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Covering all the bases

Prompted by a review in The Guardian yesterday of a new album by The 1975, a Manchester band, I downloaded two of their EPs. It was the reference in the review to the films of John Hughes that got my attention, that and the fact that I like to listen to new music when I go for a run.

I was struck by different versions of the two tracks, ‘Sex’ and ‘Chocolate’. Both EPs offer not just the studio version but also what are described as acoustic versions (despite one of the tracks being accompanied by electric guitar). They have the feel of a demo, consisting of minimal accompaniment and no studio tricks. But they’re much more than that. At a much slower tempo and with less layers of sound, the focus is naturally the vocal delivery, creating a greater sense of intimacy and foregrounding the lyrics. Side-by-side with the more slick, rhythm-driven studio versions, one also gets a deeper understanding of the harmony and melody, the fundamental characteristics of the song. As such the acoustic versions shine a new and interesting light on the ‘original’ versions. And vice versa.

We’re in the realm of the ‘cover’ version here, of course, though it’s rare for an artist or band to offer such different interpretation of their own material other than on the concert stage (where every performance is effectively a cover version of the album cut). Usually covering a song is left to others, the original seen as the definitive one, its cover a pale imitation. Occasionally, though, the later version effaces the original. Think of Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Alleluia or Judy Collins’ version of ‘Both Sides Now’, who released the first commercial recording of it. Collins’ rendition was so ubiquitous that it came as a surprise to discover that Joni Mitchell had written it. And, of course, there’s a whole generation who watched Donnie Darko and think that Gary Jules wrote ‘Mad World’, whereas those of us who grew up in the 80s still prefer the original Tears for Fears version. Nevertheless, when a good cover comes along it engages us in much the same way that I found myself enjoying The 1975’s reflective and reflexive takes on their own songs.

Some people think that the originals are unchallengeable and can never be bettered, though it’s not going to stop people from trying. Such veneration, which effectively attempts to protect songs from interpretation, canonises the work, an ideology that’s all-too familiar in the domain of high art, classical music included. No surprise, then, that when it comes to The Beatles, artists tend to resist radical interpretation. When Radio 1 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the group’s first album by recording all the tracks according to the same studio schedule, people stayed remarkably – respectfully – true to the originals.

The Beatles are the exception, though, and in general one of the striking things about cover versions is that they don’t care a hoot about authenticity. Rather than seeking to outdo the original performance and performers, they seek to reinvigorate a composition and make of it something quite different. Bands are similarly unconcerned about performance practice; they make use of their own line-up rather than drafting in other players. And nor do they make any claim to represent the composer’s intentions, often because the composer was the original performer.

If they did honour authenticity, performance practice and the composer’s intentions then, to all intents and purposes, they would be a tribute band. And, in the pop world, such homage, even if well-intentioned, is deemed a rather sad pursuit.  Yet in early music that’s exactly what we do (I’m reminded here of a comment by Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker, who said that The Tallis Scholars have too many imitators). In slavishly adhering to each new performance-practice discovery, the early-music movement has chased after a chimerical and ultimately unverifiable vision of an original performance. And, like a tribute band, they have taken the name of a composer as the name of their group, as if it alone has some hotline to the composer’s imagination. All of which makes me wonder if Dufay, Josquin or Tallis would particularly have cared how their music was performed today or if, like me, they might have preferred modern artists to take a few risks and might have performed their own compositions in different ways. Time to step off the tram then, as Blackburn would have it. Or, in my terms, time for some interesting cover versions of old favourites. 

Reading between the lines

You can blame David Lee for this. He prompted me to respond to a short article written by Bonnie Blackburn in the 40th-anniversary edition of Early Music. For those of you who don’t know, Early Music is an Oxford University Press journal, the intention of which was to provide ‘a link between the finest scholarship of our day and the amateur and professional listener and performer.’ Over the past forty years it has encouraged a fruitful dialogue between modern performers and music historians.  

