Monday, February 22, 2016

Marcus William Turner, 16th February 1956 — 2nd February 2016

New Zealand folk music icon and former children's television presenter Marcus Turner died suddenly at his Dunedin home just shy of his 60th birthday.

Born to English immigrant parents in Roxburgh, Marcus grew up with his younger brother and sister, Linus and Marcella, in the small East Otago village of Karitane. Both his parents were psychiatric nurses at the then Cherry Farm Mental Hospital, where he himself sometimes worked. He became head boy at East Otago High School and majored in Zoology at Otago University, graduating with honours in 1978.

Marcus started work in television for the NZBC, initially in front of the camera – most notably as a presenter of the children's programme Spot On – then as a producer, writer and director of Play School and the inspirational children's natural history programme Wildtrack. In later years he worked in the Natural History Unit of Television New Zealand, where he remained through all its iterations to the overseas-owned NHNZ of today. He was highly respected as a researcher, writer, director and producer.

It was through his television work that he met his wife, Anne Hewton, then a production assistant, and together they moved to London briefly in the late 80s where Marcus would try to make his mark on the international folk music scene.

From his earliest university days he became involved in folk music, singing and learning to play a prodigious number of instruments. He was a member on Dunedin's first bush band, The Ginger Minge Binge Bush Band performing at barndances around Otago and had a regular spot at the Law Courts Hotel in the late 70s. However, it was his prowess as a gifted songwriter that would bring him to the attention of a far wider audience.

Since the unlikely minor hit single of his satirical Civil Service Song in the early 80s, he gained international recognition with performances at New Zealand, Australian and British festivals, coming to the attention of many other performers who have covered his songs: most notably Irish singer Andy Irvine who recorded his astounding When the Boys Are On Parade, a cunningly woven protest song that leaves the listener in some doubt as to which side they should be on:

“You may well prefer abstention,
But I feel compelled to mention,
You'd do well to pay attention,
When the boys are on parade.”

All over the world people are singing his Spider in the Bath song and “When you're feeling down the best way up is chocolate...” His concert performances were legendary for his humour and wit, both in and around his songs and his ability to take his audience on a roller-coaster ride of emotion. He was something of a linguistic virtuoso as his song lyrics will attest.

While living and performing in London, Marcus came quickly to the realisation that he didn't have the stomach for the highly competitive and sometimes acrimonious performance world of English folk clubs and returned to New Zealand to raise a family and resume his television career, with music as an important sideline. He and Anne took up residence in their Macandrew Bay home where they remained for the rest of their lives. Anne died in 2014 after a long illness.

For all his considerable output, Marcus recorded only two albums: the LP The Best is Yet to Come in the early 80s and more recently the CD Laid Down. For a quarter of a century, he was a member of the innovative string band The Chaps and made three recordings with them, all of which contain songs written by him. The band toured Europe in 2003 and 2006 and played at many festivals throughout New Zealand, although Marcus carried on his solo career as well.

Over his adult life, Marcus acquired a huge array of traditional folk instruments from all around the world and could play them all to some degree, and often performed the traditional music and songs associated with them. He was nothing if not authentic.

Marcus was a founder and life-long member of the New Edinburgh Folk Club, spending several early years on its committee in all capacities. He was a guest at the club's most recent Whare Flat Folk Festival, its 40th,,where he debuted a number of fine songs that he was planning to record and take with him on a tour of Germany scheduled in September. For all his charismatic stage presence, he was in reality a quiet and unassuming person, exceedingly humble and a gentleman in every sense of the word.

He was an early adopter of the internet, setting up and maintaining with the author a New Zealand folk music discussion forum and a website ( that is a directory of the NZ folk music scene since 1993.

Living on his beloved Otago Peninsula, he found no shortage of inspiration in the natural world around him, with a cynical eye for its future. He had an inquisitive nature and a thirst for knowledge his whole life, learning several languages and teaching himself computer programming, making him all the more valuable to his colleagues at NHNZ as they broadened their markets across the world. He had a particular love for, and  a deep knowledge of penguins. He kept hens, just because he liked them.

Marcus is survived by his daughters Cushla (25) and Maura (20).

This obituary is presented here as submitted to the Otago Daily Times - Mike Moroney.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Neil Colquhoun; Reanimating NZ Folk Song

Collector, composer and publisher Neil Colquhoun, regarded by some as the the father of New Zealand folk song, died on Wednesday, 29th October 2014. Tony Vercoe, former manager, owner, producer: Kiwi Records/Kiwi Pacific Records Ltd, 1959-1989, writes:

