FOUR NOTES - PAUL’S TUNE
The single of Paul Harvey’s piece Four Notes has been released to support two dementia charities. It is a performance of an orchestrated version of Paul’s original location recording of an improvised piece from Four Notes chosen by his son, the TV composer Nick Harvey ( Portrait Artist of the year, Ross Kemp on…., Hunted, The Heist etc) .
Paul was a Professional musician and then a music teacher. Now in his eighties, he has dementia. Much has been written about him, and his piece, in the print media, and BBC Radio Four picked up the story early on Broadcasting House, the 9am Sunday morning program presented by Paddy O’Connell. BBC Breakfast TV ran with it too and there was an inspiring segment of Paul and Nick talking to ex pupils of Paul who went on to become professional musicians, plus his writing partner for school musicals. Good Morning Britain also featured him and the item has touched many people of many cultures; I spotted an article on the Indian Express website, for example.
This piece and its reception interests me in a number of ways:-
Music and the brain
improvisation and 'the moment'
music and its place in society
Music and the Brain
In his book ‘Musicophilia’, Oliver Sacks claimed that if you presented him with four brains, one of which was a musician’s, he would be able to identify it. This is due to the increased intracranial foam. The same can be said of brain scans of musicians. It is normal for most people to be able to ‘hear’ music in their heads. So when you read ‘Eleanor Rigby’ I expect that song by the Beatles comes to mind and then you can switch to ‘Eastenders’. Much like our sense of smell can reach us very directly and catch us off guard (we must all have caught a whiff of a fragrance that reminds us of an old flame), our hearing can do the same and music can take us back to the summer when we were 16 (unless you are a 14 year old reading this!).
I don’t know how many people can conceive of new music in their heads. Even amongst composer friends of mine, it is hard for us to pin down what happens in our brains when writing and thinking in music. Learning to improvise has some similarities to learning a language. First you learn the building blocks, then you learn the cliches (the “only time will tell’, ‘it was a game of two halves’ of music) and eventually you learn to express new ideas and discuss them in music. This is particularly true in joint improvisation, settings like Jazz or Indian classical music. Music is not a language, of course - good luck if you ring up a local Ilalian restaurant and play slide guitar and ukelele expecting get an Hawaian pizza! Music does communicate, however, in ways beyond language that can be profound. It is no accident that many religions use music.
Paul’s ability to improvise on four notes presented to him falls into that category of improvisation that church organists around the country pull off when ‘extemporising’ on a hymn tune to fill in the time that is needed in services. As a 14 year old, I was very fortunate to be in a choir lead by Roger Sayer (the organist from ‘Interstellar’) who is a phenomenal improviser and he certainly inspired me to learn improvisation.
In jazz, when you are really firing on all cylinders as an improviser, you feel connected to the music and your fellow musicians in a very special way similar perhaps to what some in sport call ‘the zone’. In cricket, for example, the feeling that you have more time as a batsman or can put the ball exactly where you want to as a bowler. Mindfulness practitioners will also know the concept as the ability to reach a state of calm focus. A similar state often comes to improvisers and sportspeople.
Music happens in the moment. It is vibrations in the air that get picked up by the ear and are then interpreted by the brain. Recordings give us the impression that music can be a solid thing but in reality it is an illusion. Live recordings are sometimes problematic, particularly of quiet music, and I expect people in the audience of a concert that is recorded are quite surprised they don’t remember all that ‘noise’ surrounding a performance. This is due to the fact that microphones do not have brains attached to them, unlike our ears which can ignore unwanted sounds. This phenomenon is why you can focus your attention on the person you are conversing with in a busy restaurant. Dementia may rob you of the ability to remember things but it seems not to rob you of ‘the moment’. This is perhaps why Paul can still improvise as the moment is what he is focusing on; the micro seconds before and the microseconds ahead are his only concern.
