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Not as Much as Tomorrow

In the past few days I started learning an old song from my youth, “More Today Than Yesterday” by The Spiral Starecase [correct spelling – they did named themselves after a Hitchcock film but corrupted the orthography]. There was a video available of the group playing the piece, so I watched the guitar player/singer’s hands on the fret board to make learning it easier. The opening chords were from exercise number two from the Mickey Baker book, “A Modern Method in How to Play Jazz and Hot Guitar. Pat Lipton, the singer/guitarist/composer was alternating between G Major 7 and G 6 much of the time, as per the dictates of Mickey Baker’s lesson. It turns out that Mr. Lipton had learned a new chord but couldn’t find a pop song that used it, so he wrote one himself.

chelva alley it goes up and upThis made me think of a Randy Bachman story, about his lessons with Jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau. During One lesson, Breau taught Bachman an ending formula. The next week Bachman came in to his lesson exclaiming, “You know that ending you taught me last week? I used as an intro in my latest song.” At which point Breau said, “You can’t do that man, everyone’s going to think the song is over before it begins!” The song was “She’s Come Undone, written in 1969, about a girl who dropped lsd and was never the same. It was an appropriate observation, for a good Mormon boy like Bachman.

This makes me very happy, to think about, creative spirits who expand their knowledge base and use it to write pop songs. In doing so the vocabulary of the idiom grows, and we all become a little bit richer. Any idiom that stops growing and changing risks becoming stale. I think now of George Harrison as I listen to some old Beatle songs and marvel at his guitar parts, which are sometimes inflected withjazz or country styles and the appropriate mannerisms.

alan-bell-wood-on-beachHere I sit as a classical guitarist pondering these things. When one of my dear friends was studying viola in Paris in the early 1980’s, he once did a gig with a pick-up orchestra for a pop singer. Word of this got back to his viola teacher, who threatened to ban my friend from his studio because this association with popular music would ruin his good name. The alignment of music with the class structure was so strong at that time that I wonder how much I missed during my own time in France. In Toronto’s current economic climate, many freelance violinists work regularly with mariachi bands to supplement incomes.

Necessity has broadened our horizons…

Nasrudin was dining with the sultan, who leaned over to ask him about the stew. “I thought it was quite good your majesty,” said Nasrudin smiling.

The Sultan replied, “I thought is was terrible.”

“Quite right, your Majesty, it was horrid,” said Nasrudin.

The Sultan frowned, “did you not say it was quite good a moment ago?”

“Ahh, eerrm, yes,” said Nasrudin, “but I serve the Sultan, not the Stew.”

The past is behind and the present all around. Writing music is a way of uniting all those voices…  

          At some point this past year I realized that my recent work wasn’t new music. Certainly it is freshly composed, but it no longer explores sonic frontiers. Rather, it seems to explore older areas. I wish that when hearing one of my pieces, a listener might say: “That sounds like something I have heard before, like something that has always been there.”

valencia graffit apt 2This is reminds of the semantic confusion during the 60’s and 70’s when people were said to be writing “folk music.” Properly understood, folk music would be that which has been passed down from older generations. The successful songwriters of that period immersed themselves in the songs from the past and have made our world richer by adding songs like “The Circle Game”, or “ Me and Bobbi McGee” to our world. Perhaps there is a blur between the old world and the new now. So much music available from so many different places.

Having composed for prepared guitar, and having employed extended techniques, my goal now is simpler: to take an idea and make the most of it. In order to do this, one must let the idea dictate the paths to follow, be they tinged with bluegrass, old folksongs or the limits of a church mode. We create within limits and there is a joy from trying on different clothes, so to speak.

A critic once commented about one of my CD’s that there wasn’t a cohesive style. There were rags and choros, followed by imitative parodies and innovations. One can’t really imagine Steve Reich or Phil Glass doing those different things on a recorded project. I’d like to think that there is a bit of myself in each of these styles, that my ears are made afresh with every project. Each piece is an adventure, be it through the world of 12 bar blues or through a looping pedal. Each piece is a different way to use my resources.chelva steep incline 2

It is also the response of a teacher hoping to share the joys of discovery with the guitar world. Ragtime and blues music present the challenge of using certain harmonic patterns, while the restrictions of a mode may force one to think of melodies and drones. Each new problem is a bit of a stretch. My place in the music world may be modest but is filled with wonder.

