03 September 2018

Love for Her, Love for Hymn


The Gymanfa Ganu is an uniquely Welsh singing festival in which a large number of people gather together with the sole purpose of singing hymns.  I know of no equivalent hymn singing fest anywhere in the world, yet thousands are held the length and breadth of Wales every year.  It is because of these hugely popular and frequent mass gatherings of hymn singing that the Welsh have earned a reputation as a nation which loves to sing.
To understand why the Welsh approach hymns in a way so different from anyone else, we need to look at the distinctive quality of the Welsh hymn tune itself.  To put it in a nutshell, the Welsh hymn tune is designed to be sung en messe by untrained voices in a way no English, Scottish, Irish, German, American or any other hymn tune is.  
Possibly the most famous Welsh hymn of them all.


Born and bred in London and having spent my later adolescent years on the Surrey/Hampshire border, my acceptance into the University of Wales to study music brought me into daily contact with what seemed to me then a wholly alien culture.  Apart from an aunt’s husband, whom I saw once a year when the extended family met for dinner on Boxing Day, I had absolutely no prior exposure to Wales, and certainly had no knowledge of its rich and unique musical culture.

The University of Wales is not a physical university, but a collection of autonomous colleges scattered around the Principality.  I was studying at what was then called the University College of South East Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff; and in the early 1970s Cardiff seemed almost proud of its detachment from the cultural identity of that part of Wales which lay to its west and north.  But within weeks of arriving, I had fallen desperately in love with one of my fellow music undergraduates, and that brought me into closer contact with authentic Welsh culture than would otherwise have been the case in what was then the nominal - but not the psychological - capital of Wales.

The object of my passion was the indescribably beautiful (well I thought so) daughter of a Welsh Nonconformist minister from deepest Cardiganshire.  We carried on an illicit relationship hidden from patriarchal gaze, since my girlfriend rightly believed that the notion of her getting involved with one of the hated English colonialists (which is how the English were regarded by many Welsh then – and possibly now) would have incensed her father so much he would have immediately withdrawn her from what he already regarded as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Wales, Cardiff.

Tafod y Ddraig -
the symbolic representation of
a dragon's tongue
As our relationship became more intense, so it became imperative for me to adopt as much of the Welsh culture as I could.  I learnt the Welsh language and joined a bunch of idealist activists intent on achieving parity between the Welsh and the English languages throughout Wales by whatever means possible.  I proudly sported my little red enamel badge depicting a stylized dragon’s tongue, which those in the know (notably the police) recognised as the symbol of an active member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, and duly disrupted political rallies, eagerly participated in non-violent campaigns against English-only broadcasters polluting the Welsh air waves with their signals, and aggressively expunged as many symbols of English Imperialism as I could.  It all gave me a lifelong passion for politics, a deep-seated love of Wales and an enriching linguistic outlet, it equipped me with the tools necessary for living what has been my entire life since in and amongst those whose culture, beliefs and languages are very different from those of my own antecedents (I have never actually lived permanently in England since the 1970s), but it did not net me a wife – my girlfriend died of meningitis before she had completed her undergraduate studies.  It was decades later that I found true and lasting love with my wife of 20 years who, perhaps inevitably, belongs to a land long occupied by an alien people, and who is a passionate supporter of political action to restore the unique cultural identity of her homeland.
As it turned out, my eagerness to impress what I hoped would be my future father-in-law with my anti-English activities and command of what someone (and I cannot find out who) described as the only language which can express every thought or emotion known to man, was unnecessary.  Barely a month into my intensive Welsh language course and still awaiting my Cymdeithas yr Iaith badge, I was suddenly dragged from my organ practice by my girlfriend who had heard from her father that he was in desperate need of an organist that evening for the annual Gymanfa Ganu at his Cardiganshire chapel.  Without consulting me she had promised my services, and commanded me to fetch my car and drive the 100 or so miles west to her home village.  Protests that I had no idea what a Gymanfa Ganu was, and certainly needed time to practice the hymns, met on deaf ears.  Here was a chance to ingratiate the English enemy with her father, and my girlfriend was not going to let that slip. 

This may have been the chapel where I had my
first taste of Gymanfa Ganu, but if so, it's been
tarted up quite a bit since 1973,
We arrived at her father’s forbidding Welsh chapel to find the place full and the Minister impatiently waiting the appearance of the organist.  Without any preamble, I was pushed up to the chapel organ and handed the one hymnbook in the entire place which had the hymn tunes in what the Welsh quaintly describe as hen nodiant (“old notation”) – everybody else sung from SolFa copies. I vividly remember that it was a dusky leather-bound, much thumbed volume with the word EMYNAU (“hymns”) embossed on the cover.  You do not have a programme in such events, you simply let the spirit move the Minister to  select which and how many hymns the massed congregation will roar their way through.  I had sufficient Welsh to recognise numbers, and while the Minister simply called out the names of the hymns, he did make the grudging concession to add the numbers from the hymn book.  Frantically, as each number rolled off his tongue and he gave incomprehensible instructions to his flock about how he wanted them to sing, I leafed through the hymn book, found the relevant hymn and struck up a few lines of the tune - eliciting encouraging or, more likely, derogatory comments (my Welsh classes had covered basic swear words, but not the kind of venom so beloved of Welsh Nonconformist Ministers) – and then we were off.

