Thank you for the music Mr Stardust…


It’s been too long since my last post – pure laziness I’m afraid, and it was always my intention to kick start this blog again in the new year.  The intention was to finally complete my essay on Bond songs – it should be a fun one! – but then, well, Bowie…  And whilst I don’t want this blog to be an obituary blog…. well, Bowie…  Words need to be said…

So, without further ado, no tearful eulogy.  Plenty of others have spoken and written far more articulately than I can. Instead, just a list – sometimes irreverant – of the first things that come to mind when I think of Mr David Bowie…

Ch ch ch ch chaanges!

Listening to ‘ChangesBowie’, the greatest hit collection with study mate in 4th year at school.

Being given a number of Bowie albums by one of the sixth formers in order to complete my musical education – as I recall, they were ‘Scary Monsters’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Let’s Dance’

Lending my Bowie greatest hits to my 10 year old brother and finding him having his mind blown, listening to ‘Space Oddity’ on constant loop.

Top 3 favourite David Bowie tracks -‘ Life on Mars’, ‘Fame’, ‘Lets Dance’ (easy to guess, if you read my blog and know my music tastes).  Ah – but what about ‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Changes’  ‘Young Americans’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Modern Love’…..?

Bowie dancing about in a long coat with Jagger for the Live Aid single, ‘Dancing in the Street’.  The 14 year old me thought this was the coolest thing ever.  (It’s probably not)

Doing the Bowie voice when singing along to ‘Dancing in the Street’.  ” We’ll be swengin’, swiiiyin’ and records pliiiyin'”!

Doing the Bowie voice full stop.  (I do 2 pop star voices – David Bowie and Tina Turner.  I reckon that’s all you need.

Oh – and Barry Gibb…



‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – has anyone else released a sequel to a song, the way others release sequels to books or movies?  Two minature movie plots told in the space of 6 minutes, written and performed 10 years apart.

The BBC had the same idea, ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – 2 drama series, 2 Bowie song titles, 10 years apart.


The Boe – ee (rhymes with show) Bow – ee (rhymes with cow) debate.


This little film showing how they did the crystal ball juggling

Sad times – but really great music on the radio this week!

And little tidbits I didn’t know about until this week –

like Nile Rogers producing ‘Lets Dance’…

and hearing the original Bowie version of ‘All the Young Dudes’ – awesome!

That really weird video with David and Bing Crosby singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’ – let’s be honest, pretty awful!


Lazarus – Bowie’s Ninth Symphony?


I think he’s still out there….x 🙂

The Man Who Invented Christmas


Traditions are funny things.  When I studied at the University of St Andrews (the oldest university in Scotland, founded in 1410) there were no end of little traditions gleefully adopted by students and staff alike. Academic families, idiosyncratic dress codes, receipts written in Latin for gifts received, giant shaving foam fights etc. all added to the feeling that you were part of a long and noble history. The reality, of course, was that whilst some of these activities did have their origins in the dim and distant past, most had originated in the heady world of the 1960s before being adopted as long standing tradition.

Likewise, my childhood as a cathedral chorister was filled with traditions and events that you felt had been going on since the dawn of time – or were at least as old as the mighty buildings you were singing in.

Last week saw the death of choral conductor and composer Sir David Willcocks.  He reached the grand old age of 95, not quite as old as the cathedral but getting there.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for  several generations of singers and even fairly passive listeners,  David Willcocks invented Christmas.  For a young chorister, Christmas was a particularly special to be singing. The weight of tradition was felt more keenly than usual – in particular during that most magical of services, Christmas Eve’s Nine Lessons and Carols.  It certainly felt as if this wonderful piece of theatre had been with us forever.  It always started the same way – the cathedral shrouded in darkness and the lone voice of a boy singing Once in Royal David’s City, followed by biblical readings interspersed with choral and congregational carols; then ending with a triumphal rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  As it turns out, regular Nine Lessons and Carols Services originate in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge from 1918. The service isn’t even 100 years old! More than that, it wasn’t until the publication of a carol book in 1961 that the service became ubiquitous across the (Anglican) world.  It’s younger than my Mum!

David Willcocks, along with Reginald Jacques and latterly John Rutter, compiled Carols for Choirs in 1961 and Carols for Choirs 2 in 1970.  It’s hard to come across a choral singer anywhere who does not know, and speak fondly of the ‘green book’ and the ‘orange book.’  There’s a handy guide to the format of the Nine Lessons and Carols at the back, but more important than that they contain Willcock’s choral arrangements of all the “big” carols.  Once in Royal, O Little Town, Hark the Herald…. everyone who sings – literally everyone! –  knows them.  All the harmonies, all the words.  And Willcock’s descants (the additional high countermelody sung by the sopranos in the final verses) are so ubiquitous and loved you can go the world over and here them sung with varying degrees of aplomb.  Try to imagine singing the refrain of O Come All Ye Faithful without hearing at least one person near you chime in with an enthusiastic Ohhh CUUUUUM!  I can’t imagine it!

So, a big salute to Sir David for creating a timeless tradition.  How many of those enthusiastic Ohh CUUUMers will have known the name of the man behind the soundtrack of their Christmas?

But what of next Christmas, and the following 50, or 150?  Will we all still be singing the same hymns, the same harmonies and descants?  Hopefully I’m not being too controversial when I say I’m a restless musician.  I get bored listening to, playing and singing the same old tunes year in, decade out.  Time for a change at Christmas?  Much as I love those old songs, harmonies and descants, I’m ready for some new traditions.

Ok, maybe next Christmas…


Upcoming Gigs

Some great stuff coming up!

Firstly, Bolton Symphony Orchestra’s American programme as discussed in my last post – this Saturday 16 September at Victoria Hall, Bolton 7 30pm

Bring On the Swing at the Cheadle Hulme Cricket Club annual dinner – Friday 9th October, 30 quid for 3 courses and some great live music!

Lostock at the Garrick’s Head, Flixton, Saturday 10th October.  Music starts at 9 30pm.  Pop down for a drink and a boogie!




The Saxophones of Rome

contrabass clarinet

I’ve been thinking a little bit about the arts of arranging and orchestration.  Conductor Ken Wood’s excellent blog’s latest article talks in detail about the merits and the legitimate reasons for rearranging great composers’ works.

There’s some great stuff in there, like Schoenberg’s small ensemble arrangements of Mahler’s mighty symphonies – written in the years of austerity after the First World War.  Conversely there are also examples of Mahler’s upscaling of works by Beethoven to take advantage of the new large symphony orchestras and concert halls being built at the end of the nineteenth century.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I have also been enjoying a magazine detailing the sterling efforts of the various composers responsible for the music soundtracks that accompany the BBC TV series, Doctor Who.  Those who know me know that this is a programme that’s very close to my heart (new series starts on September 19th folks!) – and I’m happy to say that I have a keen fascination with all aspects of the fiction and the production of the show including, naturally, the music.  Nowadays, composer Murray Gold has the full forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to play with, but back in the early days when budgets were tighter, composers had to be inventive with limited resources. Composers would either arrange music for a carefully chosen group of instruments chosen for maximum effect or wrestle with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s early synthesisers.  Whilst Delia Derbyshire’s realization of the theme music is worthy of a blog post of it’s own, arguably the finest incidental music composer the series had was Dudley Simpson.  His signature  of horns, cellos, bass and contrabass clarinets, combined with the aforementioned Radiophonic Workshop analogue beeps and hums,  created the unique sound pallet for the show throughout much of it’s original run.

Another notable score, was Radiophonic Workshop’s bonkers soundtrack for 1972 story, The Sea Devils – all realized on the workshop’s new EMS Synthi 100.

See below for a pic of Malcolm operating the synth.

synthi 100

The workshop weren’t allowed to compose for the series for 8 years after that…. Personally, I love it!


Much like the world of Science Fiction at the BBC in the 1970s, the world of musical theatre is another environment where composers have to work with a limited palette of musicians as a result of both budgetary and space restrictions.