The first Kiwi Records catalogue, of 15 pages, was published by A H & A W Reed in 1959. At Page 8 are described and illustrated two 7-inch extended play discs, featuring the Song Spinners directed by Neil Colquhoun: Cat. Nos M3I-1 “Songs of the Whalers”, and M3I-2  “Songs of the Gold Diggers”. 
The initially small Kiwi Records division had been set up by Reeds to reflect in audio terms what the parent company was attempting in the book publishing field – to present a perception of New Zealand activities, attitudes and life. It’s to the credit of the then New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS) that in those early days they had recognized the value of Colquhoun’s work and were prepared through a licensing arrangement with Reeds to enable the programmes to be published on Kiwi discs. 
I had been working as a programmes producer at NZBS during the 50s but was invited in that same year (1959) to join the Reed company, to manage and develop the Kiwi Records catalogue. It was an opportunity and challenge I could not resist.
Neil Colquhoun already had a third programme of New Zealand folk songs in preparation, and I remember, when attending a pre-recording rehearsal, being struck by several things: that from a small place such as Levin was then, he’d been able to muster so persuasive a group of amateur singers and instrumentalists; that under his quiet direction their commitment and discipline clearly were absolute, and that from quite sketchy original sources he’d been able to reconstruct complete songs and to arrange parts for his singers and instrumentalists which merged and flowed beautifully. This new collection was “Songs of the Gumdiggers”, which we recorded for Kiwi Records in Wellington’s Lotus Studio, Victoria Street, Frank Douglas being the audio engineer. 
In his scholarly treatise In Search of Native Song - traditional folksong collecting in New Zealand ( Michael Brown identifies the historian James Cowan as sounding, shortly pre-WWI, a timely signal about the need to search for and document New Zealand folksong. The alert was later taken up by Mona Tracy, Rona Bailey, Herbert Roth, Neil Colquhoun, Les Cleveland, among others. 
Other Song Spinners recordings followed, and my cooperation with Neil culminated in the major double-LP album project Song of a Young Country (Kiwi SLC-101/102), this being his collection of New Zealand folk songs and recorded by a group of performers including Neil himself, Marilyn Bennett, and Phil Garland along with others. Together with the associated Reed book New Zealand Folk Songs it was published in 1970. 
Among the contributory collectors and performers mentioned, I believe and hope that of all his work, Neil Colquhoun’s unique and salutary achievement, back in the 1950s, of breathing life into fading, almost forgotten relics from our past should stand as his essential memorial.
Tony Vercoe

Neil is survived by his wife Barbie, 3 children, 3 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

You Need a Building Permit for that Tent

Things we used to do without a second thought while running a concert or a festival event are now subject to inexplicable amounts of red tape and compliance costs. Along with the now obligatory food handling certificates, bar licences, OneMusic licence and public liability insurance; we now find (after 39 years of doing the same thing) we need a building permit to erect and use our marquee. What follows is an open letter from Camp Mother as he set about the endeavour.

Seán Manning
December 2013

It was a surprise to discover that we needed a permit from the Council to put up a tent. Admittedly, it is a big tent. We were hiring it, as usual, for an annual music festival, as we had been doing for decades, and were going, as usual, to get it erected by the hire company at the Scout camp near the city for an event over New Year. On my first visit to the Council, on 28 November, I discovered that the regulations had not changed, they just had not been enforced in previous years. That was about to change.

A very helpful chap confirmed the need for a permit and gave me a neat package of forms to fill in, telling me I would need a fire siren and exit signs and emergency procedures. He also said that with an expected 20 working day turnover, I was out of luck if I wanted it before Christmas, and the Council were closed then until 6 January. I must have looked a bit odd at that point so he suggested that I fill in the form anyway and talk to C, a senior person who would help with any difficulties. I decided to talk to C before I left the building, so I asked the helpful receptionist and was invited to take a seat while C ‘came down’. I thought the fact that he lived upstairs was good. C was indeed helpful, telling me to get the application lodged and it would be alright. Someone would come and inspect the site beforehand. The forms, I discovered, were designed for builders, with lots of check - lists about compliance codes that made little sense to an amateur wanting to put up a tent. Nevertheless, I filled in what I could and returned to the Council office.

On the second visit I found that I had filled the form incorrectly – I was the ‘agent’, not the ‘owner’ – and had to come up with a figure for the value of the building work. I kept thinking, ‘It’s a tent, I don’t know what it’s worth,  we are hiring it’. The helpful chap suggested the cost of the hire would do, and also said I needed plans of the site. The site is enormous – 35 hectares – so we decided that a view downloaded from Google Maps might serve. I also needed to show the location of toilets,  permanent and temporary,  and indicate whether they were wheelchair accessible, and show where the nearest boundary was. I thought of going out to the Scout camp with a very long tape measure struggling through the bush to find the nearest fence, but I was calmed by the suggestion that I just hazard a guess. Off I went again.

On the map I found on the internet, I drew the tent as a tiny square in the middle of a small paddock in the middle of 35 hectares of bush. I used a Google calculator to estimate that the nearest fence was two hundred meters away. Back to the Council,  feeling pretty good, with form, map and EFT-­-POS card in hand. It was Friday at 2.30. I had an appointment with the dental hygienist at 3.00. I thought half an hour should do it.

The pleasant receptionist instructed me to sit on the bench – a couple of single-­- bed sized black vinyl covered surfaces. Maybe people needed to lie down sometimes, I thought. There were people in business-­-like conversations at all the desks. I sat down beside another chap who was waiting. ‘Musical chairs’, he said. I asked what he meant. He asked if I had one of these– indicating a yellow sheet he was holding. I said no, and he said then I had to go to that desk first, get my yellow slip, then queue for this desk (the one he was waiting for),then queue for the cashier. ‘Musical chairs’, he said again. He was very calm, and obviously had been here before, and I felt thankful that I had sat beside someone who knew what was what. The purpose of the vinyl beds was becoming clear. After waiting 15 minutes for the first desk, realising a lot more than half an hour would be needed,  I left, intending to return later.

After the dental hygienist had cleaned me up,  I returned to the Council for the fourth time, with a renewed sense of purpose. The first desk was free. I sat down and a very helpful lady went through my form and my map. She said it was good, but I needed two copies. Possibly noting a look on my face, she offered to make another copy. It was only ten pages. Then I learned that we would need a site inspection after the tent was erected, the exit signs and fire alarm installed. When I said we were putting the tent up during a holiday (I don’t know why it is strange to put up a tent in the holidays, but in this world, it is) there was a consultation with colleagues and I was informed that the inspection would go ahead but it would cost extra. I also learned that there would be a permit, another certificate when the site was inspected, and a third ‘Compliance Certificate’ when it was dismantled.