Passion, anger, tears, laughter; all emotions went into every hymn.  The minister would shout and yell, stirring his flock to a peak of ecstasy through the singing of hymns, and it was a thoroughly exhausting experience, musically, spiritually, physically and emotionally.  At particularly passionate movements, the Minister would yell above the hundreds of genuinely harmonious voices, “Heb Organ!”.   Assuming he wanted more, I piled on the stops, adding dazzling descants and making up for missing ranks by playing everything an octave higher or an octave lower at will.  It was only when he called out “Heb Organ!” with more than usual vehemence and looked at me as if my English ancestors were entirely to blame for all the ills of the world (which they perhaps were), that I began to wonder.  I asked a nearby chorister what “Heb” meant.  “Bloody ‘ell”, came the response, “It means stop playin’.  Ee wants you to shut up!”

Whether or not my linguistic ignorance rankled with the Minister, I never knew.  He never uttered another word to me, grudgingly instructing one of his vestry to pass me a cheque, and warning his daughter that, just because I had played the organ for him, she did not need to think that he approved of me or any of the English.

I was however, hooked on Gymanfau Ganu, and for the next 20 years was a frequent attendee as singer, organist or even, on one memorable occasion, conductor.  I fell in love with Welsh hymnody, and started to study it in some detail.  I noticed, for example, that Welsh hymns nearly always starting in stepwise motion or with repeated notes, generally cover a fairly wide range, avoid too many large intervals, and love to work up to a single note and stick there for a while.  They all have climaxes where they reach their highest pitch, and these are so positioned in the tune that they can be (and in a Cymanfa Ganu, usually are) held indefinitely by the singers.  Traditionally, hymn tunes in England were often led by a cantor, with each line repeated by the congregation, but in Wales this was not so common a practice, and as a result, the tunes have longer lines but less complex melodic patterns - ideal for communal singing.

Hymn, dirge or late night drinking song?
Perhaps the most interesting Welsh hymn fact I learnt in my Cymanfa Ganu days, came from a great aunt of my then girlfriend, a woman of extreme old age, who lived in a large house in the village of Llangrannog, tucked away on an isolated part of the Cardiganshire coast.  She hated the Minister, adored her great niece, and enthused over young people in love.  She also had a soft spot for music, and whenever we visited I was compelled to play hymns from the hen nodiant book of Emynau she had permanently on the ancient piano in her parlour.  It had candleholders either side of the music stand, and whenever I played she would ceremonially light the candles as if preparing an altar for mass.  Then she would go into the kitchen and butter bread in the traditional Welsh way, upending the loaf, buttering the cut surface and then very thinly slicing the buttered section off.  I would play through the book in continuous sequence, eliciting various comments.  With “Ebenezer” she stopped and came over.  “Is that in the book?” she asked.  “I remember when the men came out of the pub the worse for drink each Saturday night, they would sing that as they walked past my door.  I never knew it was a hymn”.  It had not been.  Like so many Welsh hymns, it had begun life as a drinking song, and its Welsh name, Ton y botel (“Tune of the Bottle”) rather makes that clear.

Perhaps the greatest memory the great aunt had, though, was shared after I had played one of the old parlour pieces I had found buried deep among all the old sheet music under the lid of the piano stool.  A dreamy look came over her face when she said how beautiful it was.  The last time anyone had played it on the piano in the house had been when she was a young girl and a frequent English visitor to the village had called in to have tea with her mother. She recalled that, “Apparently he was some kind of composer in England”.  “Can you remember his name?” I asked.  “Yes.  Edward Elgar”.

20 August 2018

Mahler gets the Byrd



 
If the musical health of a city is gauged by the number of concerts it hosts, then Singapore is in robust musical health.  Most days of the week something is happening on the classical music front, and at weekends the diary can get very crowded indeed.  This last weekend was a typical example, where very difficult choices had to be made about what to attend and what to miss.  There was a big Mahler event taking place on Saturday, and I imagine most Singapore music-lovers gravitated towards that. 

Not me.  I chose to give Mahler a miss and took the bus up to a remote hill-top monastery in Bukit Batok to hear some Byrd.

The alliteration certainly attracted my attention.  After all, as regular readers know, for me, alliteration absolutely always attracts attention – the concept of taking the Bukit Batok Byrd Bus was linguistically irresistible.  But what really swung my choice in favour of Byrd was that Mahler symphonies are performed with such frequency in Singapore that I have reached saturation point – I think I could go to my grave quite happily now without ever hearing another Mahler symphony. I’ve heard Mahler 2 more times over the last decade in Singapore than I did in my entire previous existence, and much as I like the work, a little over-indulgent emotional excess can go a very long way indeed.