Nowadays most professional shows are able to produce a big orchestral sound with the minimum of players  by playing a mix of live instruments combined with expert programming of synthesizer keyboards.  Sometimes in the amateur world, using these arrangements can produce mixed results.  Production of a credible sound in this environment is often less about the quality of the aforementioned keyboards and more about the way these sounds are mixed together with live musicians and singers.  Investment in a good sound designer often comes far too low on the list in the world of amateur music theatre.  Likewise, choice of synthesizer patch is, I think, sometimes misunderstood.  To sound like a credible string orchestra takes more than just dialing up ‘Synth Strings 38’ on your Roland.  A down bow at forte sounds different from one at piano, which in turn sounds different to an up bow or a marcato or staccato note.  All these things are taken into account by the expert Broadway and West End arrangers.

Whilst it’s great that this technology, in the right hands, is available to create these wonderful rich scores on a fraction of the budget, it does to my ears, result in a slightly dull homogeneity of sound between different shows.

I do miss the ingenuity of theatre composers of the past – just like the Simpsons and the Schoenbergs of the world – creating a unique soundworld from a quirky group of well chosen instruments.

The Musical Directors of amateur productions often have to make considered decisions on how best to cut down the lavish orchestrations of the shows they are putting on to match the lineup of musicians they have, again dicated budgets or theatre size.  I don’t MD many shows these days, but the Doctor Who magazine did remind me of my last swim into these waters.  It talked about the, perhaps unusual, choice of composer Raymond Jones to use saxophones in scoring a story set in ancient Rome.  The explanation was that combination of  saxes with other brass instruments could produce a credible Roman fanfare sound.  The fact that sax players are able to double on a number of other instruments also provided a wide variety of tonal colour in a small ensemble.

I had to make some similar choices when it came to picking instruments to play in a reduced orchestration of Broadway classic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.  The original score is for lavish full orchestra – large string section as well as full wind, brass, percussion and harp.  This was both a budgetary no-no as well as physical impossibility in the confines of the studio theatre we were performing in.

For me a big factor in the success and style of “Forum” as a show is that, yes it’s set in ancient Rome, but the style of the piece spans the eras of old style music-hall Vaudeville and a more modern satirical wordplay-heavy 1960s style of comedy. I decided if I couldn’t have the widescreen Hollywood soundtrack sound, then, for the studio theatre, I would try to do the smallscreen TV version.  With composers like Dudley Simpson and “The Avengers” Laurie Johnson in mind I tried to evoke the 60s as best I could.

Firstly, I was keen that any synthesisers we used would only recreate the sounds of other keyboard instruments (to avoid the upbow, downbow articulation issues etc) and certainly no instruments that hadn’t been invented post early sixties.  Thus a combination of piano, electric organ, vibraphone, xylophone and in particular harpsichord (check out the Avengers soundtracks for making the baroque harpsichord sound funky) was used to play melodies, countermelodies, riffs and harmonies originally assigned to a whole bunch of different orchestral string and brass instruments.

Secondly, to push the Vaudeville aspect of the show, we filled the score and the script with as many ‘comedy’ percussion sounds as good taste would allow: comedy timpani boings when  people fell over, swanee whistles, whip cracks when folk were slapped, rattles, sirens etc…

Other than the percussion, the only acoustic instruments used were 3 clarinets.  Like Raymond Jones’ Roman saxophones, the 3 together could blend to create a homogenous choral sound or were able to double on a number of other instruments for variety of tone.  So my 3 clarinetists were also able to provide me with flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, alto and tenor sax as required.

The most contentious omission from my small band arrangement was the trumpet.  Peppered throughout the show are a number of fanfares played in beautiful 3 part harmony on strident brassy trumpets a-la the MGM Roman epics of yesteryear.  But that’s pretty much all they audibly do.  No way was I wasting my precious instrument allocation on players that accounted for about 3 minutes of the show.  But the fanfares are important.  1 Trumpet?  Not quite the same pomp and circumstance. The feeble fart of the synth trumpet? Nah. Like Raymond Jones’ Roman saxophones I opted for the woodwind-faking-it-as-brass approach.  And quite frankly, 3 clarinets honking away at full volume sounded not bad at all.  Actually to this brass players ears, they were really rather impressive…


Upcoming Gigs

Delighted to playing for Bolton Symphony Orchestra again – 7.30pm at the Victoria Hall, Bolton, Saturday 26th September.

It’s the second outing this year for me for Bernstein’s West Side Story symphonic dances, but the real treat is the utterly barmy Variations on America by Charles Ives.  Check out the original version for organ below:


The Auld Toon and the New World


Those of you who read my last post will know that I was just about to embark on my summer holidays, a whistle-stop trip visiting friends and relatives around Scotland.  Delightfully, whilst on the Isle of Skye in the pouring rain, an old friend of mine  dropped me an email asking if I was interested in playing for him at a concert at the Edinburgh Fringe the following weekend.  I was able to reply that, by some coincidence, I was already intending to be in Edinburgh that weekend and would love to play.  As I was already on my holidays in Scotland, I had no trombone or concert clothes with me.  My friend sourced an instrument from my old tromboning mentor, Bill Giles, who was also playing. I’m glad to report we had a good old chat about appropriate use of the alto trombone (see “To Alto or Not to Alto”), and the unique awkwardness of Brahms trombone parts (probably worthy of it’s own blog post).   I borrowed a tuxedo and trousers from my brother and treated myself to a new shirt and shoes.  Despite, walking into the shop with the intention of buying some reasonably priced black concert shoes, I managed to walk out with a rather more expensive natty blue and brown pair.  Hopefully the mismatch wasn’t too noticeable for the audience…

Anyway, the concert in question was The Orchestra of the Canongait performing at Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Kirk, a few yards away from the world’s most famous terrier, Greyfriar’s Bobby.  It was the first concert in their Brahms’ symphony cycle and it was a real pleasure to play this demanding but immeasurably satisfying music with this extremely fine orchestra to a large and appreciative audience. I’ve known the conductor of this orchestra, Robert Dick since we were teenagers playing in youth orchestras together.  In fact, my time in Edinburgh this summer was a real blast from the past, as I also had the pleasure of catching up with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra who were in rehearsals for their summer chamber concert. They really are a phenomenon, not just in Edinburgh, but recognized nationally.  But back to Robert. He is a quiet, unassuming, good humoured gent in day to day life. But once on the podium, the music seems to just pour out of him.  He is a wonderful conductor. It’s difficult to articulate what makes a great conductor. How can the subtlest of movements somehow coax that big ship the symphony orchestra into giving a great performance?  Possibly that indefinable difference between the craft and the art of music. I can recount many performances throughout my playing career that stand for me as particularly memorable.  Yes, the players and the pieces go some way to explaining this, but more often than not it is due to the person at the front waving their arms.  I can still remember the last time I had played with Robert and this orchestra, probably 10 years previously.  It was Dvorak’s New World Symphony – a piece that has for many amateur orchestral players, become hackneyed and dull due to over-familiarity.  This particular performance allowed me to appreciate it again with new ears.  It was so exciting! And I was reminded that it is a truly great piece of music, which when tackled with care and commitment can provide something unique and special – the reason why live performance will always trump recorded music.

Thinking back on my move from Edinburgh to Manchester I can reflect on some of the other great performances that stick in my mind.

It took me and Susan a couple of years to settle in to the Manchester music scene before finding musical groups that we truly enjoyed playing with.  This was to come when we joined the Stockport Symphony Orchestra, then latterly Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra and the Cheshire Sinfonia.  These orchestras have the advantage of having close enough links with the Royal Northern College of Music to attract some phenomenal conductors and soloists. My second concert with Stockport featured one such conductor, Baldur Bronninmann.  Baldur has since gone on to great things,, but at the time he was a conducting tutor at the college.  Like Robert’s New World, Baldur coaxed a performance of an old orchestra staple, Sibelius 2, out of the players which to my ears was mindblowing.  A year or 2 later, the orchestra had a chance to be the house band for a weekend-long conducting workshop in which several budding conductors got to have a go with a full symphony orchestra and get feedback from someone who knows how it’s done.  Baldur was the coach, and it was fascinating to hear his hints and tips on how the smallest of movements and gestures could bring the best out of the orchestra.  I was quite startled to realise quite how manipulating (in a good way!) a great conductor can be towards the players and how much little bits of psychology can bring out the best in the musicians.  And this is all through movement! – hands, eyes, arms, the whole body.  I think before this workshop I had kind of naively thought that great performance came out of what and how the piece had been rehearsed- what the conductor had said to the players etc.  Important, yes, but this workshop highlighted to me in a very real way how much the greatest performances are shaped there and then on the platform as they happen.  Another plus point for live performance.

