in Tokyo. We had lights, and they were very good indeed. And you know some of the lighting effects were absolutely wonderful and I would love to be able to wrap them up and take them home and present them in the future. It always seems as if it’s that kind of thing that’s kind of snatched away from you. Everyone has this in life to some degree. Something is hinted at and then it’s snatched away. But yeah, that was some wonderful effects.

Wheat: Where are Ian McDonald and John Wetton these days? Do they still live in England?

Steve: Ian lives in New York. Ian’s a very interesting character.

Wheat: Does he work as a session musician?

Steve: Oh, yeah. And he produces other people. He produced a really wonderful harp album, for instance. I mean concert harp, a guy who plays jazz concert harp, a guy called ???? Ian was the producer and Ian’s done an album of his own, which is called Drivers Eyes, on Camino again.

Wheat: Did you enjoy working with John Wetton?

Steve: Yes, I did. I’ve worked with John on record and live. You know, John’s immensely talented, has a wonderful voice, and is a great bass player.

Wheat: It was really fascinating listening to Watcher of the Skies, with all the great players you pulled together to do that. Was that recorded over a long period.?

Steve: There’s a video in fact of us playing in Tokyo as well, doing that set.

Wheat: And is Camino selling the video?

Steve: Yeah. You might be interested in that.

Wheat: Oh, I’d be extremely interested.

Steve: I think that’s available in more than one format as well.

[Long digression]

Wheat: Did you enjoy playing the Crimson tunes in Tokyo Tapes?

Steve: Yes we did, yeah!

Wheat: I know that Fripp was a big inspiration for you in the early days.

Steve: Well, and Ian as well, you know? I think it was the whole of that band at that time and I think what was interesting was the fact that there were players there who were a little bit older than me, which makes all the difference at that time, who were playing material that you would’ve considered to have been–I’m trying to find the right words–material that really shouldn’t have belonged side-by-side. And yet you’ve got those things side-by-side.

Wheat: Well, the essence of progressive rock and psychedelic rock is putting together a lot of unlikely elements.

Steve: Unlikely elements. I think that’s the word, isn’t it? And yet making it cohesive and making one seem stronger because of its juxtaposition with the other. And that’s motivated me for years and years. The Beatles started doing that stuff, but I mean it went back further than that. It went back to the Goons, it went back to Peter Sellers, it went back to the Temperance Seven, it went back to comedy records that I heard in the early 50s, and I’ve really been inspired by all of the same things. Yeah, you name it. I’d have to mention a thousand people. I’d have to go back to Danny Kaye and Django Rhinehart to Segovia. It’s just, where do you stop? You have to doff your cap to all of them.

Wheat: You’re one of the architects of progressive rock and that had a big influence on popular music at one time, and it still resonates, I feel. If people like Portishead and Cocteau Twins are calling you up and saying come play for us.

Steve: Sure. It’s interesting, isn’t it. It has to have a larger resonance than you could ever realize. And it also quashes the myth that some things are fashionable an other things aren’t. Because it means to the currently fashionable, those things are still fashionable. I know what I’m trying to say, but I’m getting my knickers in a twist here.

Wheat: No, I understand exactly what you are saying.

[Closing digressions and pleasantries]
END

Copyright March, 2000 by Wheat Williams
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Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Conclusion

I cannot help but reflect that the original recordings of most of these songs were popular before the students in the KSU orchestra were born. It seems that very few of them were familiar with the material (may I use the word urtext?) before the charts were put in front of them for a few days of rehearsals. There were many old-timers like myself in the audience for whom these songs hold profound memories and evoke a deep emotional response. (Go back and re-read assistant dean Samuel Robinson’s program notes in the previous blog page, if you don’t understand what I mean.) Furthermore, divorcing the lyrics and melody from Gabriel’s own performance of these orchestral pieces thrusts the performers further away from “getting it” and understanding that millions of fans across the world held Gabriel’s music to be deeply moving, even in a spiritual way. To cut to the chase, the orchestra didn’t play all thirteen of these pieces convincingly, but that in no way diminishes my admiration for everyone involved for tackling such a difficult and rewarding musical project in such an unexpected setting.

The obvious template for Gabriel and Metcalfe’s work is orchestral minimalism, influenced by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as Gabriel explains in the bonus materials of his new blood DVD. This comes naturally from the original studio recordings of these songs in the 1970s through 2002, when Gabriel, very much influenced by classical minimalism at the time, used analog sequencers and drum machines, and later on increasingly sophisticated digital music technology, as the bedrock for many of the compositions. Ostinatos of metronomic sequences and counterpoints, often in odd time signatures, were overlayed with live drums, percussion, guitar, bass, and piano, and in the early days Gabriel’s own flute.