I count the music of William Byrd among my most absolute favourite.  I checked my personal record collection just now, and discovered I had more recordings of Byrd than of any other single composer.  I was probably around five or six when I first encountered Byrd.  Since then I have sung Byrd, accompanied Byrd and conducted Byrd.  When I was in England I reckon I heard Byrd at least once a week.  But in Singapore Byrd is rare, and when you do catch some, it is always a moment to savour.  I hear it from time to time sung liturgically in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, but despite a plethora of choirs in Singapore, few are either willing or able to tackle Byrd.  After all to sing Byrd properly requires a particular level of intellectual insight and musical wit, and I’m not sure the current pool of American-trained, soft-core-pop-orientated choral directors possesses that sort of insight or wit.

Cappella Martialis is a small group of like-minded enthusiasts who specialise in singing the kind of sacred and liturgical music which forms the very foundations of modern choral singing.  They may not do it particularly well technically, but they do it with love and sincerity, and that, to me, matters far, far more than having every little detail perfectly manicured.  On Saturday more than once things seemed on the brink of collapse as a voice or two fell by the wayside, as tuning sagged, balance wobbled dangerously and stability of pitch was a very rare commodity. (Why do choirs here seem so terrified of pitch pipes?  Surely it’s better for the singers to hear their pitch blown clearly and steadily, than to wait for a single member to pluck a starting note from a tuning fork thrust against an ear-lobe?)  But there was a powerful feeling of collective involvement in the spirit of the music which easily overwhelmed these technical flaws.

When I had last seen Cappella Martialis perform, they had rather spoiled things with a stage manner which reminded me of nothing other than a flock of sheep in a field determined to avoid the ministrations of the guiding sheep dog.  Things had improved beyond measure for this performance, and as a stage presentation, it had a good sense of occasion and a feeling that it had been, at the very least, thought through.  There did seem to have been a little pay off in quality of singing, and the conductor’s single-minded obsession with beating time and keeping the singers together meant that everything sounded as if it was being sung by a group of individuals jogging around the athletics track – a notion reinforced by the very obvious beating time from singers with both hands firmly affixed to copies.

But if on a purely technical level the singing lacked polish, and there was a lurking suspicion that it simply had not been rehearsed thoroughly enough, there was absolute sincerity and conviction in this singing which transcended everything else in the performance.  It had the power to move and inspire; it was not a pretty sound but it was dazzling in the beauty of vision it conjured up in the listener. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing here, though, was the obvious amount of deep and thorough research which had gone into the programme.  Cappella Martialis programme booklets  are a work of art, full of fascinating historical insight, beautiful and carefully chosen illustrations, and so much information, that they are best read at leisure (which is why, I assume, they send out the programme booklets in advance to the audience).  They are also privileged to have among their number a fine scholar who delivers fascinating, enlightening and intriguing insights to set the music in context before each part of the concert.  Among the gems he offered up on Saturday night was the thought that we were hearing music which was not just written as an act of rebellion, but as one of treason.  He drew our attention to little coded messages and signs in the music; and I have to confess to having become so familiar with these works that I had never stopped to think much about either their context or these coded signs.  When the choir sang the word “Catholic” in the Credo from the Mass for Four Voices, suddenly moving into chordal harmony and repeating the word, the incredible bravery and political risk Byrd was taking was revealed in all its amazing glory.

Here was a concert which conclusively showed that, if the music is good enough, we do not need a polished, technically flawless performance to convey its meaning.  All we need are people who both understand and love what it is all about, and we certainly had those on this occasion.  My decision to give Mahler the Byrd on Saturday was thoroughly vindicated.
 
 

06 August 2018

One from the Tudor Archives

A good friend urged me to seek out and listen to the group called Stile Antico and even bought me one of their CDs to convince me!  I was duly impressed and when, in 2013, the sadly-defunct International Record Review sent me a new release from them for review, I was happy to share my friend's enthusiasm for them.  The original review popped up the other day and I felt it was probably worth resurrecting; the disc is still available:


Tudor church music is so embedded in the repertoire of choirs of all shapes and sizes that it is hard to believe that it has not been there for centuries. The fact is the sacred music of Byrd, Gibbons, Tallis et al appeared in practical performing editions only in the 1920s and even then took a while to establish itself. It was a project financed by the Carnegie UK Trust, which, as Matthew O’Donovan points out in his booklet notes, ‘was to transform the musical life of the whole nation’. Between 1922 and 1929 Carnegie funded Tudor Church Music, which over ten volumes published for the first time many of the great Tudor masterpieces which have become so familiar to us today. That there was an appetite for this music in those inter-war years is evidenced by the fact that within eight years of its publication, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus had sold staggering 16,629 copies; that it remains as popular today is evidenced by the fact that one UK online retailer lists no fewer than 46 currently available recordings of the work from performers who range from church choirs, through most of the major English cathedral and collegiate choirs to specialist singing groups from across Europe and the US.
Here is a forty-seventh disc to add to that list and it is unquestionably one of the best.