I got my yellow slip and the next desk was by that time free too, which I thought were good signs – I was reading signs by this time – and this was so that the application could be lodged. First inspection, then lodgement, two tasks, two people, two desks. This lady, just as pleasant and helpful as everyone else, calculated that the cost would $425. No, wait a minute,$435 – an extra $10 for the photocopying at a dollar a sheet. I thought, the library next door charges 20 cents, but I didn’t say that. I though it would not be useful. My EFT-­-POS card at the ready, I was directed to the cashier – ‘Just pop over there and say who you are and they will give you a receipt and then you can go.’ Three tasks, three people, three desks – inspection, lodgement, payment. Musical chairs -­- I was getting the hang of it. As it turned out, I knew the cashier and it was nice to be recognised and see a familiar face.

Actually, everyone I met at the Council was friendly, helpful and encouraging. I don’t have a bad word for any of them. The thing is, I agree with exit signs, fire alarms, all that. These things are useful, they really do make everything safer and sometimes save lives. I have no problem obeying a few simple rules. All I needed was information about what to do. The permit, however, does nothing to improve safety. By the time I left the Council office that Friday, I had spoken to 6 different people over four visits, and spent several hours getting information, filling in forms and waiting. None of this improved anyone’s safety. As to the cost, of course, the time and energy of all those genuinely helpful people costs money. I won’t carp about the copying or the extra for the inspection because it is a holiday. I don’t know why these regulations are now being so enthusiastically enforced – there has been a change in attitude. Maybe Christchurch has something to do with it. We live in an age of increasing regulation, and maybe that is a good thing, but really, 6 people, four visits, four hundred dollars, for what? Give me a list of things to do, by all means come and see that I have done them, but the permit, the certificates, the forms, none of that adds to anybody’s well being.

Having learned a lot I emerged from the building that Friday afternoon to find I had a $40 parking ticket. At that point it seemed the most natural thing in the world. As did another form – for public use of a building -­- which arrived by email the following Monday with a polite note saying I should have been asked to fill it in when I was there. I filled it in and sent it off, noting that it added no further information to what had already been supplied. I don’t yet know how much the site visit will cost.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Now is the Time for All Good Folk...

On the eve of the inevitable passing the GCSB and TIC Amendment bills, it's worth remembering, in the protest sense, we've been here before. We are poised to enter a new era of McCarthyism where investigative journalism is declared by our own defence force to be subversive activity, where to highlight lies that may be told to us by our government and its agencies is classed as "hostile" threats requiring "counteraction". It is only a matter of time before protest singers and songwriters will fall under the gaze, or worse, of the authorities. From Wikipedia:
On August 18, 1955, Pete Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead (as the Hollywood Ten had done) refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Seeger's refusal to testify led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
What he is talking about; associations, beliefs, votes and other private affairs, is what we are now calling "metadata".

Just as for Pete Seeger, a certain amount of bravery and sacrifice may yet be required to stem the tide. Let's be absolutely clear, this legislation is depriving us of certain freedoms we have hitherto enjoyed (supposedly) and infringes upon our human rights. Although Labour leader David Shearer has stated that a Labour government would undertake "a thorough review of the spying agency", he somewhat misses the point. Repeal the bill should be his bottom line. That he won't commit to this suggests there is something more at stake. What are we afraid of? It's time to put the taiaha in the sand as we did with our nuclear-free stance during a more gutsy political era. There's no celebration in being nuclear-free wimps.

I've always found songs like We Shall Overcome a little trite but I'm realising now that that's because they were songs out of place. I imagine to be singing the slow anthem en masse in the middle of the American Civil Rights movement would a powerful thing indeed. A simple message, simply stated. It's worthwhile remembering this as we pen our responses to becoming corporate America's puppet yet again. And put your protest songs in the Creative Commons. Copyleft. Then stand up and sing out. Because a hard rain's gonna fall.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Had to Leave a Little Girl in Kingston Town

Lord Invader
An occasional epistle from singer/songwriter, Phil Corfield.

This was the first line in a song, to capture me. Who was the little girl and why was she being left in Kingston Town? I felt sad. I couldn't work it out. The voice that sang these words was so beautiful. Was the girl his little girl, or was she someone he was looking after? Where was Kingston? I hadn't heard of such a place and I hadn't heard anybody who sounded like the man in this song. Harry Belafonte, 'The King Of Calypso', was born in 1927 in Harlem, New York. His mother was of Jamaican descent and his father came from Martinique, another island in the Caribbean. Between 1932 and 1940 the boy lived with his grandmother in Jamaica. In 1957 RCA Victor released Harry's album 'Calypso'. That was the year I first heard 'Jamaica Farewell'. I was six and I heard it on the radio.

'Calypso' was the first album in America to sell a million copies in a year and the first million seller in England. Calypso music developed in Trinidad in the 17th. century, combining African rhythms brought to the island by slaves and probably French medieval rhythms and harmonies. The slaves, separated from their families and banned from speaking to one another, used Calypso songs to communicate with one another and mock their slave-masters. Calypso has a long history as protest music and also speaks of sex scandals, gossip, local news, bravado and was used to insult other practitioners of Calypso music. Rap and Hip Hop, which came about 350 years later, cover the same ground. 