Each of the pieces in the new blood suite sound quite different, but most of them start with a quiet dynamic, with the musicians given the task of reproducing complex patterns transcribed from the original sequenced electronic sounds. This task often fell to the tuned percussion, employing a lot of hocketing between parts to cover what was originally composed with contrapuntal layers of monophonic synthesizers. It’s a big challenge to ask a percussion ensemble to play like a robotic handbell choir, while the movement and breath of the piece is conveyed by the other parts of the orchestra under the conductor’s baton. Yet it was not only the percussion section that had to deal with this. Minimalist melodic figures hocketed between instruments showed up in every section of the orchestra at various times. The ability to pull off this ensemble juggling act tended to dictate which pieces succeeded in performance and which did not.

I’ll digress a moment to comment on the presentation: the score necessitated amplification to be performed successfully. Joseph Greenway, the student sound engineer, was working almost as hard as the conductors, bringing soloists or small ensembles up in the mix at key points, and balancing sections off of each other in ways that would simply not work entirely acoustically. This is in the tradition of late 20th-century orchestral works, with another nod to Glass and composers like John Adams. Mr. Greenway and his team did a seamless job of pulling this off, although to my ear, when amplified, the cello section sounded dry and thin.

The concert opened with “The Rhythm of the Heat,” whose original version appeared on the Security album in 1982. This strong opening unleashed the dark and menacing undertone in many of Gabriel’s songs, with one long crescendo thrusting forward the length of the piece as the strings furtively skittered out col legno patterns and the huge bass drum and brass drove the point home.

In the course of the new blood suite, the student orchestra got a thorough workout in late-20th-century extended performance techniques, especially the strings, being called upon for col legno, Bartok snaps, all kinds of unusual harmonics and left-hand techniques, more than I can catalog. This was no easy evening of playing orchestral classic rock behind a cranked-up rock band, as might have been said about the KSU Orchestra’s performance with the band Kansas at the Cobb Energy Center last year. (Of course I was there and I loved every minute of it; it just represented the conventional approach, which Gabriel didn’t see as suiting his aims).

The next piece, “Downside Up”, from OVO, 2002, is one of the least-well-known tunes, as OVO was not a commercial pop album. The low brass struggled to bring their part together. The piece concluded with a spirited and improvised jazz solo by bassist Britton Wright.

“San Jacinto”, from Security, 1982, started with intricate, delicate and somewhat polyrhythmic tuned percussion ostinatos and brought out Steven Bicknell on piano (he also played celesta later in the program). I could hear the orchestra struggling to come to grips with it, as it worked through another slow crescendo to a wistful ending.

“Intruder”, from Gabriel’s third solo album in 1980, is another of the darkest and most sinister of Gabriel’s works. As he mentioned in his own commentary, Gabriel’s template for this orchestral arrangement was the work of screen composer Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s films: he was pointing straight to the “shower” scene in Psycho (1960).

The orchestra approached this piece timidly, struggling to seize it and imbue it with terror. A valiant viola solo was under-amplified and lost its impact. By the end, they’d managed to create a satisfyingly chilling conclusion.

“Wallflower”, from Security, 1982, is a delicate, wistful piece that Gabriel stripped down to nothing but piano and a quartet of two cellos and two violas (Robert Marshall, Zac Goad, Kyle Mayes and Rachael Keplin) until the rest of the string orchestra very quitely swept in underneath the amplified quartet and piano at the last moment to create a beautiful, serene mood.

“In Your Eyes” from So, 1986, is one of Gabriel’s best-known songs, and also in his live band version one of the longest and most slowly-developing records that ever got played on pop radio in the 1980s or 90s. The original is replete with Senegalise drummers playing deep rhythms, sharp jangling cross-picked acoustic guitar, and most memorable for a passionate descant by counter-tenor Youssou N’Dour, sung in the Serer language. For the new blood arrangement, Gabriel and Metcalfe simply took out every bit of the percussion and any sharp attacks and recast the piece for strings only, in what I can only describe as a Brian Eno-approved “oblique strategy” of swirling melody like feathers in a gentle whirlwind. The KSU strings perfectly captured the mood on this one.

The first half of the concert concluded with “Mercy Street”, from So, 1986, when out came two singers: Jonathan Stewart, to sing the Peter Gabriel part, and Chani Maisonet to provide the counterpart to a meditative melody. Once again, it was apparent that everybody here understood how to convey the beautiful mood of what Gabriel described as the piece that his fans appreciated the most in his concerts over the years.

The intermission ended with the strings marching into the hall from the back and riffing on a demented marching-band arrangement of Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, from 1986, for a bit of comic relief. The orchestra then launched into the epic “Red Rain”, from So, 1986, richly orchestrated throughout, and played with true confidence.

“Darkness”, from Up, 2002, was a piece less-well-known to Gabriel fans. This was another example of Gabriel’s selection of something that was not a “hit” but worked perfectly within the context he constructed for new blood.

The plaintive and heart-rending “Don’t Give Up”, from So, 1986, well-remembered for the contribution of singer Kate Bush on the original, was one of Gabriel’s enduring classics, again well-suited to the wistful, melancholy textures that the orchestra spun out in the highest point of the concert.