Stile Antico, a relatively new player on the block, formed in 2001 , has already established itself as a leading group in the Early Music vocal arena, and this is only the latest in a long line of extremely impressive discs released on the Harmonia Mundi label. Its collective (conductorless) approach pays particular dividends in this repertoire where the music depends on an instinctive reaction from the individual singers rather than a sense of order created by a firm hand on the tiller. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gibbons’s O clap your hands, where the sprightly rhythms here have an appropriately percussive edge while the occasional false relations have a spine-tingling spiciness brought about by clashes which feel as if they happen by accident rather than design. Clarity of texture, driving tempos and superb diction are all there, but what is more vivid is the glorious freshness and vitality of this singing.

This is a disc which might have done well under such a title as ‘The Golden Age’s Greatest Hits’ (thank goodness Harmonia Mundi did not go down that road), for everything here is hugely familiar to just about anyone who has dipped a toe however tentatively — into the realms of English church music. Byrd’s great Mass for five voices is here, effectively diluted by being interspersed with various other pieces (highlighting the emphasis on the music rather than the texts), and alongside it are some of the best-loved motets of them all. It makes for an ideal single-volume compendium of Tudor church music.

The term ‘Tudor’ is perhaps a little misleading since the pieces here span a period of some 120 years stretching into the Jacobean period. But whether the music is early (the earliest piece is Taverner’s O splendor gloriae, with its transparent textures and extensive use of imitation) or late (the exquisite Almighty and everlasting God, a standard for many English parish churches during the latter half of the twentieth century) Stile Antico presents it with a glorious and compelling freshness. The result is not merely a wholly justified celebration of the foresightedness of the early editors of Tudor Church Music (who, interestingly, did not include the one name most of us associate with the revival of Tudor church music at the time: R. R. Terry was dismissed from the editorial board before the first volume was produced) but also a powerful reappraisal of repertoire which has become so popular we now almost take it for granted.

Add to this excellent singing, a splendid recording made in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London and a beautifully produced booklet, and we have a release which in its own way is quite as wonderful as the original Carnegie-funded editions.
 

02 August 2018

Did Choirs Exist Before the Internet?


The BBC is to blame for my arriving at work this morning a little late.  Just as I was about to leave home, on came a news item about a choir in Brisbane which meets in a pub.  I was interested in the story, of course, and particularly by the fact that the BBC devoted so much air time to it today, bearing in mind issues such as the violent aftermath of the Zimbabwe elections, ructions in the British Labour Party, the running out of funds by an English council, a Mexican airliner crash and the clearing up after an Indonesian earthquake, all hot news topics which could easily have occupied a whole half-hour’s news slot.  Interested as I was, and fascinated by the visuals accompanying the report (which seemed to be largely drawn from a private publicity video), I found myself wondering why it was appearing on the world news today.  Why was it newsworthy?

Choirs have been meeting in pubs for centuries.  Virtually every English cathedral has a pub next door to which the choirmen retreat before and after - and sometimes during - practices and performances.  I ran a Welsh male voice choir which, after each weekly short rehearsal in a dreary school hall, repaired to the pub where practice continued until closing time.  (The first commercial recording in which I was involved as an organist was of another Welsh male choir which, after several fruitless studio sessions, was told to go to the pub next door and practice there, only coming back when they were in full voice – which worked a treat!)  I used to sing in a community choir which met in the local pub, and I’ve never sung with any group of carol singers which hasn’t followed the centuries’ old tradition of ending their sessions in a pub or two.  Everyone in the business knows that singing, that most intimate and personal of musical activities, is best carried out in a comfortable environment and with inner restraints relaxed by alcohol and atmosphere.  What more obvious place to rehearse (and perform) than in a local pub?

My question was answered only near the end of the BBC report when the person doing the voice-over pointed out that the pub choir in Australia had become “a social media sensation”.  Ah!  Social Media!  The only reality many of today’s citizens of the world recognise!

It has long troubled me that the internet and, in particular, social media is seen as the sole legitimiser of existence.  Unless we photograph our food, our pets, our children and ourselves in every conceivable situation and at every moment of our existence, and then share that to an impersonal mass of “friends” via social media, our very existence has no legitimacy.  When I scroll down my Facebook page – which I do with rather disturbing frequency – I promise myself that I will do something more productive the moment I encounter the first photo of a cute cat, dopey dog, boisterous baby or foul food.  I never do simply because that is usually about the second (if not the first) item I find.  People I have never met, never heard of or who have never shown the slightest interest in me, regale me with endless pictures of their hideous kids, their ghastly pets, their obnoxious dietary fads, and of course selfies, often adorned with cartoon-like frames reinforcing my notion that they do not exist in real life at all. 

