02 June 2020

Singing is Killing


Amongst the plethora of confusingly contradictory scientific comment on the COVID-19 pandemic (it used to be called Novel Coronavirus until the novelty wore off and we realised the common cold was also a coronavirus), one nugget has earned my serious interest, and it concerns music.

Most of the so-called scientific information doing the rounds has been relayed and, possibly, adjusted according to the relayer’s bias, prejudice or wishful thinking, and in the process has lost its legitimacy.  And when I relay something a friend of mine told me, anybody would be right to imagine I am merely following the trend and reporting ersatz-science which appeals to me regardless of its scientific basis.  But my friend was, until his retirement, a highly distinguished epidemiologist who had produced some valuable research at the time of SARS.  I knew him from a choir I conducted in Cardiff during the 1970s, in which he sang bass, flanked by a pathologist (who was rarely sober) and a dentist (who rarely turned up, spending most of his time in Monaco where he had a yacht and a string of mistresses – which surprised us all since his wife, who worked as his assistant, was jaw-droppingly beautiful and probably accounted for the huge success of his dental practice). The pathologist died in a motor accident (in which alcohol played a part) and the dentist ended up in prison, but the epidemiologist went on to achieve great success as an academic, and we have kept intermittently in touch ever since.  When the latest virus first began to emerge in Asia, he was in Singapore on his way back from a World Health Organisation crisis meeting, and over dinner at his hotel, he told me that the most successful way in which such viruses are transmitted is through singing. 

Since then, I have heard more than one eminent (and not so eminent) authority on the subject of viruses and infectious diseases say the same thing.  While a cough has a spread of several meters (hence the largely universal acceptance that we should keep two meters apart), singing projects the voice, and any germs in the lungs, throat and mouth, over far greater distances.  On top of that, while, if you find yourself in the vicinity of a cough, you instinctively cover your nose and mouth, the only orifices you are likely to cover if you hear someone singing in close proximity, are your ears.  There seems no more perfect spreader for a virus which attacks the respiratory system, than a fully-trained singer.  By their very nature, singers don’t wear face masks, and in these heightened times of wishing everyone goodwill, we even look on those who sing in the streets of an evening as some kind of local hero to be admired rather than avoided.  Yet the science is there; if you want to stop the most effective means of spreading the virus, ban singing!

And not just singing in public, it seems.  In the UK at the moment everyone is going gooey-eyed over split-screen choirs where each voice is singing its part in isolation, then brought together by the wonders of Russian and Chinese-tapped communal computer programs.  In that each singer is singing from his or her own spaces, these are seen to be properly socially acceptable at a time when we must keep apart, but, I ask, who else is in the room, or the house, with the singer?  Is he or she not infecting everyone around him, even if we do not see those others in the miniature fragment of screen allotted to that singer?  In watching these communal attempts at isolationist choral singing, might we not also be witnessing Secret Virus Spreaders at work?  And in the UK, where Thursday nights were previously given over to everyone going out into the streets, clapping, banging on saucepans, and singing in support of health workers, has not the transmission rate (which we are told seems loathe to drop) been kept up by these well-intentioned but ultimately malign singers?

The irony of all this is that, during lockdown, circuit-breaker, or whatever label the politicians like to attach to it, singing has come to be seen as something to be encouraged for the social good.  Lots of people (centenarian Sir Captain Thomas Moore included) have been celebrated for their singing prowess at this time, and I have heard the usual mawkish comments from musical illiterates about how singing “is good for us”.  But beware!  It is not.  It is a killer!

With music in all its guises utterly ubiquitous in society, people have come to look on it not so much as harmless, as unremittingly beneficial.  It is beautiful and makes us all feel better (apparently).  Yet let’s not forget that music is a dangerous, potentially fatal weapon which, not necessarily in the wrong hands, has the power to do great harm.  We may laugh at the sorry tale of Lully, who stabbed himself in his foot and subsequently perished as a consequence of a musical performance.  But when an extreme Ulster Protestant threatened to kill me because I had (inadvertently) played a tune which bore (as I later learnt) an uncanny resemblance to the Irish National Anthem, and a policeman hurriedly urged me to turn off my car radio when, listening to the wedding of Charles and Diana while driving through Derry’s Bogside, fearing that, if an extreme Republican heard me, I would be unlikely to escape with my life, it did not seem so funny.  Deaths and murders have been prompted by music, singing revolutionary songs (some of which have now become national anthems) has led to killings, and operas (think La Muette de la Portici) have sparked riots.