Sitting at the back of the orchestra playing an instrument that spends more time on it’s stand than being played does offer you a unique perspective on each live performance.  Unlike the audience, I listen to many hours of performance whilst watching the conductor face on, as opposed to their back.  This teasing the music out of the player is fascinating to watch – almost  like a ballet – except the movements are informing the players’ music, unlike a real ballet where it’s the other way round.  Fellow Scot, Garry Walker’s ( performance of Mahler’s 9th symphony with Stockport was another case in point.  Both a joy to perform and to watch.  Garry worked the orchestra harder then any other conductor to get this extremely difficult piece up to  scratch, but it was the final 10 or minutes, strings alone where he wrung every last drop of emotion out of the music and the players.  The audience and players alike barely dared breathe as the final chords died way to nothing.

Ken Wood’s( performance of Shostakovitch’s 7th Symphony with Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra was another great performance.  Shostakovitch writes notoriously long rambling melodies and it takes a master conductor to give shape and purpose to this music.  Again, this was another epic performance, where the proverbial pin could be heard dropping during the intensely desolate slow passages.  Conversely, the climaxes were probably some of the loudest I’ve ever been involved in.  Awesome!

A final couple of memories of the first amateur orchestra I played with after leaving university.  Were back in Edinburgh again, with the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alasdair Mitchell.  I was a young noisy brass player who, like most young noisy brass players just wanted to play big noisy pieces.  Imagine my disappointment when we performed 2 of the noisiest composers (Mahler and Wagner)’s most quiet introspective works, Das Lied Von Der Erde and Die Valkyrie Act 1 (The famous Ride Of The Valkyries doesn’t turn up until Act 3).  I had sooo few notes to play!  Rehearsals were deadly dull.  But, in performance, back in that austere gloomy Greyfriar’s Kirk again, they were two of the most unique and memorable performances I’ve been privileged to be a part of.  Das Lied was particularly special as it was my own Mum singing the solo contralto solo part.  Orchestra, conductor and soloists all pulling together to create that one off unique event.  Even the most professional slick recording sessions I’ve been involved with don’t hold a candle to these ephemeral moments (or in the case of the Shostakovitch concert, several hours – one of the longest classical concerts I’ve ever done!)

If you stuck with me this far, thanks for letting me ramble on about some of my favourite performances.  Thinking about Die Valkyrie makes me think I might revisit a few more – next time I’ll concentrate on my experiences with music for the theatre – memorable times both below and occasionally on the stage!

Upcoming Gigs

A couple of gigs I’m involved with this bank holiday weekend, more info at this post summer events.

See below for the short version:

Sunday 30 August – Bring on the Swing at the Ring O Bells, Marple 3pm – 5pm

Monday 31 August – Lostock at Glaston-Bury!  Wyldes Bar, Bury – 5pm – 6pm

Passes (6 quid) are available for this unique weekend long event, hundreds of bands playing at multiple venues throughout Bury- all in aid of the Bury Hospice.

Summer Events

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Hi all.  It’s been far too long since my last post, life and laziness having taken over, so here’s a quick one to ease me back into the swing of things.  I’m just about to head off on my summer holidays – 2 weeks touring Scotland visiting family and friends in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the beautiful Isle of Skye.  Before I go, a brief roundup of a few summer musical events.

Generally most of my own musical events break for the hols – and it’s always a bit of struggle to get my “lip” back in after the summer break if I’ve had a few weeks off playing the trombone.  Like any physical exercise, it gets harder with age to keep the fitness levels up!  Luckily my 2 bands carry on rehearsing as much as is practical, and both are performing over the August Bank Holiday long weekend.


Firstly my jazz band (sometimes called “Bring on the Swing”, sometimes called “Not Quite Jazz) perform on the afternoon of Sunday 30th August at the Ring O Bells, Marple.  The Ring O Bells is great pub, just by the canal, with a very comfortable beer garden and every Sunday afternoon throughout the summer they host a different brass band – well to be precise 15 brass bands and one jazz band – us!  It’s a great fun afternoon either outdoors if it’s sunny, or in the marquee if the weather is more traditionally bank holiday.  Head on down for some beer and fun tunes.




My second gig of the bank holiday is on Monday 31 August at the cheekily named Glaston-Bury festival.  It’s all in aid of a good cause, the Bury Hospice,  so all similarities are forgiven.

The link above has yet to show  details of this year’s event, but one of the bands performing will be my funk/rock band Lostock playing at Wyldes Bar, Bury from 3.15pm.

And whilst we’re it at – if you haven’t checked out the band website, please do at the link below.  Hopefully Tim will have uploaded some new photos by the time this is posted, and make sure you check out the recordings – they’re pretty good!


Before I sign off, just a quick mention of a couple of festivals that are particularly close to my heart. They’re also both a great introduction to  music styles that are impenetrable to many, jazz and classical.  Give them a go!

Sadly I’m missing all of this this year as it coincides with me being away – but if you’re local do give it a go if you haven’t done in the past.  A whole bunch of eclectic music and some super venues – particularly the festival pavilion on Albert Square.  There’s loads of stuff that’s very reasonably priced, or better still, free.  There are short gigs that you can catch in your lunch hour or you can spend a whole day hanging out in the square, grab some beer and street food and dip in and out of several gigs.  Definitely one of my favourite ways to spend a summer’s day in Manchester city centre.  Turns out you don’t like the music? What have you lost?  40 minutes and a couple of quid.  Go on – give it a try!

Confession – I’ve never actually been to a Prom concert.  I never seem to be in London when they’re on.  However, I do keep a close eye on what’s being programmed and like to catch up with what I can on Radio 3 or BBC4.  Like jazz, classical music can seem a bit daunting, so I would heartily recommend, in particular, the BBC 4 TV coverage. Rather than sitting through a whole 2 hour concert, check out a piece you’ve never heard of and give it a go.  Sunday nights, for instance, feature a bunch of different symphonies all introduced and explained by Halle Orchestra chief conductor, Sir Mark Elder.  Yes, he’s posher-than-posh, but his knowledge of the subject and enthusiasm is infectious.  Who knows, you might find out you like Stravinsky after all….

If there are any other events you have a burning desire to let us know about please feel free to pitch to your hearts content!


Happy holidays!






The Monkey’s Paw

monkeys paw


Longer term readers of this blog will know that I have, for some time, been grappling with the challenge of writing my first opera. Considering the amount of composing I have done even typing that previous phrase makes chuckle.  It feels akin to a novice hill walker claiming that they’re going to climb Everest.  My piece is no Ring Cycle thankfully, clocking in at a modest 45 minutes.

Opera writing, as I have discovered, is really rather difficult – but after 2 or 3 false starts, I finally have a complete work, fully scored, ready to road test on a bunch of unsuspecting singers and instrumentalists.  Whilst, the estates of Britten and Stravinsky need not feel troubled by a new kid on the block I reckon, whatever it’s artistic worth, it has the potential to be an affecting drama.  Certainly, it’s short story source is a rightly celebrated piece of horror writing and it’s high time the story was presented in musical form. You can read the original story here.

So without further ado, a few of my notes from the soon to be launched “The Monkey’s Paw -The Opera” website, ably put together by my lyricist, Alasdair King.  Have a read, and if you’re interested in finding out more, drop me a message!



“Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it”

The Monkey’s Paw is a one-act opera in 3 scenes with music by Richard Townhill, libretto by Alasdair King, from the short story by W W Jacobs.

We have set it in a small town somewhere in Yorkshire probably at the turn of the 20th century.

