Unsuk Chin, Total Immersion (Barbican, 9th April)

I was lucky enough to get hold of the Unsuk Chin Total Immersion day before it disappeared from BBC iPlayer this weekend.  Four of her pieces from the event were broadcast: her breakthrough work Acrostic-Wordplay (1991), for soprano and ensemble; Double Concerto (2002), for piano, percussion and ensemble; Gougalon (2009), for ensemble and Rocaná (2008), for orchestra.

The first piece was written after a three-year compositional silence following a traumatic year of study with Ligeti. It was enormously fascinating to hear of Ligeti’s scathing criticism of himself and others and his brusque dismissal of Chin’s already well-received early works. Despite the difficulties of her time with the Hungarian master it was clear that she retains some warmth towards him, a feeling that was clearly reflected in the music, though, as Jonathan Cross pointed out in his illuminating conversations with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, we shouldn’t, perhaps, take these observations too far.

Despite this I couldn’t help falling into this temptation as I listened. The seven-movement Acrostic Wordplay takes texts from Michael Ende’s Endless Story and, a favourite of Ligeti too, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The piece uses the texts very freely and with great humour, evoking not necessarily the sound world, but the playfulness of Ligeti’s Aventures. Ligeti was also fond, even in works of apparently enormous surface complexity, of underpinning his music with easily comprehensible pitch structures. This too was everywhere evident throughout the programme. In each movement of Acrostic Wordplay, for example, there is a very obvious controlling pitch. But Chin’s writing is so dazzling, so colourful, so perfectly judged, that the listener is hardly aware of it, except in the positive sense that it binds the whole together. In a similar vein the Double Concerto felt like an enormous elaboration of a tonic that never entirely disappears and instead provides a welcome foundation for the virtuosic writing throughout the ensemble. Gougalon (Scenes from a Street Theatre) is a reflection of Chin’s Korean roots in that it evokes the street entertainers she remembers when growing up in Seoul. Playfulness is everywhere in evidence in this music too. Take the second movement, Lament of a Bald Singer, for example. Again constructed over one controlling pitch, this is not mushy romantic lamentation; in its crazy downward glissandi, circling woodwind and brass ‘wah-wahs’ this is a wittily sardonic parody of self-pity. The effect is hilarious and wonderful.

The last work, Rocaná (Room of Light) was inspired by ‘beams of light – their distortion, refraction, reflections, and undulations’. A magnificent twenty-minute orchestral tour-de-force, the point of inspiration becomes dazzling rays of sound that distort, reflect and refract around the orchestra. To me, its sudden shifts of state, from ethereal, hypnotic and other-worldly to brash, violent and terrifying, also evoked another acknowledged influence on Chin’s music: the world dreams. To a greater or lesser extent this was also in evidence in the other works I’ve described; as Chin herself says: "My music is a reflection of my dreams. I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colours that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colours floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture.’

The next Total Immersion day will feature the music of Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös at the Barbican on Saturday 14 May.

SMG Guitar Lesson #2: The Five Octave Positions

The following is an excerpt from my “Hello Guitar” Guide to Getting Started

* Note: occasionally in this post, you will see a lower case “b” next to a note name. This means that the note is “flat.”

Given any note or chord, there are only five positions on the guitar neck from which it can be played. This is an incredibly useful tool considering that there are over 3,500 chords and over 550 different scales that can be played on the guitar. Yet, everything you will ever do on the guitar boils down to understanding these five simple positions. These are the five positions from which a given root note is played with at least one other octave. (Root notes are the notes that define a chord or scale at its foundation. For example, in the C Major chord, the root note is the note C, from which, the rest of the chord gets its name.) In this book, I have labelled these as positions one through five. Add them to your warm-up routine and spend as much time as needed to get familiar with them. We’ll be using these positions quite a bit throughout this book as we learn how to construct numerous scales and chords. Position 1 occurs when the root note is located on the top, bottom, and fourth string. 

octave position 1 for guitar

Helpful Tips for position 1:

  • There is one fret in between the root notes on the first and sixth strings and the root note on the fourth string.
  • There is one string in between the root note found on the 6th string and the root note found on the 4th string
  • There are two strings in between the root note found on the 4th string and the root note found on the 1st string.
  • The notes on the top and bottom string of a fret are always the same root note.
  • In the open position, the notes E, F, and F# occur in position 1

SMG Poll: What is Your Favorite Electric Guitar from the 1960s?

