Category Archives: Improvisation

Music from Iraq and Afghanistan

How many countries are there in the world? How many of these have a musical culture of which you’ve never heard a note? Would it strike you as odd if one of these countries was Iraq – a place with which we have been heavily involved? I had never heard any Iraqi music live and so was delighted to discover that Reel Festivals was putting on an evening of Music of Iraq at the Roxy Art House on Saturday. This formed part of their Reel Iraq Festival.

The evening featured Farida with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, supported by the Babylon Arabic Band. Both groups were very affectionately received and there was an engagingly enthusiastic, participatory feel. This video will give you some idea of Farida and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

If you’ve never heard any Sufi music from Afghanistan you might like to catch a return visit to Edinburgh of the Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawali Group at the Roxy Art House on Tue 26th May. I saw this group in a fantastic performance in The Queens Hall last year. Here is an excerpt of the email which alerted me to the upcoming event:

The Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawali group is the most famous Qawali group in Afghanistan at the moment. They will be performing at the Roxy Art House on Tuesday, May 26th. The doors will open at 6.30 and music should begin around 7.30. We aim to convert the Roxy into as close an approximation of an Afghan Sufi house as possible for this. As such we won’t have a fixed price for entry, but will ask for £5 suggested donation. More of course will be much appreciated by the sufi group, all money will go towards covering their costs and any left over will be donated to an Afghan Charity. Last year the group raised £7000, which they donated to widows and children disabled by war.

And here is a taster:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]


A recent, avuncular post of Don‘s features the impressive guitar shredding of his nephew, Pete Bramley. A fan of Steve Vai (protégé of the late maverick, Frank Zappa), this is Pete’s entry for Guitar Idol 2009 which, at the time of writing, has gathered 37 votes – mine was the 36th. I was certainly impressed by this playing, particularly given that Pete has just turned 16.

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One way to take a look behind the scenes of any competition is to have a look at the judges. The profiles contained many interesting bios, websites, MySpaces etc. What grabbed my attention was this video demonstrating the indomitable spirit of John Denner:

 [kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 2

Peter Lovatt’s improvisation workshop, which followed hot on the heels of The Science of Improvisation, concentrated on verbal as opposed to musical improvisation. I imagine the reasons for this included:

  • not all present would have brought instruments

  • not all present were musicians

  • breaking into groups, working verbally would produce less racket than would its musical equivalent

However, being an guitar teacher, I’ve since thought about how to make use of parallels. I should perhaps point out here as a prelude to outlining my memory and analysis of events that, unlike the two longer seminars, I did not make an audio recording – the nature of the workshop simply wasn’t going to lend itself to that, as we were frequently to break into changing groups to try out the various ideas. I know how unreliable memory can be, but I feel I can remember most of what happened.

At the heart of the workshop was Continue reading Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 2

In-Tune: Music with the Brain in Mind – 1

When I began this blog in May 2006, I wasn’t expecting any particular theme to emerge but, when asked recently to describe the content, found myself saying that, while I endeavour to maintain a core content of posts on music and music-education, there are also many on the overlaps between music, language and science and, hopefully, their relevance to learning & teaching. So imagine my excitement upon receiving email notification of an event at the Wellcome Collection entitled Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – exploring improvisation and well-being. This reach across the two cultures (a successor of Head On: Art with the Brain in Mind) was the fruit of a collaboration between artakt, Central St Martins, University of the Arts, and new recording label Plushmusic (connected, I assume to the festival, Music At Plush). The day comprised two seminars (each featuring a panel of scientists and musicians), workshops and late afternoon performances of improvised music in the wonderful acoustic of the one of the Wellcome Collection’s galleries. Neither Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush nor Florence Nightingale’s moccasins ever enjoyed such harmonious surroundings.

Professor Marina Wallace (Director of artakt) introduced the morning session entitled The Science of Improvisation. On the panel were: Continue reading In-Tune: Music with the Brain in Mind – 1

Improvisation and the brain

Where it seems relevant, I like to post about anything interesting in the interface between music and science. So you can imagine how pleased I was to receive an email notification of an event entitled Tune-In at the Wellcome Collection* on Saturday 8 Nov. Entry is free and so, if you’re in the neighbourhood, it seems like as fascinating a way to spend a Saturday as I can imagine. 

I’ll write more after the event, at which I hope to meet up with my guitar-playing cousin Martin Byatt.

Speaking of science, I heard today on Today that Richard Dawkins has stood down from the Chair For The Public Understanding of Science. The chair is to be filled by Marcus du Sautoy – a frequent guest on In Our Time and presenter of BBC 4’s The Story of Maths.

Do we have a chair for the public understanding of education? Do we need one?

* In association with Artakt, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and University of the Arts London. With thanks to the European Dana Alliance for the Brain.

Paradox & Grooviness

It’s said that everybody has one great book in them. If so, mine will be based on a suspicion that, at the heart of every truth, lies a paradox. I know, for example, that in both music and tai chi chuan, those wonderful (and usually short-lived) moments when things come naturally, only occur when you’re not looking for them. This is not an invitation to abandon pracitce or training, or to carry it out in a distracted manner, but rather a realisation that, only when you’ve put in the hours, can you relax sufficiently in performance to open the doors to these moments.