However the music on Belafonte's album 'Calypso' is not Calypso, it's Jamaican 'Mento'. Calypso was popular in America from about 1912, way before Mento. 'The Andrews Sisters' had a hit with the Calypso song 'Rum and Coca Cola' in 1944. This song was stolen from a Trinidadian calling himself Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) . Lord Invader brought a legal case in New York in an attempt to reclaim his song. He didn't get his copyright back but after seven years he received compensation. When Harry's first album was released the album was promoted as Calypso because Calypso was already commercially popular and therefore easier to sell. Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music typically played with acoustic guitar, hand drums, banjo and rhumba box ( you can sit on this box and play it with your hands to produce bass). The music was brought to Jamaica by African slaves and was influenced by the European songs slaves were required to play to their masters on European instruments. Usually written in a humorous style, the music often commented on poverty, poor housing and sex. Mento influenced Ska and Reggae. The Jamaican musician Lee Scratch Perry's 1976 Dub album 'Super Ape' includes pure Mento influences

Back in 1957 in Narrabeen (Sydney), my family was visiting a friends place. She lived in a house made of concrete. The rooms had thick, blue painted walls, unadorned, cave-like and in the day full of sunlight. The balcony overlooking Narrabeen Lagoon was also solid concrete. On a warm summers night looking over the water listening to 'Jamaica Farewell', Narrabeen became Jamaica.
Phil Corfield.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Of Cassettes and Kludges.

A couple of years ago a friend brought to me some much loved cassette tapes of original songs that her husband had recorded in the 80's.  She asked if I could transfer them to CD; she would make a cover and present the "album" to him for his birthday. Easy. I would knock it out that afternoon.

I do stuff like this quite often and have retained a Yamaha cassette tape deck as part of my rig for just such jobs. Actually, it's a dual transport tape-to-tape recorder which is significant, as we will see.

I set up a project folder on my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation - a fancy name for an ordinary desktop computer that's set up for recording) and using an old version of Steinberg Wavelab, started to record the analogue tracks. Side one, first tape. Sounds very odd in the monitors. A low frequency, grinding rhythm track. Aha, I thought, turned the tape over and had my suspicions confirmed: a deep, bassy set of backward vocals. Literally backwards. Like a song being unsung.

I realised that these tapes were the multi-track originals from a four-track recording device popularised by the likes of Teac and Fostex in the 80's - before digital recording was an affordable proposition for us mere mortals. Although they used a standard cassette tape, their format was (usually) to run the tape at twice the normal speed for better fidelity and use both stereo tracks in the same direction, giving four individual tracks. This enabled the layered recording of 4 individual instruments or vocals. With judicious planning, you could even record 3 tracks and mix them down to the 4th track and record three more! It was a clever, if inelegant use of a less-than-ideal medium and offered the creative musician the ability to explore arrangements and make demo tapes, albeit a low-fi and often frustrating affair.

I quickly ascertained that the source machine had long since been put out of its misery, rendering these tapes rather useless. Unless...

I mentioned that my cassette deck was a tape-to-tape machine. It offered something called "high speed dubbing" - essentially recording one tape to another at twice the speed, to halve the time it took. Although I hadn't used this facility in several decades, I remembered that you could monitor the Chipmunk-sounding audio as it dubbed. I hatched a plan.

I dug out a surplus C90 cassette as a dummy to record to: not to use, just to allow the high-speed dubbing feature to work. Sure enough, the A-side audio now sounded "normal". I recorded this stereo (or more correctly, 2 track) output to Wavelab on my computer. When this was done, I turned the tape over and recorded tracks 3 and 4 - which, of course, were backwards.

One of the hitherto fairly useless tools in Wavelab is the ability to reverse audio. This I did to tracks 3 and 4 and, voila! I now had four tracks of audio, prettymuch as they would've sounded on the original machine. (In fact it wasn't quite that simple; they sounded all compressed and "woozy", then I remembered these machines often used a filtering process known as Dolby C to help with tape noise and deteriorating trebles. Fortunately my deck has Dolby C. I switched it on and did it all again and the wooziness was fixed.)

I was amazed at how complex the original recording was: beds of percussion and synthesizer, guitars and vocals with cathedral-like reverbs. Remixing this was going to be rudimentary at best; instruments that were "bounced" to the same track could not be separated and aggressive effects could not be ameliorated. (Actually, there are tools that can do this sort of thing now, but it's way outside of my domain.) I chopped up the audio into separate songs and split the stereo pairs into individual tracks, normalised them (made them the same volume), added some equalisation and noise reduction (to reduce the inevitable tape hiss), repaired one or two glitches then saved all the files.

Next I pulled the files into my multitrack software (I use Reaper. You should too.) and aligned the four tracks with each other for each song. I spent the next few days mixing all the tracks down and while I was quite chuffed with the fact that I'd achieved a modest result with the help of a few unorthodox kludges, it was nothing compared to how stunned the recipient was when he heard his long-abandoned endeavours of 20 years before in full digital glory!

Dedicated to Andrew and Anna.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The New Old School

The folk club is losing its traditional domain. And by traditional I mean folk club, not music. "Folk" is the new hip word bandied about by pop singers and talent shows. Mostly it seems to mean a rock band with a banjo in it. It probably started with The Pogues and has arrived at Mumford and Sons - both excellent bands in their own eras (I discount the earlier folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span because their repertoire was folk music but they were true rock bands). This is a bit of a Brit-centric view, I admit: American culture seems to have no need of a folk uber-category as blues, country, old-time, bluegrass and more have always transcended traditional boundaries and remained relevant and contemporary in the mainstream American musical culture (or so it seems to me from my antipodean armchair). I also suspect that the "folk club" is largely a British contrivance whereas the American genesis seemed to be the coffee house.