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Get to know the OAE: Part 10

This week, we chat to Georgina Cooksley about life as an intern with the OAE…

GeorginaWhat’s your role in the OAE office?

I’m the graduate intern so I get to be involved in all parts of the OAE. Mainly I work with the Projects team organizing and planning concerts but I also liaise with the Communications and Development teams and help the Education team with string club (although I can’t actually play the violin…yet.)

What does your typical day involve?

No two days have been the same here and there’s always a new challenge. One morning I had to dash to the Barbican to deliver Sir Simon Rattle his Tristan and Isolde music and another I’m backstage at the QEH catching Nick Logie with the chocolates or giving out flowers on stage. Most days I’m in the office talking to the players’ on the phone, helping Megan with US visas and E101s, drinking coffee, fixing the photocopier and anything that pops up.

Which mobile number do you call the most?

I text message rather than call people, so the number I probably text the most is my friend Amanda. My mum would be a close second and it’s normally for cooking or cleaning advice.

What – or where – is perfection?

Lying on a beach with your feet buried in the sand, listening to the waves roll along the sand.

What’s your favourite ritual?

Oh dear, this is going to sound bad but I would have to say ‘Friday night wine.’ It’s more about celebrating the end of the week and having a chat and a giggle with your friends over wine. It’s especially good if it’s a New Zealand wine.

Who is your favourite hero from fiction (book/comic/film/opera) – and why?

I don’t necessarily know if she’s considered a hero but my favourite opera character is Carmen. There is something about her hedonistic attitude and inner strength that I admire. She also sings my favourite operatic lyric “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame … He has never known law. If you don’t love me I love you, if I love you watch yourself!” in the Habanera.

What other talent or skill would you like to possess?

I really wish I could either drive a Formula One car or sing like an opera singer, (preferably like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa).

What do you fear the most?

That one day I will wake up and regret not making the most out of life’s opportunities and forcing myself out of my comfort zone.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

That you should always welcome and not be afraid of change. You can plan your life out as much as you like but when you least expect it will shift you into a new direction and out of your comfort zone.

What was the first album you ever bought?

I’m from the Disney generation so my first about was the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast and I must say that 20 years it’s still on high rotation. Wow, I can’t believe it was that long ago!

What is the most played piece of music on your MP3 player or in your CD collection?

It’s equal first for Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Phoenix Love is like a Sunset and Gershwin’s Summertime.

Which OAE concert are you most looking forward to this year?

The Night Shift on 4 May. I love the idea of classical music without the rules and who doesn’t love a good hearty Beethoven Concerto?

What’s been the highlight of your time at OAE so far?

Meeting all the fabulous people in the office and getting to know the musicians…. Oh and working on the Birex reconciliation.

SMG Review: AweSome Musical Instruments’ Telecaster Hyper-Mod™ Control Plate


Innovative products are often conceived when seeking to improve upon an existing design. In the case of Thomas Wnorowski, he recognized that the tonal possibilities residing within his Strat copy fell far short of their potential, so he set out to do something about it. By replacing the standard pickup selector with a series of individual switches, he more than doubled his palette of sounds. Today Thomas boasts a number of mods for getting the most out of one’s axe, a patented Pickup Tone Multiplier™ (PTM) switching system, and a company that lives up to its name: AweSome Musical Instruments. We shared with Thomas a sad tale of a stock Telecaster that only offers three tones. Shaking his head with understanding, he sent over his Telecaster 2-pickup Hyper-Mod™ control plate to break us free from our tonal restrictions.


The entire mod is contained in a single unit. A black acrylic control plate serves as the base for a stacked master volume and tone pot, and three toggle switches. The genius behind the mod, the PTM switching system, is mounted to the bottom of the plate and sits within the control cavity. This unit installs as easily as one can imagine with a solderless connector block replacing the time and trouble of traditional methods requiring soldering tools, a steady hand, and a good dose of patience. I literally had the mod installed within ten minutes and that’s because I took extra time to desolder the leads from the stock plate rather than just clipping them.


