Tag Archives: music

New musical adventures

With our first gig planned for May, I can now say with confidence, this is a thing that is happening!

Robin Burton is a bit of a one man folk industry locally. He started the Stroud Wassail, runs Swing Rioters – I’ve sung with them a few times, and an outfit called The Jovial Crew. He’s involved with The Folk of Gloucester – a space I’ve also been involved with as a steampunk. Last year he asked me to write a mumming play full of Gloucester characters and I had the pleasure of seeing that performed back in November.

In the autumn, I posted online some photos of me with the viola as I pushed my way back into playing. I find the accountability of sharing things helpful, often. Robin is not the reason I started playing again, but on seeing the photos he asked if I’d be interested in getting some folk music going with him. Since then we’ve been exploring that whenever time has permitted.

There’s been an interesting process of comparing repertoires, discussing what we’re interested in doing musically, and starting to pick songs and put arrangements together. The current set we’re developing is based on the traditional music we both already knew, as that seemed like a sensible way in. When collaborating, there are always processes around figuring out how to work with someone, and that’s been good and interesting, too.

This isn’t a priority project for either of us, and probably it’s going to be for local gigs or if we happen to both be further afield at the same time with our other projects. Swing Rioters is Robin’s first priority, and The Ominous Folk is mine. Nonetheless, it’s really nice to have someone to play with and to be able to get together with regularly for music, and that’s really important for me. I’ve missed being an instrumentalist, and it’s good to have more room for that in my life.

I am blessed in the people I get to work with, and play with and hang out with.


Falling in love

Playing music featured heavily in my twenties and was the basis of most of my social life. What drove me at that point was a love of music, and an absolute love affair with the violin.

There’s something about improvising that brings me into an intense state of relationship with both the music and the instrument. Which in turn can create an unusual kind of intimacy with whoever I’m sharing music with. To improvise, you have to be entirely present to the music, the exact way everyone else is playing, the needs of the music, and what it is, exactly that your instrument can do. When music emerges between people in this way it can be incredibly magical.

I really was in love with the violin. It was the voice of my soul, and often the primary way in which I expressed myself emotionally. And then there was no one to play with, and I damaged my shoulder, and the back came away from my beloved violin and despite repeated attempts by various clever professionals to fix it, nothing worked.

This week I realised that I could fall in love with the viola. I could have all those same feelings about it, and throw myself wholeheartedly into playing in the same way. I might still have it in me to give unreservedly, like I used to. I might be able to meet a musical collaborator in a fearless, present, open hearted sort of way, and be able to trust that, and reclaim the magic I used to feel around playing.

Being open hearted is a risky, exposed sort of thing. But, I want to go back to playing the way I used to play. This feels so much more like the person I should be, and want to be. 


Music and magic

Writing and performing music always has the potential to delight and enchant others, but there’s also an aspect of being enchanted by the process.

There comes a point when a piece of music is so entirely learned that it doesn’t require thought. Hands, breathing and the shapes your body must make to bring the music into the world become so embedded that the sounds emerge from a state of flow and presence and it feels as though the music is passing through you rather than being deliberately made. 

I don’t know to what degree anyone listening can tell the difference between that level of engagement with a piece and performing in a more conscious and deliberate way. From a performance perspective, it’s a dramatic difference and allows a person to enter a very specific kind of space. Playing in this way feels intensely magical.

I’ve had a lot of years where problems with my body have limited my scope to play musical instruments. I’ve also had limited incentive – I’m not that keen on playing on my own. Opportunities to play with other musicians have recently appeared in my life, which has motivated me considerably. Re-learning tunes on a slightly different instrument has been a bit of a process.

Yesterday, there were moments of pure flow. There were tunes I’ve had inside me for many years that settled back under my fingers and started to flow properly when I played them. It was a glorious sort of feeling and made me realise how much I have missed this part of myself, and this relationship with tunes.

Most of what I play comes from British folk traditions. I’m also very interested in the work of Irish composer O’Carolan, whose music folk musicians have kept alive. He should more properly be recognised as a baroque composer and be taken more seriously on the classical side – as he was during his lifetime. I’ve been obsessed with his music since childhood, and having some of his melodies back under my fingers is particularly exciting.