  • Scene 1 – The White’s House, living room, Autumn, a stormy evening
  • Scene 2 – The White’s House, living room, the following morning.
  • Scene 3 – The White’s House, living room, evening a couple of weeks later


W W Jacobs was primarily comedy writer who wrote mainly at the end of the 19th century. However it his creepy masterpiece the monkey’s paw for which he is best known. I first came across the Monkeys Paw as a young boy in the form of a short stage play. My father, teacher at a prep boarding school ran a play reading society as one of the evening activities for the students. Every Friday evening during term time, they would tramp across the school playing fields to our house and plough their way through mainly creaky old early twentieth century comedies and melodramas. It was an annual tradition that the first play of each year would always be the creepy ghost story, The Monkey’s Paw. The basic plot revolved round a small family, the Whites, father, mother and son Herbert and an evening spent with a mysterious Sergeant Major who ends up selling them the eponymous paw, having convinced them that it has the power to grant them 3 wishes.

As the story unfolds, the first wish does indeed come true, but the byproduct of this is the death of the Whites’ son. The climax of the piece sees the Whites wishing their son alive again and the creepy denouement is played out as the undead Herbert bashes manically on the front door as the White’s struggle with each other and their consciences regarding what it would mean to let him in.

I used to have fun each year, playing the undead Herbert banging relentlessly on the door at the appropriate moment, scaring the unsuspecting students witless.

It always struck me that it made the perfect little ghost story, reliant on nothing more than a sound effect for its scares. Likewise, the heightened melodrama of the situation seems to fit the heightened reality of the opera house, and thus many years after my first exposure to the piece, The Monkey’s Paw – the opera is born.


Cast and Orchestra

Mr White (Father) – High Baritone

The weight of the world hangs heavy on Mr White’s shoulders – a man ground down by a life of hard work and meagre pay. Tinged with sadness he looks back on a life of ordinariness and missed opportunities.

Mrs White (Mother) – Mezzo Soprano

Mrs White tries hard to envelop her little family with love and happiness. She is particularly close to her son Herbert, overly protective perhaps, after the death of Herbert’s elder brother in childhood.

Herbert – Tenor

Unlike his father, Herbert is at the start of his working life, full of optimism and ambition. He is generous to a fault.

Sergeant Major Morris – Baritone

A weary old soldier full of tales of his adventures in the farthest flung corners of the British Empire. But is he more than that? He brings to the White’s attention the story of the Monkey’s Paw, thus setting the ball rolling as the family head towards their final fate.

Mr Browning – Bass

The man from the factory, given the unenviable task of delivering the baddest of news to the Whites.

Choir – Soprano, Tenor, Alto, Bass

Providing atmospheric support.


  • Piano
  • Harmonium (or Reed Organ)
  • Violin
  • Timpani and Percussion
  • Percussion


Notes on the music

The Hymn Tune

The Day Thou Gavest, Lord is ended first appeared in the English Hymnal in 1874. It is one of the most popular of all of English hymns, and is also a regular choice of hymn at funerals, the sentiment of the words and the gentle lilt of its waltz time melody providing calm and comfort. The melody and words appear throughout the opera, often representing the closeness between Herbert and his Mother. It is also used when Father puts all his faith in the power of the Monkey’s Paw. At the end of the opera, we hear the tune and words for its original purpose – as a funeral hymn.

The Folk Songs

A number of folk tunes can be heard, often sung by the off stage choir, reminding us of the time and place the story takes place in. Keep that wheel a turning – often sung by the men of the choir, tells of the working man and the rise of industry. The Beverley Maid and the Tinker is a nineteenth century love ballad. Mother sings it as she waits for her son to return home from work.

The Nursery Rhyme

Mother and Herbert are close, often to the exclusion of Father. They often joke together, singing their own nursery rhyme melody, much to the annoyance of Father.

The Choir

The choir have a number of roles in the opera. Primarily, they act as part of the orchestra providing (always offstage) vocal tone colour. They also represent, at times, the men and women of the village, and to some extent the inner voices of Father’s temptation, presented to him by the Sergeant Major.

The Harmonium

This strange hybrid instrument, a cross between a church organ and a folk accordion, perfectly represents this life of small town community and strong religious faith.

The Bells

Different types of bells are used throughout the opera. The glockenspiel, the sound of the mantelpiece clock or a nursery music box – represents the warmth and safety of the home and family. The vibraphone, the only instrument in this orchestra to have an electric component, is the otherworldly sound of the magical paw and its ability to grant wishes. Finger cymbals evoke the sounds of the exotic east as Morris sings of his time abroad. The anvil, not strictly a bell, but still metallic and struck with a metal hammer, is the sound of the factory – not least the grind of machinery which results in Herbert’s death. Lastly, the tubular bell is naturally the toll of the funeral bell.

The Violin

The violin has long been considered the devil’s instrument and is often used by composers (particularly when played double stopped) to represent Satan’s malevolence. It is also the instrument the soldier plays in Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, which he sells to the devil. In The Monkey’s Paw, Morris is both a soldier and a devilish Mephistopheles, presenting temptation to the family. Thus it is only right that the violin plays his themes.

The Drums

Whilst marching drums also represent Morris, they also tap out seductive tango rhythms as he tempts the family. Also, time and again we hear the ratatatatat of the drums forshadowing the devilish knocking on the door by Herbert at the end of the opera.

The door knocks

Ratatatatat. The turning point in each scene is always a knock on the door. Always the same rhythm. Always looking towards the devastating climax of the opera. Herbert’s door knocks in the final scene start as before, a quiet ratatatatat – before crescendoing to a violent relentless bashing of the door. In no way should this be connected to the music on the stage – rather, the singers and musicians need to carry on with their show, despite the noisy offputting pounding of the door.



So there you have it.  If you’re an opera or music group looking to try something new we’d love to hear from you.  I hope it won’t be too long before I’m able to report on  “The Monkey’s Paw’s” transformation from notes on the page to spooky live drama!


Gig Guide

Some great programmes coming up from a number of my favourite orchestras and bands that I get to play with:

Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra – this Saturday 6 June.

Cheshire Sinfonia – Saturday 20 June

Lostock Funk Band – Friday 19 June, Saturday 4 July

All details at my previous post here!





Upcoming gigs – a trombonist’s perspective

bb king


Farewell, Mr BB King – making people happy with his music from the 1940s till the end of time…

This week’s post is entirely self promotion I’m afraid.  Lots of gigs coming up which I’m looking forward to playing and I reckon would be of interest to a number of you.  So please take a little gander and make a note of the dates and hopefully I’ll see you at some of them.

One of the joys of playing the trombone is, whilst never particularly being in the limelight, it is one of the few musical instruments that can have a place in almost any style of music.  The gigs coming up are a good reflection of this so I thought, as well as giving you a rundown on them I would also write a few words on the different approach each of these gigs require.  Warning – it may get a little bit brass player geeky – but I know that at least some of you might appreciate a bit of geek…


Saturday 16 May – “Bring on the Swing” – Bulls Head Pub, Handforth, Cheshire

Bring on the Swing are a 9 piece jazz/swing band based in and around Cheshire that I have been playing with for the last couple of years.  They have quite a following and play a mix of parties, functions and informal gigs.  We have a semi permanent residency at the Bulls Head and, I have to say, our evenings there are always really lively and fun.  The Handforth audience are always up for a great night and we always have a good night with them.  Key to the band’s success is our fabulous front man, Mr Loz Beverley who sings a wide variety of Sinatra classics as well as all the Michael Buble, Robbie Williams and Amy Winehouse numbers you would expect from this type of band.

I’ve talked a little about differing playing styles and different choices of instrument dependent on context in post To Alto or not to Alto and, as you would expect the way I would tackle the music in a swing band is somewhat different to the way I would play in the symphony orchestra.

Firstly, choice of instrument – for trombone geeks out there, in this type of music I use a King 2B, (Jiggs Whigam signature mode) with a Marcinkiewicz 6 1/2 AL mouthpiece.  The narrow bore gives me a brighter edgier sound than my symphonic trombone which blends better with the saxophones in the band without swamping them.

