Noam Pikelny – Waveland

This week I’ve been guest blogging over at my sister concern MusicForMy, a bespoke music service that lets you easily commission original music and unique arrangements for your special event. You can give it a look see by clicking this here sentence, but it lifts the curtain on how I go about arranging music, at least to begin with. The arrangement of music is key, in all genres. An incredible melody or wrenchingly beautiful chord progression is next to worthless if set for kazoo and toy piano. Satisfying music needs to follow a certain logic across the genres, otherwise you just end up with confused mush. For me, the arrangement is as vital as the piece itself. Take my classical piece Farewell, Nathan Adler which exists in two versions; one for piano trio and one for symphony orchestra. Go click those links and give them a listen. Once you get past the electronic nature of the MIDI presentation (I can’t quite afford an orchestra yet) you can clearly see that changing the instrumentation immediately alters the atmosphere of the piece. Powerful stuff. Of course, talent tends to throw what rules we build for ourselves out the window. Sometimes the instrument you least expect can claw the most inexplicable wave of melancholic relief and joy once in the right hands. Sometimes you only need a banjo.

I’ve always liked the banjo, probably due to a very crappy demo of Camptown Races on my first keyboard along with an awful banjo setting. When I finally heard one for reals it was just so alien yet earthly, a bizarre hybrid of percussion and melody. I even bought one a few years ago but my playing has unfortunately never really taken off (probably because it stayed in Britain when I moved to Sweden). Noam Pikelny, on the other hand, is one of the most important pickers of his generation, cropping up all over the records of Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan, Steve Martin, Béla Fleck and a whole host of the great and the good of the Contemporary Bluegrass scene. Do you know the Contemporary Bluegrass scene? You should do, it is by far and away the most progressively interesting in all music; an ever-churning eddy filled with a refreshing honesty of both it’s history and the welcome disparate influences that feed it. It also has a great sense of humour running through the community, which is to be expected when Steve Martin is a member.

I’m drawn to Pikelny’s playing because of this. Because of his wit and his intelligence. Because of his skill in knowing exactly where to place that beautiful hybrid sound. Because the banjo can provide such a wealth of colour within the ensemble and he wants to show us. Waveland is almost Debussian in it’s Impressionistic chord progression, yet by setting it for banjo and banjo alone, Pikelny creates something exceptionally unique. He pushes our perceptions of the role of the banjo and hopefully by sharing it with you, you will discover the joys available when listening to the old clawhammer.


Slow Music Review: Martha Scanlan – The West Was Burning

I sometimes feel that ‘traditional‘ music get badly treated by almost everyone. Classical musicians up in the ivory towers look down on it’s primal simplicity, only using folk idioms when it serves some nationalistic purpose. Pop musicians scoff at the frumpiness; believing that in an age where sex sells, traditional music is irrelevant. Even those apparently championing the form often do so with clear ulterior motives; be them commercial (like Taylor Swift or Mumford & Sons) or political (like Frank Turner). These acts don’t necessarily make the genre bad, they just move it away from it’s roots as a communal expression of emotion. To me, traditional music is at the root of everything and because of this is best when stripped of history; naked and honest and proud. This is a music which doesn’t require anything other than your attention. This is a music that asks nothing in return. The perfect accompaniment to this approaching Swedish winter. So with that in mind, let’s watch something.

                      Turn this up. Buy a Banjo.

Martha Scanlan. I love Martha Scanlan. I’ll try to be objective but it’s hard to deny that she is in possession of one of the most unique voices in all music. It incisively cuts apart the conditioned opinion of what it means to have a ‘good’ voice. There are no endless melismas or showboating here, just hushed confessions. Get me not wrong, I have all the respect for Beyonce and Whitney and Celine; I just find this manner of singing so much more satisfying. I actually listen to what Martha has to say, I actually care about it. The poetic couplets becoming all I want to be in life. When she describes a lover as ‘a slow ride down a country mile’ she describes everything I want to be. A very subjective opinion I know, I grew up in the country you see. Yet you have to admit that when musically bombarded on all sides by hollow declarations of ‘love’; this simple metaphor conveys how love actually feels, not just how we expect it to. Love is more than a word. In fact, by trying to codify and tame it within those 4 letters we actually degrade what it means. Because love suffuses ‘Seeds of the Pine’; love for the craft, the subject, the feeling and the music.

Needless to say, this is the song that drew me to Martha and I have particular feels for it. But it’s parent album ‘The West Was Burning‘ as a whole continues this purpose beyond the words. It’s an album that evokes a sense of timelessness and communion. ‘Ten Thousand Charms‘ in particular closes the album with a potent mix of hope, reflection and community. There’s something about it’s extreme intimacy (just Martha with her guitar) and softness that projects it’s arms outwards. We are welcomed by it and brought closer together by it’s sheer beauty. On the other end of the spectrum we have ‘Call Me Shorty’, an exuberant Appalachian instrumental that glimmers with energy and joy. It’s a music whose sole reason to exist is to create smiles, be it for the performers or us listeners.

                      Because smiling is fun.

Though all this is not to say that the album rejects the now, it just takes the knowledge that we have gained over the years and ignores all that doesn’t really matter. Transient possessions are pretty, when you get down to it, worthless. There’s no need to honour them in song. Instead Martha uses her characters and her stories to tackle solid, everlasting subjects; justice, pain, sadness and love are just the beginning. Maybe that’s why I am so drawn to her music, it has a deep-rooted sense of being that happily bears the winds set against it. As trends change and memories become shorter, still we will hear this music and connect with something eternal. Traditional music will never die. It will never cease to be relevant and as long as it is presented with such beauty as this then who are we to judge otherwise.

Note: 'The West Was Burning' is about 5 years old. Since then
Martha has released an equally amazing record called 'The
Shape Of Things Gone Missing, The Shape Of Things To Come'
Click here to check it out.