Bard life

This viola came to me maybe fifteen years ago, and previously belonged to another Druid. In its previous life, this viola went to The Albert Hall as part of Portsmouth Sinfonia, so it has quite a history of its own.

I started learning the violin when I was about ten – the two are similar in that the interval between the strings is the same, although the viola is lower. They have different clefs for musical notation so while I can in theory read for viola, I’m not very good at it! My brain was, for many years, entirely wired to the violin. However, for some years now the state of my shoulders has meant there’s been no way of playing a violin.

Being bigger, the viola requires a different hand and shoulder position, which is more viable for me. After some months of work, I’ve built up so that I can play for half an hour without too much pain. Relearning tunes on a bigger instrument with all the wrong muscle memory has been a bit of a fight, but I’ve got some of them back under my fingers and they don’t sound too shabby.

In the photo, is the viola in its new hard case. Getting the case is is act of faith and hope on my part. I should be gigging a bit this winter with a local folk outfit called The Jovial Crew – hopefully I’m ready and equal to that. Beyond that lies a project I want to use the viola for, but it’s early days and there’s a lot to figure out. Somewhere on the distant horizon is the vague shape of a third musical possibility for which being able to be out and about with a viola would be a great help.

Part of the bard path is about putting creativity into the world. Part of it is about the quest for inspiration so that you have something to share. The third key strand is about doing the work so that you have the skills set you need. All three are vital. I find it difficult to keep any of that moving without also having somewhere to take my creative output. An audience of one is enough to make it worth striving. What works best for me is having people to interact with, who can be motivation, inspiration and reward all at the same time. I’m really blessed with regards to my current creative collaborators – around music and writing alike. I get to do things with some tremendously cool and interesting people.


Adventures with strings

Once upon a time I played viola, violin and bouzouki. The violin I’ve played since childhood and the other two instruments I picked up during my Midlands period in my twenties. 

Some years ago, a compression injury took out my left shoulder and made it impossible to play. I have an entirely hypermobile body and they’re easy to damage. I managed to mess up my hands and my right shoulder as well, and so I accepted that musical instruments weren’t going to be a thing for me anymore. It was a big loss, especially the violin. However, in the absence of people to play with, I focused on the singing instead.

There aren’t many things I’m keen on doing by myself. I’m a people oriented person and I’m always more interested in things I can share. It’s the kinds of connections and interactions I can have with other musicians that makes music exciting for me. I’ll practice (a lot) to make that work, but without the incentive of other people I just don’t get moving.

At this point I don’t think I’ll ever be able to coax my arm and shoulder into a position that makes violin playing feasible. However, the viola being larger gives me more options, and I can just about manage it. Relearning the tunes I used to play on the violin is going to be quite a task – the muscle memory I have is wrong for the shape of the instrument. I need to develop muscle strength to help me offset the joint issues, and that’s going to take work. Playing hurts, and to get back to where I was is going to involve weeks, if not months of pain while I build the necessary strength. I’m lifting small weights to build muscle, having had some guidance about what would strengthen the parts of me that are struggling.

The incentive to do this is considerable. There are people I want to play with and I have an Ominous Folk project under way that really would benefit from getting some instruments on it. Apparently I have rediscovered enough of my courage to take the occasional leap into the dark again, and every time I’ve done that in recent months it’s worked out well for me.


Drops of Inspiration

Recently I had the opportunity in Gloucester to do something I greatly enjoy – getting people singing. The venue was a church – no longer in use as a church. I had support from Tom and James.

There’s only so much planning I can do for this sort of event because there’s no knowing how it will play out, how much input people will need or how fast they will move as a group. This was an amazing, responsive group who dug in enthusiastically, so we got to do a lot of different things. Including a really full and rich rendition of my Three Drops of Inspiration. Hearing a lot of people all singing something I’ve written is an emotionally intense sort of experience, heart lifting and rewarding.

