Wednesday, 25 February 2015

RPM… erm

So much for the daily-blog-post idea! So, what happened was that the contact mic seemed to be messed up and the MBox was crackling all over the output and all I had to monitor on were my (nice but not flat-response) Bang & Olufsen earbuds. Everything seemed hopeless and doomed when a friend came to the rescue, lending me some kit he had lying around, and testing a bunch of stuff to get it all working. Result: One binned MBox, one thankfully intact contact mic, one slim chance left to actually complete RPM by Saturday!

The past few days I’ve been working on a single mammoth track – 27 minutes long!!!! All from a single recording, and it moves quite slowly, so it’s going to take some patience to listen through to it. Hoping to send it out into the world on Thursday or Friday, although after tonight’s tweaks I think it’s nearly ready. It’s been a really interesting process. I’ve been using Logic’s Flex time tool and doing a lot of time-stretching, but I’ve also learned how to automate not just volume and pan, but also inserted effects and sends, which has been raaaaaather exciting (for me).

Nightbirds is only three minutes long, so I’ve got to finish the mammoth, and somehow find another five minutes by the end of Saturday. I’m not sure yet whether I want to extend Nightbirds (now that I can actually hear what I’m doing properly it might be a bit easier to work on!) to be double its length or just start on a shiny new piece. I have some bits of voices from Borough Market. And a very nice squeaky door from the Barbican… guess I’ll have to see how I go!

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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

And so it’s over

I’m feeling almost crestfallen. RPM Challenge is over, the album is done (huzzah for all of us!) and while I’ve got a ton of work to push on with, I’m feeling kind of sad. I’ve absolutely loved these weeks of working with my friends, both old, new and somewhere in between. It’s been lovely to write for specific people and try to make something that fits with what I know about them and their art, and  mostly I think I’ve succeeded OK. Several people have said how much they enjoy their pieces, and that’s what really matters.

I know I’ve learnt an incredible lot this month. Just look at all the new things I’ve tried: improvisation, extended techniques (blowing into the flute, multiphonics, flutter-tonguing, finger vibrato on the recorder), I’ve used trills for the first time (I think) ever, pushed the range of dynamics I usually use, used quarter-tones, written for guitar, created a graphic score (that I actually intended to make, as opposed to Carrion Comfort, which was an accidental graphic score), set a poem that rhymes, written for a solo brass instrument – and got up the courage to ask for muting (and very glad I did). I suspect I’ll be experiencing the aftershocks of this project for weeks and possibly months to come.

And I can’t say how much I think it’s done for my brain, to have to work so quickly, come up with ideas and just work with them. Twice I started with ideas I initially thought were rubbish and was either able to salvage them, or discovered that they worked, but not until I got them onto the instrument for which they were intended.

Of course, until now, too, I could count the usable recordings I had of my music (meaning well-performed, well-recorded, and that I have permission to do anything with) on one hand. Now I need both hands and a foot! This means so, SO much to me. It’s one thing to write music, but quite another to have someone bring it to life for you, and let you hear it. The performers have all been amazing, and I hope I get to write for them again in the future.

But enough burbling. I’m sure I’ll write a blog post over at sometime soon about specific lessons learned, but here is for the present, so I should run through today.

Of course the big news today was receiving the last 2 tracks. Jennifer Mackerras’ Triptych for One is in three movements, and she sent me an assortment of takes so I had a lot of fun wading through them and working out which takes to use of which movement. And they came together quite well in Logic too – a bit of crossfading helped the transitions and a little DeNoiser helped with background hiss on the first two movements. This one’s an odd piece. It still takes me by surprise. I think it only revels itself properly after a few listens. Maybe the movements should have been a little longer, perhaps. I might explore that idea in another piece. I love the multiphonics on the treble recorder – they have so much character! Definitely going to have to use those in the piece I’m writing for Jen’s recorder quartet, Pink Noise.

