Wednesday, 18 November 2009

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...

We're probably all aware about the various campaigns across our planet to conserve and preserve nature and most of them are absolutely right and proper. However, some, fighting under the general banner 'save the rainforests', are, methinks, taking things a tad too far...

In case you hadn't heard, the Gibson guitar corporation – arguably one of the most famous makers of musical instruments in the world – was raided yesterday by the feds; and they were looking for... wood. Yep, wood. Now, I admit that I don't know the ins and outs of this particular instance, but I gather that it revolves around whether some Madagascan rosewood the company are (allegedly) using was imported legally. It's a grey area, apparently, as the Madagascan forests are of prime concern to conservationists, but the country's new president seems to have upset the apple-cart by proclaiming the export of this very sought-after wood perfectly legal. Or something. I'm not really here to speculate on this case in particular, more the clamp down on the use of so-called 'naughty wood' in the manufacture of guitars in general.

I've watched from a distance as the whole debate of what you can and can not use as a bodywood these days has raged and, somewhat predictably, turned into a bureaucratic mess of muddled thinking. Fair enough, let's stop the illegal cutting down of trees in South America by legislating against its use in furniture and musical instruments – but what about instruments that were made well before the conservationists began to raise the red flag? I personally own an instrument which contains Brazilian Rosewood – the naughtiest of all naughty woods – but it was cut down prior to 1941 and I have a certificate to prove it. Trouble is it's only effective in Europe. If I want to take the guitar to the US I have to apply for a certificate so that I can get the guitar through customs without having it seized – and that takes 90 days, apparently. The onus is on the owner to prove that the wood used in his or her instrument is legal and, as you can imagine, that's a tough call in many instances.

The interesting thing is that violinists, cellists, viola and double bass players all use bows made from a very rare and extremely naughty wood (pernambuco from Brazil) and at first, the 'wood police' were on standby to pounce on any unsuspecting orchestra's string section with sap-lust in their eyes. Trouble is, they were outnumbered and, realising that they would have to seize virtually every single bow on the planet, decided to give this particular wood immunity. Not fair, right?

So, your 1958 Martin Dreadnought with Brazilian rosewood back and sides will be impounded unless you can prove that the guy who cut the tree it was made from had legal rights to do so, but the symphony orchestra walks straight through customs without a care. See what I mean about a bureaucratic mess?

It needs sorting... soon. Guitar manufacturers are doing their bit by sourcing sustainable woods but vintage and 'old wood' guitars are never going to go away and so they need some sort of agreement here, too. And what are the wood police going to do with all their impounded instruments? Burn them? It makes me shudder to think about it...

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Studio Log: Days Three and Four

I need to fill in a bit of background to this studio log entry. Bear with me!

Sometimes a composition takes years to come to maturity. A long time ago, I'm guessing that it would be around three years ago, I went over to the studio to record some music that I hoped to punt to an agency who deals with film music. One of the compositions I took with me back then proved too hard to 'let go'; I felt it had a bit more life to it than to see it spend its days waiting for a director to pick it up and use it for some anonymous purpose. I came over all possessive, y'see...

So when I knew I was recording a new CD, I immediately thought of this particular tune and how I should seize the opportunity to at last give it wings and let it fly. But its metamorphosis wasn't quite done, because when I said I wanted to use it, producer Martin Holmes said he thought I should play it on classical guitar as per the original session and not on steel string as I had intended. The thing is, I've been playing the tune on steel string for the past three years or so and so I had got used to hearing it that way, but Martin's major point of reference was those original sessions.

Now, never let it be said that I don't respond to ideas and so I practised the piece on nylon string (an Admira Elena-E) and went over to the studio to record it. It turns out that Martin was right; the fragility and vulnerability that the classical guitar brings to the piece breathes new life into it.

So far so good, but there was another element on those original sessions. Back then, I was in the studio with a double bass player called Ken Knussen, someone I've known since we were at school together. We both had professional music in our sights back then but Ken went into classical music and is now a very busy freelance player. So I called Ken and he was able to fit a session for me into his incredibly hectic schedule.

We haven't mixed the recording yet, but it's safe to say that the piece which has the working title 'Come Find Me' has changed yet again, Ken's bass offering another dimension, not to mention a new counter-melody.

I'm wrestling with the idea of expanding it still further by adding strings, but we're adopting an 'acoustic only' policy and so it's quite likely that we'll be wrangling some faded-in guitar chords to sound like a violin section instead.

I think it will sound grand and can't wait to get back over to the studio to add the final touches.