One day Nasrudin went to visit a neighbouring village. He stopped to rest, and while doing so read a bit from his favourite book. He put it down to have a drink before getting up to leave. It wasn’t until he was at his friend’s house that he realized his book had been left behind. It was no longer there on his way home and he worried that it was lost forever.

A week later a goat came by and dropped the book at Nasrudin’s feet, which inspired the master to leap up calling, “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.”

“Not really,” said the goat, “your name was written inside the cover.”

All the stories live in our bodies­ – Linda Hogan

I have been frustrated recently hearing people play upon the guitar. I have heard experienced composers and professionals just playing the correct notes and rhythms. It seems to me that we play through the guitar, we invest time to gain knowledge of the inner workings of a piece of music. We invest energy trying to deliver that wisdom as best we can. Putting our fingers in the correct place is only a small part of that journey.

valencia roman door


All the notes of a piece have a status and some of those are pretty small like arpeggiated accompaniment figures. They fill space and time, surrounding the more important notes with harmony. The successive notes of a dominant melody all have more or less importance and generally have a gravitational pull to a destination. Bass lines also have gravitational pulls but also add buoyancy to the music.

Our job as we learn a piece of music is to understand all of these aspects and embody them all. We have reached a point where computers can be called on to create a “human” feel. Frequently this means slight changes of tempo and the occasional flub. I would say that we must render music with details that get smaller as we improve. Every note should have its own colour, touch, timbre and inflection. Improving our control over those details is the only way to be a musician.chelva square and fountain

It is never easy to know what a piece of music is saying. As someone who plays his own music, there are times when I sing a line over a hundred times just to know how to convey the various aspects of its meaning. I may write new music, but I want it to sound old. I’d like to be able to entertain the fantasy that one of my pieces was always there and was somehow just plucked it out of the infinity cupboard, the wellspring of art.

Nasrudin slipped and nearly fell into a lake, but was caught by a friend walking next to him. From then on, every time Nasrudin saw this friend, the incident was shared with everyone who was near.

Over time, Nasrudin grew weary of this, so one day led that friend to the same lake. With clothes and shoes on, he jumped in and lay there saying, “Now I’m as wet as I would have been if you hadn’t saved me that day.  Stop reminding me about it!”

From these old walls…

Sitting on my deck looking out over fields that are under cultivation, with an old terraced mountain behind them, I think of the valley that lies between. I got on a bus nine days ago to come to this village in order to write some music free from distraction. Here, at the busiest time of day I might see ten people in a cafe and be passed by three cars and a motorcycle. No need to hurry, the shopkeeper might keep you waiting for ten minutes as they finish a converasation on the phone.

In the midst of this tranquility I wonder about various kinds of internal suffering. There is of course the Buddhist doctrine, “All life is pain.” Today I seem to equate busy-ness with pain. One of my students told me that he has been able to concentrate much better since he had his knee replaced a couple of years ago. He figured it was the unconscious underlying pain that prevented him from paying more attention when he played guitar.

I have spent decades training myself to pay attention, to the music as I learn it, to my students as they play and to the people that share conversations with me. Since reading about the problems of “internal dialogue” in Carlos Castaneda in the 70’s my life’s work has involved managing my ability to focus.

For all these years of work there has been an underlying theme – to communicate something of musical value. One might say this is about attracting a certain kind of attention. Here, I play my guitar, far away from my friends and colleagues: there is no hope for attention. As I was playing the other day something very interesting began to happen: the melody of the piece started to take on another character. In my imagination it felt like a sustaining instrument. Between these medieval walls in this apartment in an old village, the tune came through as never before.

So, as the melody continues in my imagination as a sustained line, I convince myself that it might be possible to project  this sense to the listener. They might hear a flute or a violin playing the tune. There might be some sleight of ear taking place – there might be magic.IMG_0037IMG_0035

A Magical Simultaneous Vision

Editing creates more and more sense out of a work or text. Everything in a piece is there for more than one reason; a chord might support the melody and develop a counter melody. An inner voice might give breathing room to the main tune but add a small, unexpected surprise to the texture.

