My earliest recollections of creative practice…..
Due to the ill health of my mother and her need for many medical operations over an extended period, I lived in a very dark house for the first seven (7) years on my life. With the curtains and blinds drawn shut the majority of the time, and bedrooms doors closed, I mostly only remember darkness during this time. Other memories include sitting in a very tense environment, fearful we would be reprimanded for talking out of turn, and disturbing my mother, and; being sat in front of a television screen for hours on end as a way of occupying my attention. To this day, the cartoon Mighty Mouse is at the forefront of my memories.
(Terry-Toons Comics 1945-1951)
I recall having the sense that my world was a remote place – perhaps on an island – and the main people I knew at that time were my brother, sister and father. I recall a number of big people – not sure who they were, but perhaps distant relatives, neighbours, or the wives of dad’s work colleagues – came and went during that time, assisting my father with daily duties such as preparing meals, I guess cleaning and our care. I certainly do not recall life in our house.
As I grew somewhat – perhaps around five (5) years of age – I recall spending time exploring the local bushland with my brother and some of the local neighbourhood kids, or my mates from junior rugby. Whilst it was fun exploring, and having new adventures with others, I do however recall that I was happiest in my own company, constructing things and becoming quite rowdy, exercising my unlimited bounds of energy and exploring my voice.
Then at the age of eight (8) years old, once my mother had somewhat recovered from her health issues, we moved into a new house in a new suburb on the North Shore of Sydney. The split-level house had its’ main living area on the top floor – bedroom, living room and kitchen – with the garages, laundry, rumpus room and bar kitchen on the ground floor. The blinds and curtains in our new house were literally pulled back. It was a large light and airy house with a large leafy garden, including a massive willow tree in the middle of it. It was a huge garden for an eight year old to exercise and explore, ride his scooter, yell and sing as he continued to explore his voice to his heart’s content, away from disturbing the family. The sea change included my mother playing what became her daily dose of European classical music – Baroque, Classical and Romantic (including Opera). In addition, my mother loved the pop artists of that era: those who performed on the television program of the day, “Bandstand”. In that era, it was one of the few opportunities to view the latest contemporary artists and hits on television. Whilst I still did not feel as though I belonged to anything – to my new school, my new rugby team, or the local neighbourhood kids – my world now had light and music in it.
Apparently, the music resonated with me and before long I was singing along. I recall having melodies in my head, and I would hum them out, not aware of what I was doing, nor what was to come. I was always an early riser, and keen to get into the day. I would wake well before my brother, my sister, and my parents; and wasn’t one for lying still. Of course – first things first – I would need to go to the toilet for a pee. [Note: the toilet rooms of that era had tiles on the floors and walls, and were great for reflecting sound].
It was very early in the morning, and I wasn’t in that much of a hurry. So, rather than standing I would sit, and gaze at the walls. I recall being fascinated with the light and reflections of the trees (from our back garden) being projected on the walls. I could see the trees bending up and down, some birds flying in and out, the leaves dancing, along with light, up and down the tiles on the walls. I would then start to play with sound, and start to make some noise. Sometimes I would hum one of my internalised melodies; and at times, I would make as many different short, sharp noises with my mouth. Anything to hear sound. I would listen to the sound, and note how the sound could bounce from wall to wall. I learnt to make some sounds stretch out, almost like it had a tail on it, and take even longer to bounce around. I recall thinking how good my voice sounded, in this toilet room. I realise now that I was I was experimenting making noise, listening to the sound bounce off the walls, to the sonic possibilities within our family toilet room, at possibly half past five (5) in the morn. I also reflect now, to realise that I was also possibly becoming comfortable with my voice. Listening to my self, experimenting with my voice, experimenting with what sounds I could make – what original sounds I could make, on my own.
With (apparently) my brothers and sister tired of my early morning vocalisations while on the toilet every morning – while they were still sleeping – my dad suggested I may like to relocate to a new room – into a converted rumpus room on the ground floor of our new house. While I was a little tentative at first, I quickly saw my new space as my own palace. I set up the room with low lighting – lots of lamps around the corners of the room, each with different coloured cellophane projecting up onto the walls. There were usually two or three candles burning, borrowed from my parents many dinner parties, adding to the subdued ambient lighting. Posters of pop culture icons of the day from the local music rag GoSet adorned my walls, beckoning me down a particular path.