“Digging In The Dirt”, from Us, 1992, however, did not gel. It required hard-rocking syncopated rhythms, serious as a heart attack, that the arranger was asking an orchestra to pound out without the help of a drum kit or drum machines. Nobody seemed able to rise to the challenge.

“The Nest that Sailed the Sky”, from OVO, 2002, provided a short, ethereal interlude that brought the orchestra to its conclusion, bringing out the singers again for “Solsbury Hill”, from Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977 — certainly some of the best lyrics Gabriel ever wrote. I can attest that any ensemble playing any arrangement of this quirkiest of songs, almost all in 7/4 time with contrasting emphasis between groups of 3 and 4 in different sections, would have difficulty keeping it rocking like it needs to rock. I’m most sorry to say that the singers took a frivolous approach to a spiritual piece of music whose message they just didn’t seem to understand or convey, in unfortunate contrast to their moving, heart-felt rendition of “Mercy Street” in the first half.

At the end, though, the orchestra earned their standing ovation. Every musician in the production was challenged, stretched, and grew in their musicianship from the application of an unlikely collection of arrangements of obsolete pop songs of the sort that don’t get played on the radio much anymore, revealing the enduring appeal of Gabriel’s music. Bravo.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Part Two

Part Two of my review of the Kennesaw State University Orchestra’s performance of Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite.

Here are the program notes from the printed concert program.

A note from the Assistant Dean of the College of the Arts

I have been an ardent fan of Peter Gabriel for over thirty years. I began listening to him as a college student in the early ’80s when I stumbled across a used copy of Security at my local record store. Since that time, I have followed each step of his career, each new album he recorded, with admiration and anticipation. Of course, it was as a live performer that Gabriel truly shone. I will never forget the first time I was able to see him live, during the So tour of 1986-87. The concert was equal parts theatrical spectacle, fantastic rock show, and spiritual experience. I remember, particularly, when he performed “Mercy Street”, a song dedicated to Anne Sexton. The lights, music, and performance all combined to enhance the impact of an already emotional piece, and I can still feel the goose bumps on my arms as the song ended.

So, it is against this backdrop of nearly thirty years of avid fandom, that I welcomed the news of Gabriel’s newest project with great excitement. Early press about new blood and the New Blood Orchestra was very positive, and due to the “miracle of the internet,” I was able to hear some of the recordings before it was released I eagerly pre-ordered the CD from a very popular online media outlet, and through some happy circumstance (kismet, fate), received two copies of the CD. I decided to pass the extra copy on to my friend and fellow classic rock fan, Michael Alexander. I didn’t know if he would like it, but it seemed to be the right thing to do as the piece is entirely orchestral. As with many such seemingly innocent acts, I could not have predicted the direction that this was going to take.

Where Mike got the gumption to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization about the possibility of KSU performing new blood, I will never truly know. What I do know is that all of a sudden a dialog began about how we could make this happen at Kennesaw State. I watched with utter amazement and joy as Mike copied me on his email correspondence with folks in the “Peter Gabriel Administration.” My favorite exchange involved Mike presenting three options for the performance, the first of which involved Gabriel performing with our orchestra, to which my dignified response (in blind copy) was, and I quote, “Option 1! Option 1! Option 1!” Sadly, Gabriel’s schedule did not allow for this, but it is a mark of his significant generosity that he agreed to allow us the rights to perform new blood, making tonight a reality. Beyond my utter fanaticism and excitement about the fact that we are now going to be connected to one of my absolute heroes in a very tangible and intimate way (this is, after all, the first time that this work will be performed in its entirety by anyone other than the New Blood Orchestra), there are other reasons why tonight is important to me personally and, I think, to the students about to perform for you.