I have just re-imagined a set of songs originally written over 20 years ago and observe that the harmonies were chosen often to clash with the vocal line. They were chords and clusters selected with joy, I was happy just to play them so long ago, but now I work to meld them into a cohesive shape.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The tones written must be there for multiple reasons and these rationales often make the music easier to play. A mind perceives the reasons behind those tones, and as it does so, the patterns become more interesting, more musical. The more musical a phrase is, the easier it is to play.

alan bell chainsA few days ago, I was playing through the revisions with a singer* who stumbled numerous times on a particular word. Turned out that the composer might have set the syllables in a slightly un-natural way and as we worked through the issue we found a better way to do it and the problem ceased to be. The stumbles helped us fix an issue with text setting.

The set of songs were recorded in one three hour session with a violinist who was sight-reading. Finishing the pieces, I began to embed vocal cues in the guitar part to increase the chances of getting it all done on time. Each wrong note would decrease the chance of getting the right ones recorded. Every cue would help the singer find the correct pitch with greater ease.

I prefer to work from a complete take while editing a recording. There is increased listenability since the performers felt the entire gestalt unfold in real time. This flow is one of those subtle human things that listeners sense on an unconscious level. Performers broadcast all of that subtle stuff and that focus draws listeners in. It is a complex array of big goals and small, note-to-note shaping but also phrase and section shaping. Each gesture will in some way affect many subsequent ones and a small change in dynamic on page one means that others must be altered as well.

The whole and the parts are knit together – all the secrets of the world are in a grain of sand. Adjusting a delicate inner voice means there will be other changes as well. I like to think of this as the human mind working at its best: evolving the macro and micro pictures in a magical simultaneous vision.

*Doug MacNaughton

One day, Nasrudin went to the local doctor. “Every night for the past six weeks, I’ve had dreams where I am wrestling with donkeys.”

The doctor gave Nasrudin a herb. “Eat this, and your dreams will go away.”

“I will have to start them tomorrow.,” Nasrudin said taking the package, “Because I’m in the championship match tonight.”

…dew is her cool way of being satisfied.” Robert Priest


I am thinking about the ways we teach music in private studios. Often we quickly learn how to read before proceeding to learn pieces from a graded collection. The thinking is that works of a similar level of difficulty are nice when grouped together. From an early age we study varied repertoire because that makes a more interesting program. We adhere to this notion even though almost none of the students will go on to become concert artists.

DSCF8018For most of western art music history, you learned what your teacher knew and stayed pretty much within the time frame you lived in. This would have simplified learning because the repertoire reflected a narrower syntax. Students learned to play using music from a similar aesthetic, developing skills and dexterity based on those needs.

Knowledge in this sense is additive, we learn a little bit then add to it. An allemande does this and a sarabande does that. A study by Carcassi in A major employs certain chords while the same composer’s study in A minor does a few different things.

It is much more challenging to learn music from different periods and styles; an allemande from the 17 century, will be very different from one composed in the early 20th. Each of those requires a radically different skill set.

solfar-sun-voyager-a-bellIf one teaches a set of works by a given composer, the student learns how that creator explores the keyboard or fret board. Knowledge comes by seeing similarities. One of the main reasons so many teachers [and learners] use graded repertoire is because of an exam system and it is so much simpler to teach to the exam – four pieces and two studies. Work and refine. The graded repertoire books are marvelous collections of music sold at a very accommodating price. They are not a method. The problem with standardized testing it creates standardized teaching.

And then there are the profits from the exams…

One fine spring day a neighbour noticed Nasrudin digging a hole, and asked what he was looking for.Nasrudin said, “I buried something in this field last month, and I’ve been trying to find it all morning.”

“Well,” said the neighbour, “did you mark the place where you buried it?”

To which Nasrudin replied, “Of course I marked it, there was a cloud directly over my head as I was burying it. It cast a long narrow shadow as I was digging. Now, I can’t find the shadow or the cloud!”