Bonnie Blackburn’s article (available for free download here: addresses what she calls the tramline performance of much early music, which, if I understand her correctly, means an adherence to rigid tempi, balanced voices and a general avoidance of expression. This has been written about in many other contexts, characterised as a cool ‘English’ style, in contrast to the more overtly expressive Continental style. Indeed, I’ve written an article on the subject that was printed in Early Music, which sees me in broad agreement with Blackburn. Her focus, though she doesn’t spell it out, is on vocal repertoire and I certainly recognise the tendency that she references: a style that effaces the presence of the performer and creates a sonic analogue of the score. It’s worth noting here that there is nothing in the original musical manuscripts to suggest expression; dynamic markings, tempi and other instructions are entirely absent. Which is not to say that they didn’t exist. Only that they would have been transmitted verbally or left to the performers to apply themselves.

She ventures that one of the reasons for modern clean, uninflected style is due to the ability of performers today to perform this music virtually at sight. There’s no doubt that many recordings are made on minimal rehearsal, often without the music ever having been performed in concert, and sometimes without the music having ever been seen by the performers.

There are, though, other factors at work, not least a sense of musicological correctness, which journals like Early Music have inadvertently promoted. The system of mensuration – the time signatures that were used, particularly in the C14th and C15th – indicate the relationship between the tempi of different sections. There’s precious little evidence to suggest that the original performers adhered slavishly to these proportions, but the music was certainly designed that way and in the modern day, this has tended to promote a mathematical approach to relative speeds. Filtered through the lens of musical history, such intentions tend to take on the status of instruction and, when performers are assessed by music historians in record-review sections of Early Music the performer can sometimes feel that such criteria have been used as a critical tool against them. Additionally, many of the recordings made over the past forty years were the first modern recordings of venerated repertoire, which has contributed to a sense of duty to history. Expression has been avoided because of a fear of an inappropriate modern sensibility being applied to the past.  Such self-consciousness has urged the performer to play it safe rather than to ‘add’ interpretation. And in the recording situation, the producer has felt on safer ground attending to issues of ensemble and tuning rather than more abstract notions of ‘feel’ and interpretation. There is also a certain rhythmic logic in polyphony that argues against ‘playing’ with the time. A higher voice coming off a dot slowly, or another part languishing on a suspension, can make the task of another singer singing a series of smaller note values much more difficult to negotiate.

 I find myself disagreeing with Blackburn over her suggestion that varying tempi is an index of expression for different reasons though. Consider rock or pop music. One of the highest forms of praise offered to a live band is being ‘tight’, the word used to mean strict ensemble. Yet no-one would ever suggest that rock music is unemotional. Indeed, it’s very rare indeed that one has a controlled or even uncontrolled shift in tempi (‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners springs to mind as the obvious exception). And, though it may not be obviously apparent, the tempi of many early-music recordings changes from bar to bar, fractionally certainly, but it’s a surprisingly fluid pulse as you’ll discover if you put a metronome on it. No-one uses a click track (pace The Kronos Quartet’s recording of Spem in Alium where, with only four of them, they had to multi-track).

I offer these caveats not in support of tramline music. I too would like to see more experimentation and expression, and I know many other performers who feel the same way. Perhaps, though, we need greater latitude on the part of critics and commentators, and even the public, who have come to enjoy and expect the clean, light style of modern performance of renaissance music.


As I write, the Wimbledon men’s final is taking place (one game all in the first set). I won’t be sitting down to watch even if it’s the most perfect summer day, as if made to celebrate the event. And the reason? It’s the worst kind of disguised nationalism I’ve seen, oh, since last year.

In the 60s, when I was growing up and the only tennis tournament that was televised was Wimbledon, it was just as popular as it is now, even though we had no British players to speak of. We made do, as us Brits are wont to, by reminding ourselves of our association with former colonies, like Australia, pleased to cheer on Laver, Rosewall and Roach. The 70s was dominated by those pesky Yanks – McEnroe, Connors and the like – and a few other more respectable Europeans, like Borg. By the 90s, the British public began to be aware that there were other tournaments being played around the world, the other Grand Slam events like the Australian, French and US Open. But, we reasoned, Wimbledon was special – outdoor, on grass and English.