The other piece which went up today was Francis Western-Smith’s Egg the Eleventh. I’m delighted that the whole corrupted fugue thing worked with this one. It could have gone so very wrong, but I like the crunchiness of the harmonies and to me (I don’t know about anyone else) it’s channelling a lot of Satie, especially at the end. Or possibly I’m just thinking that because the style of this piece is a complete throwback to my uni days and the first few piano eggs I wrote, The Four-Egg Omelette. I always loved those pieces – they’re still some of my favourites – and it’s nice to know that I haven’t moved impossibly far away from that style.

I decided on the track order too today, which is mostly based on the order the pieces were completed in, but I switched I Want It To Kill Them and Triptych for One around, so the recorder piece comes directly after the slide-guitar-and-crunchy-tape one, which seems an odd positioning, but it actually seems to work. Once I had the pieces in order, I discovered that the reverb I’d added to Nest and Solitary Fanfare was a little excessive – the rest of the album, while the spaciousness of the recordings varies, sounds like it was recorded in small rooms, while those two tracks seemed to have moved into a concert hall and it just sounded odd. So I dialled it back on both of them & “rehoused” them in a room rather than a hall, albeit one with a bit of space to it. I think this improves those tracks within the set. Hopefully the performers agree…

I still haven’t got to the lever harp piece for Shana, but I will. It’s on my list for this month (although probably later this month as I have the brass quintet and a piece for Carla Rees and her quarter-tone alto flute to complete ASAP). And it’s the only piece I didn’t get to write. I’m glad that I thought to finish off the Pieces of Eight arrangement for her while I was concussed though – it fits well with the other tiny pieces, and it meant that nobody missed out entirely. Every performer got something to play that was made especially for them. Even with the concussion, so I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.

Tomorrow, then, is CD-burning-and-posting time. I guess I don’t really have to, but it’s just going to really symbolise the end of a project that started out on a whim, ended up bigger than Ben Hur and which I think I have to add to my list of most-amazing-musical-experiences-of-my-life-so-far. So it’ll be sent. And then I’ll look at posting the whole thing to BandCamp. It’s going to be a bit of a package – all the album tracks, plus all the scores, plus this diary. I saw that Chrissie Caulfield included her RPM diary in the download and I think it’s a great idea because it gives a real picture of how the work was created, for those who are interested. Hopefully someone will be…

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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The album has a cover

Yup, having settled on “Lucky Dip” as a name, and not having heard back from the owners of the Flickr image I wanted to use, I decided to draw my own, using the photo as a rough model. I drew the blackboard outline, a little bit of shadow on the back legs, the fringed border and the board itself in charcoal on half a sheet of A2 paper (I’ve been caught out by A2 paper before – far too big to fit on the scanner!), then pulled the scanned image (after cleaning up in Photoshop) over to the iPad to add colour and text. The final layout I did in Photoshop, after sending the coloured image back to the computer again.

I may tweak it later but as a first draft, I’m pretty pleased and I’ve put it up as the album image on SoundCloud.

Lucky Dip album cover art

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done any drawing, and longer still since I did any with actual paper rather than just the iPad, so this was a really fun project. The whole album’s feeling really real too now – there’s only one more track to come in, with two possible replacement tracks. Guess I should think about what order I want them all to go in too. At the moment they’re just in the order the recordings came in, but I’m thinking that shuffling them around might be more effective.

Today I received Kim Hickey’s recording of her piece, Flit, for flute. I am just amazed at all the great performances I’ve been getting for these pieces – so little time to prepare them and yet everyone’s done a really good job of capturing their piece and getting it recorded. I haven’t had to put on a stern face & tell anybody to try harder, nothing’s turned up sounding like it was recorded underwater in a bathtub in 1902. A couple of pieces have needed a touch of reverb to really bring out the tone of the instrument, and Kim’s recording needed a tiny bit of hiss reduced, but that’s been it, which has been both wondrous and a great relief because I’m no skilled recording engineer.

But I digress, here’s Kim’s piece:

I also posted an update of Alun’s tango – the original for some reason came through very very soft, so he’s adjusted his recording slightly and sent me a slightly louder one, which really makes a difference. It’s still fairly quiet, but there’s a bunch of tiny details in there which eluded me in the previous version.