But I chose to sign up to Facebook (after all, why should I be alone in denying the Russians, the Americans, and every Middle-East terrorist organisation access to my bank account, my passwords and every last detail of my personal life, friends, family, address and occupation?).  Part of the reason I do so is a prurient fascination in the mundane lives and dreary interests of mediocre people who I would never rub shoulders with in real life.  In short, social media, for me, represents an entertainment and a diversion from my own reality.  What troubles me is that so many see it not as a diversion, but as reality itself.  Too many foolishly use it as the forum for expressing deeply held views of some personal import.  Because of the nature of social media, these deeply held views are invariably ridiculed and diminished by others who feel empowered to comment because they have been given equal access to ideas and notions even though they lie way beyond their comprehension.

Thus it is that, despite the fact that choirs have been meeting, rehearsing and practising in pubs for centuries, it only becomes reality when it is posted on social media and attracts “followers” (ie. bored people with nothing better to do with their lives).  Working as an editor for a Hong Kong musical organisation, I encounter many young and enthusiastic people who, keen to learn, nevertheless find the boundaries of their learning defined by what is available on the internet.  Frequently, when I write something original about a composer or a piece of music, I am asked; “How do you know that?  I don’t see it on the internet”; the inference being that if it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.  A former Malaysian student doing some research on nerves in music performance asked me for some guidance as to suitable materials.  I pointed him in the direction of an excellent book written by one of my former tutors at Cardiff sometime in the 1970s.  I gave him the details, but was told I had to be wrong as the book didn’t exist.  “It does”, I told him, and “I have a copy on my shelf at home”.  “You can’t”, he retorted, “There’s no mention of it on Amazon or any of the other sites I checked”.  Preparing reading lists for my own students, I continually find uniquely valuable published resources which are not available on the internet other than in plagiarised extracts included on free-to-access sites.  If I refer to a site for which payment is required, students routinely refuse to access it, arguing that they can find all they need (as if they know) on Wikipedia and other freely available sites.

At a meeting the other day, one academic suggested that he saw a time when libraries would no longer exist as physical resources; “Young people can find with a few key strokes more material online and more quickly than we ever have been able to through books and CDs”.  I chose not to suggest that the material they thus found might not be of equal value and quality, instinctively knowing that I would be accused of being a dinosaur, of living in the past, of holding on to obsolete and old-fashioned notions in the face of unstoppable technological advances.

Yes, I am a dinosaur.  I do prefer physical books and physical CDs (even LPs and 78s!), and I continue to subscribe to a number of print journals which mostly end up in the recycle bin.  But I also spend most of my waking hours online, researching, reading and learning.  We live in an age when we have wonderful opportunities presented to us by the sheer amount of information available to us from a plethora of sources, and by our ease of access to it.  But we cannot process so much as individuals and need to develop skills of selectivity; not simply dismiss old technologies and unthinkingly accept social media and online resources as the sole repositories of legitimacy.

Like the BBC report, if we do that, we lose that vast wealth of accumulated knowledge which remains in the memories of so many, yet has never quite found its way on to an online resource.  We run the risk of allowing future generations to believe that nothing in music existed before the internet.

31 July 2018

Thinking Out Of The Musical Box

I have just finished reviewing a hugely enjoyable disc of Dohnányi’s chamber music vivaciously played by the Nash Ensemble and splendidly recorded (as ever) by Hyperion.  In due course my review will appear on the pages of MusicWeb International.

But I mention it here because of something I read in the booklet notes commissioned for the release by Veronika Kusz, a specialist in Dohnányi’s music who teaches at the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest.  As with the very best CD booklet notes and essays, this one not only illuminates the music and makes you want to listen to it, but it also introduces ideas and makes statements which encourage the reader to think more deeply and consider issues from a new perspective.

The most contentious thing that Dr Kusz writes is actually a quotation from a source she describes as “Dohnányi expert James A Grymes”.  He came up with the outrageous description of Dohnányi as “a forgotten hero of the Holocaust”.  We are all guilty of making exaggerated statements in support of those we perceive to be lost causes, but this one takes the biscuit and is, for me, so ridiculous as almost to warrant blind dismissal.  (The quote is taken from Gryme’s blog post "Dohnanyi and the Hungarian Holocaust”, and we all know how unreliable blog posts are!)

Hero of the Holocaust?
Kusz uses the Grymes quote to support her own claim that “the name of Ernö Dohnányi…almost disappeared completely a couple of decades after his death”, and that the prime reason for this was “a result of the political situation in his home country”.  This may be correct from a Hungarian perspective, but most certainly not from a British one.  The West tended to have a lot of sympathy with the Hungarians; while the Russians, it was felt, had brought their own terrible regime on themselves, the poor Hungarians had been ruthlessly overrun by an ideology to which they did not, by and large, subscribe.  We were certainly more open to Hungarian music, and so far as I recall, Hungary and Hungarian artists were more accessible to us.  We certainly knew of Dohnányi, his recordings circulated widely, and, if nothing else, his Variations on a Nursery Theme vied with Rachmaninov 2 as the most popular piano concerto of the 20th century.  In fact, when I was growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s, the name of Ernö Dohnányi was more often to be found in record collections than that of Dmitri Shostakovich.