We had John Lloyd for a while (who almost blew it by marrying Chris Evert), and then we had Henman and Rusedski, a Canadian with a name that drew unwelcome comparisons with the interlopers from the East. But when Murray came along, the Englishness dropped out of the game, or at least faded into the background. Now people sported Union Jacks in unlikely places – spectacle frames, underwear, those stupid bouncy antennae strapped to one’s head – but seemingly Murray didn’t want any of it. He didn’t mind the support, but he was happy to let it be known that he was a proud Scot.

That endeared him to me, not because I’m half Scottish myself, but because his dour demeanour downplayed all the hoopla. Last year, he nearly won, which is to say that he got to the final and was squarely beaten in straight sets by the man with precision of a Swiss clock: Federer. This time he’s up against Djokovic, described this morning as a black panther by one observer, and I don’t think he meant a black militant. I don’t know who will win, but everyone seems to be saying that it will be Murray. And if he doesn’t? Then he’ll be the best kind of loser: a plucky Brit.

I should, though, acknowledge that my vague antipathy to Wimbledon is not just based on the nationalist slant, of which the BBC is certainly guilty. It’s partly because it’s a sport I could never play. Squash was easier; I found it quite difficult to hit the ball out of the court. But there’s another factor. In those distant, hot summers, when the air was bright and thick, and all telly was in black and white, my mum used to close the curtains against the glare and hunker down for two weeks, during which time our tea came secondary to the thrill of a white ball bouncing around the standard-ratio frame like a game of Pong and children’s TV programmes were sidelined. Yeah, that’s probably the main reason I don’t like tennis: child abuse.


Image Music TextAs the eagle-eyed cognoscenti have noted, the title of this blog – Image-Music-Text – references a collection of essays by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. The selection and translations were by Stephen Heath who, incidentally, was at one time to have been the external examiner for my MA thesis (that’s another story).  Published in the UK in 1977, in the 1980s it was pretty much a standard text for anyone interested in literature, film, photography and music. I still have my copy, heavily underlined and annotated, the pages beyond yellow now, a sort of dirty brown like a medieval manuscript.

If you want to understand it completely, then it’s a tough read unless you’re well-versed in post structuralist theory. That was certainly the way it struck me as an undergraduate back in 1979, but I fought my way through it, dimly perceiving its importance. At times, the titles were enough: ‘The Death of the Author’, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, ‘Rhetoric of the Image’.

These days, I count Barthes as one of my favourite writers, not just for his looping prose, but because the impact of his ideas. His foregrounding of the processes of reading, performing and listening were a brilliantly corrective counter to the obviously static forms of traditional criticism (‘From Work to Text’), and he had a way of being political without you quite realising it.

His influence is beyond doubt even if he didn’t so much invent many of his central concerns as synthesise them. The Russian Formalist and the Czech Structuralists had challenged the centrality of the author and made the links between semiotics and narrative before he did, but no-one had done it quite so elegantly and engagingly. He also extended the debate into photography, film, music and even fashion, and effectively opened up the field of cultural studies.

They resonated particularly personally for me in other ways. ‘The Grain of the Voice’ was critical of the brand of smooth, seamless singing exemplified by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of my heroes), which also describes the English choral tradition in which I was brought up. And, when I began to switch my interest from film studies to musicology, I came across this essay again and again, worn like a badge by the New Musicologists.

It was his book A Lover’s Discourse which sealed the deal for me . When I first read it I was suffering from a particularly bad bout of unrequited love, the ideal state in which to approach its harrowing analysis of the lover’s psyche. It’s certainly a book best read when in that particular anguished state, but it’s well worth reading in any event. Prompted by reading Goethe’s Werther, a book written under the full influence of sturm and drang, A Lover’s Discourse makes ludic reference to other writers, particularly Freud and Lacan. The great thing, though, is that you can dip into it. And in this respect, at least, it’s probably the classiest book you can have in your toilet.

Judging a book by its cover

We say we don’t, but we do. It’s part of the purchasing experience – picking up the book in a store, feeling it, noting the quality of the paper, the heft of it and, most importantly, the cover design.