Sam also sent me copies of some of his rejected takes for I Want It To Kill People. I found it absolutely fascinating to listen to the various approaches. They’re all good, but somehow the final take he settled on just interacts with the tape part a little more effectively than the other versions of the graphic score. What was particularly interesting was to hear the take on which he improvised, without the graphic score – that’s a really interesting piece. It’s not the piece that I Want It To Kill People became, but something else. It’s more enmeshed in the tape part – he’s taken some of the gritty sounds and used them as inspiration for the guitar part – whereas my vision of the piece was that the guitar was this soft and lovely thing with depths of aggression, Sam’s version is more like watching the soft and lovely guitar be corrupted by the aggressive tape part. Really fascinating. He’s also sent me just the guitar recording from the final version and I really think I will have a go at tweaking the tape part – there’s a blob of notes about a third of the way into the piece that really feel like a stumbling block, so I’m going to see if I can make them less intrusive.

So that’s RPM for today. No, the harp piece hasn’t happened yet. Yes, I’m hoping to get to it tomorrow. Today was full of client work and physiotherapist and – at the end – half of a wonderful concert by Joby Burgess at Wigmore Hall and a lovely chat with @stevegisby and his girlfriend. I managed to get there for the end of it (thank you, Central Line – not!) and got to hear Gabriel Prokofiev’s ‘Fanta’ from Import/Export and Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, movements II and III played on a MIDI xylophone, which was interesting, although I think I prefer the electric guitar version I have on CD in Sydney. Very much enjoyed the Prokofiev piece though – inventive, fun and very much a serious piece of music, in spite of the amusement factor of being played on glass bottles of Fanta. I did wonder, though, how long it’ll still be able to be played for – what happens when they no longer manufacture glass bottles of drink??? I guess it’s just a piece that embraces its own ephemerality.

I seem to have come out of the day with a Proper Job too. And the best sort of proper job – mobile web dev, working from home, for about a week, for a client who used to be a colleague when I was at LBi and who has now set up her own UX business for financial services companies. Really looking forward to this one.

One day to go. One recording to come in. This time tomorrow night, RPM 2012 will be complete!

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Monday, 27 February 2012

So very close…

And with 2 days to go, we’re rampaging down the home stretch! Today’s inbox saw another three recordings – from Rob, Shana (who’s recorded the pedal harp arrangement of Pieces of Eight I sent her while I was concussed) and Jenni. Rob’s very kindly offered to do some re-recording, which has given me the opportunity to tweak a couple of things in the trombone score, but what’s he’s sent is great so I’m considering that one done, and we’ll just see if he has the time to do the update.

But Shana’s (Pieces of Eight) and Jenni’s (Nest) recordings are up on SoundCloud now, bringing the total tracks on the online album to 6.

Alun has also sent me an updated version of his track, which came out extremely soft this end. I haven’t had a chance to listen to this update yet because the employment monster demanded my attention with a possible short mobile web-dev contract I need to quote for, but will definitely look at it tomorrow.

And, alas, contrary to plans, I haven’t started on Shana’s proper piece for this project – just shattered today after 4 very fun but exhausting days with a friend here from France so I just did what I could and am hoping to get to that tomorrow. Suspect there’s no chance of it being included in my official RPM Challenge album though.

The album also, finally, has a title. At first I was going to call it Miscellany 2012, but that seemed kind of obvious and dull and like I hadn’t made an effort. I made a set for it on SoundCloud, waved it about on Facebook… and then promptly realised that a much more appropriate name (although probably still not that imaginative) would be Lucky Dip, after which I found that while I could change the title of the set I couldn’t change the URL so the address of the album didn’t match it’s title. A small detail but one that bugs me, so I’ve deleted that set, made another one and redistributed the new link. Aargh. Messy. But probably better to deal with the mess immediately rather than potentially let old & broken links float about the internet too much.

So Lucky Dip it is. I figured it was kind of appropriate because it was a lucky dip for me, finding out what instruments I’d be writing for, and of course a lucky dip for the performers with what piece they’d get (if any), and finally the pieces have all turned out so varied that I think it’s also a bit of a lucky dip for the listener too. And then I found this photo on Flickr and that pretty much sealed the deal. I’ve had to write to the photographer to ask for permission to crop it, tweak it and whack my name over the top, but I’m hoping they’ll agree. If not, I may use it for inspiration – maybe do a drawing of their photograph or something??