For me, Peter Gabriel has always been one of those musicians who is utterly unafraid to take chances in order to serve his art. He is constantly striving to say something of significance; to walk a line that is both consistent with who he has always been as a musician and artist, and at the same time stretch out into new areas and break new ground. This spirit of curiosity, commitment, craft, fearlessness and drive is something that our faculty constantly strives to inculcate in our students. Our students have much to learn from the example that he has set. There is a deeper dimension to him that is important to recognize as well. Gabriel has long been someone who has seen a greater role for his art than just as entertain- mint. His commitment to social issues, awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the world, and his willingness to use his talents in the service of a greater good represent the best of what musicians and artists can achieve. (See, for example, his work with WOMAD [the World of Music and Dance], Real World Studios, Amnesty International, and the Witness Project, not to mention the subject matter of many of his songs.) Again, this is an ideal that we, as educators, wish our students to strive for; to see something larger and more important in what they do than just playing to make people happy — we want them to be fully engaged in the world around them and to seek ways to effect positive change. After all, artists with integrity endure.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that there is another purpose to this specific artistic endeavor we undertake this evening; one that, I think, is entirely consistent with the spirit of Gabriel’s work. Proceeds from this concert will be used to enhance the scholarship opportunities available to our students. The commitment you’ve made as audience members will make it possible for many of these young musicians arrayed on the stage before you to pursue their dreams where they otherwise couldn’t. Our students are different from many who pursue careers in the arts. They largely do not come from privileged backgrounds. They do not have endless resources to support themselves throughout their college careers. They have chosen a path that is not greatly valued in the larger society, and, for the most part, do not stand to earn incredible salaries upon graduation. And our world will be a better place for the decision and sacrifice that they have made in the face of great odds. What they do they do out of passion, dedication, and commitment, all of which are values present in the work and life of Peter Gabriel. So it is apt, I think, that we present this concert for you this evening, not only because it is a unique musical experience, but because it is part of something larger. I am reminded of the lyrics of one of Gabriel’s most popular songs, “In Your Eyes”. This is a love song, but the spirit of the lyrics seem fitting. So, with great apologies for the liberties with Gabriel’s lyrics, let me conclude by saying: “In your eyes, we are complete; In your eyes, we see the doorway to a thousand churches; In your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches. Thank you for your support of this unique event and of our students.

Samuel Robinson, Assistant Dean

new blood

The idea of working with an orchestra began with the Scratch My Back project. This was a song exchange concept, i.e. you do one of mine and I’ll do one of yours. Initially I had thought of working with home-made instruments, but as I explored the sounds we could use, I didn’t find the range of tone and expression that was clearly available in existing instruments that had been developed over time, with years and years of improvements.

I had never really explored an orchestra as the sole sound palette for a record, and that seemed very fresh. Although I had lots of ideas of what it could be, I didn’t have the breadth of knowledge or experience with the full range of orchestral instruments to do the job as well as I wanted, so I began checking out arrangers. I really liked the work of John Metcalfe who had been working on a project at our studio, and had been doing some very interesting live composing for a project The Bays and The Heritage Orchestra. We met and discussed favorite composers and approaches. I then asked if he could arrange a couple of tracks with me and loved the results.

My intention was to work outside of traditional rock arrangements or instrumentation, for us to be bold, innovative and to work with dynamics and extremes where possible, i.e. still and stark at one point, fat, fleshy, and emotional at another. The process was to discuss what each track needed, and then John would prepare a first draft, which we would bounce around a few times before settling on a final version. As this project evolved it grew into something different from anything else I’d done or heard, and I really wanted to take it out live — on its own terms and not as a support for “Scratch” — which we did.

There are fairly radical takes on some familiar and less familiar songs. We are proud of what we have done on this record. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.

–Peter Gabriel

KSU Instrumental Ensembles

We are proud to present Peter Gabriel’s new blood to you this evening. This marks yet another milestone for the instrumental program at KSU in that we are the first university to be given the rights to perform this music. It also marks our continuing effort to give our students a wide breadth of experiences that will prepare them to be versatile musicians committed to great art, in whatever shape or form it may appear. A concert like this does not happen without a lot of help. We owe huge “thank-yous” to the staff of the Bailey Center and especially Joseph Greenway, who was a driving force in the lights and sounds you will experience tonight. We also want to thank Peter Gabriel for taking on such a bold project and his amazing management team, who were so supportive of us having this opportunity.

Tonight’s concert is also important because the proceeds go to supporting scholarships and opportunities for our students. We have remarkable students and we owe them the very best. They will be leading the cultural experiences in our region for years to come. Please consider making an additional generous donation to the Mattie Borders Proctor Fellowship for Undergraduate Instrumentalists, which supports these activities.

We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work in a great place with great students and colleagues. Thanks for sharing this experience with us tonight.

Michael Alexander, Director of Orchestras
David Kehler, Director of Bands

Personnel

Flute/Alto Flute/Piccolo

Catherine Flinchum
Dirk Stanfield

Oboe

Alexander Sifuentes

Clarinet

Kadie Johnston
Tyler Moore

Bassoon

Sarah Fluker

Horn

David Andres
Kristen Arvold

Trumpet

John Thomas Burson
Justin Rowan

Trombone

David Lennertz
Michael Lockwood

Bass Trombone

Joseph Poole

Tuba

Melinda Mason

Percussion

Katelyn King
Erik Kosman
Michael Standard
Harrison Ude

Piano

Steven Bicknell

Violin 1

Emily Ahlenius
Jarred Cook
Saraha Hoefer
Grace Kawamura
Danielle Moeller
Jonathan Urizar
Anneka Zee

Violin 2

Rachel Campbell
Michah David
Amanda Esposito
Terry Keeling
Meian Butcher
Joshua Martin
Kimberly Ranallo
Brittany Thayer

Viola

Justin Brookins
Ryan Gibson
Hallie Imeson
Rachel Keplin
Kyle Mayes
Aliyah Miller
Perry Morris
Alishia Pittman
Samatha Tang