Teaching has its similar magic moments when, unbidden, the best analogy or phraseology for the the moment pops out. It can happen too in moments of accidental in service when you find yourself explaining aspects of your job to interested parties – particularly if they are strangers both to the subject and to teaching itself.

Such a conversation unfolded the other day – a day in what has been something of a sentimental week. You see, my favourite swimming pool, Glenogle Baths, is going into hospital on Monday for an operation. The recovery period is expected to be around 18 months, but may be more like 2 years. Either way, I’ll be in my 50s by the time I return. At least it has been saved – unlike another Edinburgh sports facility I have used for a similar length of time. I’ve been swimming at Glenogle every day for around 15 years and have come to know many of the regulars quite well. There is increasingly an end of era feel to many of the conversations which take place in the sauna. For some reason (perhaps the neighbourhood) many artists go there. Most of the users are also readers, theatre/cinema-goers, thinkers, seekers – and it’s rarely dull.

I was talking to Gerry – an illustrator/decorator/gardener/life-guard/tai chi player – about the 60s. I was born early in 1960 and so, like many who claim to have enjoyed the decade, wasn’t really conscious of much that was going on. He, being slightly older (although you’d never guess it) has more memories. We agreed on the puzzling paradox of people’s enduring grief for the passing of the 60s. It seemed odd to us that some, who’d advised you to stay loose and live in the moment, then spent the following four decades resisting and lamenting change. I mentioned that some of the language has persisted and that “cool” remains a favourite term of endorsement with young people. I confessed to using “groovy” and “grooviness” on a regular basis. Surprised, he asked me why. I explained how in an ensemble rehearsal, for example, there comes a moment when the focus shifts from technical proficiency to expression. Audiences need more than accuracy. The performance needs to be something more than, say, high-speed touch typing – impressive but not affective. We need to bring out the shape of the music; to give it flexibility, variety of articulation; to let it breathe. He asked how the pupils would go about this transformation. I heard myself say, “they need verbs.” Of course, I already knew this, but it had never seemed so clear. Pupils first concern is not what the music needs but what they are going to do and how; when they are going to do it and why. And that’s why it’s essential that every elemental technique has a name – so that a prompt from me, during continued playing, is not a the name of a mood which the pupils then have to translate into an matching action, but the name of the action itself.

I’d like to stress here that the core of the idea is not entirely my own work but grew out of the teaching of Ron Newton – the only openly Marxist lecturer of Music I ever met, a great pianist and a true maverick. He was also one of the architects of the Music degree I did at Huddersfield University* (née Polytechnic). In the Performance Analysis Class, where we took it in turns to play to the class before a no-holds-barred dissection, he often referred to An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski. Tempting as it might be to consider what they should be feeling, it is more useful for them to decide what they will be doing. As method acting coach Stella Adler would say, “we are what we do, not what we say.”

* nearly 30 years later, this would still be my first choice of course – see how I move with the times?


After writing this, I popped in to visit a friend who is finishing his PhD (on speech synthesis) at Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. He showed me round this lovely working environment, during which time I bumped into a former pupil of Knox also doing a PhD – he seemed to be one of the few Scots in the place.

I continued on to Glenogle Baths where, in the sauna/debating society I bumped into an acquaintance who is a social worker. He asked what I’d been up to and mentioned this visit. By coincidence he’d recently heard an item on Radio 4’s Today about the Turing Test (formulated by Alan Turing) where you have to ascertain whether you are talking to an unseen person or a computer. We joked about how you could probably bring such a machine quickly to its digital knees with simple sarcasm. Just then another pal popped in and said, “that sounds interesting – how did get on to that?” I mentioned my friend’s PhD work and he said, “Really? I built a speech synthesiser once, at college!” This was back in the day and, rather than use digital recordings of phonemes, his was built from first principles using the acoustical equivalent of phonemes – formants. The conversation was so interesting, I barely had time to open my book!

Between venues, Heriberto and I popped into the Nile Café where, for the first time, I tried Sudanese tea. Lovely. If you’re ever in that neighbourood, I’d recommend it – although parking can be tricky since they built a School of Informatics on the car park…


Camera Ritmata

Simon Thacker, formerly of Knox Academy, recently sent me information about his group Camera Ritmata‘s Edinburgh Festival Fringe gig (details below). Along with special guest, Daisy Chute (of All Angels), the group comprises: Paul Harrison (piano), Mario Caribé (bass) & Stuart Brown (drums).


When – Saturday 23 Aug at 19:30

Where – Brunton Theatre, Ladywell Way, Musselburgh EH21 6AA

Booking – Tickets – £14 (£12), box office: (0131) 665 2240 or you can book online here.


Making it up as you go along

I stumbled upon an interesting article about researching those areas of the brain brought to life (and also subdued) while improvising music inside a fMRI scanner. This necessitated the development of a keyboard and headphones containing no iron whatever. The tests involved identifying, and then ignoring, areas common to both playing and improvising, allowing one to isolate those regions involved in creation on the hoof.