Composing Rounding the Human Corners part 1

The next set of blog posts will reflect a recent work I have composed. Each song from the project will be presented in turn. Because singing sends thoughts into the soul of another person, the choice of text is vital. I look for texts that reflect my notion of the sacred: the wonder of life, love of children, and our need for community. It is a privilege to take such notions into meaningful lyric expressions.

alan-bell-another-stone-in-the-wallphoto: Alan Bell

Rounding the Human Corners is a poetic cycle that reflects a trip Hogan took in 2002 with Brenda Peterson and the journey was chronicled in Sightings: The Gray Whales’ Mysterious Journey. The migration route started in Baja, California and ended in Alaska. Much of this journey was on boats and titles in this cycle include Sounding the Depths, Whale Rising and The Radiant -which refers to the Manta Ray. I have found that several of the texts fall naturally into sea shanty metres. Given the amount of time spent on boats during that journey, it is possible that the waves of the ocean may set such a metric sensibility into the imagination.

alan-bell-linksphoto: Alan Bell

Restless was the second text that I worked on and is a breezy and light-hearted, musing about always walking toward something. It ends with the thought that even at the end of life one could leave their skin clothes lying empty and still travel on. It is a good choice for song number two in the cycle, the tempo is slightly quicker than for the opener, and creates an unsettled feel for the legato lines.

The singer on this recording is the marvelous Toronto Mezzo soprano Maria Soulis and Alan Bell is responsible for the recording.



“…to come passing into the circle of the world.” Linda Hogan

I was thinking about Narciso Yepes going blind at the end of his career and how he must have learned music differently. He would have needed to memorize chunks of it after first reading and this reading would have been by looking at the score with a large magnifier. Doing he would have registered the music as imagined sound with the internal images of where our fingers go to produce those sounds.


Students who try to do this because they don’t enjoy reading music create a precarious situation – if you learn something wrong it is very hard to change. There is a period of assimilation and acculturation that young minds need to work through. Western art music is a series of cultural constructions and our brain needs to amass quite a bit of data in order before one can hear new pieces and predict what might come next.

For an artist of Yepes’ experience this was not an issue, and I think of him learning a phrase, then closing his eyes immediately afterwards as he played thorough it a second time. Closing the eyes allows them to rest, a very important thing with deteriorating eye issues. It would also impress the notation on the imagination: writing the music straight onto his brain.


Simply closing your eyes changes everything as the visual stimulus decreases, other brain functions can manifest. These are the processes that are key to music making, imagining the sound and conjuring how to produce it. The body will figure how to do it if you trust it. Narciso at this point in his life had no choice just like Stevie Wonder never had a choice to watch his fingers. It marvelous to think of musicians so far apart in style united in their approach.

Nasrudin was coming back from a friend’s house very late one night when he saw a man sleeping on the grass smelling of drink. He went closer and saw the man to be a judge, well known for handing down sever penalties for moral offences, so,  between snores, Nasrudin removed the judge’s coat and slippers and went home.

 The next day, having realized his missing clothing the judge ordered his enforcers to check every house and to bring the thief to court. Nasrudin was soon before the magistrate who asked where he had gotten the slippers and coat.“Well, you see, I borrowed them from a drunk lying in a gutter last night. I would like to return them, do you happen to know him?”  Realizing the dilemma, the judge dismissed the case.

feature photo by: Alan Bell


“…You feel the plants if you are quiet enough…” Linda Hogan

A couple of weeks ago a guitarist asked his friends what their preferred warm-ups were. This question brought in a flood of responses with various things from scales to right hand arpeggios to studies cited. I find this kind of thing problematical because it seems more important to warm up the brain and soul. In thinking exclusively of the body we create and maintain an artificial schism.

The musical process starts with imagining the sound as richly as possible. One’s own sound includes the particular instrument, preferred touch and articulations as well as various volume levels. These elements are in addition to the rhythms and pitches that make up the music one is playing. In warming up the hands one tends to look for speed and physical ease.