Cello

Kathyrn Encisco
Rachel Halverson
Zac Goad
Robert Marshall
Avery McCoy

Bass

Jarod Boles
Jared Houseman
Matthew Richards
Neal Rodack
Nicholas Schoelfield
Nick Twarog
Britton Wright

Vocals

Chani Maisonet
Jonathan Stewart

Sound Engineer

Joseph Greenway

Next up, my review, in Part Three.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite performed by the KSU Symphony Orchestra, Part One

Review of

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Orchestral Suite

Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble

Michael Alexander and David Kehler, conductors

Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University

Thursday, January 10, 2013. 8:00 pm

new blood

Composed by Peter Gabriel

Arranged by John Metcalfe

Program

  • The Rhythm of the Heat
  • Downside Up
  • San Jacinto
  • Intruder
  • Wallflower
  • In Your Eyes
  • Mercy Street
  • Red Rain
  • Darkness
  • Don’t Give Up
  • Digging In The Dirt
  • The Nest that Sailed the Sky
  • Solsbury Hill

Tonight I attended a fascinating concert by the KSU Orchestra, a suite of pieces that stretched and challenged all of the 58 student performers in unexpected ways, from an unconventional source.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite, which was presented by Gabriel with a professional orchestra in a globe-hopping tour that spanned months, has never been performed outside of Gabriel’s direct involvement until now. The KSU music faculty took it upon themselves to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization and obtain clearance to do their own production, for one performance only.

A couple of years ago rock star Peter Gabriel commissioned John Metcalfe to work with him in arranging a number of his songs, spanning 25 years of recordings, into an orchestral suite which he could take on tour, singing with the orchestra in a decidedly non-conventional context. What I mean by that is they dispensed with the way that countless classic rock acts have approached performing with an orchestra. They made a decision not to use any rock band instruments or rock musicians, not to use any electronic instruments or pre-recorded tracks, and they decided to make each piece in the suite sound completely unlike any of the others, by means of the techniques of 20th and 21st-century orchestration. Moreover Gabriel made an exceptionally wise choice not to orchestrate his “greatest hits”; he chose a suite of pieces with a few titles that even his most ardent fans might find obscure. He selected the pieces from his body of work that seemed to him would sound the best when adapted to a symphony orchestra. All of these turned out to be the right decisions.

He also decided to record and present, on a bonus CD in an album package, entirely instrumental arrangements of each of these pieces without anyone singing the melody and the lyrics. These arrangements, largely without melody and song, put the focus on the orchestration and the moods.

Tonight at the Bailey Performance Hall at KSU, directors Michael Alexander and David Kehler took turns with each successive piece, challenging their students to accomplish some prodigious musical achievements on what appears to be very little rehearsal. In the concert program, Assistant Dean Samuel Robinson waxed rhapsodic in a two-page essay about his lifelong admiration for the music of Peter Gabriel, and how important it was to various music faculty members to expose their students to these works.

Peter Gabriel covered a significant amount of territory in musical growth and innovation in twenty-five years. In 1975 he left behind the baroque complexity of his band Genesis, one of the most popular rock bands in England and Europe at the time, spent a lot of time in the United States, and started over with a sound that had more to do with punk than the folk-infused progressive rock for which he was known. Almost immediately expanding upward from his own new stripped-down, dark and angry sound, his music quickly came to incorporate intricate electronic music elements through the programmed sequences of electronic synthesist Larry Fast. Throughout the rest of his solo career, Gabriel’s compositions continued to incorporate sequenced and programmed technological elements, including plenty of drum machines, incorporating more and more sophisticated electronic music technology as he went. At some point in a strange juxtaposition he also began to incorporate world music, especially African drumming and singing from Senegal. But at no point, except perhaps for the instrumental soundtrack that he composed and performed for the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, did his music depart from being recognizable as rock music, played by a live rock band.

Adapting this sort of material into the form of the symphony orchestra — that’s where the fascination starts.

I happen to know musician Larry Fast, so when I heard that the KSU Symphony Orchestra was performing new blood, I wrote to him to ask him his opinion on the work. Larry said, “I was very impressed with the orchestral arrangements. Some were new, but interesting takes on the originals. But for some the orchestrator studied the original synth parts and just nailed them perfectly. I saw the two tours and really enjoyed them.”

Next up, my review of the KSU concert. I’ll have as much to say about the pieces themselves as I will about their performance of them.

How many Baroque musicians does it take to change a light bulb?

How many Baroque musicians does it take to change a light bulb?

1) None. The historically-informed response would be to replace the light bulb with an equivalent number of tallow candles.

2) Only one, but he must wait for several decades of historical research on period-correct illumination techniques in old castles in Europe culminating in the publication of several doctoral theses by up-and-coming musicologists.