I happen to be Nick Harvey’s orchestrator. We are currently working on two projects and it is always a great pleasure to work together creatively. Four Notes was presented to the world first as a piano piece and secondly as a sort of piano concerto with the backing of the BBC Philharmonic. The orchestration for paul's Tune was done by a member of the orchestra, one of the bass players named Dan Whibley who did a great job. I think he manages the orchestra excellently. I especially liked the use of the trumpet as a lyrical instrument and the choice of when that came in. I also thought the shape was perfect the introduction of the orchestra after the piano statement ( like a Mozart slow movement) was spine tingling.
This is a perfect example to explain the concept of orchestration. The form and basic content remained the same but the composition was ‘coloured in’ by the orchestrator, enhancing the shape of the original, bringing new focus and colour to the piece. It expanded a piano miniature amplifying its emotional contours. It helps that the orchestration retained the original piano, although not the grand piano Paul would have played in his previous life as a concert pianist, and the orchestration grows slowly until the piano is no longer audible. Then the piano returns to round off the proceedings. The orchestrator will sometimes add supporting material, like the solo violin at the end. When I heard Four Notes was going to be orchestrated, I obviously imagined how I would do it. Every orchestrator would have done it slightly differently but I think all would have ended up with something quite similar to the final result. I think a good job was done and I only have one point that I feel I would have approached in another way: in the final beautiful rising section at the end, I would have gone more with a Verdi or Puccini like lightness, probably just four violins and high woodwinds. The very last chord in Paul's piano version is not resolved: to me that is very poignant; and is also the final statement of the four notes, I would have finished on that, probably stated by a solo French horn joined by the section on the last note but stopped, giving a muted sound, over a light shimmering string texture. Returning to an earlier point, if you can imagine that difference then you have the mind’s ear of an orchestrator. I must add this is not a criticism of Dan's work but rather a personal subjective choice.
Music and its place in society
Music is present in all forms of human society and much has been discussed recently about comments from Government ministers that musicians should retrain. Music is not like VHS tape; it has not become almost redundant in a new digital world; in fact much of the new digital world is built on its back. Many musicians in these COVID-19 times have been hit very hard.BBC musicians in the multiple orchestras have been lucky enough to be employed, but a majority of players in this country are not, but on short term contracts or freelance. The hospitality sector is a huge employer of musicians of all styles and these venues have been closed or running reduced seating and hours and can’t afford more than the absolute essentials of staff. Larger venues have been helped and many musicians have had some support but i know plenty who have had nothing.
I think Paul’s tune has touched people for many reasons. It is always impressive when someone apparently conjures music out of thin air, and even more so in a dementia sufferer. I think he has given hope to many who suffer from or know people who suffer from dementia. I would describe the style of his improvisation as from the Romantic period, a kind of Instant Elgar, a musical language people can relate to as it has informed film and TV music. It is also a music of big emotions - think of Max Steiner’s Gone With the Wind - and a music of nostalgia to some degree.
What is the value of music? Can we live without it? I suggest that music is so central to our lives that we take it for granted that it will always be there. It is easy to forget that people make a living from creating music. The streaming services and the way copyright law has lagged behind the digital platforms has resulted in a marketplace where it is very hard for the the musicians to make money but very easy for the platforms and publishers to grow rich. What does Paul’s life and music show us? It shows me that a life in music can be very positive for society and for the people making it. I was lucky to have inspirational teachers at state school and college. A good music teacher inspires pupils and builds community through ensembles, concerts and tours as a part of a school’s life. My son is not particularly focused on music but still sings in the school choir, despite not having to, and has been involved in some wonderful concerts in the UK and abroad. Let us remember that for all those at the top, there are thousands beneath them, just like football from the Premier League down to local football clubs. Let us celebrate the choirs and music outreach projects (like Music in Hospitals) that bring joy to so many.
Finally ( and excuse my French) lets ’stream the arse off’ Four Notes now it is launched, or even better buy the track, gift the track and donate to charities that support dementia and music, if we are in a position to do so.