It tells us a lot, which is the point, of course. The publisher has generally spent a great deal of time deliberating over the look. Sometimes it’s intended to associate the book with others you might have read, to make that unconscious connection with former pleasure. These are copycat covers, so if you walk into Waterstones (if you can find one) and wandered into the erotica section (or, as it is now coyly known, ‘active romance’ section) you’d discover numerous variations of the Fifty Shades of Grey covers.

In the case of a classic, many of which people may have read before, or the broad story of which they may be familiar, the designer has a different brief. They can perhaps allude to the narrative in a more knowing way, a nod to the reader who already know what’s coming.(See these redesigns of Lolita, for example: 

catcher in the rye

Either way, if the cover design is strong enough, it will stick in your memory for years to come.

clockwork orange

In my case, I recall the classic cartoonish design of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and the minimalist silver covers of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, as enigmatic and elusive as the author himself.)

So what of the cover of Time Will Tell? I’m lucky enough to have a very good friend who’s a designer. Not of book covers, he would hasten to say, but of movies. He very kindly drew up several rough drafts, each of them strong in their own way.The first was this:I’d sent him some pictures of medieval Tours, though he chose an image of Amiens (where some of the story is set).

cover 3The colour’s interesting; apparently more people will buy a book if it’s blue, though we weren’t aware of it at the time. The picture suggests history, of course, and the font and simple layout, classicism. Not classical music, though. That was addressed in another design. Again, my friend took his cue from some of the images I’d sent him, in this case medieval manuscript. I liked the square notation, and he came up with an idea which he attributed to an old Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album on Factory records.

Again, a bold design, and the visual pun of the notation and electricity injects a little thriller-ish hint which the first design lacked.electricity But the image we went with ultimately was the one that graces the cover, a sheet of manuscript (from a Josquin mass) licked by flames. The connotations again are obvious. Music (from exactly the period the book describes), threat and, importantly as far as the designer was concerned, a lot of space. ‘Don’t be afraid of blank space,’ he said. In the end, some of that was filled with endorsements, but it’s still an arresting image and, without giving anything away, it offers a knowing nod.

There were others, but I’ll keep them for another time.

The Place Beyond the Pines

It struck me the other day when watching Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines that we tend to undervalue all music when it’s attached to images of any kind, most obviously movies. It’s certainly fair to say that most people consider film music itself to be subsidiary to ‘proper’ classical music, but what about using classical music as film music?  It’s common practice to use it as a temp track, i.e. to synch classical music in the early stages of post-production, often as a guide to the film composer. In the case of someone like Kubrick, the music stays, thus many of us learned of Also Sprach Zarathustra not from studying Richard Strauss, but from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And film music can in turn become classic (though not necessarily counted as classical music). Think of Hermann’s jagged-string Psycho (used endlessly) or his magnificent score for Vertigo, which was used on The Player(and probably earned it its film-composer Oscar).

The Place Beyond the Pines is an interesting movie, not least for its use of music. At first it’s just another indie movie about a loner who discovers deeper meaning in family. A third of the way through it shifts somewhat upsettingly to a new story, that of an ambitious cop, seemingly trapped by corruption and redeemed through honesty and ambition. The final act takes a swooping turn into melodrama, when the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. It has the epic scale of The American Novel and, at 140 minutes, its length too. The performances are universally good, though a lot rests on the shoulders of the two young leads (rather than upon its stars) and would surely have failed had they not been so convincing (Emory Cohen and Dane Dehaan, names to watch out for, though the latter’s filmography is already impressive).

As is seemingly common these days with character-led movies, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of source material (classical music) and short, composed interludes, the whole overseen by a rock artist rather than by the standard Hollywood film composer (in this case, Mike Patton of metal band Faith No More). There’s no lush orchestration. Instead you have a soundscape of guitars, synth and real voices, strings, honky-tonk piano, scratches, bangs, crackles and the occasional wailing saxophone.