We also did some playing with vowels and sounds. This is something I learned to do in a workshop many years ago and it is my understanding that it comes from a Tibetan chanting tradition. It’s very simple, you move between notes and vowels, and you just let it happen. The sounds that emerge are always striking. It tends to have a spiritual feeling to it regardless of context, but to do it in a church turned out to be especially effective.

There’s a video clip on facebook – https://fb.watch/flw9Kqh5xq/

It felt like a meaningful offering to the building itself. This wordless, soulful sound coming from a group of people and being sung to the church itself – it was mostly participants, not audience. The church has no doubt heard many hymns in its time, although not recently. It felt like a good thing to have done.


Musical plots and plans

At the moment, a lot of my time and creative energy is going into a project called The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine. We’re a four person singing group, doing a mix of original stuff, covers and folk.

This all started some years ago when the Hopeless, Maine graphic novel project was invited to participate in the local book festival. What do you do with a graphic novel on a stage? We put together a mix of stories and folk songs, because folk traditions have always been a big influence. James and I have been singing together his whole life. We added Susie to the mix and last year took our first Hopeless, Maine show out into the world, debuting it at Festival at the Edge, in 2021.

We’re gigging a lot – at Steampunk events, folk things and local stuff. We’re now in a conversation about recording an album in October, which is an exciting prospect.

This isn’t my first musical project – I played in a blues rock band in my teens, gigged as half a folk duo in my twenties and have been involved in assorted things that were mostly for fun. I love performing. I love how this group works – the balance of silliness and gothic, folk horror vibes, the getting to play with kit, and the ways in which we can increasingly do things by magic.

This is performance with no safety net. We sing unaccompanied, so there’s nothing to refer to for pitch. There are also quite a few songs that start with two of us singing in harmony, and we’ve got to a point where it just happens, we simply hit the notes. We’ve learned to breathe together, and to be able to make sense of what we’re each doing even when we are stood in a line far enough apart not to be able to easily see each other in peripheral vision. I get a massive kick out of this. It’s definitely magic, no two ways about it.


Music to die for

When the pandemic started, my greatest anxiety was that a bad choice on my part could kill someone. My decisions during lockdown and my willingness not only to follow rules, but often to go further than required, has been entirely based on the determination not to harm others. 

At the same time, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what makes life worth living. A life without time spent in person with people I care about is hard to bear. A life without free access to the countryside is grim. I’m not convinced that a life without live music is worth living. The last thing I did before I went into lockdown (ahead of actual lockdown) was to go to a small, local gig.

There are important questions to ask about what we live for, and what gives joy and meaning to our lives. What value do we find in simply existing? What is it worth risking your life for? Lockdown has given us the chance to find out what really is essential. It’s raised questions about what we’re willing to put ahead of our own health, what we’re willing to risk other people’s lives over, what we can’t do without. For many, this has also been a time of finding out how a person’s economic worth relates to their social usefulness. It turns out it’s the lowest paid workers who are doing the most essential things.

With gigs cancelled, musicians struggled financially. So did all the people whose work depends on venues being open. I watched our government shaft the entire sector. 

At the weekend, I went to a gig. I reckon the venue capacity was about 250 people, and the space was well ventilated, so it wasn’t especially risky. I’m double jabbed, and like a lot of people there, I was wearing a mask. It seemed like a decent risk to take. There were a lot of older people in the audience who were taking a bigger risk than me in being there. As the music started, I wondered whether this was worth dying for. 

Yes. Yes it was. 

A life without the things that make life worth living is not a life worth living. It might be reasonable to endure that over a few months as a temporary safety measure. It’s not possible to live there. Music is essential to me, but there’s a huge difference between listening to a recording and being in a space where people are making music. Much as I love the internet, being online is not the same for me as physically being in the same space with people.

If music helped you in lockdown, please note that most musicians had a really hard time of it. Streaming music doesn’t result in musicians being paid much. If you have any resources to spare, buy a track, or an album, leave something in a tip jar or on Patreon. If we want music, we have to keep our composers and performers economically viable.


Ocean Aid Concerts to Help Mother Ocean

A guest blog from Steve Andrews

You will no doubt be familiar with the Band Aid and Live Aid rock/pop concerts of the past, but I think we need new concerts under the banner of Ocean Aid. 