Secondly, playing style.  Yes, jazz and pop styles of music do allow me a little more freedom in terms of the sound I am expected to make.  The orchestra expects a certain purity and beauty of tone, whereas in the jazz band there is more opportunity for tonal tricks like growling, flutter tonguing, glissandos, stopped notes and muted notes.  It’s a fine balance, on a noisy instrument like the trombone – the key is to make it jazzy, NOT music-hall vulgar!

However, ironically, when the horns play as a section, the musical restrictions put on us are just as great as they are in any symphonic work.  The effectiveness of this music is very much down to following the arrangers’ markings to the letter.  Big band arrangements give you a lot of information on articulation of notes.  Often every note is marked with a different type of accent, staccato, slur, gliss or ornament and we spend a lot of time in rehearsal making sure sure that everyone is adhering to the instructions in order that we obtain that classic big band “tight” sound.  Ironically, for this type of loud strident music we spend a lot of time trying to play as quietly as we dare and building the numbers to their inevitable noisy climaxes.  A common problem with less technically proficient and inexperienced swing bands is the tendency for everyone to belt everything out at full volume all the time, resulting in a noisy mess.

Pop down on Saturday and find out whether we follow our own rehearsal advice, or whether the excitement of the live gig gets the better of us!


Saturday 6 June – Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra, Wilmslow Leisure Centre, Wilmslow, Cheshire

Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man

Gershwin – Cuban Overture

Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Barber – Adagio for Strings

Bernstein- On the Waterfront

And as if to underline my points made in the paragraphs above, here we have a concert where an entire symphony orchestra of 80 or so players has to mimic the sound and precision rhythmic writing of the jazz/swing band.

This is a great programme coming up – and one that I would heartily recommend to anyone who loves the sound and power of the symphony orchestra , but can’t be bothered to sit through all that lengthy self-indulgent romantic guff they tend to play.

The June concert is a programme of American composers’ music, including at it’s heart two fantastic Bernstein scores – his music from the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront” and his Symphonic Dances from his musical “West Side Story”.

From a trombonist’s perspective this concert is a tour de force.  It is also extremely demanding.  From a physical perspective, the sheer number of notes the brass have to play in this concert means that just getting through it all with out running out of “lip” can be touch and go.  I’m already getting into training – blowing through the entire programme on a regular basis in order to build up my stamina. I don’t have the luxury of the little trombone this time.  Whilst the music swings hard, the parts definitely require the sound of the big brassy symphonic trombone section (for the geeks, I play the classic Conn 88H, the standard instrument of most British and American orchestral trombone players). Check out the distinctive beautiful burnished red-gold bells of the trombone section the next time you catch an orchestral concert on the TV.  I tend to play a larger than average mouthpiece – Vincent Bach 4G – which allows for a richer sound with less tendancy to break up at the louder volumes. The disadvantage is it requires more stamina and is harder to “ping” the high notes out – so I am allowing myself the luxury of a slightly smaller mouthpiece in the “Mambo” section of West Side Story.

Musically speaking, I also think that West Side Story is technically one of the most demanding pieces in the regular symphony orchestra repertoire.  As well as expecting all 80 players to swing, fast and together with the ease of a single jazz drummer, Bernstein’s melodies are also extremely angular and awkward to play.  Have a go at singing “Cool” in strict tempo and bang in tune, or something as deceptively simple as “Somewhere” and you begin to get the idea of some of the orchestra’s pitfalls.

Having said all this, it is music that is extremely fun to play – and Wilmslow Symphony always rise to the challenge of a difficult programme, particularly under the tutelage of our lovely conductor Juan Ortuno.

There’s also great music – a lot of it recognizable – by Copland, Barber and Gershwin, so do pop down in June for an enjoyable night.


Saturday 20th June, Cheshire Sinfonia, St Michael’s Church, Bramhall, Cheshire.

Faure- Pavane

Vaughan Williams- Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”

Beethoven- Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral

A lovely programme featuring 2 symphonies with the subtitle, “Pastoral”.  One extremely well known by Beethoven, the 2nd less so by Vaughan Williams.

I’ve waffled on about the quality of  VW and his Pastoral in previous posts.  I’ve yet to see what the trombone parts will be like to play, but I do know there is some wonderful writing for my fellow brass players, namely the effective use of the natural harmonic series, including (deliberately) out of tune notes in offstage solos for trumpet and French horn.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is almost certainly one of his most well known pieces.  It is also one of the earliest examples of use of the trombone in a symphony – and is like no other trombone part I have seen. It’s as if he knows he wants to use the instrument, but doesn’t quite know what to do with it.  For a start, he only uses 2 trombones (rather than almost universal 3 player section), including the notorious alto trombone which he doesn’t use until the climatic storm sequence of the symphony, where we get to play one (yes, count them) note! After a few more chords, where bizarrely we are asked to play higher notes than the trumpets, the piece is all over.

Don’t let the trombone writing put you off though!  Pop down to hear 2 beautiful summery pieces played, on hopefully a beautiful summer evening.

(NB – for trombone geeky completeness, I play a Yamaha Alto Trombone with a Dennis Wick 10CS mouthpiece.  If there are any trombonists reading who have any advice on something better, do let me know – but it just about works for me on this notoriously awkward instrument.)


Friday 19th June, Lostock (funk band), Night & Day Café, Manchester

Saturday 4th July, Lostock, afternoon gig, somewhere in Trafford I think!

Update – It’s at Golden Hill Park, Urmston and we’re on at about 1 30pm!


I’ve had a lot of requests for more info on upcoming gigs from my funk band, Lostock (more info at this post ), so please take a note of the dates above.  The first is our return gig at the famous Night and Day Café, and this time I’m glad to say that they have asked us to headline on a Friday night.  The 2nd, I have very little info on, but I’m pretty sure it’s outdoors, in the afternoon and has a fundraising for the NHS aspect to it – more info when I get it – but definitely a date to keep free.

Oh – and we’ve started to put together some nice studio recordings and there should be a website on it’s way too.  Check out one of the songs below:


Final bit of trombone geekery – a request for advice from any other trombonists out there – I’m really not sure which instrument to play this type of music on.  My fellow band members prefer the sound of the 88H, so that’s what I’m on at the moment – but its seems odd to me to be playing the noble Conn in the  pub!  Then again looking at photos, it looks like it may be the instrument of choice for my favourite trombone player, THE funk trombonist, Fred Wesley (although his instrument appears to sport a funky black lacquered bell).

fred wesley

Perhaps I should playing my 40th birthday present instead.


It’s most certainly purple, and it’s definitely funky!


There’s no business like….

keith harris

With sad news of the death of Keith Harris this week (a childhood staple of anyone my age in the UK), my thoughts have turned again to my time working on the cruise ship MS Westerdam.  My last post on this subject, “Back to Rydell High,” talked about the musical acts I had the chance to perform with in my first week on board.

This time I’d like to turn my attention to some of the variety performers I met and worked with during my time onboard ship. They ranged from comedians to ventriloquists and magicians.   We’re forever being told that variety is dead, but whilst the performers don’t get the same column inches as rock stars and movies actors it’s still an immensely popular form of live entertainment.  I think this is particularly the case in the United States where the vast numbers of Vegas style venues, cruise ships and clubs suit these performers and their audiences down to the ground.

One of the striking things I found when working in an environment like a cruise ship was the feeling that I was living my whole life in miniature.  Imagine – everyone lives in this relatively small environment where people come and go from week to week.  Life is intensified into this short timescale where you will find yourself having the deepest of emotional experiences with people and then they get off the boat…and you never ever see them again.  It’s like a lifetime of holiday romances!  Bear in mind that I worked on the ship pre-Facebook (imagine that, a world without Facebook!) so keeping in touch still required a bit more effort than just posting a baby photo on your wall…

Anyway, I have chosen to talk about three individuals who were most definitely wonderful friends of mine whilst on board, but since that time I have had little or no contact with them.  It’s been a pleasure looking up their various webpages and youtube clips to see how they’re getting on.  Unlike me, who slipped back into civilian life post-cruise, they all continue to make their living from that glorious business known as show…..