3) Only one, but she must consult with several experts on the proper method of holding the light bulb, overhand or underhand, and spend many hours practicing the proper twisting technique of the wrist, lest the operation come off looking like a contemporary light bulb-replacement and not a historically-informed one.

4) About five-hundred, while they hold an international summer festival on Baroque and Rococo illumination and lighting design, together with seminars, the presentation of scholarly papers, various chamber concerts featuring period lighting, and dance classes.

5) Only one, but he will forever be shunned from the early music community if he replaces it with a modern compact florescent bulb rather than the traditional and far-less-energy-efficient tungsten filament bulb.

6) Two: One to screw in the light bulb, but first, another one to restore the burned-out light bulb to its original configuration by steaming open the glass globe, recalibrating it to resonate at a slightly lower voltage, reducing the angle of the fluting, lowering the bridge, installing a sheep-gut filament, re-sealing it with hide glue, and removing the chinrest — wait, was I talking about a light bulb?

These jokes are entirely original with me, Wheat Williams, but let me say thanks to Kelsey Andrew Schilling for the inspiration.

The Lyrics and Bible Verses in Handel’s Messiah

Recently I prepared this for inclusion in the program notes of concerts for the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and Georgia Tech Chamber Choir.

Handel got the lyrics from a preacher named Charles Jennens, who wrote out the whole piece as a collage of Bible verses designed to tell a story about the Messiah. In some cases Jennens copied verses from the King James Version of the Bible directly, and in other cases he abridged or modified the wording of the Bible verses somewhat to fit into something that could be set to music and sung. He also decided to change the “point of view” in a couple of places. Rather than quoting Jesus’ words about himself directly, for instance, he made a few changes so that the singers are singing about Jesus rather than portraying the role of Jesus.

The Atlanta Baroque is setting out to re-create the original performance of Messiah, conducted by Handel, from April 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. It must be noted that each time Handel performed Messiah over the years, certain parts got changed a bit. In many cases he changed solos around based on the abilities of the particular soloists he hired to sing on each concert. There are a couple of cases where an entirely different piece with lyrics from an entirely different set of Bible verses were substituted from one concert to the next. Therefore there is no one definitive version of Handel’s Messiah. These lyrics will cover most versions, however, with only one or two exceptions.

Messiah, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Words compiled from the Holy Scriptures by Charles Jennens (1700-1773)

Part One

1. Sinfonia (Overture)
2. Tenor Recitative. — Isaiah 40:1-3
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
3. Tenor Air — Isaiah 40:4
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
4. Chorus — Isaiah 40:5
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
5. Bass Recitative — Haggai 2:6,7; Malachi 3:1
Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; Yet once, a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: Behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
6. Bass Air — Malachi 3:2
But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.
7. Chorus — Malachi 3:3
And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
8. Alto Recitative — Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.
9. Alto Air and Chorus — Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 60:1
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, and be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
10. Bass Recitative — Isaiah 60:2,3
For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
11. Bass Air — Isaiah 9:2
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
12. Chorus — Isaiah 9:6
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
13. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)
14. Soprano Recitative — Luke 2:8,9
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And lo! the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
15. Soprano Recitative — Luke 2:10,11
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
16. Soprano Recitative — Luke 2:13
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
17. Chorus — Luke 2:14
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will toward men.
18. Soprano Air — Zechariah 9:9,10
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Savior. And he shall speak peace unto the heathen.
19. Alto Recitative — Isaiah 35:5,6
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
20. Alto Air — Isaiah 40:11; Matthew 11:28, 29
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; and he shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Come unto Him, all ye that labour, that are heavy laden, and He shall give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him; for he is meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
21. Chorus — Matthew 11:30
His yoke is easy, and His burthen is light.

Part Two

22. Chorus — John 1:29
Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.
23. Alto Air — Isaiah 53:3; Isaiah 50:6
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.
24. Chorus — Isaiah 53:4,5
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
25. Chorus — Isaiah 53:5
And with His stripes we are healed.
26. Chorus — Isaiah 53:6
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
27. Tenor Recitative — Psalm 22:7
All they that see Him laugh him to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying:
28. Chorus — Psalm 22:8
He trusted in God that He would deliver Him: let Him deliver Him, if he delight in Him.
29. Soprano Recitative — Psalm 69:20
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him but there was no man; neither found He any to comfort Him.
30. Soprano Air — Lamentations 1:12
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow!
31. Tenor Recitative — Isaiah 53:8
He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken.
32. Tenor Air — Psalm 16:10
But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.
33. Chorus — Psalm 24:7-10
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.
34. Tenor Recitative — Hebrews 1:5
For unto which of the angels said He at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten hee?
35. Chorus — Hebrews 1:6
Let all the angels of God worship Him.
36. Bass Air — Psalm 68:18
Thou art gone up on high, Thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men; yea, even for Thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them.
37. Chorus — Psalm 68:11
The Lord gave the word: great was the company of the preachers.
38. Duetto for 2 Alto Solos and Chorus — Romans 10:15
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
[39. Chorus — Romans 10:18
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world. Not sung in the original performance.]
40. Bass Air — Psalm 2:1,2
Why do the nations so furiously rage together: why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsels together against the Lord and His anointed.
41. Chorus — Psalm 2:3
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.
42. Tenor Recitative — Psalm 2:4
He that dwelleth in the heavens shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.
43. Tenor Air — Psalm 2:9
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
44. Chorus — Revelation 19:6, 11:15, 19:16
Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings, Lord of lords.