Music is a dangerous thing, and we abuse it at our risk.  Singing during the COVID-19 pandemic is only another example of how music can have fatal consequences.

11 May 2020

The Demise of BBC House Orchestras




Hansard, the verbatim record of proceedings within the British Houses of Parliament, records a debate which took place on 27th June 1980 following the government’s decision to raise the BBC licence fee.  Those unacquainted with the way the BBC was funded then (and largely still is), should know that everyone in the UK with a television set was obliged by law to pay an annual licence, which funded not just the BBC television broadcasts, but all the radio stations and, most relevantly here, the BBC house orchestras.  The rise (for a colour television licence) was from £21 to £25, and it caused a huge public outcry, not least because the BBC regarded the rise as inadequate to meet their costs, so decided to dispense with a number of their regional house orchestras.  Hansard records the impassioned contribution to the debate from Andrew Faulds, the Labour party Member of Parliament for Warley East (in the English midlands) and a former actor who had, notably, appeared in the Ken Russell films based on the lives of Mahler, Liszt (Lisztomania) and Tchaikovsky (the Music Lovers); so he certainly had something of a professional interest.  He said; “What do the music cuts entail, in detail? In England, the Midland Radio Orchestra will be disbanded, with a loss of 32 jobs. That, of course, is in Birmingham. The Northern Radio Orchestra will be disbanded, with 22 jobs lost in Manchester. The London Studio Players will also be disbanded, with a loss of 19 part-time posts of musicians on first call. The Northern Ireland Orchestra will go, with a loss of 30 jobs, and with the hope that those musicians may get employment in a new orchestral alignment to be set up over the next year or so in a merger with the Ulster Orchestra. What those musicians do for a living in the meantime is somewhat unresolved.  Finally, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be—if I may use the phrase—scotched, with 69 jobs gone…In toto, 172 orchestral posts disappear. I have been given the figures for the cost of running each of these orchestras by the BBC. They are, per annum, as follows: the Northern Radio Orchestra, £180,000; the Midland Radio Orchestra, £220,000 the Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra, £700,000; and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, £620,000.” 

Today it is perhaps difficult to understand why the BBC ever felt the need to have so many orchestras at its disposal; today, with six “house” orchestras (half the number of full-time orchestras it ran in the 1960s) the BBC remains a major employer of orchestral musicians and certainly has enough orchestras at its beck and call not only to meet the demands of music broadcasting, but also to get out and about at home and abroad giving live concerts as well as spending time in the commercial recording studios.  However, while we now live in an age when music has become omnipresent in our lives, too many take it for granted, care nothing about its provenance or quality, and fail to differentiate between computerised imitations of musical instruments concocted by a handful of computer geeks, and a live orchestra of several dozen highly-trained players.  When you no longer really listen, you no longer really care.

The function of those BBC regional orchestras was largely to provide the kind of innocuous, middle-of-the-road music which is so smooth and well-oiled as to slip all too easily into the background and become an accompaniment to life rather than something which causes us to stop and listen.  So, it seems, in retrospect, a natural consequence that such music should no longer be the preserve of live musicians but fodder for those who like to create musical sounds digitally.  But the computer geeks have changed the nature of background music, and as a result we have lost an entire genre of music; the music which, described as “light”, ploughed a middle furrow between serious classical works and frivolous pop pieces.  That loss is only really felt when you can go back to those heady pre-1980s days and hear one of those now-defunct orchestras strutting its stuff in fabulously re-engineered sound. 