A standard Tele offers three tonal pickup options: bridge, neck, and bridge/neck in normal phase wired in parallel. With the Hyper-Mod™, three more possibilities are opened up allowing for the maximum number of configurations from this two-pickup setup: bridge/neck in reverse phase wired in parallel, bridge/neck in normal phase wired in series, and bridge/neck in reverse phase wired in series. With the newly modded Tele running through a Blackheart Little Giant Half Stack and a touch of reverb, I recorded some short passages to give you an idea of the expanded spectrum of sounds.

1. Bridge (stock)

2. Neck (stock)

3. Bridge/Neck Normal Phase Wired in Parallel (stock)

4. Bridge/Neck Reverse Phase Wired in Parallel (mod)

5. Bridge/Neck Normal Phase Wired in Series (mod)

6. Bridge/Neck Reverse Phase Wired in Series (mod)


Be All That You Can Be is a slogan proudly promoted by the US Army. Were it not under their legal jurisdiction, AweSome Musical Instruments would have every right adopting it for their core business which turns the equivalent of guitar caterpillars into fully matured tonal butterflies (work with me here – I’m waxing poetic). I would really like to see the control plate offered in chrome, rather than the singular choice of black acrylic, as it’s more common to stock and I imagine there are others, such as myself, who simply prefer that look, but for the greatest tonal options from your Tele with the least amount of hassle, this is the way to go.

It should be noted that for those of you with 3-pickup Tex-Mex or Nashville Teles, AweSome offers a mod that septuples (7 times!!!) your choices for a total of 35 possible tones.

DIRECT PRICE – $127.97 + shipping

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Guitar Zen: Good Times with Odd Times!

As guitarists we are usually up for a challenge, one of the ways I really like to challenge myself is to wrap my head around odd times.


There are many ways to take a simple riff and syncopate it in order to make it take on a whole new twist. Odd time signatures are not something that should scare off the average musician, after all we are just adding or subtracting beats to make the rhythm shift. The key is to feel the groove of the riff. Whether you are playing in 4, 5 or 7…. what’s going to give presence and power to the riff is getting in the groove. Any riff can be groovy no matter how technically involved it is, but to give it THAT groove, you have to really feel the pulse of the phrase and then give precedence to the 1 or the first note of the beat so that the vibe of the riff is distinguishable.


As guitarists we tend to count differently than drummers or even bassists because we do things like play a pick-up note, or come in half a bar later when dealing with odd times. Remember that music is a language all it’s own. As long as you emphasize the right notes in the segment, you will achieve the goal you are seeking and then afterward, everything will sync up.


Take for instance a simple 4/4 phrase and just chug any chord using quarter notes (CHUG chug chug chug, CHUG chug chug chug). Now lets put a twist on it and add a fifth quarter note then follow it with three quarter notes (so CHUG chug chug chug chug CHUG chug chug). We’ve now effectively played the same number of notes yet we have changed the emphasis of the starting beat. So you can see how (as Mike Myers so non- eloquently put it in the movie A View From The Top) It’s all about putting the right emPHASSIS on the right syLLABLE!

As you can see, shifting the tempo is really a matter of shifting your thinking to accentuate different notes. With this simple concept in mind, anyone can turn Metallica into Meshuggah. So bust a beat and shuffle your feet and once you do you’ll be having GOOD TIMES with ODD TIMES!!!

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Cheltenham Festival Preview

If you want two weeks of great music with some extremely thoughtful programming, the Cheltenham Music Festival (29th June-10th July) could be just the ticket. Aficionados of new music will find plenty to attract them.

Top billing, given that it comes hot-on-the-heels of the critical and popular success of Anna Nicole, goes to a welcome revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera Greek. The piece, a translation of the Oedipus myth into Thatcherite East London, will be given by Music Theatre Wales as part of their wider tour of the work. There are also premières aplenty.

Some of these fit nicely into the festival’s ‘Music and Maths’ theme. The world première of Charlotte Bray’s Replay (June 30th), for example, was inspired by spherical geometry and will be played alongside an established work by Robert Saxton, A Yardstick to the Stars. The two composers will also give one of a number of talks during the festival exploring the ‘Maths and Music’ theme.  The mathematics of metre permeates much of the surface of another well-represented composer at the festival: Steve Reich. Cheltenham provides the opportunity to hear his seminal work Drumming (3rd July) as well as UK premières of new arrangements of Electric Counterpoint, Six Marimbas Counterpoint and Vermont Counterpoint (also 3rd July). Celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie performs in a concert that contains two, as yet unnamed, world premières from Joseph Phibbs and Hannah Kendall (1st July) whilst Arlene Sierra’s new work inspired by scientific studies of insect behaviour, Insects in Amber, will receive its European première by the Carducci Quartet (8th July).