This last is, for me at least, the most interesting. The particular timbre, a keening soprano sax, is clearly indebted to Jan Garbarek’s hard-reeded sound, and the looped, Renaissance music over which this plays (some in a scene in a church) is obviously indebted to the Norwegian musician’s work with The Hilliard Ensemble. There are other early-music references. At one point, the ubiquitous Allegri Miserere makes a brief appearance, and Fratres by Arvo Part, a composer with an acknowledged debt to the modality and minimalism of medieval music, appears in several guises.

Of course, early music doesn’t have any role in the movie. None of these characters would have heard of Monteverdi, let alone Machaut, and few of the audience members either. But that’s not the point; early music and its derivatives suggest various things, amongst them spirituality, history, and religiosity. Perhaps most obviously, though, it makes great mood music, by which I mean it imbues a scene with an ambience of generic mysticism and suggests that the characters are thinking deep and enigmatic thoughts.

All of which means that film occasionally pimps the classics, with music offering up its unchallengeable virtues to popularism and happily accepting the cash that Hollywood leaves on the nightstand. That gets many classical musicians hot under the collar, though not this one. Can anyone put their hand up and say that they haven’t discovered a new composer or band by hearing them in the background, or as an accompaniment to a moving image?

Paperback writer

This is Donald Greig’s new blog. It coincides with the release of my first novel, Time Will Tell, in paperback. You may have been redirected here from a Facebook page(, which I set up six months ago to promote my novel. Feel free to have a look.

I’ve created the site partially to provide a forum for interested readers and partially to discuss things that interest me – writing, cinema, music, politics and the like. Oh, and beer. Maybe.

So why a paperback? It’s a good question in this day of digital downloads. The simple answer is that the plan was always to do it this way, which may be old-fashioned but still serves a purpose. A hardback used to be the first iteration of a novel, but that’s by no means guaranteed for authors today, particularly first-time authors. The new process sees books released immediately as a paperback and concurrently as an ebook.

I have to say that I’m grateful to Thames River Press for taking this bold move and I hope that sales of the hardback have justified their faith. The feeling was that the book, because of its serious subject (deliberately contrasted by a lighter mode of writing) warranted the glossier presentation. And perhaps the publisher, knowing that the classical-music listener tends to be a tad older and have a little more cash in their pockets, might be more inclined to splash out on a hardback.

So in some ways the test comes now, with the paperback. Finally the book stands or falls on its literary merit, rather than on any personal connection to me or potential push it might have received from its connection with the niche field of early music. And I have to say that I’m pleased. They say that you should write about what you know, but my main reason for creating the novel was that of most authors of fiction: to tell a story by creating convincing characters who inhabit a credible fictional world. In that I hope I’ve been successful, but only you can tell me. So do feel free to drop a note in the comments section below.


The following is a short travel piece I wrote back in 2008, for no-one in particular. I was travelling to Missoula, a pilgrimage of sorts, not just to the tiny hamlet of Bonner, MT, but also to Charley B’s bar, for reasons that will become apparent.

I’m here. Perhaps, like Jack Torrance in The Shining, I’ve always been here.

I arrived in Missoula, MT by way of Bonner, MT, at around 4.30. By 5.30 I am sitting in the seat that someone had kindly left free for me in Charlie B’s bar, ‘On the corner of space and time’ as the sign above the bar says.

I almost didn’t go in; it made me seem too eager. But then I reminded myself that you can build these things up too much in your mind and, given that I’d flown four thousand miles and driven another thousand to get here, delaying any longer seemed foolish. This is James Crumley’s bar, a place he described in his novels and in which he spent an inordinate amount of time, described by the author himself as a great bar in a state full of good bars.

If you haven’t read Crumley, you should. He writes crime fiction, but that shouldn’t put you off; he’s one of the ones who transcends the genre, his prose rhythmic and muscular, shot through with irony and resignation in a world that constantly disappoints. Here’s a sample, the famous first line from The Last Good Kiss, a title and opening line that are almost good enough to make you put it down straightaway, convinced that it can only go downhill from here: ‘When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.’

Charlie B’s doesn’t disappoint. I’d said to a friend that I’d probably get here and feel let down, and he said that the next bar would be better, a pretty good metaphor for life, or at least for the lives of optimists – amongst which I count myself, whatever patina of cynicism I may affect.

