Here's the blog. Mostly about the music. Comment! Enjoy!

Can we have an original hit? 

The Ed Sheeran / Marvin Gaye lawsuit going on currently points to a sickness in popular music at the moment. 

Over the last couple of decades, money has become increasingly tight in the music business.  It's more and more expensive for a label to get a top 5 hit, so even the profits on a successful song aren't a patch on what they were. 

Labels becoming more litigious is more likely as profits decrease. You've got to get your money somewhere, and you have to protect your brand.  What's more, whereas a suit used to be about a stolen melody, more and more, we're seeing claims about chord sequences.  Part of the Sheeran/Gaye lawsuit is the claim that the chord sequence is the same.  It'll be interesting when someone tries to claim ownership of the I IV VI V sequence, which has been used in scores, if not hundreds of hits. 

Which brings us to playing safe with song writing.  Again, because so much is at stake to produce a hit, nobody who seriously tries to make a living from their writing is going to try to be original. It's too much of a gamble.  While for the most part, nobody sitting down to write a hit says, "I'll start by stealing part of this other song," they may well start jamming on that trusty I IV VI V sequence. 

So we hear chart songs becoming increasingly similar because taking a musical chance is dangerous, and we see more lawsuits as songs rely more and more on their similarity to each other in order to be hits. 

Another consequence is that over the course of a generation the average chart listener has heard less and less variety in harmony, and like a child who has only eaten burgers and fries, any new taste / harmony they're subsequently introduced to is treated with deep suspicion. 

That's no way to have a hit. 

For music that ignores all considerations of chart success, but still wants to be loved, click here.

How do you listen to music? 

As I was growing up, I heard music pretty much in album format only.  My folks didn't often have music radio on, so I didn't hear individual songs very much.  When they listened to music they'd switch on the radiogram (!) and put on the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof, or High Society with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Or they'd put on a symphony by Mendelssohn or Beethoven.  They didn't have any singles. 

This was just background to me, as I didn't really get into any of it, but I realise that it shaped the way I listen to music to this day.  I play albums.  I rarely use shuffle on my MP3 player, always preferring to select an album.  Even now, if I come across a new band, I'll buy a CD and listen to it as a whole. 

How about you? 

The other thing I do is hardly ever put on music as background while I do something else.  I much prefer to settle down and give the music my undivided attention.  I immerse myself in it. I have a decent hifi, and some great headphones, and unless I'm in the car, that's how I'll listen. I guess I'm in a small minority in this. 

What do you do?

My first dozen music purchases. Quite a few classics in there!

 

MP3s and WAVs For You 

Uploaded to the music page are all the tracks for 'Now There's No Room' in full resolution wavs.  And now you can have them in high resolution MP3 format too. 

So if you have a slowish connection and wavs are just too cumbersome to download, you can choose the MP3s.  If you are a stickler for quality though, you can take the time to have the music at full hifi resolution.  It's up to you, and for the moment, everything is still free. 

What more could you ask for?

The Last Song 

Children being born today will inherit a very different planet from the one we have known throughout history.  The way things are going, the change they will see in their lifetimes won't be intelligently managed or even curtailed.  It will be catastrophic.  Catastrophic to people, but also to most other living things.  Which means catastrophic to people.

We don't seem to be capable of averting this, and I started wondering what evidence would be left of us in say, 20 million years?  What would be left to show of our self-important species?  No wood that we've used, no concrete. Even plastics wouldn't last nearly that long.  Cut diamonds would still be around, but they would be hard to find.  Some radioactive elements where power stations and missile silos once were might still be detectable, but again only in specific locations. 

The asteroid that killed all the non-avian dinosaurs left a telltale trace of iridium in a specific geological layer around the entire planet. Is there an equivalent that would be a ubiquitous telltale of human civilisation? 

One thing that will survive us will be those little space probes launched in the 1970s - Voyagers 1 and 2.  They will continue on their outward flights indefinitely, with nothing to destroy or even weather them very much.  What if some space-faring aliens stumble across one of these probes one day?  That's where The Last Song begins. 

Listen here.

Panopticon / Rome Burns 

A while back, I read about something called a panopticon. It's a kind of building that could be used as a prison or other institution. 

Imagine rooms - cells - arranged to create the outside wall of a circular building, with one-way mirrors making up the inner walls.  An observer could sit at the centre of the building and see any occupant at a glance, but none of the inmates would be able to see if they were being watched at any time - they'd just know it was possible. 

It struck me (as it has many people in recent years) that this is a good analogy for our society.  With CCTV, the CIA and MI6 watching us electronically, with Facebook and associated organisations data mining - we're all being observed at some point in some way.  We don't necessarily know when, or how much; we just know we might be, and at some point certainly are. 

It's also become clear that the internet's own algorithms filter what we find in searches. Rather than being a window onto the entire world, it's more like a mirror reflecting ourselves back to us.  Ironic and sinister, don't you think?  We live in a panopticon, but we are not the observers, we're the observed.

I thought about how helpless we all are in the face of this.  And a similar sense of helplessness often creeps over me when I think about the enormous problems we face as the human race, and that the Earth faces because of us.  I retreat into my personal world, attending to those things I do have control over, and shutting out the bigger picture.  I think most of us do. 