Part Three

45. Soprano Air — Job 19:25, 26; 1 Corinthians 15:20
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep.
46. Chorus — 1 Corinthians 15:21, 22
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
47. Bass Recitative — 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep; but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
48. Bass Air — 1 Corinthians 15:52, 53
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

49. Alto Air — 1 Corinthians 15:54b
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
50. Duetto for Alto and Tenor — 1 Corinthians 15:55, 56
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
51. Chorus — 1 Corinthians 15:57
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
52. Alto Air — Romans 8:31, 33, 34
If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.
53. Chorus — Revelation 5:12, 13
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power to be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.

My Article on Wayne Famous of the Producers in 2001

In 2001 I wrote a short article for Keyboard Magazine, about Wayne Famous of the seminal new-wave band The Producers. Here is the original text that I submitted to Keyboard  for publication (what they printed was edited and shortened somewhat).

You can see more from my years of work as a music journalist at this link.

I want also to give a shout-out to some young friends of mine in an excellent Atlanta cover band called Electric Avenue (also known in another incarnation as the Yacht Rock Schooner) who are doing a show of early-80s New Wave and synth pop on Friday at the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Georgia.

Wayne Famous of The Producers
by Wheat Williams
Copyright ©  2001 by Wheat Williams

The Coelacanth was an ancient, extinct fish known only to science from fossils–until one showed up alive in a South African port in 1938. Then, in 1998, they found another one 10,000 kilometers away in Indonesia. The latest Coelacanth showed up in Atlanta, Georgia in 2001, a living fossil from the sedimentary beds of MCA Record’s forgotten tape vaults.

Rewind. It was 1979, the same year the B-52s burst out of Athens, and the scene was changing in nearby Atlanta. Southern rock was over. 29-year-old but endearingly bald Wayne McNatt gave up his R&B road-show sideman persona and sold his Hammond B3 for an Oberheim synth. Enter Wayne Famous of The Producers, a whip-smart quartet who, though since overlooked, help to kick-start the new-wave movement. They deconstructed the clichés of frat-party rock and crafted a new sound: sparse, bouncy, and danceable. They cranked on tightly-arranged power-pop masterpieces, mostly about teenage girls and teenage angst. Their two albums for Portrait/CBS in ‘81 and ‘82, The Producers and You Make The Heat, made them one of the first hit bands on that brand-new cable channel, MTV. “She Sheila,” their biggest song, is a harmony-drenched, perfect four-and-a-half minute pop symphony.

Wayne with his custom keyboard, 1981. Photo by Michael Lippus

“People were tired of the old sounds,” says Wayne. “I was convinced that if I kept playing what I grew up playing, that no attention would be paid to us.” Wayne was determined not to be window dressing in the rhythm section. He developed a distorted, effected rhythm voice, chugging along in tight harmony with the guitarist’s palm-muted ostinatos, breaking out to soar on brief, guitaristic solos, then underpinning the chords with icy, chiming, simple counterpoint.

Wayne went way out front with the Producers. He got California engineer Wayne Yentis to tear apart the Oberheim and build a five-octave over-the-shoulder remote controller which replicated every knob and control on the synth back in the rack. “They didn’t have MIDI back then, so we had to connect the remote keyboard and all its knobs to the synth through two 48-conductor telecom cables fifty feet long.” Boasting seven voices, it may have been the first polyphonic remote synth rig. Though the controller weighed 37 pounds, he played the whole show standing with this behemoth around his neck, except when he set it down to play his Yamaha CP-70 electric piano. “I had serious back problems,” he says, sheepishly.

After their run at CBS, fickle fate left the Producers behind. “We co-owned our publishing with our manager and he ripped us off terribly. We sold 500,000 records but never made a dime from mechanical royalties. By ‘87, CDs were the new consumer format, but CBS steadfastly ignored us and refused to put our vinyl catalog out on CD. If you’re not on CD, you’re not on the radio, you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. We were extinct.”

The cruelest blow was yet to come. The Producers hung in there and got a new deal with MCA in 1987, recording Coelacanth with producer John Jansen (Lou Reed, Supertramp, Hendrix). But a shift in A&R executives saw the band dropped and Coelacanth unreleased, locked in the vault. “It broke the back of the band, broke our will to achieve,” says Wayne. “Yet we never quit playing, ever. When the band is that good, you don’t break it up.” Wayne drove a cab for 13 years, just to have the schedule flexibility to play the band’s increasingly infrequent regional gigs.