What really had me thinking deeply, however, was the secondary reason Kusz identified as the cause for Dohnányi’s obscurity in the late 20th century.  “Dohnányi’s musical style”, she writes, “was considered obsolete and anachronistic by audiences of his day”. 

It is very true that in the latter half of the 20th century, an age musically infused with the Second Viennese School and its aftermath, with the avant-gardists and the electro-acoustic experimenters, and with (to use my favourite phrase coined from elsewhere) “the cult of the unlistenable”, the self-appointed musical intelligentsia declared that anything which showed allegiance to the established conventions of harmony, melody, instrumentation or structure, or, worse still, was enjoyed by the masses rather than an elite minority, was bad.  Music critics came under pressure to celebrate this love of the obscure and inaccessible and to dismiss the conventional and accessible, university music departments pushed their students to test the limits of musical experimentation without regard to commercial or public acceptance, and music publishers spewed out reams of wholly unplayable and even more wholly unlistenable music.  What hope was there, in that environment, for a composer whose music was tuneful, expressive, harmonically driven and recognisably part of the great river of tradition stretching back over the centuries?

The 20th century was also an age in music education where everyone believed as an inalienable truth that music fell into clearly defined musical periods.  If music was written between 1600 and 1750 we called it “Baroque” and judged it according to its proximity to a set of rules and regulations we ourselves imposed on it.  As a result composers such as Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Handel were regarded as lesser to the great Johann Sebastian Bach because their music did not conform to his style (he was held up as the exemplar of “Baroque”).  Similarly, the so-called “Classical” era was defined around the music of Haydn and Mozart, leaving no room for other composers to be regarded; yet this was one of the most productive periods of musical creation in the history of Western Music.  Similarly, anything written during the 20th century had to conform to the ideals established first by Stravinsky and later by a whole range of composers each of whom had in common a desire to go beyond the bounds of expressive utterance which had dominated music in the 19th century.  Thus when a Sergei Rachmaninov, a Richard Strauss or an Ernö Dohnányi came along, their music was instantly dismissed as “irrelevant”, a sterile throwback to a long dead age.  Our 20th century fad for placing music in categories denied us access to some of the great creation of our time, simply because it did not meet the artificial criteria loudly proclaimed by those who convinced us they were our musical and intellectual betters.

Fortunately, in most right-thinking musicians and music educators of the 21st century, such pointless labellings and stylistic boxes are an anachronism; not for nothing is one of the most annoying, irritating and platitudinous idioms of or time “thinking out of the box”.  In the 20th century, we spent all our time thinking inside the box – the thing being we constructed our own boxes to suit our own ends - and that was to music’s great detriment.

We now live in an age when we accept anything musically on its own terms.  We can say that John Stanley was as great a composer as J S Bach, even though he never wrote such good Fugues or indulged in such contrapuntal labyrinths.  We can proclaim J M Kraus the equal to W A Mozart, even though his name was not Mozart.  John Field gets elevated on his own terms, not just as an appendix to Chopin. And we can celebrate the genius of Ernö Dohnányi, even though his music is accessible, tuneful and utterly enchanting. 

30 July 2018

Can We Teach Improvisation ?


When Trinity introduced Improvisation into its examination syllabus, many of us rejoiced.  Much as the exam boards protest that they offer a syllabus rather than a curriculum, in reality we all know that most teachers around the world teach to the exam syllabus and no further; if it’s not in the syllabus, their thinking goes, there’s no reason to teach it.  So when improvisation appeared on the syllabus, many teachers felt obliged to teach it.  And that has to be a good thing.

Unfortunately, as with so much else that Trinity did at the time, improvisation was introduced to the exam syllabus with such crashing ineptitude that over the first few years at least, any beneficial effects were largely obscured by administrative idiocy.

For a start, no clear guidance was offered to teachers.  More seriously, so verbose and confusing were the instructions given to examiners that you could read into them whatever you wanted to read into them; if I remember rightly the phrase “appropriate length” cropped up!  The result was that most examiners took their own approach to improvisation as the yardstick and assessed what was presented to them in the exam room accordingly.   

The take-up by candidates was small and, perhaps inevitably, largely by those who already were gifted and experienced in the art of improvisation.  So for many of us examiners, our first experiences of improvisation in the exam room were wholly positive.  I remember a brilliant pianist in South Africa and a fabulous saxophonist in the USA whose improvisations were so fluent and accomplished that it seemed almost superfluous to add a comment to the full marks I gave.  Yet when I mentioned one to a colleague, I was told that she would have marked the candidate down because clearly the improvisation had gone on too long (I had let it run for the best part of 20 minutes!). 