2 days. 3 pieces to come. So close to the finish line!

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Sunday, 26 February 2012

Just popping in

A quick post from me – I’ll be back on RPM work tomorrow – but today’s seen another two recordings come in, incredibly different from each other, and I’m really very excited by them.

Finally we get hear Sam’s slide guitar + tape piece, I Want It To Kill People (for the story behind the title, pop over to the SoundCloud page!). I really love what he’s done with it – he’s managed to take my rather brutal tape part and convey what I was hoping for – the idea of something soft and gentle that has great depths of aggression. I’m not so pleased with my own work on the tape part. I think I may go back over this once the project is done and pull back at least the volume in a couple of places, possibly the grittiness too – the solo instrument really needs more room to speak. But while I think *I* could have done better on this one, I’m pleased with the piece as a whole – it was a big experiment for me and I’m really enjoying what Sam’s done with it.

The second piece is Alun’s A Tiny Tango for 6-string bass guitar. I was very worried about this one – I am a complete guitar novice, and writing something for solo guitar which has a couple of different levels of stuff going on did feel rather ambitious and I half-expected Alun to send it back with red corrections all over it! However, he’s been able to play the whole thing, which I’m amazed by, and I’m delighted with the result. I particularly like the percussive sounds + harmonics section about 2/3 of the way through.

And Alun has very kindly offered to write some performance notes – and tablature! – to help guide other bassists through its “Twister-like bits” (Alun’s phrase :-D), which will be brilliant – and hopefully I can learn from them too.

And now to bed – tomorrow I’ll be hard at work on a piece for lever harp!

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Saturday, 25 February 2012

First recording is in!

Well, I am totally STOKED, to use an Australianism I never use, but which expresses my delight rather well. The first recording for my RPM project is in! And it’s WONDERFUL.

Charles Turner has sent me the recording of the tiny song I wrote for him, To Fortune. It uses a text by Robert Herrick, which I posted here a little while back. I was quite pleased with the song when I did it – and especially considering that when I started it it was 2 in the morning and my initial verdict was that while it wasn’t terrible, it was deeply embarrassing. But I salvaged it and sent it off, and I think Charles’ lovely performance shows that I was right to do so. He’s captured some lovely nuances in there and I’m totally thrilled beyond words with it.

In other RPM news (because I’ve been a little slow with the updates the past few days, having a lovely friend to stay), I finished and sent off Rob’s trombone piece yesterday. I’m pretty pleased with it. And he seems to think it’s all technically possible, although I’ve left rather small gaps to put in/remove the mute – looking forward to seeing what he does with it.

So there’s just one piece to go – Shana’s lever harp piece. This one may be just scraping in as I won’t be able to do anything on it till Monday. But I’m hoping I can get it done in time.

And today I sent Diabolus off to the New Lens Concert Series call for scores for piano trio or subset thereof. I hope they like it – it would be lovely to hear a proper performance of that one.

Anyway, if you haven’t already, listen to Charles singing his song! It’s fabulous!

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Friday, 17 February 2012

Back to it

Well, this is all very stop-start. And time is pressing on. I’m getting a bit worried about my own personal deadline, to tell the truth. My plan was to have all pieces written and sent out before my friend arrives next Thursday, so all the performers would have a full week or more with their pieces, and I’d be able to have a lovely chilled time with my friend. And if I could get back the week I spent concussed, I’d be calm. As it is I’m a little stressed, but I’m just going to go full speed ahead, and see what happens.

This evening I’ve been back at work on Sam’s graphic score for the slide guitar piece. I think I’m sensing a pattern here – the last piece I wrote for real instruments + tape took me forever to do the score too and I think it’s because I really don’t like transcribing random sounds and hoping I note them in the right place and that others can interpret my squiggles for what they are. Yes, procrastination has been hard at work here.

