One chord, two chords, three … or more

28th October 2013 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching | 0 comments

Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who died this week, famously said (tongue in cheek, I suppose) that when you’re composing a song, ‘one chord is fine, two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz’.

I had that quote in my mind last night as I listened to the concert marking the end of three days of coaching young professional chamber groups for the Marryat Players autumn chamber music meeting. This year my co-tutor Tim Boulton and I had four excellent groups – the Gagliano Ensemble, the Albany Trio, the Aomori String Quartet and the Epstein piano quartet. By chance their chosen works combined to make a fabulous concert programme – the Dvorak Terzetto, the Shostakovich second piano trio, the Janacek 2nd string quartet known as ‘Intimate Letters’ (long a favourite of mine) and the Brahms C minor piano quartet.

But it was not an easy programme – everything was either technically demanding, musically intense or both. There were no points where the audience could sit back and let things wash over them – it was all music that grabbed them and wouldn’t let go. As usual, we had underestimated how long the programme would take to perform once we had added a few little speeches and a bit of coming and going as well as moving pianos, music stands and chairs – and of course some prolonged applause. It was almost 10.30pm when the concert finished, though everyone said the evening didn’t feel overlong because there was so much to watch as well as listen to. People always seem to be struck by how absorbing it is to have live music played in front of them.

As I listened to these incredible pieces, played with such skill by fourteen very talented young players, I wondered what Lou Reed would have said about the music. If three chords takes you into the realm of jazz, what on earth would he have said about Janacek? What realm do those unearthly harmonies take you into? Another songwriter said that to write a good song all you need is ‘three chords and the truth’, which of course is true, but luckily the truth is not confined to three chords and can also be expressed through hundreds of different chords juxtaposed in every way the imagination can devise.


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