Faulds referred in his speech to the demise of the Northern Radio Orchestra which itself had only been formed five years earlier following a huge outcry over the disbanding of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra (NDO). Four decades after the demise of these orchestras, the NDO Project was set up with the aim of ensuring “that these superb musicians cannot be forgotten”, and it has broadened its reach to preserve the memory not only of the Manchester orchestras but also of the Midland Radio Orchestra which, itself, was formed in 1973 following the disbanding of the Midland Light Orchestra.  Comprising 25 players on strings and woodwind and with a seven-member rhythm section, the Midland Radio Orchestra worked for the first six years of its existence under the legendary Norrie Paramor.  It spent virtually its entire performing life in the BBC studios in Birmingham, although as the booklet notes tell us, it occasionally “emerged from the studio to give public concerts which were also broadcast”. This double-CD set comprises some 46 tracks (along with  three “bonus” tracks featuring small groups from the band) which gives a classic sample of the kind of thing they produced day in and day out mostly for BBC Radio 2 in the days when heavy limitations on commercial recordings played over the air (“needle-time”) made it necessary to fill most of the schedules with live and specially-recorded music.  The ending of needle-time restrictions in the 1980s helped sound the death-knell for the BBC light music orchestras.

The over-riding impression from these enchanting (and there is really no other word for it) tracks is of extremely polished, effortlessly fluent, and wonderfully balanced and manicured playing.  It does make for easy listening, certainly, but taking the trouble to focus the ears and listen seriously, reaps huge rewards; there is not only some truly outstanding playing here, but a consummate level of musicianship which today we only find when musicians get “serious”; if only we could get back to an age when such supreme quality was the benchmark even in music which places no demands on the listener.

Some of the arrangements, too, are quite remarkable and worthy of more attention than they would have got in their day.  I love the way Johnny Gregory has turned Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F into a busy, bustling toccata, and how Neil Richardson has so cleverly woven together so much authentic Gershwin to create a version of Summertime which, amazingly, does not sound like Gershwin at all.  Bernard Hermann’s version of Fly me to the moon is to die for, as is John Fox’s arrangement of Misty, Gordon Franks evokes Scottishness without it sounding in any way cliched in his version of the Skye Boat Song, and there is real pathos in his arrangement of Love Walked In. Colin Campbell’s arrangement of Mancini’s ubiquitous Pink Panther is a work of pure genius in the way it manages to replace the brass (there was no brass section in the Midland Radio Orchestra) with violins to extraordinarily convincing effect.

A trio of vocalists pops up in various numbers – June Marlow (A Fine Romance), Betty Smith (I feel pretty) and Angela Christian (Masquerade and Chelsea Morning) – evoking through their voices a style of singing long since lost, while it is good to see arrangers Stanley Black and Bernard Hermann appearing as soloists in their own arrangements - Black on piano for Laura, and Hermann on the flute in his somewhat unsuccessful attempt to condense Danse Macabre into the obligatory three-minute time slot.

While this pair of  CDs might present music and musicians from a bygone era, there is something intensely relevant about it to our own time; perhaps a timely warning that if you take it for granted, you risk losing it.  It is amazing to read that many of the recordings were originally destroyed by the BBC so that these outstanding new digital transfers, the work of Paul Arden-Taylor (who joined the orchestra’s woodwind section in 1979), have been assembled from studio backup copies and off-air recordings.  All power to the NDO Project for not just preserving this important part of British musical history, but for reviving it so effectively.

[This review appeared in MusicWeb International and the CD is available ONLY from www.northerndanceorchestra.org.uk]

11 March 2020

The Function of the Cassette


Image result for cassette

80,404 cassette tapes were bought in the UK last year last year, the highest annual figure since 2004.  That seems quite a lot for a medium which has, by all accounts, long outlived its usefulness.  Cars with inbuilt cassette decks are now only to be found in the ranks of vintage vehicles, and you need to find a yard selling house-clearance items to find a machine on which you can play cassettes at home. By common consensus, the cassette tape was, for all its once ubiquitous convincing, a pretty dreadful means of listening to music.  It was impossible to access individual tracks, the sound was masked by a loud and persistent hiss (a kind of mechanical tinnitus) and after a few playings, the tape invariably got stuck in the machine and had to be pulled out by hand, which unravelled the tape from the spool on to which it was physically impossible to rewind it, and knots of cassette tape became a standard feature of hedgerows where they were thrown, in desperation, from car windows.  I remember just one such occasion being a core part of the storyline to an Inspector Morse episode in the 1980s.

The British Phonographic Industry (they were the people who came up with the 80,404 figure), point out that cassettes still only accounted for 0.1% “of all music consumed in 2019” (presumably that excludes broadcast and live performances), and that it paled into insignificance compared with 4.3 million vinyl LPs and 23.5 million CDs. 