However, this evening I’ve finally got a rough first draft down of the tape part. I’ve tried to keep it pretty simple, noting mostly where notable things happen. I think I’ll need to put in time markings too, to give some context, then I need to work on the guitar bit, which I kind of have in my head but just need to get down on paper/iPad. This initial version I’ve done on iPad because rubbing out is easy when I get it wrong 😀 I need to work out a neater way of dealing with the audible text moments though, in particular. But just so you can see that this piece isn’t actually a myth, here’s the work-in-progress snap:

Draft tape part visual for slide guitar piece

There’s a chance I may need to cut it up a bit and spread it out some more, but I just needed to get something down. Mostly spreading it out would allow for more detail in the guitar part, so I need to think a bit about how much detail I want to put in there. This is mostly new territory for me, both technically and stylistically. I guess that’s why it’s taking so long.

The other exciting development today is that Jenni sent me her preliminary recordings of her oboe piece, Nest! SO exciting to hear the piece taking shape. I don’t think I’ve ever had real performer feedback on a piece while it’s still so fresh from the writing, so this is fantastic.

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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

No. 3!

Well, GOSH. What a lot I have to talk about today. Yesterday was kind of unproductive for the most part, so it didn’t seem worth blogging. Today has been the exact opposite and now I almost have too much to bore you with!

So, yesterday. I was feeling kind of floundering, not knowing which piece to work on next after finishing Charles’ bass-baritone song. So I looked at my list and realised I needed to spend some more time getting to grips with what Alun’s bass guitar can do, so I bought myself his album If (after checking with him which of the many I should start with) and listened to it on my marathon accidentally-4km walk to and from Waitrose. Not ideal listening conditions, I’ll grant you, but it was a fair start. What I discovered was that it’s not about what Alun’s bass guitar can do, it’s about what it *can’t* do which – it seems – is very little. I had no idea a bass guitar was capable of so much! So now my challenge there is that much bigger and I really need to do some heavy-duty thinking and tinkering very soon. Have a listen for yourself:

I did spend a significant amount of time doing battle with technology yesterday, though, which eventually resulted in a happy conclusion: I can once again doodle about on my (digital) piano and have Finale record my meanderings so I don’t need to panic about not having enough fingers to hold down notes AND write down what they are. It may seem a small thing, but oh no it’s not.

Today I wrote a flute piece. Start to finish. And sent it off to Kim. The flute piece was a bit of an accident – I had decided I was going to do Jen’s piece for singing recorder player. Fished out my copy of Walter van Hauwe’s book on extended recorder techniques (Volume III of The Modern Recorder Player if you really want to know the gory details), then pulled out my flute and wrote a flute piece. Whoops. But huzzah too, because that’s No. 3 done and I hadn’t even planned any of it.

The no-planning led to a momentary crisis of what to call it, but once I realised that it’s stylistically similar to Nest which I wrote for Jenni Pinnock back at the start of the project (for oboe, with option on flute and piccolo and possibly clarinet although the range might not be great for that) and so Kim’s piece has become Flit. I’m thinking I may do a third piece to go with them once all this is over and have them as an actual whole thing for flute (or flute + piccolo) or oboe.

And this evening I’ve been back at Sam’s slide guitar piece. The tyrannosaurus timpani sounds were really bugging me. The pitch was OK but the textures far too thick and it was all getting a bit overwhelming, so I deleted that whole track and am much happier with it now. I got the AC-7 control surface app (iPAD) hooked up to Logic which has made recording automation data MUCH easier and I think there probably won’t be any more major changes to the tape part after this. Possibly some more small volume tweaks, to allow a bit more space for the guitar, but nothing big.

I also took the first steps towards getting the graphic score done for the slide guitar. I’m a bit at sixes and sevens with this. Not quite sure how to approach it although I have a visualisation in my head. I’m starting by mapping it out on the iPad, but may end up doing it by hand, or a combination of the two. I kind of want to use coloured pencil for it. I love coloured pencil – the tones are so vibrant and the transitions can be so subtle – but I know that if I sit down with pen & pencils it could take days, so I’m hoping to convince my brain that it would be just as happy with SketchBook Pro.

So this one’s definitely “the iPad piece” for the project! It was a bit inadvertent but it was something that had been at the back of my mind that I wanted to use the iPad for something in this, so it’s great to be able to use different aspects of it in the one piece – from putting in the first track using Pianist Pro over wireless MIDI, to controlling Logic with it and creating the score. Great fun.

