Iain Cameron's Diary
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2007-02-22 - 8:12 a.m.
Here's my bit for Trevor D in Brighton on 21 Feb:
Good evening – my name is Iain Cameron. I went up to Cambridge to study Philosophy in Autumn 1968 and early in 1969 I came across Nick Drake playing songs in the room of another singer-guitarist I had met – Paul Wheeler. I played flute in the ensemble that Robert Kirby put together for the Caius May Ball that year. At Cambridge I also did some sessions as a sideman for BBC Night Ride and I suggested to Alec Reid the producer that Nick Drake would be right for the programme. As a result in the Spring of 1970 I played on Nick’s second radio broadcast. That was the last time I saw him . (I saw a Festival Hall concert where he opened for Fairport Convention where I was in the audience but checking the records I think that was earlier. )
When I’d agreed with Trevor that I’d take the subject ‘Folk or Art’, I put that dichotomy to two people I have met over the years discussing the work of ND - they are both musicians I have played with through Nick’s music – Andrew Keeling, the composer, and Gilbert Isbin, the virtuoso guitarist and interpreter of Nick Drake. They both said the answer is – Folk and Art – the two together.
That wasn’t the answer I was looking for and so I kept on digging around. A month ago a New Statesman article discussed some contemporary songwriters and who were vehemently denying that they were folk – even though they played acoustic instruments and wrote their own songs etc. I concluded that these days stuff can be‘Folk and Not Folk’ at the same time. How was it that we had ended up in this situation?
The next stop was Bartok and Sibelius - two composers who drew on folk sources– and whose music was regarded as contributing to the emerging national narratives of Hungary and Finland. Someone sent me a Finals' dissertation on these two. That made me to follow a suggestion by James McGrath who is researching a PhD on Sgt Pepper and interested in Ian Macdonald’s ideas.
James suggested I read a book called Imagined Communities by a historian Benedict Anderson. This led me to the conclusion that Folk has probably got something to do with imagined allegiance - a phenomenon which Anderson maps over the centuries across the globe. Allegiance sounds solid but can be quite fluid or get ambiguous and indeed political. For example Bartok, in common with many Hungarians at the turn of the last century has an image of the Magyar nation and this led him to research folk music and incorporate it into his work. In this way he started to move in left-wing circles and the librettist for his opera, Bluebeard's Castle was some way further to left. But the first performance of the work at the Hungarian National Opera was delayed because of these political associations.
So - when I am not sure whether Nick Drake is folk or not folk – or perhaps both at the same time, what may be really going on is something about allegiance – something about imagined community – and something about the volatility and complexity of those ties.
At this point I am going to jump onto the other horn of the dilemma. But before I do so I want to suggest that if you would like to dig deeper on this subject you have a look at the website of the composer Andrew Keeling - the new appendices to his analysis of Pink Moon – there’s a lot more to chew on.
In contrast I take the view that Nick Drake’s recordings are art and I want to suggest that this proposition can be based on evidence – together with a reliable account of what art is – to shape the evidence.
The philosophy of Immanuel Kant gives an account. In this area Kant isn’t as hard work as his reputation generally suggests it might be.
According to Kant, we start with the senusous surface of the artwork which gives pleasure – this is an easy box to tick as far Nick Drake’s music is concerned. The first time I heard him play a song in Caius College in 1969, it sounded great. I think the sensuous surface of the music explains why goes so well with films and the Volkswagen Cabrio advert in black and white.
The second point is that this beauty is in some way associated with craft and skill. Here’s an example. /Example of Cello song intro. / Personally having spent lots of evenings in my late teens in Les Cousins, I like very much the way that younger guitarists get hold of the tabulations of Nick’s music and polish up their skills by getting their fingers round it.
Kant goes on to give an explanation of how this all works - which is a bit like structuralism. Imagine we all carry some kind of common structure around with us that makes us see the world as it is – this structure goes down a long way and extends out a long way. Aesthetic objects play or resonate with that structure and that’s partly where they get their power and necessity.
Nick’s music is full of these structural twists and quirks , linkages and patterns. Songwriters like Elton John find this very engaging. Here’s an example of this which was mapped out by Robin Frederick – who currently teaches songwriting in Los Angeles and who met Nick in Aix en Provence in 1967. The example she choses is Place To Be – and the structural oddity is the relationship between the number of bars in the basic and pattern and where the melody sits.
Lets try this together – well assume its in 12-8 – so we count in fours – 1234 2234 3234. /First verse of Place to Be/ So that’s an 11 and the singing starts part way through 4.
On one of the most important records in the 20th, Kind of Blue, Bill Evans the pianist points that one of tracks included is a 10 bar sequence – this is uncommon and the only other example he can think of is a A Nightingale Sand in Berkley Square. If 10 is that uncommon. How uncommon is 11? If you go to Robin’s Website she explains why this bit of structure is meaningful in the context of that song.
The last element of that Kant makes a lot of about art is that it strangely mixes together the purposeful and the purposeless. I think this odd mixture is all over the music – on any scale you want to chose we find purpose and lack of purpose very intimately connected – this mixture is a provocation for us. If time permitted I’d play the picked version of Black Eyed Dog. So beauty, craft, necessity, structure and the purpose conundrum compressed together in the work. Therefore the work is art. It may or may not be folk and that’s probably down to how we imagine the community.
You will need just a bit more songwriting background to understand what Nick was doing. All chord progressions revolve around a 'home base' called the tonic chord. If the song is in the key of C, for instance, that would be a C chord. In the most basic song, the melody would begin on a C chord, progress through a couple other chords and end with a chord called a turnaround that leads straight back home to the C chord.
But Place To Be was written by someone who wants to tell us how lost he feels, how much he yearns to go home, to find a place to be. Before he has even finished the musical introduction, we are as lost as he is. He starts on the tonic (home), plays just those couple of chords that assure us we know where we are, then starts singing - actually begins the song - in the middle of the progression, in the middle of a two-bar phrase, in the middle of Nowhere! Suddenly you have that sensation of floating, of falling, and now he will take you home over and over, return to the tonic over and over, just to show you how good it feels, how much you want to go there, too.