Most New Zealand folk clubs are not significantly different today from the club I joined over 30 years ago. Important aspects seem to be that local performers are enjoyed and respected and they provide a platform for visiting artists from time to time. With an ever-increasing cohort of touring artists on the road at any one time there's stiff competition for audiences and well run venues. It's not unusual for highly polished acts to be playing tiny venues to small audiences. This more intimate atmosphere is not without its charm - it's certainly better than playing an old style booze barn with nobody listening. Most folk clubs (with the notable exception of Devonport and its legendary Bunker) operate out of such a venue; a cafe or bar, or occasionally a community hall or sports club. Some run house concerts. But whatever the format, the club always consists of a willing bunch of volunteers who organise and facilitate these events.

Apart from the mainstream appropriation of "folk", the folk club is also losing its traditional domain insomuch as it is not the only game in town where acoustic music is concerned and, conversely, benefits from being part of the big loose network of small venues and acoustic artists throughout the country. Acts for whom once the very thought of performing at a folk club was anathema to them are now engaging comfortably with clubs that once might have thought the same of them too. And both are better for it in my view.

However, it remains to the folk club to uphold the tenets of music, tradition and community that keeps it a parish of appreciation and endeavour: to provide the opportunity and encouragement to beginning and aspiring players and singers. Only by cultivating the culture of folk music (whatever that is) do we ensure that there will be audiences worthy of the artists they bring, banjo or not.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Negative Feedback a Positive Thing

I've long been fascinated with the concept of negative feedback since my my technician training days. Wikipedia tells us:
"Negative feedback occurs when the result of a process influences the operation of the process itself in such a way as to reduce changes. Negative feedback tends to make a system self-regulating it can produce stability and reduce the effect of fluctuations."
 In short, by applying a percentage of the output of some system or process in a negative or subtractive way to the input, you get a smaller but more useful result. In electronics (bear with me) for example, it is possible to achieve amplification levels of many thousand times the input signal, but at a single, limited and unstable frequency, making it unsuitable for, say, audio. Take some of the output and apply it out-of-phase (cancelling out) to the input and you have a modest amplification level of say, ten times the input and a useful frequency range.

Negative feedback is used routinely in mechanical systems around your house: thermostats, ballcocks, daylight switches and more. It occurs everywhere in nature too. Diabetes, for example, is the failure of the body's negative feedback loop to control glucose levels.

Another Whare Flat Folk Festival is behind us and by many measures, a most successful one. Weather near perfect, good turnout and above all, great artists and music. If we think of the people coming in to the festival as the system input and the smooth, satisfactory consumption of music and dance as the output, one area in which we have developed a massive, potentially unstable peak is in teenage attendance which this year was the largest ever, close to that of all other ages combined. The vast majority of these teens are delightful contributors to the life of the event but, of course, there are always one or two spoilers that have a disproportional effect on the output, especially from the point-of-view of the organisers. So, what of the output can be looped back into the input to good effect?

The burgeoning teen attendance is largely due to the positive feedback elements of word-of-mouth and social networking. It has been through monitoring social networking that we have learned of security loopholes that some have been taking advantage of. Negative feedback applied. Various vagaries in our our publicity material has lead to creative interpretations of the rules for attendance. Review and clarify. Negative feedback applied. The trick is to suppress the peaks that cause instability while reinforcing the mainstream flow. In an ideal system the fluctuations in the input are regulated in real time by the application of the feedback elements - a bit tricky in a three day festival event without disruption to all involved.

Filtering at the input (say, rejecting teens with alcohol) is one way of suppressing an undesirable element but it needs to be acknowledged that while the output elements of audience satisfaction and operational smoothness are improved, it is at the expense of festival profit.

Like any system or process, elements constantly need fine tuning for smooth running. This is why the best organisations have robust complaints procedures. Complaint resolution is not just for the satisfaction of the complainant, if used correctly it is the negative feedback loop that suppresses further complaints and enhances the organisation's effectiveness. The corollary to this is the Roadrunner/Wyle E Coyote approach where each failed attempt at snaring the bird is abandoned in favour of the next fraught methodology. I've seen a lot of well-meaning organisations abandon perfectly good initiatives instead of adjusting the process for a more refined result. Negative feedback is a truly positive thing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

ABC Music Notation

There are many music-writing software packages on the market, Sibelius being the most popular for classical musicians and ubiquitous through schools and universities. There are freeware applications that work with varying degrees of sophistication as well. These products are all well and fine for the professional musician who needs to provide perfect partitur for orchestras or ensembles, extract and print individual parts, and "play in" their compositions directly from a keyboard onto the music stave. But many of us just need a simple solution to jot down a tune so we can remember it, store it and find it again and maybe email it to our friends or band members. ABC is the simple system developed for just this.

Like a lot of folk musicians, I've been using the ABC notation system for many years; for collecting and learning tunes and songs, working out chords and harmonies, recording lyrics and sharing or collaborating on arrangements. I recommend it to anyone who can understand standard music notation even slightly and has a computer. Let's start with a bit of background.


Using letters as a shorthand notation for music has been around for over 100 years. It's easy to quickly jot down EDC, EDC, to remind you how "Three Blind Mice" goes - but it becomes a bit trickier to show rhythm, key, rests and the like without recourse to standard music notation.