Plastic pollution is everywhere these days and it is becoming widely known that it is killing marine life, including whales, turtles, seals and seabirds that swallow it mistaking it for food, or by getting tangled up in the material. Many people think of this planet as Mother Earth, and whilst this is a wonderful description of our home world, I think we should be referring to all the seas combined as “Mother Ocean.” Science has told us that early life started there, and life on this planet depends on the health of the oceans. 

I have a song entitled Where Does All The Plastic Go?. It was produced by Jayce Lewis, and is included on my album Songs of the Now and Then. Many famous musicians and singers, including Mick Jagger, Cerys Matthews,  Brian May, Chrissie Hynde and Kanye West, have spoken out about plastic pollution but I am leading the way with songs about the subject. Just think if stars like this could be persuaded to take part in a massive Ocean Aid concert in a stadium somewhere!

With the ongoing pandemic causing lockdowns and restrictions, many musicians famous and not so famous, have taken to performing concerts online using livestreaming via Facebook, Zoom and other options. This got me thinking that Ocean Aid concerts could be organised like this, and the more of them the better. Small ones can help inspire the world of music and the media to take enough notice so that a massive concert could be organized, a concert that would attract the internationally famous celebrities. Because plastic pollution is a worldwide problem, the concerts can take place worldwide. 

It is not just the threat of plastic waste that is endangering oceanic life. Overfishing, acidification, seabed mining, military testing, nuclear waste dumping, coral bleaching, agricultural run-off causing dead zones, and climate change, are all taking a heavy toll too.  Ocean Aid concerts could raise awareness about these problems as well. There are organisations like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, already doing what they can to help save the seas and the life in them. Funds raised by the concerts can go to charitable environmental organisations like this. 

As a singer-songwriter I realised that one way I could take action and spread the word was by using music to help me, and after writing my song about plastic pollution I came up with this Ocean Aid idea. Raising awareness about Mother Ocean is my main focus this year. Please think about helping me make Ocean Aid concerts a reality. If you are a musician, think about organising Ocean Aid gigs, if you are not a musician but want to help, you can do so by spreading the word and reaching out to anyone you know that could make Ocean Aid a dream that becomes a reality. Let’s do what we can to help our Mother Ocean!

Find more of Steve’s music here:

https://bardofely.bandcamp.com/track/where-does-all-the-plastic-go

https://soundcloud.com/bardofely/where-does-all-the-plastic-gohttps://open.spotify.com/album/1pboeHP1Fq2G9tsaKywnNF

If you want to get in touch with Steve, leave a comment and I’ll pass it along.


Re-learning to play

I played the violin for about 25 years – once I got out of the exam treadmill, I played folk, and acoustic rock and was much happier. During my twenties, it was a big part of my life, and music was central to how I communicated with people, and to a number of my most cherished relationships.

Some years ago, an elderly and much loved cat decided he wanted to spend the winter (his last winter, it turned out) sat on my left shoulder. He was not a small cat. He’d get up there and I’d let him stay until my left hand went numb – which it invariably did. The result of this, after some months, was some kind of compression injury, and my shoulder joint locked down. I lost a great deal of mobility. I couldn’t swim, I could barely get my hands round the bouzouki and I could not get my left arm to a place where I could play the violin. At its worst, I couldn’t reliably dress myself.

It took me a long time to rebuild strength and flexibility. I’ve been able to swim for the last few years and I can do most everyday things with no trouble. I don’t have full movement and most specifically, I cannot get my hand into a position that would allow me to play the violin. I’ve come to a point of accepting that I might never get that back.

I do have enough flexibility to get my hands round the viola – which is bigger, and doesn’t require getting my hand as close to my shoulder. For some time now, I’ve been relearning my violin repertoire on this instrument instead. Given that most of what I know is in terms of muscle memory, and the physical shape of tunes is different on a bigger instrument, this has been a bit of a thing. I’m nowhere like as good as I used to be and I have a lot of work to do.

On the plus side, the viola is the better instrument to sing with. I have ventured a thing…