(My inherited grandfather’s pianola)
My grandfather’s pianola stood at the foot of my bed; alongside an old radio gramophone that blasted out my collection of 45rpms and am radio station hits for many hours of the day. I recall listening to all of the music and sounds that emanated from that gramophone, drawn into another world. I had friends, but with a very protective mother, I found my self spending a lot of time in my palace – my sanctuary – listening to a very wide range of music at every chance I had.
Whilst I loved the sound of the pianola (essentially a piano, but with some more high register tones present in each of the notes), I found the keyboard layout quite complex to understand. None of my family were players (that I knew of). However, I continued to tinker, I experimented but I admit that I never sat long enough, to learn how to play the piano. Over the next few years, my brother started playing guitar. He was cool, part of the politically savvy crowd. He listened to politically inspired music as part of the hippy movement, calling for change to the establishment. I was drawn in – not so much to the message – but to the instrument that seemed to be at the centre of this crowd – the guitar.
The guitar seemed to be far more simple to play than the piano, with its’ chord shapes. My brother was right-handed, and I was left-handed. So whilst I was drawn in, I did not find it easy to mimic what he was telling me to do, to play his guitar. I was frustrated, but my fascination was established. I would spend my time listening to music, sifting through the music magazines, looking at pictures of guitars. Several years later after much – quiet but persistent – badgering, my dad arrived back from overseas with an acoustic guitar in hand, for me.
I started guitar lessons the following week with a local guitar teacher who was teaching my brother. He taught me the notes on the strings, and then introduced a number of songs as a way of learning to play. One of the first songs I can recall learning was: Clearance Clearwater Revival’s (CCR) “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival 1969).
(Creedence Clearwater Revival 1969 music video)
This song was followed shortly afterwards with CCR’s latest single, “Looking’ Out My Back Door” (Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970a).
(Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970 music video)
The album that these songs came off was Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970’s album, “Cosmo’s Factory” (Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970b). My brother did eventually buy this album, and therefore I not only heard it many times, I ended up playing the album many times over myself.
(Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970c).
This album produced so many singles that became popular hits on the radio; song’s that were country rock in flavour, that were predominantly based around the semi-acoustic electric guitar. I loved every song on the album, and therefore I used to played the album – when my brother wasn’t around – with the purpose of studying each and every song. I recall listening to each song over and over, learning to play them, and to try to emulate the guitar rhythm and vocal phrasing. If I was practicing a particular section of the song – for a example a phrase – I would play it through, and then pick up the needle and play through again, over and over, until I could work out what the phrasing, harmony or melody was. I had also learnt a trick from my cousin in Victoria; putting a coin on the album while it was playing, would slow down the rotating record down, and therefore making it easier to hear the particular phrase I was trying to learn. I experimented for really difficult phrasing, adding the weight of a second coin.
(Creedence Clearwater Revival 2008)
The following year Paul and Linda McCartney released their first studio album “Ram” after the Beatles had officially disbanded as a group (Paul and Linda McCartney. 1971). A single off the album “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was released and played on AM radio on a regular basis. I recall falling in love with this song instantaneously. The song was 4 minutes 50 seconds long – quite long for the day – and progressed from one style of music, to another style of music. It was as though Paul McCartney had gotten two songs, and joined them together. I recall being fascinated by this arrangement. But most particularly, the production. Listening to the song on the radio I could hear so many elements and textures that I had never heard before in any other song. I was in awe!. I recall saving the money I earnt from doing my weekly chores, and going to the local music store to buy the 45rpm record of the single (Paul and Linda McCartney. 1971).
As it happened, on the B side was another song – more of a traditional pop rock song – but again with an interesting arrangement. This song “Too Many People” (Paul and Linda McCartney. 1971), became the first song I requested my guitar teacher to teach me how to play on the guitar.
(The Beatles Discography, 1971)
(Paul & Linda McCartney 1971 music video)
In the same year that I had bought my first 45rpm, I heard another artist across the airwaves: the songs of Cat Stevens. I was mesmerised by his craft – sultry vocal tones, accompanied minimally, with an acoustic guitar, and sometime a bass line. The vocal had a lot of – mmm, how could I describe it – a lot of space around it – presence. The guitar was very simple – a strummed guitar, and a fingerpicked guitar, recorded very precisely, and cleanly. There was often a bass riff present, and sometimes some percussive elements, in light support of the rhythm and harmony. Often, there was a piano in accompaniment. Occasionally, the central instrument was a piano. Irrespective, what struck me of Cat Stevens’ songs were: the central element of his performances and the productions were – the song.