Michael Ziegfeld (comedian, ventriloquist, puppeteer, writer, actor)

I met quite a few ventriloquists on board the ship during my time, and to be frank – and as one might expect – a lot of them are rather odd. We certainly had one who completely missed the point of the ventriloquist act – he would try to chat up girls after the show by talking to them without moving his mouth.  …”Oh my gawd, that’s amaaazing!…err…excuse me, I think that’s my friend over there…”  The point of the ventriloquist act is not to freak-out/chat-up girls, more to make the puppet so dynamic, real and funny that no one’s looking to see if your mouth is moving anyway.

Michael (“Ziggy”) Ziegfeld’s mouth definitely did not move. He managed to have an act that combined sophisticated observational humour which was also family-friendly (extremely important for the cruise ship crowd), with very funny and believable puppet characters.  My personal favourite was Nadia Coma, the world’s oldest athlete. I hear she may have retired now.

We in the band had great fun with Ziggy, a lot of it trying to subtly subvert the cruise ship management, rules and regulations.  Ziggy had a (real life actual!) Muppet on board with him and I do remember a drunken evening chatting away to it in his cabin, totally oblivious to the performer operating it a foot away. Such is the power of expert puppeteer and ventriloquist’s art.  Another time we bought a joke shop remote-control fart machine from a shop in Juneau, Alaska.  Ziggy would have the remote in his pocket whilst he was performing on stage.  The loud speaker would be located under our bass player, Herman’s, chair. He would wrinkle his nose in disgust every time  Ziggy set it off, the audience completely oblivious to the fact that 2 comedy shows were going on at once…

Checking out Ziggy’s website, I see he now goes by the name Michael Paul, and he really is a true showbiz polymath with a lengthy CV of his achievements in all mediums. You may even have heard of some of it in the UK!

This polymath approach he reckons is part of the reason for his relative lack of fame!  He has just released his autobiography – “Breaking out of Showbusiness – What I’ve discovered by not being discovered”.

I’ve bought a copy.



Chris Pendleton (comedian, musician)

I had so much fun with Chris on board the Westerdam – a lovely lady.  We both had similar backgrounds, had studied biology at university and were keen musicians.  Chris had taken the plunge away from science teaching, and was now forging out a successful career as a standup comedian.  Her witty and surreal observational humour, including subject matter that really only a woman could get away with in front of a family audience, was extremely popular with the cruise audiences.

Chris also played the violin in the show in a number of comedy musical sequences and a couple of little Scottish references crept into some of the songs as a little tribute me!  Yay!   She would also include a rendition of that song “Feelings” by Morris Albert, universally known to be the worst song ever written.  She reckoned a song  I had written sounded remarkably like it – thanks Chris!

A photo of me and Chris still adorns my office wall, of us posing together at a clothing optional beach on the island of St Martin – we opted to wear clothes.

And, I did get to meet up with Chris again, a few years later for a lovely evening at her apartment in LA, enroute to Disneyland.  Hopefully catch up again Chris!


Darren Romeo (magician, singer)

He won’t mind me saying this, but on paper Darren’s act shouldn’t really work.  Though come to think of it, mashing up musical theatre and large scale magical illusions didn’t do Phantom of the Opera any harm.  What really made this show work was Darren himself who whilst being annoyingly talented and handsome was just extremely personable both on and off stage (imagine John Barrowman with less cheese).  It therefore felt like the most natural thing in the world to watch him singing rock n roll whilst making a girl disappear, to doing some close-up magic with audience members and then finish off with some large scale illusion whilst belting out a Broadway showstopper.

The magicians on the ships often tended to stay on board longer than a lot of the other performers, often simply due to the fact that they had so much more gear to bring on board for their acts and it was impractical to do short runs.

I got to know Darren really well over the weeks he was on board and whilst our backgrounds were extremely different we a had a lot in common.  In particular we both had a real passion for music theatre and both had dabbled with a little writing.  Darren listened to a lot of my ideas and gave bits of opinion and advice on songs.  In return I spent time listening to some of his songs and even transcribed a couple for him as he wasn’t a music reader.

One of the most special times on the ship was when Darren and the band gave the first live performance of one of the songs from my show Once Bitten during one of Darren’s shows.  Darren decided he liked the song I played to him Silent Cry, he quickly went away and learned it and I quickly wrote some band arrangements and we performed it later that week.  Good times!

I haven’t seen Darren since the ship.  We did exchange a few emails and he sent me through his CDs, including those songs I transcribed but since then have lost touch.

It looks like he’s still going strong headlining ever more extravagant and epic shows throughout the US.  It looks like he’s currently in the middle of a long run in Tennessee.

I also found this clip from a pilot episode of the Darren Romeo TV show – The 8th Effect.  I don’t think it’s made it on to the BBC yet, but I’ll keep my eye out….


So there you go, a little window into some of  my experiences on the edge of the showbiz world.

Anyway before I sign off, lets all spare a thought for little Orville the duck.  Perhaps he’ll finally achieve his dream of flying.  Excuse me I better go now, I think I’ve got something in my eye…. (sniff)




Desert Island Artists – Concluding Part

prince puppet

And now the final part of this extremely lengthy blog post, and straight in with perhaps my top 2 choices.  And 2 more different artists listed side by side it’s hard to imagine…or is it…?

C.8 Benjamin Britten born Lowestoft, Suffolk, UK (1913 – 1976)

I read somewhere that it’s possible to tell where a composer is from when you listen to music they have composed representing storms.  So when a composer such as Verdi, in his opera Otello, or Strauss in his Alpine Symphony represent stormy weather it’s full of lots of dramatic Hammer Horror style musical lightening cracks and sudden onslaughts of doomy wind and rain.  This is totally in keeping with the sudden, steamy, thundery tempests that hit central and southern Europe in the summer months.  Storms in Britain aren’t dramatic and short.  They’re endless cold, damp, dark affairs that roll on for hours during the bleakest months of the year.  Britten is another of those composers whose music is steeped in the land of his birth and upbringing – in this case the austere cold beauty of the Suffolk coast.

I feel a real kinship with the music of Britten.  I’m not sure why. Is it an East Coast thing ( I was born and grew up in Edinburgh, and have relatives who live or lived in Fife, Aberdeenshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk).  There is an east coast sensibility in Britain.  We are more reserved, more emotionally buttoned up than our more ebullient west coast counterparts.  (I like to think with a simmering passion and fierce intelligence just under the surface though) And Britten’s music and (often extremely controversial) subject matter evoke this in spades.

Much of Britten’s music is not on the surface beautiful or emotional, but it speaks to many people like no other.  Even the works I don’t particularly like, I love. Does that make sense?  And then there’s Britten the man – possibly the great composer that has had more written about him, and which we have more first hand information on, than any other.  A man at the heart of the establishment, yet also (much of it, admittedly, self inflicted) the perpetual outsider.  But then, isn’t that how we all see ourselves?

Don’t we?


C8. Prince, born Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA (1958 – )

I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said “when one is tired of Prince, he is tired of life”.  Okay, so it was Samuel Johnson talking about London, but Julia Roberts said something very similar in “Pretty Woman” and of course, she is absolutely right.

When I discovered Prince in my early teens I can honestly say it was a life changer. I don’t think I had fully understood the power of pop music up until this point but once I’d been introduced to a few of his albums (for the record, Purple Rain, Sign o the Times and Lovesexy) everything kind of slotted into place.  The songs, the musicianship, the look (what a relief to discover you could be skinny, a little bit odd and a sex symbol – just like me at the time – skinny and odd that is, not a sex symbol).  And a mystique surrounded him too.  He had alter egos.  He never gave interviews.  Despite being a huge musical presence he seemed to be perpetually outwith the mainstream – an outsider (ah- just like Benjamin Britten!)  and with subject matter just edgy and x-rated enough to excite and intrigue this teenage mind.  Not surprising that I became mildly obsessed, searching out every recording, any video clip or piece of writing I could find on him.