Other premières fall less obviously into the festival’s overall themes, but are no less to be recommended. These include Ian Venables’ Remember This, based upon Andrew Motion’s elegy on the death of the Queen Mother (29th June); Edward Rushton’s Pandora, Organic Machine (10th July); Michael Berkeley’s Ode–In Memoriam (1st July) and, in a special event that will take place on September 11th, Richard Blackford’s substantial new work Not in our Time will mark 10 years since the 9/11 attacks in New York.

My source inside the festival tells me that tickets for the new music events are going quickly. Get yours soon…

For more details about these and other festival concerts visit: http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music.

Tour Diary: Sheffield

A short video from our trip up to Sheffield back in February – a concert which was part of our Green Tour initiative which saw the OAE ditch individual cars in favour of coaches and trains. Though we now know that trains are noisy places in which to film interviews… turn the volume up to hear Ceri at the start! Sadly we didn’t get footage of the venue evacuation, we were too busy wondering what on earth was happening…

SMG Review: EMG’s ST12 Prewired Drop-In Pickguard for Strats


EMG, Inc. is well known throughout the guitar community as a leader in active pickup systems. What you may not know is that the company, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, originated as Dirtywork Studios, then Overlend, before settling on its current name, which is short for ‘electro-magnetic generator’. What you may also not realize is despite a strong reputation for active pickups, EMG also offers a variety of passive pickups. Included in these offerings is the ST12, a complete system designed to drop in to your Strat with minimal fuss.


The ST12 comprises two humbucking OC1 (open coil) pickups: bridge and neck. These are pre-wired and built into a choice of white or black pickguard. Controls include a 3-way pickup selector, master volume, and master tone. Installation is easily managed thanks to EMG’s Quick-Connect system.

With no soldering required and the only wiring requiring replacing the stock input jack with the included replacement jack, installation was a breeze. It literally took me longer to unscrew and pull out the old pickguard than to install the ST12.


Giving the ST12 a test run, I ran the axe through a Blackheart Little Giant Half Stack. The bridge pickup performed with clarity and leanness without ever sounding too bright or thin. True to the signature Strat sound, aggressive picking came through with punch and there was a quality to it that begged to be shifted into overdrive. Flipping to the neck pickup, the tone filled out with a round and heavy bottom end (for those of you who like that kinda thing…). The character came across more mellow but there was still a bit of that punch. Depending on your perspective, blending the two pickups could be thought of as rolling off the lower frequencies of the neck setting for a more balanced tone or inflating the bridge setting with fullness and a more dynamic frequency range. All in all, the ST12 offers three voices different enough from each other to provide versatility while maintaining familiar qualities that provide a cohesive palette of tones within a single unit. A standout quality at all settings is the clarity and quietness. Hum-free is a beautiful thing.


If you’re looking to experiment with different sounds for your Strat and would rather spend more time playing and less time hunched over your work bench with your soldering iron – or worse, paying someone to do it for you – the EMG ST12 is worth a look. Not only can you maintain your stock pickguard as is, it will take you less time and hassle to install the entire unit than replacing a single pickup the old fashioned way.

The sounds are a bit on the generic side, but maintain some classic Fender Strat characteristics. For clean, clear, noise-free output, you can’t do much better than EMG.

Street Price – $189

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OAE Brass on ‘In Tune’

On Wednesday evening brass soloists of the OAE appeared on Radio 3′s In Tune programme, ahead of their concert this evening at Kings Place. While on the programme they played some of the music featured in the concert and also talked to host Petroc Trelawny about it and their instruments. You can view a picture of them in the studio here. As you’ll see, a rogue percussionist sneaked in…You can listen to us on the programme here – it’s about 14.30 into the show. Join them tonight at Kings Place to hear the concert (8.45pm) – and there’s even a free performance afterwards, in the brass section’s natural habitat – the bar.