With the arrival of the computer era, the ASCII (standard QWERTY) keyboard became the most common data set for transmitting information, whereas music manuscripts could only be transmitted as graphics files (images) and as such, were large and unwieldy and could not be edited.

In the 1980s Chris Walshaw began writing out fragments of folk/traditional tunes using letters to represent the notes before he learned standard Western music notation. He was using a programmer's text editor and saw the power of being able to have a text language to record and distribute tunes. He developed the first iteration of the language we call ABC Notation.


While there are many people who can read ABC notation in its "native" form (at its basic level it's easy to understand), this is not its primary purpose. It's important to remember that ABC Notation is a system, not a programme. There are many programmes that "render" the ABC file into standard music notation, or turn them into sound files. Because the ABC file is ordinary keyboard characters it can be emailed, stored in a text file or database, searched on for specific terms or phrases and file sizes are kept very small. One simple text file (or .abc file) can hold hundreds or thousands of tunes.

Let's have a look at a simple tune in ABC notation, Hewlett by O'Carolan:

X: 1
T: Hewlett
C: O'Carolan
M: 3/4
K: D
AF|D2 DE FG|AB c2 A2|d2 f2 fg|fe d3 B|A2 F2 F2|G3 B AG|AF D2 D2|1 D4:|2 D6|]
|:A2 F2 AB| A2 F2 AB| A2 d2 d2|dc BA GF|G2 E2 GA| G2 E2 EF|GF GB AG|AF D3 E|
FE F2 G2|AB c2 A2|fe fg ag|fe d3 B|A2 F2 F2|G3 B AG|AF D2 D2| D6:|

You can probably guess what much of it means by just looking at it. The first 5 lines are the headers which tell us (or more importantly, tell the rendering programme) something about the tune.

The X: field is an indexing value (it can be any number you choose, for quick reference when you have many tunes in one file). It is the only field that is compulsory (your ABC code won't work in rendering programmes without it).
The T: is the title, C: is the composer, M: is the time signature and K: is the key. The rest of the code is the notes and barlines. Let's turn it into music:

  • Copy the code - everything from X: 1 to D6:| 
  • Go here: (just one of many online converters),
  • Paste it into the text window. 
  • Scroll down to the button "Submit" and click that.

After a moment or two the programme will return the music in standard notation as an image. Directly below this are two links - midi and pdf. Clicking on the midi link will play the tune on your sound card (or ask you to download it, and then play it); the pdf link will give you a printable page of music.

Now, let's look at the notes themselves. Here's the first line:

AF|D2 DE FG|AB c2 A2|d2 f2 fg|fe d3 B|A2 F2 F2|G3 B AG|AF D2 D2|1 D4:|2 D6|]

  • The notes from middle C to the B above are capital letters, the notes above B are lower case (we can go higher and lower with other symbols).
  • F and C notes are actually F sharp and C sharp - but we don't need to indicate this because we have declared that the key signature is that of "D major" in the header (K: D).
  • Default note length is an eighth-note, and that to make a quarter-note we add the multiplier 2 after the note name, 3 for a dotted-quarter, 4 for a half-note etc. 
  • Bar lines are represented by the symbol | (shift, backslash), repeats |: and :| and first and second time bars as |1 and |2 etc. Double bar line || or |]
  • Spaces are not required, but are added for clarity and grouping - eg eighth-notes grouped without spaces will be beamed when rendered.

You can change things in the editor window and press submit again and see what effect they will have. Some things will cause the rendering to fail, but most things will have the effect you expect.

There is much that you can do in ABC including chords, multiple parts, lyrics and more. There are many hundreds of databases containing thousands of tunes in ABC format all over the internet as well as many tutorials and references on ABC Notation. Once you've mastered the basics of the notation, you can collect and share the tunes you like, make your own database or write you own tunes.

Other links and references:
Mike Moroney

Monday, December 03, 2012

Ye Olde Folke Clubbe

NEFC 1981
Notwithstanding a short-lived association at McMurdo Sound, I believe the New Edinburgh Folk Club (my club here in Dunedin) is the Southernmost folk club on the planet. I've been active in it for 30 years, both as a performer and organiser, and it is interesting to me how the beast has changed over those three decades.

When I came upon the club in my early twenties, I was about the mean age of its constituents. It was a club in the true sense. It had its own clubrooms, enthusiastic volunteers and committed members. It was the place to be on Friday night. The stage was buzzing with musicians, often in combinations thrown together at a moment's notice for that one performance. There was much banter, a wide variety of performers and instruments and healthy competition to get onto the stage. There were also well organised and highly regarded concerts, barndances and the Whare Flat Folk Festival. From time to time we'd hire a big bus and the more intrepid of us would head off en masse to festivals in Canterbury, Cardrona or even Wellington.

Over the years all these qualities atrophied as folk got older, made families or just got on with life. The clubrooms became an expensive luxury for a once-a-week endeavour and had to be let go. Ever since, the club has been nomadic, finding sanctuary in cafes, pubs and community halls. From time to time good arrangements are made with landords to remain resident in one place for a year or two, usually as long as the vagaries of the hospitality industry allow. We are in such an oasis now.

Interestingly, 30 years on and I'm still the mean age of the parishioners. The club membership is about 3 times the number it used to be and the appeal and patronage of our clubnights and concerts is wide and varied. What has changed most significantly is that we are essentially a committee-run entertainment organisation. There are many club members I don't know or recognise, that don't involve themselves any further than paying their subs and turning up occasionally. The amount of money we deal with annually is large enough to require the oversight of accountants and auditors and the machinery of the club, everything from websites to sound systems, requires a dedicated and knowledgeable committee.

