Sunday, 29 January 2012

The gentle ebb and flow of dulcimers

Dan Evans Live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove

Saturday, 28 January

I've discovered that, when you tell people you're going to see a concert of dulcimer music, most people react by asking 'What exactly is a dulcimer?' Dan Evans, reportedly the UK's only professional dulcimer player, demonstrated the instrument admirably well in the cosy surroundings of the Artrix Studio in Bromsgrove last night. Some of the audience, it seems, had never seen or heard the instrument before. For my part, I've been trying to play one for nearly 30 years so I'd gone along hoping to pick up a few tips and to reassure myself that I hadn't been playing it in completely the wrong way all these years.

I was comforted to find Dan played in a similar style to my own, finger-style rather than strumming. I much preferred his renditions of some lovely traditional tunes -- Columbine and Blow the Wind Southerly among them -- to his choice of cover versions, and his original guitar piece The Garden Waltz was a particular delight.

My own relationship with the dulcimer has been a rather troubled one. When I lived in Brittany back in the early 80s I came into contact with traditional Breton music and a character (who was seldom sober) who rejoiced in the nickname Guinness. Guinness introduced me to the instrument and, captivated, I bought one from a music shop in St Brieuc.

I began teaching myself to play and compose tunes on it but, after 20 years of loyal service, my poor old dulcimer started to misbehave. Some of the frets had become very worn and the poor thing refused to stay in tune. A music shop offered to 'set it up' for me but, sadly, had no idea what they were doing and the dulcimer sounded unhappier than ever. So I traded it in for a new model from the excellent Hobgoblin shop in Manchester. It was only then I discovered, for two decades, I'd been playing the dulcimer back-to-front! My original instrument had been strung for a left-handed player so everything I had ever learnt now had to be inverted and relearnt.

Just to make it more interesting, I was persuaded to exchange my old three-string dulcimer for a four-string instrument. This opened up a whole new world as my new dulcimer is capable of lovely mandolin-like sounds (two of the four strings are paired in unison.) I used it on the album Untangle the Strings and my friend Phil Richards took a series of remarkable images for the album featuring puppets with the dulcimer (see above left) .

For an old battle-weary dulcimerist like me it was very heartening to see people turn out on a cold Saturday night to watch Dan Evans play, and it's inspired me to take my dulcimer with me — and give the guitar a rest — next time I go out to play on an open mic night.

I must, finally, point other dulcimer aficionados in the direction of Dan’s excellent website, which, among other things, finally helped me to understand why other musicians have always struggled to keep time with my playing. It seems it's due to a phenomenon called rubato which Dan explains is ‘rhythmic give and take’. As he puts it, ‘this gentle ebb and flow of the rhythm adds depth and interest to the music, making the song breathe and so come to life.’ So now you know.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

On setting traps for songs and getting inside the jukebox

I've been thinking a lot about songwriting and recording lately. Thinking a lot about both and not doing much about either. I've been working on two or three songs for about a year and I'm almost happy with one of them. When I was in my early twenties, I would write two or three songs a month. For over a year now, I've been recording some songs and instrumentals on my home computer with the plan of putting together a little album. Hopefully, it won't take me another year to complete it.

I was going to write something here about the beginnings of the art of songwriting -- something about Elizabethan sonnets, would you believe -- but I'll save that for another time because I've just read an interview with Tom Waits in the December 2011 issue of Uncut magazine. Tom Waits knows a thing or two about songwriting and recording. Last year he released his twenty-second album Bad As Me. Some of these new songs are as good as anything on Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs (two outstanding albums of his from the 1980s.)

In the Uncut interview, Waits says some remarkable things about the process of songwriting and recording. On recording, he says ‘... basically it is a very mechanical process, putting a record together. You could say it starts with, like, music lessons, learning to play an instrument, and working your ass off till you can get a sound out of it, then taking your chances and trying to create just the whole act of recording, hoping you're going to catch a bird in there, y’know?' He talks about 'setting a trap' for a song: ' ... my theory is that songs don't really enjoy being recorded. If you're not careful, you can mangle the whole thing in the recording process. I always thought songs lived in the air. Figure if you open up a window, they might float in, go up in your ear, come out the other ear, and wind up on the radio. I remember when I worked in a restaurant, sweeping up by a jukebox, and thinking, OK, how do you get in the jukebox and come out of it? That's the real trick.’ Waits goes on to consider the risks in combining too many different musical influences: '... when you're making a song, you ... have to decide what belongs, and how far you can stretch it ... ' Comparing the process with cookery, he observes '... sometimes you have to throw a whole batch out, and that really hurts ... You can make something for three days until it's just mush.'

I'm going to try and bear all this in mind as I work on my songs and recordings over the coming weeks and months. And remind me, next time, to tell you about Elizabethan sonnets.

About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).