Fiddling while Rome burns.

Listen here.


Those who cannot, will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven 

Lathe of Heaven sounds religious doesn't it?  And it is, sort of.  Vaguely.  Well, almost entirely unlike religion as it turns out.  To explain... 

A favourite novel of mine is The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin.  While writing the book, she was apparently very taken by some Taoist verses by Chuang Tse XXIII, which she used here and there in the story.  The book title is from one in particular: 

' To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.  Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.' 

Years after the book was published, Le Guin discovered that this is a terrible translation of the original writing, but it was way too late to do anything about it.  She still liked the sentiment though, and so do I.  I take it to mean something like, 'To know that something is unknowable, but still struggle to understand it, is a path to madness.' 

So why did I call this project Lathe of Heaven?  I'm not letting on, but if you think about it hard enough, perhaps one day you will understand.

By the way, here's my music.

 

The Barefoot Chocolate Maker 

Now for one of the good guys. 

A while back, I stumbled on an extraordinary story on the BBC's 'Food Program'.  It told of an engineer, a New Yorker called Mott Green, who moved to the Caribbean island of Grenada.  He fell in love with the island and the culture. He also found that although they grew cocoa beans there, for some reason they didn't make chocolate. 

In fact all the cocoa they grew was sold to the commodities market.  The growers made very little money, as all the value is in the final product - the chocolate on our confectionery shelves.  The program also mentioned another cocoa bean growing region - Africa's Ivory Coast. There, children are sold to the plantations, to work for years.  It's not a stretch to call it modern-day slavery. 

In Grenada, Mott wondered why they couldn't make the chocolate themselves, cut out the middle men and sell chocolate direct to the retailers.  He figured that if everyone was part of a collective, all that added value would benefit the locals. 

He put his engineering skills to work and built a solar-powered chocolate factory in Grenada, keeping it going with constant maintenance, and mastering the art of turning cocoa beans into chocolate.  In partnership with locals Doug and Edmond Browne, he set up the Grenada Chocolate Company, making fine chocolate to sell around the world. 

True to his environmental aspirations, the first batch of chocolate bars to be delivered made its journey from Grenada to the UK on a brigantine sailing ship - powered by the wind! 

But there's a tragic twist to this tale.  One night, while doing emergency maintenance, Mott was accidentally electrocuted.  Despite his tragic, untimely death, he has left an amazing legacy.  The Grenada Chocolate Company lives on, and more and more local growers are joining the collective as the customer base grows. 

Oh, and I can personally affirm - the chocolate is really good!

Listen here.

Find out more about the Grenada Chocolate Company

Suit 

So here's one of the main villains of the piece. 

There's a type of person who is without conscience, but who understands very well what comforts people, and what they'll pay good money to hear.  They present themselves as respectable human beings, but are abjectly vile and corrupt.  They each have their own schtick, but underneath it all, they're all doing the same thing - they're gaining power and making money from gullible and vulnerable people, without a care for the misery and destruction they cause. 

From promoting racism or denying climate change, to just scamming folks of all their money in the name of God or even in the name of healthy living, they perpetuate real evil in this world. This song is for them.

Listen here.

Now There's No Room 

This song is an epilogue to The Sibylline Books. 

I was thinking a while back of all the expressions in the English language using animals as a metaphor.  Wolves at the door, elephant's memory, eagle eyes, busy as a bee...  When you think about it, there are a lot of them.  And now we're approaching a time when these expressions will be referring to things that no longer exist. 

They'll all be dead as the dodo. 

People try to argue for the preservation of wildlife by seeing its direct value to humans.  'Don't cut down the rain forests because they might contain cures for human diseases'.  'Don't kill all the bees because they pollinate many of our crops'. 

Absolutely true. But to me, the destruction of the planet's biodiversity is also an aesthetic crime - far worse than demolishing every art gallery in the world.  Every plant, animal, fungus and microbe alive today has an unbroken evolutionary history all the way back to the first emergence of life nearly four billion years ago.  And we're mindlessly erasing it all. 

Mother Earth kindly stepped in to do the vocals for this one.  Maybe we should listen before it's too late?

Listen Here.

The Sibylline Books 

According to legend, Tarquinius - a pre-Christian-era king of Rome, once had a fairly disastrous haggle with a prophetess - or Sibyl, when he wanted to buy nine scrolls of precious wisdom from her.  She named a price, which he refused.  In response, the Sibyl cast three scrolls into the fire.  She offered the six remaining scrolls at the same price, and when Tarquinius protested, she burned another three.  He eventually bought the last three scrolls at the original price, fearing to lose them all. 

Douglas Adams re-told this story in his book, 'Last Chance to See', about his experiences travelling around the world with biologist Mark Carwardine, in search of some of the world's most endangered animals.  Adams' version is an allegory for the extinctions we're causing - not understanding the true worth of what we're losing. The species are analogous to the precious scrolls of the Sibyl.

Since then, one of the animal subjects of his book - the Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji - has become extinct.  Another, the northern white rhino, exists now only as a half dozen individuals in zoos.  Adams' account inspired this song.  It's a story, so settle down, and when you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin. 

Listen here.

Douglas Adams - Last Chance to See

WWF's account of the current mass extinction event