At teachers’ meetings I was asked time and time again to offer advice.  “How”, I was asked, “do we teach improvisation?  What books do we need?”  Even more concerning was a question asked with rather disturbing regularity; “What exactly is improvisation?”  Eventually, of course, various books and tutors on the subject did crop up, but with a very unwholesome result.  Whatever stimulus you gave the student – the choice was a rhythmic pattern or a row of notes upon which they expanded and elaborated, or a row of chords above which they improvised a melody line (a gift to singers, although never once did I have a singer improvising in an exam) – they roundly ignored and presented their prepared “improvisation” in a key, to a time signature and with a melodic outline which bore no relation whatsoever to the stimulus.  I routinely failed these until a circular from Head Office told us not to; it suggested that since we could not know whether the student was improvising or not (unless, as some did, they had the written out copy with them) we had to let it pass, merely commenting that the relationship with the stimulus was unclear!

Last year Trinity completely revamped its Improvisation making it far more coherent for teachers and far easier to assess for examiners.  But in so doing, I wonder whether it has become too prescriptive, taking away the art and concentrating on the science – clearly defined chordal progressions, pre-ordained metres, repetitive rhythmic patterns.  In short, does it stifle creativity in its endeavour to be accessible?  Talking with former examiner colleagues, I get the picture that improvisation in the exam is now more in the manner of a prepared and rehearsed exercise.

As an organist, improvisation is a daily fact of life – as it is to jazz players – and the one thing that you quickly learn is that you cannot be too prescriptive.  So much depends on context and setting.  You improvise at a funeral in a very different way than you improvise in a bar.  At weddings, as the bride hovers around the west door having countless photographs taken and veils re-aligned, you cannot start on any kind of inevitable harmonic sequence when, at any moment, that light might flash and you have to launch into B flat major for the Bridal Chorus (please tell me brides never have that anymore!).  While the money is being collected (sorry, “offerings being made”) do you remind them that the organ find could do with a bit extra by making the instrument sound odd, or do you soothe them into a complacency which prompts more generous giving?  If you approach the improvisation with a pre-ordained set of harmonies, a strong melodic design or a coherent rhythmic pattern, will you be able to jump out of it at a moment’s notice and pass on to the next thing seamlessly.

When I was in Sydney for three months a couple of years back I regularly went to the spectacular St Mary’s Cathedral – my apartment was looking on to it, so it was but a short walk for me – not driven by profound religious observations, but by sheer admiration for the then assistant organist’s glorious improvisations.  He could go from a plainchant to a Victorian hymn, from a Haydn Mass to a Taize chant or from a children’s carol to a soft-porn “worship song” without dropping a beat.  Music flowed with such fluency and charm that I felt closer to Heaven then than I have ever done before or since.  I did once go to congratulate him after the service, but others were there including some appalling Poms who asked “What was that music you played during the collection?” and refused to believe he had simply made it up on the spot – I felt that nothing I said could have offered greater praise to a brilliant improviser.

We are blessed in the organ world with a lot of brilliant improvisers and a lot more, like me, who are barely adequate.  But we never did improvisation in our exams and many of us never studied it until we were already very well versed in its intricacies and simply wanted to increase our improvisatory vocabulary.  Which begs the question, is there any real value in teaching improvisation to young students?  Is it not something which comes with either experience or natural talent, and needs only to be guided rather than taught from scratch?  In which case, for all its good intentions, was the Trinity idea misguided?

27 July 2018

How Fake News Grows


Much to my surprise, I find myself at the centre of a tiny flurry of fake news.  While I have found it hugely entertaining and rather amusing, I have also been made aware of how pernicious it can be and how it can spiral out of control with unforeseen and unexpected implications.  I might be accused of a persecution complex or, more realistically, undue egotism, but by sharing the experience I vainly hope that those who sit idly at their computers happily typing whatever they want and then thoughtlessly posting it to the outer world, might realise that it can backfire terribly.

It began with a review.  A fairly innocuous one, I have to say, published in the Straits Times of Singapore and concerning a performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  As ever, I would have expected some involved to disagree, some to agree, and most to let it pass unnoticed over their heads.  I might have expected the conductor to take issue with my comments on his interpretation or some of the brass players to accuse me of an excess of superlatives on their playing, but not a single comment reached my ears from any of the performers or those directly concerned with the concert.  Reading the review again, I am struck by its generally positive and, at times, excessively enthusiastic tenor, not least in my unstinting praise of the combined choral forces of three different choirs in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.  I certainly stick by every single word I wrote and every single word that the edited Straits Times version presented to the newspaper-buying public (I never saw what they posted on the online version, but I assume it was more-or-less the same as the print one).