I’d really just stepped out to get some air and to assess the town. The welcome at the hotel had been warm and Missoula already felt good, even the sterile supermarket where I’d stopped for essential supplies like beer and water. And downtown Montana felt good too. In my experience, the centre of most small American towns has been ripped out, retailers fleeing to malls, restaurateurs following to new developments. But Missoula is very much alive, doubtless helped by the proximity of the university which means cheap places to eat and numerous coffee shops. I visited a bookstore, proud of its Montana heritage, keen to promote its authors, and discovered a book of essays by Crumley that I haven’t read (I’ve read all the novels). He re-iterated the point that Missoulians are the friendliest people, a line taken by Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It: ‘The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.’

I saunter up North Higgins and spot Charlie B’s on the other side of the road. Like a teenager trying to appear aloof to the girl with whom he is smitten, I pass by, but when I come back down the same road, I peer in and enter. It’s busy. Busy like a Saturday night. But this is Monday afternoon. The clientele make me feel young and sober. Plenty of grey there, plenty of long hair too, most of it tied in pony tails and enough facial hair to make me glad I haven’t shaved today. I guess my shades, perched on the top of my head, single me out as an out-of-towner; squinting seems more in order. I look up at the racks of framed wooden photos by Lee Nye, seeking out Crumley, but he’s not to be seen. The photos, like their subjects, are weathered, and the same goes for the drinkers in the bar, most of whom are smoking, an oddly refreshing smell in an era of smoke-free pubs in London and New York, even in Spain. To my right are a couple of tables, but the real action is ranged along the bar where about eighteen people are seated, another five or so hovering behind them involved in stuttering conversation. I scan the beers – a good range of microbreweries, amongst them Big Sky Moose Drool which I have promised myself I will order – and take the one seat available. The seating is perfect, a semi-circular bar so that you can hear across groups to conversations further away, and the lack of music means you don’t have to raise your voice though some, with throats scoured by spirits and tobacco, have the kind of burr that cuts through steel. I don’t speak at all. My English accent will sound prissy here. I mumble my order to the barman, a hefty guy with braces who thumbs a huge wad of dollar bills. The pint duly arrives and he wanders away. The barwoman drifts past and I try to pay: ‘The owner sort of takes care of that,’ she explains. I’m none the wiser; is this on the house?

I don’t have my camera with me though taking a photograph here would be wrong: this is a private space, like a church, the service pitched somewhere between Lauds and a Mass – between celebration and a call for expiation. Of more concern is the fact that I don’t have either pen or paper with me but, in a town famed for writers, it might seem a grandiose gesture to ask the bar staff if they could help me out.

I take up the required position, hunched forward, forearms on the bar as if bowed in prayer, and contemplate the pint. Alongside me others have money placed in front of their bottles of Bud and tins of Miller, wagers in some game of chance from which I’m excluded. In front of me are the bottles of spirits that people detective stories – Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Chivas, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Cuervo, Jameson’s, Wild Turkey, Patron. No Herradura, though, Crumley’s drink. It must be there somewhere.

The guy to my right orders two shots to celebrate the imminent return of his brother from Iraq. I sense that this announcement, louder and delivered with chair pushed back, the better for all along the bar to hear, is specifically for me, contact having just been made in his enquiry about using the ashtray. The shots are poured – a pink concoction then one that combines a clear spirit – schnapps? – with whisky. To my surprise, the guy splits the pink concoction with his buddy; and the barwoman guns the spirits. ‘A capable woman’ is the phrase, and a new one arrives, sunburned from a day outside, easy with the customers, assured, confident. She asks me if I want another beer and it’s all I can do to decline, though I somehow manage. I ponder the sign above the bar: ‘Keep Missoula weird’.

I call over the other barwoman and again try to pay.

‘Charlie B took care of it,’ she says. She pauses for a moment before, by way of explanation adding: ‘You’ll be back.’

‘How does he know?’ I ask.

She shrugs.

James Crumley outside Charley B's bar in Montana

James Crumley outside Charley B’s bar in Montana