Fast-forward. Fan web sites started appearing in the late ‘90s, and the gigs started lining up again. One Way Records licensed The Producers and You Make The Heat and put them out on a single budget CD in 2000. A tiny royalty check appeared. And now One Way has released Coelacanth, its title more apt than ever.

It might be the missing link, the end of the bouncy innocence of New Wave, heading toward the close of the ‘80s. The Producers confidently craft a much broader sound. Wayne uses MIDI to orchestrate the attacks of a Yamaha DX7 with two meaty Oberheim Xpanders, quirky, undulating Roland D50 sounds, and his custom samples on a Yamaha TX16W, “the absolute hardest sampler on Planet Earth to operate.

“I used the Xpanders for their ability to achieve control over the sound in ways not possible with other synths, then or since. I got deep into the programming architecture and created sounds from scratch.” He played all this out front from a thankfully much lighter, modified Oberheim Xk MIDI controller.

Nowadays there are no roadies or tour bus, so Wayne plays only a single Emu Proteus Master Performance keyboard on a stand. Besides, “At some point the technology starts getting to be in the way of the music. Hopefully, when you get older, you start developing more of a finesse and an expertise about drawing it out of your fingers.” And Wayne still plays. Sure, they may be fossils, but the Producers refuse to be extinct.

Wayne in concert in 2012. Photo by TimothyJ

Haydn’s Te Deum in English translation

I’m working with a church choir, preparing to perform Haydn’s setting of the ancient Latin hymn Te Deum. Here are my notes on the text.

Te Deum

Adapted from the entries at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Te_deum

and at the Choral Public Domain Library: http://www2.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Te_Deum

Although I’m no expert in Latin, I have attempted to reorder some phrases from conventional English translations to provide a more word-by-word translation. For singing, it’s important to figure out what the most important word in each phrase needs to be.

Te Deum is an early Christian hymn of praise from around the 4th century, traditionally ascribed to Ambrose and Augustine. Contemporary scholars assign it to Nicetas of Remesiana. The closing section, adapted from various verses in the Psalms, was added later.

I have divided the text into four sections according to the musical structure of Haydn’s piece.

 

Te Deum laudamus:
te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem
omnis terra veneratur.Tibi omnes Angeli;
tibi caeli et universae Potestates;
Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim
incessabili voce proclamant:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra
majestatis gloriae tuae.

Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus,
Te Prophetarum laudabilis numerus,

Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.
Te per orbem terrarum
sancta confitetur Ecclesia,

Patrem immensae majestatis:
Venerandum tuum verum et unicum Filium;
Sanctum quoque Paraclitum Spiritum.

Tu Rex gloriae, Christe.
Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius.
Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,
non horruisti Virginis uterum.

Tu, devicto mortis aculeo,
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum.

Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes, in gloria Patris.

Judex crederis esse venturus.

You O God, we praise:
You, Lord, we acknowledge to be.
You are the eternal Father.
All the earth venerates you.To you all Angels;
to you the heavens and all the Powers.
To you Cherubim and Seraphim
with unending voice proclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Sabaoth.
Full are heaven and earth
with the majesty of your glory.

You the glorious chorus of Apostles (praise),
You the praiseworthy number of the Prophets (praise),
You the white-clothed army of Martyrs praise.
You throughout all the world
are acknowledged by the holy Church,

Father of immense Majesty:
Who is to be worshiped, your true and only Son;
Also the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

You are the King of Glory, O Christ.
You are the everlasting Son of the Father.
When you took upon yourself to deliver man,
you did not abhor the Virgin’s womb.

You, by overcoming the sting of death,
opened to all believers the Kingdom of Heaven.

You sit at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
Our Judge we believe that you will come to be.

Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni:
quos pretioso sanguine redemisti.
To you therefore we ask you, help your servants:
whom you have redeemed with your precious blood.
Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria
numerari.

[added later, adapted from Psalm
verses]

Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine,
et benedic hereditati tuae.

Et rege eos, et extolle illos usque in aeternum.
Per singulos dies benedicimus te;
Et laudamus Nomen tuum in saeculum, et in saeculum saeculi.

Dignare, Domine, die isto sine peccato nos custodire.
Miserere nostri Domine, miserere nostri.

Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,
quemadmodum speravimus in te.

In eternity with your saints make them in
glory to be numbered.

[added later, adapted from Psalm
verses]

Save your people, Lord,
and bless your heritage.

And rule them, and lift them up for ever.
Every day we bless you;
And we worship your Name forever, and forever for all ages.

Vouchsafe, O Lord, this day without sin to keep us.
Have mercy upon us, our Lord, have mercy upon us.

Let your mercy be upon us, O Lord,  since we have
trusted in you.

In te, Domine, speravi:
non confundar in aeternum.
In you, O Lord, I have trusted:
may I not be confounded forever.