Today, Prince is still a bit of a mystery, but he does seem to be settling quite nicely into (and apparently enjoying) being the elder statesman of pop – appearing at awards ceremonies, doing interviews etc.  But the power of his music , and particularly his flawless live performances continues. Now, I’m the first to admit, not everything he releases is top notch (but even a mediocre Prince album is a damn sight more fun to listen to than most other artists), but there’s so much material to choose from!  You don’t like the song he’s just released – don’t worry – there’ll be another one along in a minute.  And the performances are always spot on.  There are loads on YouTube (if that had been around when I was a teenager I doubt I’d have gone out).  Here’s one I found the other day – no one’s favourite Prince song, from one of his more obscure albums – but it still knocks spots off anything else out there.

I’ll never tire of Prince.



Oh – and here’s another one…how many saxophones?!


C.9 Ralph Vaughan Williams, born Gloucestershire, UK (1872 – 1958)

The legendary American conductor and composer had this to say about English music:

“Too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much Coronation in Westminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clod-hopping on the fucking village green”.

I actually find the above quote extremely funny it but with all due respect to Lennie, what’s wrong with a bit of heritage music? VW was an avid collector of the folk songs that surrounded him and he wove them into his own works.  Isn’t that exactly what Bartok was doing in Hungary or Copland in the US – too many barn dances and eating beans by the sodding camp fire?!

I’ve mentioned this before, but I reckon Vaughan Williams is both simultaneously over- and under-rated.  Yes, wallow in his English country garden music and depictions of old London town.  But don’t be deceived by that tweedy old farmer look he perfected.  This is a man who was writing movie scores, concertos and ambitiously scored symphonies right into his 80s, like this snippet below.  Time for a reassessment.


P.9 Miles Davis, born Illinois, USA (1926 – 1991)

I’ll be honest here.  I may have broken one of  my own rules here.  The list should be of artists that you want on there, rather than artists that you feel you ought to have on there based on trends or received opinion etc.  I was determined to have a jazz artist on the list.  I find it an intriguing and involving form of music.  The training and thought processes that go into creating it are very different to that of Classical forms and I’m often frustrated that I haven’t had a formal training with regards to attempting to perform it myself.

Because so much jazz is created and performed “in the moment” it almost seems perverse to pick a performer based on their recordings as so much of what makes it unique is down to an individual performance.  And like pop, rock and classical forms of music, there are also a wide variety of styles and traditions to choose from – bebop, hardbop, smooth, fusion, latin etc.  Only one performer/composer really encompasses it all – and that is Miles Davis.  It’s hard to put into words what a huge shadow he casts over almost all of jazz through his long career – the different styles he performed and created, the huge numbers of performers he collaborated with.  So whilst there’s a lot of Miles’ music I don’t really love (and a load of other jazz performers stuff I probably do love – Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus) for the sheer volume, eclecticism and yes, in this case, textbook importance, there is really only one choice.


C.10 Stephen Sondheim, born New York, USA (1930 – )

A night out watching a musical is still pretty much the most fun you can have with your clothes on without a drink in your hand.  It is the case, however, that once you get beyond the so-called golden era of Broadway (Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser etc) most of what has been written since, wonderful shows though they are, musically tend to fall into the realm of pastiche.  The exception to this rule is, of course, the legendary Stephen Sondheim.  No one more than him has moved the medium of Musical Theatre (different from plays, different from opera, different from revue) forward into the realms of high artistry.  Sondheim has a major advantage over many of his theatre composer colleagues in that he is a (possibly the finest ever) lyricist/composer so he has complete control over every element of the song, what story it’s trying to tell, where it fits in with the theatre of the piece.  Read his two books where he discusses in microscopic detail every lyric he has written, his word choices, what works – and doesn’t – and why.  The thoughtfulness of his approach and understanding of the craft and the art is frankly terrifying. Much of the reason for me writing this blog is me trying to get my head round and sometimes clumsily articulate the differences and similarities between the art and the craft of music making.  For want of a cliché, inspiration versus perspiration.  Sondheim exemplifies this – total commitment to his craft results in phenomenal pieces of art.

Amusingly, Sondheim does tend to attract the most zealous fans and disciples.  Some even attempt to write songs and shows just like he does.  Only instead of following his adage of “content dictates form, less is more and god is in the details” – they succeed in copying the tics and idiosyncrasies of Sondheim’s style – thus creating their own Sondheim pastiches.  Which is ironic, don’t you think?


P. 10 Randy Newman, born Los Angeles, USA (1943 – )

Most people will know of Randy Newman from his film score writing, particularly those songs that make you tear up every time you watch Toy Story.  But before that he was one of the world’s most commercially unsuccessful pop stars.  This is mainly due to the subject matter of his songs.  Like Kate Bush and the opera and theatre composers on this list, Newman writes songs where the singer takes on a persona. In Newman’s case, the singer’s of his songs are real villians – racists, rednecks, a slavetrader, a US president who’s determined to use the atomic bomb, a god who is completely disinterested in his creation and the carnage caused by his fanatical followers.  His only hit, a song called “Short People”, a metaphor on how pointless prejudice and racism is, caused such upset that there was no chance of a hit follow up. Just goes to show that the majority of people are too stupid to understand even the simplest of satirical ideas..

And wonderfully incongruously, the sordid subject matter of these songs are all wrapped up in the prettiest of melodies and most sentimental of arrangements.  Even more incongruous is that these beautiful melodies are sung by Randy himself who has, it is universally acknowledged, a distinctively terrible singing voice.

He’s Awesome.



And there we have it – the end of my epic quest to pick the 10 classical and 10 pop/rock artists, that would be my choices if all other music was taken away.  I may come back to this post and let you know the also-rans when I have a moment to think about them.

Have I learned anything profound about myself with regards to my choices? Probably not. I think my interest in theatre has certainly pushed me in the direction of music with a strong story narrative. I’m reminded of another Bernstein quote where he would ask an audience the question “What is Debussy’s La Mer, about?” Audience answer: “The sea”.  Lennie’s reply “No! It’s about the whole tone scale!”  But it is about the sea – and once again the whole craft of music informing the artistic goal is there for us to witness.

I was surprised at how much, in the pop list, lyric writing played an important part in the choices. Given what I’ve just written above I probably shouldn’t be. I was less surprised by how much spectacular arrangements and orchestrations informed both lists.  As a trombonist I tend to spend my life in reserve for those spectacular moments.

Perhaps the thing that has surprised me most stemmed from my initially rather flippant decision to list my choices in a sort of  geographical order.  It really highlighted how much I, possibly romantically, link different music with different countries and cultures.  This is particularly true of the great Classical music tradition within Europe – the icy landscapes of Sibelius’ Finland, the fiery heart on the sleeve temperament of Puccini’s Italy and the complex games of class and manners played out in Britten’s Britain.

Likewise, for me, the pop/rock tradition is inextricably linked with that of the USA.  8 of my 10 choices hail from that great country and the artists I’ve chosen evoke to me the length and breadth of a land I love to visit.  The Californian suburbs that Steely Dan and Randy Newman evoke, Sinatra’s Chicago gangster clubs, the sophisticated Manhattan world of Sondheim and Miles Davis, through to the hippie festival craziness of the George Clinton family of musicians.

So there you go – my choices and my reasons.  One thing’s for sure, everyone else will have a completely different list – and there’s a hell of a lot of music out there to choose from…



Desert Island Artists – Part 2

mahler hammer Picture credit -

Here’s what you’ve missed so far:

The rules of the game.

Posts on Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, Kate Bush, Amy Winehouse and Steely Dan.

For more info check out the previous post – Desert Island Artists – Part 1.

Cracking on and Classical post number 4….


C4. Gustav Mahler – born Kalischt, Bohemia (then Austrian Empire) (1860 – 1911)

Mahler is another composer who seems to write mini operas (or possibly feature films).  He calls them symphonies and there’s no indication as to  what the plots are, but by the sounds of things his hero is repeatedly put through the emotional and physical ringer before the inevitable happy or tragic ending.

Amateur orchestras love playing Mahler’s music.  It tends to be at the limit of their technical ability but more often than not they rise to the challenge of a credible performance through sheer chutzpah, a devil may care fearlessness that adds to the drama, unlike the earlier classical repertoire whose transparency of form can often be let down by anything less than 100% perfect technique.