We now pay most of our performers; a significant change from the old days. We're privileged to have artists play for us, whereas it used to be a privilege to get to play at the club. All this, I suppose, is as it should be given the way things are now. These days our punters demand a comfortable, quiet venue where a pinot noir or latte can be obtained and supped to the accompaniment of quality performers, starting on time and finishing at the socially respectable time of ten-thirty or so. And that, by and large, is what they get.
Mike Moroney

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Richness Around Us

Going to the folk club is a bit like going to church regularly; the format is much the same and the content changes slightly. Sometimes it's rewarding, sometimes it's obligatory. Last night was one of those times when the planets seemed to align (to confuse the metaphor further) and I was reminded of what unorthodox talents I'm surrounded by.

I had no sooner arrived than I was called over to view (and play) an f-style mandolin, a prototype made by luthier Steve Barkman (who made my own guitar and indeed, most of the guitars you'll see at the folk club on any given night; Steve also does the sound engineering most nights). This was a truly beautiful instrument with the characteristic bluegrass "sound like running water" and felt so lovely under the fingers. It was as light as a feather.

Shortly afterward, a 5 string violin, a spec eBay purchase that required a good deal of work to make it even playable, was returned to me by Peter Madill, another spectacular luthier in the fold. The instrument had been pulled apart and reassembled with a care and precision I can only guess at, for it didn't look as though the thing had been touched. It played exquisitely. (I can only report to within the scale of my ability, as testified to in a previous post.)

Then, to settle back with a glass of Emerson's 1812 Pale Ale (another local product, the astounding quality of which is beyond the scope of this blog) and listen to our guests for the evening, Brenda Liddiard and Mark Laurent. This fantastic Auckland duo never ceases to amaze me with the diversity of their songs, musicianship and poetry. The hour flew by graced with sublime guitar and mandolin textures and soulful harmonies. As is often the case at the end of a warm summer's day, there were too few people to give them their due but those that were there were well rewarded for their investment.

It's good to be reminded from time to time what a rare and privileged society we live in and the fine and talented people we're surrounded by.

Steve Barkman's instruments can be viewed here and Peter Madill's instruments here. I commend them both to you.
Mike Moroney

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nice Website, But...

It's that time of year (it's always that time of year) where we're trying to put together artist profiles for festival websites, brochures and programmes. Of course, the first resource is Aunty Google to find the artist's bio, press kit and publishable photographs. It's rare that a performer doesn't have some kind of web presence these days and many are very beautiful affairs with gay graphics, designer-quality presentations and many innovative approaches to engaging their public. And almost always they fail in many important aspects.

As someone who uses your website, allow me to point out why it's not working for you.

The first time I go to your website is when you point me to it as part of your application to our festival or club. That's when I want to find out who you are, where you're from, what other people are saying about you and your achievements, and see or hear a few clips. Most of you get this much right, but the trick is to give a good overview with a few salient words and images: I should not have to keep digging down through pages and links to glean a complete picture.

The second time I go to your website is when we've booked you and I need some sensible copy and print-quality photographs. I'm looking for links that say Press or Bio or EPK (electronic press kit). This is where even the most seasoned touring artists fall down. Often what I find is a rambling history of the artist, punctuated by name-dropping lists of famous people they've played with, played for, been on the bill with or once met backstage.

When I design a website, be it for an artist, venue or festival (disclaimer: I'm not a graphic designer - I secure those services from the professionals), these are the key points I observe:

  • Title or name as the heading. (You might think this is obvious, but some websites eliminate it in favour of some clever graphic.)
  • Byline. A pithy, quotable sentence that describes you.
  • A 40 - 80 word paragraph that says what you do. (Get someone to write this for you if you're squeamish about self-promotion.) Imagine this as the blurb about you in a programme or a newspaper article.
  • Link to a biography page. This should contain a list and description of personnel (if it's a band) and a short timeline of your accomplishments. The key to writing a good bio is to make each paragraph complete in itself so that at the end of any given paragraph it makes good sense. This is so that someone (me) wanting to get promotional copy about you can select one, two or three paragraphs to fill the available space without having to rewrite it.
  • At least two or three up-to-date digital photographs at high resolution (behind thumbnails for selecting) for use in the print media. Each should be 2Mb or greater. Have at least one in portrait and one in landscape. It's worth paying a professional photographer.
These are just the basic marketing things that need to be there. Think of your website as your calling card. Clearly there are many more bells and whistles you can add for interest - but make sure your pages, especially the home page, load quickly. Here are some things to avoid:

  • Entry homepage. "Welcome to my website, Click to enter." is an annoying waste of time. Get all the relevant information in front of the viewer immediately (hence fast loading).
  • Homepages that are insider oriented. Too many websites are designed for fans and people that already know them and don't provide information for the first-time visitor.
  • A Facebook page is not a substitute for a website. Social networking is ideal for keeping up buzz and information among your fans and promoting your next gig. It is not particularly useful for definitive information or as a repository for promotional resources. Make sure your Facebook page links to your website (and vice versa).
  • The dead website. Nothing looks worse than an abandoned website, where the last blog entry was 2006 or where there are spammy entries in the comments (Aunty hates it too and will push you down the search pages as punishment.). It's ok for your website to be static (non-interactive) as long as it's accurate and up-to-date.
  • Pages that scroll sideways. Total fail. And keep all the most important information 'above the fold' - don't make the reader have to scroll down until they're fully engaged.
  • Text information as an image. It might look pretty but I can't copy the text - unless that was your point in the first place.
The key thing is to make it immediately obvious to the visitor who you are, what you do and how to contact you in a single hit and then easy navigation to fuller media content after that. Everything else is superfluous.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Louise who is trying to put the festival programme together.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thank You for Your CD