Cat Stevens was a UK troubadour with a social and spiritual conscience, carrying forth the tradition of the 1960’s confessional singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen. Cat Stevens was soon to be joined by other rising troubadours such as Carol King, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne and Don McLean (Greenwald 1992, 58). The songs of these troubadours took me to places that I hadn’t been before. To places that were quiet, considered and contemplative. I considered these songs poetic, in a similar vein as so many of the great poets before them. Their songs weaved words, turn of phrase – lyrics with melody and harmony in simple but cleverly crafted ways.
As a ten (10) year old, I remember thinking to myself – can I? could I? could I ever be able to learn to do what they do? could I dare to consider that I could learn to do what they do? Could I ever become a singer-songwriter-performer as they are? Could I ever learn how to transport a listener to a place that they hadn’t been to before? As they did to me? As they did for me? Could I possibly? Unfortunately though, irrespective of any logic, the seed was planted. I recall Cat Steven’s influence on my desire to practice music was instantaneous: in terms of guitar playing, singing, songwriting and arranging – to a depth of personal experience that I had never heard before. I saved my pocket money, and a short time later I was holding my first album, Cat Steven’s “Tea for the Tillerman”.
(Cat Stevens 1970a)
(Cat Stevens 1970b)
The many songs that were on “Tea for the Tillerman” became the next group of songs I requested my guitar teacher to teach me how to play on the guitar. I spent much of the next year trying to emulate the guitar playing, singing, and feel of these Cat Steven’s songs.
A year later a follow up album came out “Teaser and the Firecat”. I spent much of that year again trying to emulate the guitar playing, singing, and feel of these Cat Steven’s songs. Whilst I don’t feel I ever arrived at being able to play any of Cat Steven’s songs to my satisfaction, I do trust and believe this particular artist’s influence on my development as a music practitioner was significant. Cat Steven’s style had become engrained into my being; into my soul.
(Cat Stevens 1971)
(Cat Stevens 1970c)
I continued to progress with the guitar, but found that I had been drawn somewhat back to the piano through the songs of performers such as Cat Stevens. A number of his songs on both “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat” featured piano as the central instrument. I wasn’t so interested in learning to play the piano, but would spend hours listening – tinkering and experimenting – to the sounds that emanated from it.
I got a Labrador-cross pup for my eleventh birthday. We looked very similar – in that her coat colouring was similar to my skin complexion – fair with freckles. She and I became inseparable over the next five (5) years. As she grew, she would lay at the foot of my bed with one eye open, almost as if she was making sure I was ok. More often that not, I was occupied with any form of music practice.
I would play guitar – strumming the strings, forming chord shapes – and listen to the sounds that would emanate from the wooden body.
I was intrigued with how much change in tone could occur with subtle change in any aspect of my playing – such as my attack with the plectrum – velocity or speed, or the actual thickness or material of the plectrum;
I would focus on my right hand with the forming of chords, moving the angle of my wrist around the back of the neck. The clarity of the note would change as I did this to produce different qualities of sound;
I would try to sing the songs of my favourite artists, trying to emulate the phrasing of the vocal line, the rhythm and harmony of the music playing on old gramophone;
I would tinker on the piano’s ivories, listening to the notes as they rose out of the wooden cabinet:
I noted how these notes varied, depending on how hard I struck each of the keys;
I noted how these notes varied, depending on which foot pedal on the piano I was holding down;
I listened to the resonance of the notes as they sang out, bouncing off and out of the rosewood wooden cabinet, after the piano key hammer had come to rest on a particular string;
I immersed myself listening to a range of productions via the radio, albums, or 45rpm singles. I was in awe – full of wonder, joy and intrigue – listening to the cacophony of music and sonic textures that played out of the speakers;
With every song, I tried to strum out chords on my acoustic guitar along to it; or
I would mimic a live performance, guitar around my neck, standing behind my father’s camera tripod, mounted with a bicycle horn on top as my pretend microphone, strumming away to songs playing on the radio gramophone.
Yes, I could see my audience, I could hear the audience, I could feel the audience.