This division started during the enlightenment, as teaching methods started to reflect a step-by-step process. Reading about J.S. Bach’s approach to composing for students we have an account of him beginning a piece for a pupil, demonstrating the first few bars, before the master went on to finish the piece in a flurry of inspiration. Teaching always included the musical experience. The step-by-step process posits a division between physical and musical learning. Now have music exams where the time one has to allot for scales exceeds the time needed for repertoire. We have studies that are not considered as musical as repertoire for they are allotted only a minimal number of marks.

By contrast, I have discovered that improvisers depend on mental flexibility to begin working. Robert Fripp [league of crafty guitarists] and Karl Berger [creative music studio] both employ rhythmic games to create alert players who can readily adapt to any musical need. The late Paul Bley once credited selling his piano as a significant learning experience: he had to come up with simpler ideas to work with because he couldn’t hide behind a nifty lick


I like to think that creating music brings us closer to how the composer feels. There is evidence to suggest that while improvising [or composing] a different part of our brain is activated specifically the medial prefrontal cortex. While doing this, the judging brain [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] quiets down. This would explain that when students listen to each other’s compositions they listen to them differently – they hear music as if it were a brain storming activity.*

DSCF9254As we judge we also tend to censor and the more we do this the further we move away from the creative act. In a world that demands faster-louder-higher-longer we lose the joy of music. Play with your guitar and play with the music, simple joys really matter.

One day returning from his vineyard with sacks full of ripe grapes on his donkey’s back, Nasrudin came upon a group of children who asked if they could have some grapes. Nasrudin gave each child one grape and when they complained about his stinginess were met with the reply: “All grapes taste alike, so it is of no interest to taste more than one – you have one and you might as well have sampled them all.”

  • notes for this paragraph come from




“…the sound of wind arrives all the way from the stars…” Linda Hogan


I am sometimes impressed by how much emphasis players put on fingering a passage a certain way. As if there is only one manner to produce a phrase that will give it the right personality. Keeping a melody on single string is one of those habits, as if the melody lived on the strings, not in the imagination of the player. The performer’s imagination is the most important aspect of playing; it is this imagined sound that triggers the rest of the music making process. This imagined sound needs to contain pitch and rhythm, in addition to timbre, articulation, volume and subtle changes of speed. There is a story I often tell about hearing a guitarist who produced some of the loveliest sounds I had ever heard. When I told him how magnificent his sound was, he showed me his broken nails: every single one had broken while playing a previous work on twelve-string guitar. The conclusion I came to was that the feeling behind the notes was conveyed to the listeners clearly. He had enchanted us in the truest sense of the word.

I have also worked with experienced classical musicians who want to put their imprint on the music: to show the world that they play it thus. At times I find this attitude troubling because I like to think that the music plays me. That there is this wonderful place outside of the everyday where music lives and once in a while we get live it, to ride down that river of rhythm.


photo by Alan Bell

Once, when I was adjudicating a creative music festival I heard a five year old play a very simple piece. It went doh, re, mi, fa, sol, sol, sol, sol, sol, fa mi, re, doh, doh, doh, doh, and repeated. It was the perfect piece for a five year old to compose. In this case the scale up got louder note-by-note and got softer note by note. I asked him if his piano teacher had told him to play that way and he looked at me with suspicious eyes before agreeing that was true. Then I told him to just look out the window, enjoy the view of the river and trees and simply play the piece without thinking. Again, he gave me the suspicious eyes before agreeing to try it my way. This was in a roomful of adults and as he played the piece simply, a collective sigh issued from the listeners. The natural flow of music had been restored – he played in an unaffected manner and we all felt relieved.  The earlier version’s portentous feeling was gone. Sometimes simple is best.

Nasrudin had taken up walking for exercise and had been enjoying his strolls after the evening meal. One time, however he noticed that two bandits were following him. He began to walk quickly and soon came upon a graveyard. He noticed an open grave and lay down in it.

 The two bandits followed him and saw him lying in the pit. They asked him why he was sleeping in an open grave.

 “Well, you see, I died last week but there are so many things that I had left to do, I am now a ghost, and stuck here for a while.”

 Hearing this the bandits began to run far, far away.