Playing the Bass

For Christmas last year, I got a bass guitar, a lovely sunburst finishVintage model. What with a busy college schedule, and needing to get cables and other equipment before I could really start playing, I only really got my teeth into this summer, and have practiced a lot over the last few weeks particularly. It’s been an interesting experience – I already to play two other instruments, both of which I’ve played for a long time. Though I’m by no means at professional level on either of them, I’ve been competent and proficient with them both for many years. Starting the whole process of learning my way around a new instrument has been at times frustrating, and at other times rewarding. It’s difficult to pick up the instrument, look at the sheet music for a piece you know well, and be completely unable to find the notes. On the other hand, I’ve long believed that learning an instrument gives you a unique way of thinking about music – and with each new instrument you learn, you add a new dimension to your capacity for musical thought. This has certainly been the case for learning the bass – I’ve developed a new method of thinking my way around the notes. Spending time with the lower register of songs has also been beneficial to me compositionally, as I find I’m writing more interesting parts in the bass registers my own music.

The primary reason I took up bass is that I really wanted to be able to play more pop and rock music. While I play keyboards already, some of the styles of music I wanted to pursue weren’t particularly suited to keyboards, and I knew plenty of guitarists but not very many bassists. Though I don’t agree with the common notion that the bass is an inferior guitar – it’s a distinct instrument with a very distinct style of playing – it’s probably true that a lot of bass repertoire is more accessible than guitar repertoire. This way, I’d be able to start playing music with people faster. I also have had a great love for the instrument for a long while – from the first time I really listened to Flea I’ve had an appreciation for the bass as a distinct and important part of rock music. Continue reading

Ligeti – a composer and a role model.

Several years ago, in the later stages of secondary school, I had little knowledge of contemporary music. I was familiar with it, in broad and vague sense; I knew about minimalism and I had listened to some Schoenberg, but other than that I was largely ignorant of the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I wasn’t uninterested exactly – I was fascinated by reading about these topics, and friends of mine who were doing music degrees often got asked about modern composers. But for the most part my attention was diverted elsewhere –  I was trying to get better on piano and clarinet, I was listening to rock music, there was a brief spell in a funk band, and of course I had school and the leaving cert to contend with. The elements that attracted me to contemporary music – exotic musical sounds, technical difficulty, anything that made for a difficult but rewarding listen – I could also get from progressive metal or jazz.  And it was hard to know where to begin. Though the internet has undoubtedly made it easier for audiences to engage with and discover new music, it’s one hundred times easier again for almost every other genre.

One the suggestion of one of my friends, I decided to give Ligeti a listen. Not knowing where else to begin , I went to YouTube, put the name into the search box and, after skimming the results, chose what seem like a good option: this video.

I’m not going to sensationalize it and say I was instantly blown away. But I really liked it, and it grabbed my attention in a way that no other contemporary works had at that point. It was surprisingly accessible: it was energetic, it had a clear shape, it was understandable. It was metal. Continue reading

On Genre

I am very particular about how I organise my music collection. My CDs are arranged alphabetically, for simplicity’s sake, though as an added bonus I like how I end up with John Field side-by-side with John Frusciante; but whenever I put music on a laptop or mp3 player, I spend a great deal of time making sure the details are correct – I double-check track listings, make sure that the artist’s name is spelled right, and most importantly I make sure the genre is correct.

You see, I really like genres.

I understand the problems people have with them, to an extent. I know that, in some cases there is very little difference between certain genres; yet at other times, bands with wildly different sounds may all legitimately be given the same label.

To say that music is just music is absurd – it ignores the wealth of diversity within music and within different styles of music. Critics of genre-classification often falsely accuse people who like genres of attempting to pin everything down, as if music appreciation was taxonomy. But that’s not the case – I think that if a number of bands or composers share common qualities, then why not use some kind of name to identify music that has those qualities? It makes discussing music so much easier.

The downside of this is that if genre is a convenient label for discussing music, it also makes it much easier for audiences to judge music unfairly. We are all guilty of this – dismissing an artist on the basis of their style, rather than on the music itself. Genres do facilitate this kind of lazy thinking, but I don’t think they’re responsible for it.

This is as good a post as any to plug one of my favourite websites –, a list of free, online radio stations, organized by genre. This was a great delight to me when I discovered it. It’s a neat compromise between choosing what kind of thing to listen to on an mp3 player and hearing new music on the radio, it satisfies my genre obsession, and it’s a great way to educate yourself on unfamiliar genres. I’ll happily admit that some of the genres they list were completely unfamiliar to me (I still can’t quite figure out what defines the subsets of reggae known as “lover’s rock” and “soca”), and I was surprised by the absence of some subgenres (they don’t have a category for “folk metal”), but overall I found it to be a comprehensive list.

When it comes to classical music, it’s a different story again. That name itself has many different meanings – do we label all “Western Art Music” as classical, or do we split it up into its various eras Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern? And the word genre itself has a different meaning –it refers to a type of work rather than the work’s style. A single composer may have music for piano and voice, an orchestral work, a suite for string trio, and an opera. They could all use similar material and be written in the composer’s highly personal and recognisable style, yet in this context they would all be considered different genres. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll tend to organize by era – and it’s much easier for someone else to browse my collection this way.

Ultimately, I think that genres are a useful tool. Understanding what distinguishes different styles of music from one another, even if those distinctions are fine, helps me as a listener appreciate the subtle elements that contribute to creating great music.

As always, thoughts, questions and criticisms are welcome in the comments section.