Mahler is also one of those composers for whom the mythology of what he said and did has served to surround him and his music with a wonderful mystique – in particular the notorious hammer blows of the 6th Symphony.  Famously Mahler cut the number of blows from 3 to 2 before the first performance, concerned that the 3rd strike delivered the killer blow to the work’s hero – a figure he saw as himself.  The musicologists have since had many a field day, because these hammer blows have since been seen to represent and foreshadow later tragic events in Mahler’s own life – Mahler’s own prophesy seemingly having been fulfilled.

Bollocks I know, but amusingly I have been able to assign the hammer blows of fate to positive events in my own life.  Mahler 6 was the piece, when I was very young (probably 6) that instilled in me a love of orchestral music, when I sat in on a number of rehearsals as my dad performed the piece with the Scottish Sinfonia.  Many years later, it was whilst performing the same piece (also with the Scottish Sinfonia – eek!) that I met, playing in the violins, the lady who was to become my wife!

Who knows when the hammer will strike again….


P4. Frank Sinatra – born Hoboken, New Jersey, USA (1915-1998)

Sinatra almost didn’t make it on to the list.  For a long time I was humming and harring over putting something far more modern down – probably a bit of hiphop or R&B but I don’t know enough about them to know who to choose.  Perhaps they’re still too new to know who the lasting big names are to be?

And, anyway, how could I miss out a whole bunch of music that I have so much fun listening to and performing?  Because Sinatra isn’t just about the man himself.  It’s the song choices – all those Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin American songbook classics.  Not to mention all the wonderful musicians and arrangers that feature on his performances – Count Basie, Nelson Riddle, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones (now there’s an artist who spans the generations – responsible or both Sinatra and Michael Jackson’s greatest recordings).

But let’s not forget Sinatra himself.  In my opinion, he was the greatest exponent of these songs (certainly head and shoulders above his ratpack contemporaries.  I know a lot of people rate Sammy Davis jnr – as an all round showbiz performer- yes – but as a vocalist?) Possibly Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington come close – but there’ll never be another Frank…


C5. Richard Wagner – born Leipzig, Germany (1813 – 1883)

2 facts that everyone knows about Wagner:

1.  He wrote really long boring operas.  (I mean, like reeeeally long – The Ring Cycle is famously about 18 and a half hours long, performed over 4 days)

2.  He was Hitler’s favourite composer and the Nazis based a lot of their ideology on subject matter present in Wagner’s operas.


Well, for sure,  Wagner wasn’t a Nazi.  Yes, he was almost certainly not a particularly nice character, probably racist, definitely egotistical and manipulative.  Frankly, however, I have little desire to meet most of the names on my list. (Except for Kate Bush obviously – she sounds lovely!  I like to think she’d  bake a cake if you went round for a chat.)

As for the other point concerning length… Well, if you read my previous post you’ll know that that’s kind of the point.  Yes, “The Ride of the Valkeries” is great, but to listen to it on it’s own is a bit like just watching the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Or being helicoptered on to the summit of Everest.  Nice view.

That bit happens 3 or so hours in to the opera after listening to the story unfold of two total strangers meeting, getting to know each other, discovering they are brother and sister and then deciding to commit incest with each other as a political act!  When the Ride of the Valkeries happens, snippets of the music teasing us for the previous 3 hours, it’s the beginning of the end for centuries old lines of authority, brought down by the common man.  And there’s still another ten and a half hours of story to go!

Back in the day they use to base children’s cartoons on this sort of stuff…


P-Funk. George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic  – Clinton born Kannapolis, North Carolina (1941 – )

Another artist on my list, like Steely Dan, that has a remarkably low profile in the UK.  But if there had been no George Clinton, there would be no funk music.  If there had been no funk there would have been no disco, hip hop, R&B, rap.  George Clinton is considered to be on of the most sampled musicians ever.

And the list of musicians that were the Parliament/Funkadelic collective:

Bootsy Collins (bass), Bernie Worrell (keys), Maceo Parker (sax), Fred Wesley (trombone – my personal favourite trombone player)  and many, many more.

With punk, the UK created anarchy in musical form.

With funk, the US created anarchy in musical form performed by some of the best musicans on the planet.

Sorry Britain, I’m with the yanks on this one….


C6. Giacomo Puccini – born Lucca, Tuscany, Italy (1858 – 1924)

I’m always wary when people who want to get into classical music/opera ask the question, where do I start?  What will I like?  What’s an easy in?

At the risk of sounding like your teacher, I’m afraid there is no easy route in to classical music.  No magic bullet which will instantly open your eyes to it’s wonders.  (Check out what I wrote about long and short form music in the previous post).  If you really do want to give it a go, my recommendation is start from the inside. Heard a little snippet of something you like on a film or an advert?  That’s a good start.  Find out what it is.  Do a bit of research.  Listen to the whole piece.  Find out the context, the history, why it was written, different interpretations, different pieces by the same composer, pieces written at the same time etc.  And work your way outwards.  The detail and the minutiae will fuel your enjoyment of this complex art form.  Cliché alert – the more you put in, the more you will get out.

Having said all that, if you’ve any inkling that you might like to try the most ridiculous of all art forms – opera – Puccini is a pretty good starting point.  There is a reason most opera houses programme at least one Puccini per season.  Firstly, they’re nice and short!  A full length Puccini is shorter than the first act of Wagner’s Gotterdamerung.

But more importantly, Puccini really makes you understand why the power of the stories he is telling is increased by having the stories sung rather than just acted.  Ordinary people in extraordinary situations, their raw emotions conveyed to us through music.  And the music carries on telling the story, unstoppable.  No awkward pause for dialogue like in many musicals or awkward recitative transitions  (“here’s the plot bit”) into arias (“here’s the emotional bit”) or choruses (“here’s the spectacular bit – bring on the elephants”)

You don’t have to work that hard to enjoy and be moved by the immediacy of Puccini’s music.  This does mean that some of the snootier musicologists out there don’t rate it.


They’re wrong.


P 6.  Stevie Wonder, born Saginwaw, Michigan, USA. (1950 – )


Can’t really think of anything profound to say except it’s…


…Stevie Wonder!


Glad to see Obama in the clip below pointedly NOT joining in clapping on the 1 and 3…

Oh – and this is gig I saw him play.  That’s me there on the very back row of the arena.


C7. Maurice Ravel, born nr Biarritz, France (1875-1937)

Ravel’s a late addition to the list.  It was originally going to be Richard Strauss – but I decided I had too many heavyweight Germanic composers on the list as well as too many beginning with the letter S…

And, as I’ve mentioned before, I do love French classical music – Debussy, Poulenc, Messiaen, Milhaud – full of playful humour and sensuality.  And we’re not very good at playing it in this country – we’re better at the solid authoritative tones of the nineteenth century central European repertoire.

Ravel’s the best of the bunch – every piece dazzles.

Here’s an interesting curio below.  You’re a musical instrument manufacturer who wants to market your range of shiny new harps.  What do you do?  Why, hire an internationally renowned composer to write a piece to show it off, of course.


P7. Earth, Wind & Fire, founder member Maurice White, born Memphis, Tenessee. (1941 – )

Should Earth, Wind & Fire be in my top 10.  They’re the probably the closest thing in my list to just being a standard pop band.  Nothing smart or profound about their music – just great pop songs.

No.  REALLY great pop songs.  Beautiful precision arrangements.  Soaring vocal melodies.  And just really fun.  They’re also reassuringly uncool!  So they never go out of fashion!  I (and millions of others) love em!




And that feels like a good place to stop.  We’ll finish off this epic post next time.  This is the music I’m committing to for my lifetime on a desert island after all so it’s important to take time to choose wisely!  I would still love to hear your choices too!



Gig guide

I’m playing one of the composers who just missed out on the list, Richard Strauss, this Saturday.  Check out his modestly titled autobiographical tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) this Saturday with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra.  Details at the link below.


And then on Wednesday 22nd April I’m off to see the legend that is George Clinton himself at the Manchester Ritz!  Maybe see you there!