Within 24 hours of the review’s publication, however, an acquaintance forwarded to me a comment which had appeared on Twitter (I’m not a Twitterer – it strikes me as a wholly ridiculous concept aimed at the illiterate and those with limited attention spans, and Donald Trump’s excessive use of it only proves my point).  Editing out the weird linguistic abbreviations and incoherent abuse, the gist of it was that I was guilty of reviewing a concert I had not attended.

Shortly afterwards, a more extended comment appeared on Facebook (again sent to me by an avid Facebookista) which hurled invective at me for rubbishing the Singapore International Choral Festival in my review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Literally minutes later, my editor at the Straits Times passed on to me for comment a virtually identical letter to the Facebook post, but purporting to come from a wholly different person. 

It was obvious that an orchestrated campaign of misinformation was underway, suggesting that I had not attended the Singapore International Choral Festival but had criticised it in my review.  Neither is true.  The Singapore International Choral Festival ran for several days, and, at the invitation of one of the overseas choirs participating, I had attended several sessions as well as the final concert and prize-giving (which took place the day after the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert).  I had fully intended to write an enthusiastic piece about it on this blog – I had very much enjoyed everything I heard and had been hugely impressed by many of the choirs.  I will not be doing that now!

I was able to tell my editor that the letter they had received was promulgating a totally false story.  I suggested that it had been prompted by the fact that I had praised generously the choirs taking part in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert, which probably rankled with those organising the Singapore International Choral Festival, who probably felt that the Straits Times had not given them the publicity they craved.  On top of that, after the personal abuse and invective thrown at me, the letters sent rehearsed in some detail the timetable and ideals of the Festival, leading to the obvious conclusion that they were merely writing in in order to gain some free publicity.

As a great supporter of choral singing, I had in my original review felt that it might be nice to mention the then ongoing choral festival as a way of underlining the world-standard quality of the home-grown combined choirs performing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  Thus I had written; “In another part of Singapore this weekend, an International Choral Festival was taking place, but I doubt if any of those choirs exhibited the discipline, richness of tone and sheer professionalism of this 95-strong body of singers”.  I think that’s a great way of killing two birds with one stone – emphasising the outstanding quality of local singers brought in for a one-off concert, and pointing out Singapore’s vibrant choral scene to those many Straits Times readers who do not live or work in Singapore (the paper is available freely to all passengers on Singapore Airlines) – and were I to write the review again, I would use EXACTLY those same words in EXACTLY that context.

It was this comment which was seized upon by the fake news people who, determined to promote their agenda as the truth and all others as false, went on with the online campaign, now that the print media had closed the door to them.

Abusive posts have appeared, fake news-sites have pushed the issue as if it is significant, and people who have never met me, heard of me or have ever even been interested in what I do, now feel empowered to hurl personal abuse at me for the ultimate incompetence of reviewing a concert I did not attend (while I did not review a festival which I did attend!). Someone even found an online profile of me dating from the 1990s to show how unqualified I was to review the Singapore International Choral Festival (which I did not!).  I was accused of dismissing every choir outside Singapore as second rate, of being rude to foreign choirs visiting Singapore and of ignorantly claiming that every choir participating in the Singapore International Choral Festival was second-rate and that its adjudicating panel was stuffed with musical ignoramuses.  In short, within days of an innocuous review praising three Singapore choirs, I was being accused of being both vehemently anti-Singapore and aggressive pro-Singapore, of being ignorantly anti-choir and blindly pro-choir, and of possessing extreme ignorance and showing calculated rudeness.  I’d like to think none of those accusations has even a scintilla of truth about them.

With any orchestrated online campaign against something, eventually a counter orchestration will arise, and, true enough, recent posts have appeared rubbishing those who rubbish me.  Both sets of rubbishers are guilty of peddling fake news, for one comment made suggested that the real reason behind the abuse hurled at my original review was that the person orchestrating it had a particular axe to grind and was using my review as the whetstone.

And here we have the real danger of fake news.  A real person was named, the name being the same as the name on the letter sent to my editor at Straits Times.  This person has some official connection with the Singapore International Choral Festival and is also fairly well known in Singapore choral circles.  Whether or not they were the orchestrator of the campaign, or even the true originator of the letter sent to Straits Times, I have no way of knowing  - I imagine most online abuse hides behind false names and aliases – but the damage is done.  It has been said that this person was rejected as conductor of one or more of the combined Singapore choirs brought in for the Polovtsian Dances and by abusing the choirs in that performance, they were attempting to undermine the successful candidate as music director.

So, from a single ill-conceived and iller-considered Tweet to a flurry of online abuse on a plethora of platforms, the abuse has moved on from me and turned back on to my apparent abusers.  What gets lost in all this squalid and puerile name-calling is the one basic fact that the combined choirs of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Singapore Symphony Children’s Choirs are fabulous and that the Singapore International Choral Festival was a brilliant display of excellent choral singing. 

I hope this blog post goes a little way to restore some kind of sanity and remind us that we should all be working in concert for the good of music.