I’m here at the 2013 IASPM (International Society for the Study of Popular Music) biennial conference. I’m one of about 20 British popular musicologists and there are several hundred of us from all around the world. We’re at the magnificent Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura in Gijòn, Spain. I’ve attempted to blog the sessions – including the abstracts and a brief summary – here. I do so with apologies to the presenters for any unintentional misrepresentation.
- Session 1 – Monday 24 June, 0930
- Compositions and Production
- Chair: Shelley Brunt
Behind the Magical Mystery Door: History, Mythology and the Challenge to Abbey Road Studios. Samantha Bennett (The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia)
Considering its journey from classical recording house, through its transition to stand-alone commercial studios and more recently broadcast venue, this paper considers issues of history and mythology in the current challenge faced by Abbey Road studios. Over an 80-year history, Abbey Road has become synonymous with innovative recording techniques, ‘classic album’ output and film scoring success. Yet in recent times, the studios have struggled to operate as a viable, commercial recording business. Increasingly reliant upon non-recording income streams, such as broadcasts, merchandise, the sale of software plug-ins appropriating its ‘sound’, as well as public film screenings and tours, Abbey Road’s future is arguably in the hands of its past.
Drawing upon primary interview material with Abbey Road personnel past and present, this paper considers the historical significance, mythological conventions and future challenges to the recording studios. How has Abbey Road, a one-time beacon of sound recording excellence, gradually become mythologised? To what extent has the Beatles’ legacy reinforced a cultural perception of Abbey Road as ‘tourist attraction’ and/ or ‘heritage site’? Also, considering current research in this area, this paper evaluates the extent to which Abbey Road’s struggles are indicative of wider challenges facing the UK’s recording studio sector.
Sam’s presentation began by outlining the types of discourse applied to Abbey Road, and her own interest is in the ‘heritage’ of the studio and also the specific technologies for which it is known (Mellotron, Echo chamber etc). Obviously the Beatles cast a very long shadow over the venue, the brand and its business; Sam uses the phrase “the studio uses its past to secure its future”, and asks the important question of how the studio may (or may not) leverage its heritage to make it a viable business venture, constructed as it was in a very different (1930s) economic climate. Interestingly, the facility was originally used in ‘A&R production’, and was only expected to be a profit-making commercial studio from the 1970s.
The inaccessibility of the venue to the general public, combined with the remarkable recordings that were made there, combine to reinforce a romantic view of magic, alchemy and wizardry. Journalists and other writers have reinforced this sentimental romanticisation of the creative process over the years, adding to the idea of the studio as ‘hallowed ground’, particularly studio 2 and of course the zebra crossing.
Sam also talked about spin-offs from the studio, including corporate events (record a song in a day, much to the chagrin of some of the engineers!), video games and, perhaps most interesting, a series of hardware-emulating software plugins for audio production, although as she rightly points out, without access to all of the hardware in the signal path (and the physical characteristics of the space) it is unlikely that anyone could recreate ‘the sound of Abbey Road’, although this of course is the dream that is being – literally – sold.
Questioners asked about the studio’s current commercial activities; a lot of its business relates to mastering, with the aforementioned corporate events (one staff member said “you can take a load of bankers in there for a pissup”). Its commercial recording rates are currently around £1800/day for studio 2. Interestingly, although Abbey Road is used for orchestral/film recording sessions, this sort of activity is more often to be found at AIR Lyndhurst – which was designed and specified by George Martin.
“Progressive Rock” in Japan and the Idea of Progress. Akitsugu Kawamoto (Independent scholar)
The term “progressive” has often been attached to popular music styles, such as progressive jazz, progressive rock, and progressive country. In these cases, the term is used mainly because fans and critics consider each of these progressive styles musically more advanced than their respective predecessors within the same genre. For example, progressive jazz is thus considered more advanced than swing jazz, progressive rock more advanced than rock ‘n’ roll, and progressive country more advanced than country and western. However, “progressive rock” in Japan appears a bit different; it is called so not only because it is considered more advanced than rock music, but also because it is considered more advanced than any other popular music in contemporaneous Japan. Progressive rock was imported from U.K. into Japan, and it sounded more sophisticated than any Japanese music, because of the “Western” sound. Thus, “progressive” rock is not separable from the issues of Westernization in Japan. This paper compares between Japanese and British progressive rock in terms of the music making and its reception, and considers how “progressive” Japanese progressive rock was for Japanese musicians and audience, in relation to the Westernization.
Aki’s presentation discussed the ‘diaspora’ of progressive rock, particularly the way that Japanese progressive rock is influenced less by classical music than by British progressive rock, which itself is influenced by classical music. He suggests that Japanese prog is considered progressive because of its similarity to British work and (culturally) westernisation generally. His first musical example was King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Part One (1972). Interestingly, KC’s Bill Bruford is one of the presenters at the conference this week, and was in the audience for Aki’s session, listening unexpectedly to his own drumming.
The presentation goes on to compare the KC track with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1912). He stressed that he is not citing Stravinsky as a direct influence on LTIA but as an example of the use of rapid changes of time signature. Aki has heroically manually transcribed many of Fripp’s rapid chromatic phrases. He argues that such chromaticism is taken from ‘classical music’ although I am not sure I agree with him; the rapid directionally-identical chromatic moves are, I suggest, simply as a result of the ergonomic limitations of the guitar fingerboard. Fripp is, I suggest, a ‘shapes’ player, and it would have been interesting to get more evidence of the assertion that KC were influenced by classical music. Whilst this may have been the case, it is also possible that they were just trying to create something that sounded different – that is, away from rock as opposed to towards classical music.
The presentation then moves on to Japanese prog, the first example being “Psycho, Part Two” by Bi Kyo Ran (1982). The band began as a ‘King Crimson copy band” and Aki interestingly points out that although this work is more clearly rock-influenced than classical-influenced, to Western ears it sounds like a (possibly simplified?) version of KC. He draws some interestingly parallels (and shows some dissimilarities) between the approaches to chromaticism takem by Bi Kyo Ran and KC. There is also some discussion of the influence of major-minor chords (e.g. ‘The Hendrix [7#9] chord’) achieving the rock influence. Again, I’m not sure I agree that there is a direct lineage here – the KC chord he transcribes contains notes (bottom up) of G-G-B-Eb-F-Bb-E. There is a major-minor chord in there (arguably) but I think it may be an inference too far to assume that this is directly from Hendrix.
Aki finished the presentation with an interesting discussion of the extra-musical influence of Western culture in Japan. The idea of progress expressed in [Japanese] ‘prog’ is related more to Western music than to progressiveness in an entirely Japanese context.
In the questioning, Bill Bruford pointed out that the multiple time signatures that he [Bill] played on early KC material were actually more influenced by Dave Brubeck’s 1950s recordings Time Out and Time Further Out than they were by classical music. He then asked where, musically, J-Prog is currently, and Aki responded that there has been musical ‘progress’ but the Western influence is still very dominant.
There were a few questions regarding the musical specifics, particularly relating to authorial intent and to lineage of musical influences. Aki also touches on a question that is very relevant to my own work – how do we divine authorial intent and (particularly) compositional processes from the limited sources available, particularly the limitations of interviews with creators. He also points out (and I agree with him) that musicians are sometimes incentivised to bend the truth in interview, particularly to allude to ‘worthy’ influences that may not be genuine.
Aki briefly discussed lyric content, and points out that although they are in some ways pastiches of the English originals, Japanese people often to do listen to the words anyway. Some of the Brits in the audience muttered that this is just as well!