Recorded music is cheap, ubiquitous and relatively easily made and distributed these days. The definitive document still seems to be the CD (the Compact Disc as developed by Philips and Sony in the early 80's) - although sales of the commercial product have been in steady decline this century, despite an overall growth in the recording industry's output. The balance, presumably, is distributed digitally as mp3 files. For those of us who still like 'to have and to hold' our albums, the CD is the default. And although some still covet the vinyl LP with its tactile physicality and its lovely readable cover, this remains largely the domain of the audiophile and the serious collector. My own small collection of LPs sit mostly idle, occasionally rifled by my grown-up daughter who has a penchant for things retro.

Sales notwithstanding, CDs are used most often as promotional calling cards. They are distributed freely around promoters, festivals, libraries, reviewers and radio stations in the hope of bookings and broadcast. Having had an organisational association with a folk club and festival for many years, I have acquired several hundreds myself. Now I gaze upon a wall of two thousand or more CDs and wonder if I will ever listen to most of them again.

Because I listen to virtually (- see what I did there?) all of my music in mp3 format on my home computer connected to the home stereo, I have developed the habit of migrating (ripping) chosen albums from my wall to my computer when the listening occasion arises. Any newly purchased disc's first destination is to the CD drive of the computer and then to the wall. My media player reports that I have eight months and twenty days of continuous listening without repeats - and I have only transferred a small percentage of the wall. Of course this data pool is regularly supplemented by iTunes purchases as well (- sometimes I just want the music).

These days promotional packages of CDs and printed material (about as useful as glossy press photos) are deprecated in favour of a convenient link to a website or a YouTube clip or two.

But in the event, thank you for your CD; it will be listened to, booklet thumbed and credits acknowledged, then placed lovingly in alphabetical order with the others. Maybe in the not too distant future, an inquisitive grandchild might peruse the wall of CDs the way I did with my granddad's books or my daughter with my LP's, and find there treasures I've overlooked or failed to recognise. I really hope so.
Mike Moroney
Happy birthday Joop Walhain.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Third Hand

Needs must.
It's been a source of great amusement to me over a period twenty years or more to observe the incessant and pointless evolution of the simple toothbrush. Every few months there is a "revolutionary new development" in the dental hygiene technology that is essentially still just a stick with bristles on it. From putting a kink in it (remember the flip top head ads?) to tongue scrubbers, a myriad of head designs, thumb grips, vibrators and more. I can hardly wait for the next instalment. It's a bit like that with the humble capo.
A few types of capo

Like a passive third hand on your fretboard, the capotasto (to give it its full name, literally: the head of the touch) can be a simple device to raise the pitch of your instrument or a complex mechanism to contrive new tuning combinations. Gone (almost) are the days of the elastic strap and buckle systems that strangled the neck and threatened to take out an eye during an inadvertent explosive release. These days capos are engineering marvels, both simple and complex.

The main consideration is to have something closely approximating the force and form of a human finger on the strings which, in most cases, means applying pressure from around the neck. You might think that this is simple and straightforward, but the number of mechanisms developed for achieving this is startling: elastic straps, spring loading, cam mechanisms, lever-tensioning, friction locking and over-centre locking are just some of the engineering principles employed for this seemingly simple task.

Whatever its design, it's important that it applies only the necessary pressure. Too much and the tuning is compromised; too little and the strings 'buzz' on the leading fret. It should be possible to tune the instrument with the capo on (usually necessary as the intonation is inevitably compromised when capoing).

But it doesn't stop there. How about capos that only fret certain strings and leave others open (partial capoing). Or low-friction capos that are designed to be more or less permanently installed on the instrument that can be slid quickly into position for a rapid key change while playing.

Partial capoing is used on guitars, most commonly on the second fret across the A, D and G strings making the effective tuning of E,B,E,A,B,E. (Those familiar with DADGAD tuning will note that this is the same tuning ratio, 2nd fret). This gives the dubious benefit of being able to play in a faux open-tuning, but use conventional chord shapes. I've always thought this defeats the purpose of open tuning in the first place. It's not uncommon to see a player use a normal capo and a partial capo together.

The use of capos is not restricted to guitars. There are small ones for mandolins and ukes and the afore-mentioned low-friction, sliding type for use with open tuned instruments like the Irish bouzouki (or mandola, or cittern) that sit behind the nut when not in use and can be slid like a collar to the desired fret mid-tune.

Dobro capo
Not all capos press down on the strings. Some, like those designed for instruments played with a slide or steel (Dobro, Hawai'ian guitar etc) slip between the fretboard and the strings and push up, like a moveable nut (the slotted block at the top of the fingerboard that the strings run through). I've known fiddle players to carry a small length of leather shoelace to slip under the strings, making an effective capo and similarly a matchstick used in the same way on a mandolin.

Your choice of capo will depend on your style and mode of playing - many are designed to be positioned with one hand (important if you wear finger- and thumb-picks). Some are discreet and some are imposing. Another consideration (recently demonstrated to me) is that different capos make your instrument sound differently, so it's worth trying a few. That's the thing about capos. You can try them at the shop. Not like toothbrushes.
Mike Moroney