Oh! And I had a most delightful email this morning from Charles about his song in which he remarked that “the whole thing is very well made” along with other lovely comments about it. Super-chuffed that he likes it so much and hoping I can keep up the standard!

(And amongst all this, I made 2 loaves of some of the best bread I’ve ever made.)

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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Notes, finally

Today I seem to be over the concussion. Or over the obvious concussion. I’m thinking clearly and the headaches have practically gone, so that’s great. Now to get over the general feeling of fragility. That’s on the list for tomorrow 🙂

The really exciting news of today is that I have written some notes. Real, live notes. I couldn’t sleep last night so after 2 hours of trying, I gave up and went to the piano and started working on the song for Charles (bass-baritone). In the end I wrote two versions in an hour. The first one was hideous; the second, merely embarrassing. But work is work, right? And even hideous notes are better than no notes at all. And there is a slim possibility that I may be able to do something that renders the second version ever so slightly less embarrassing. I’ll be taking a bit of a look at this again tomorrow.

I’ve been back at work on Sam’s slide guitar piece this evening. For some reason I’m finding this quite hard to work on for more than short bursts. I think it’s the aggression level. I hope it’s not a reaction to it being awful. I think I still quite like it but it IS scaring me a bit, especially now I’ve added in some bass and percussive sounds. I’ve used Logic’s timpani sound and mooshed it through the Bitcrusher filter and a couple of other things so it sounds a bit more RAAARGH and while, yes, the bass is helping a lot, I suspect the part itself is… erm… shit. I also think I’ve lost the balance I had before which left room for the slide guitar. Now I think it kind of works as a random scary standalone piece, but that kind of defeats the purpose. I had been hoping it was finished. Or very very nearly finished. But I think it’s not.

So what to do? The obvious step seems to be to re-record the distorted timpani. However I’m not sure just plonking down doodles will do it this time round. True, it’s more or less how this tape part has been constructed – given the concussion, it’s more to do with manipulating randomness than active composition – but I think this time round there does need to be more structure if it’s to be a slide guitar piece and not just a loud and gritty tape piece with a guitar here and there. Possibly I need to pull out the timp and instead work on the graphic score, see what I want to do with that, then see if I can doodle in some timpasaurus around where the slide guitar stuff will be. I think this may end up being a bit more satisfactory.

So that’s the plan for tomorrow.

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Saturday, 4 February 2012

1 down! Many to go!

I’ve completed my first RPM Challenge track! It’s the flute improv/field-recording collage piece and it’s called Watching the streets of Zurich and Brussels. I’m mildly happy with it. It’s very serene but not, I suspect, hugely interesting for multiple listens. The ghastly word “pleasant” is springing to mind. But it’s done and I think it’s kind of OK. And it’s tackled a few things that needed tackling:

  1. Improv. I hate improvising. I have no confidence at it and never do it
  2. Getting something down that’s actually a reasonable length for a proper piece of music – this one’s 6’16” in length – about twice the length of most of my notated music. Good to be thinking in longer spans, actually, and working more broadly – thinking it might be a good exercise to work with this sort of collagey stuff every now and then to think more in terms of chunks of ideas instead of single notes.
  3. Identified and started to tackle my issue of continually going back and listening from the start.
  4. Quarter-tones: I’ve got a piece booked in to write for Carla Rees and her quarter-tone alto flute. I was a bit lost at the prospect of thinking about quarter-tones. Focusing on using them in the improv has helped quite a lot with this, I think

The other exciting thing is that today I decided to take RPM up a notch and make it more about the composition, so I launched a commission project: I’ll write pieces of less than a minute in duration for up to 9 people. For any instrument they want – all they have to do is to commit to sending me a recording of it before the end of the month. Want to be a part of it? As of now (7pm) there’s only 3 slots left! Find out more and sign up here.

1am update: Wow – I can’t believe how popular this commissioning project has been! There’s only one place left! And I seem to have reached the maximum number of guitar pieces I can take on – with electric, slide and bass guitar pieces, it’s going to be a challenge!

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