What intrigues me is why people would buy cassettes.  The BPI has its own thoughts on the matter; “Experts put the revival down to a combination of people who bought them in their youth, and a novelty for younger music fans”.  But I have a different view, and one which was prompted by a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last evening called “New Weird Britain”.  In it John Doran searched out the underground, experimental music scene in the UK.  And weird it most certainly is.  Here are just a few observations from a concert Doran attended while recording the programme: “A man with a mouthguard in a balaclava dribbles into a bag of shopping”, “A film showing bright pink bottoms sitting on Victoria sponge cakes is projected”, “I don’t want to look pretty when I perform, I want to look a bit weird and ugly, like a yellow custard alien”.  While this is unashamedly (and, it has to be said, purposefully) weird, it masks a very serious issue, which Doran explains at the very start; “There’s a new wave of musicians who don’t care about the 80s or 90s…because they are making something completely new out of the remnants”.  In other words, this is not nostalgia, but a genuine attempt to move on from the past.  And, for all my classical inclinations, I found far more to enjoy in the music I heard in this programme than in any of the commercialised pop of our time or the sterile experiments in unattractive sound by academic-based composers keen to show off their ability to confuse and obfuscate. 

But where do cassette tapes fit into all this?

Towards the end of the programme, Doran interviewed a young man who had set up a recording studio called the Greater Lanarkshire Research Council (GLARC) which offered free recording facilities to experimental music groups and released the recordings as cassettes.  As he explained, “it is economically a very sound choice. They are extremely cheap to produce.  We looked into doing vinyl but you usually have to do a run of 300 or 400, and it costs around 1500, whereas with tapes you’re looking at 1 per tape”.  Simple economics have led to the cassette becoming an iconic symbol of experimental music and, as the man from GLARC put it, “you can be more experimental with a tape”.  On top of that, because of their cheapness, you can play around with their physical appearance without worrying too much about any detrimental effect it might have on the sound.  The cassette, in effect, becomes a physical more than an aural representation of the performance; as Doran put it, “Selling cassettes after a gig is like a Masonic handshake”.

This ability to convey a genre which clearly goes beyond sound seems to me to be at least a significant driver of the increase in cassette tape sales rather than any desire for nostalgia or novelty.  And perhaps we are now coming to an age where the medium of carriage for music is dependent on the musical genre.  If the cassette has become the medium which defines experimental music, and vinyl that which defies rock music, perhaps the time has come for the classical world to claim back ownership of the CD.  One thing every performer has in common is a desire to get their music out into the world and, to do that, while you can certainly use online streaming and downloads, there is also the desire – in fact the need – to have some physical manifestation of one’s existence.  As I have frequently reminded students, about to embark on their careers and solo performers, giving an audience a link to a YouTube video has none of the long-lasting benefits of selling them a CD.  What the CD brings to classical music which makes it the ideal carrier, is its highly detailed sound, shorn of the atmospherics inbuilt to vinyl and cassette, and the provision of a booklet which, at some length, can introduce the performer, the instrument and the music.  We could be learning from the experimental music people, and making the CD our own, unique medium and not dismissing it as cumbersome, outdated technology.

08 March 2020

Romeo and Juliet in Singapore


It was never a specific part of my loose and amazingly wide-ranging job description with the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur, but I was the assiduous archivist.  I know the Malaysian Philharmonic librarians kept their own records, but I noted every single piece of music played in the hall, not just by the MPO but by visiting orchestras and artists, as well as the encores they played.  Funnily enough, when I left and offered this huge database to the management, they told me to destroy it. Whether or not I did remains my little secret, but I do not need to check it to know that in the first 10 years of the hall’s existence, the most frequently performed music was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.


Of course, it was almost always played in part rather than whole: orchestral suites prepared by the composer as well as by visiting and resident conductors, isolated movements performed by one or two pianos, an organist devising her own arrangements of extracts and, most memorably, a pair of mandolins playing, what for my money, is the most magical moment in the complete score.  The MPO even did it complete on one famous and unforgettable occasion.


But whether whole or in part, the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has become phenomenally popular with both performers and audiences.  There are many possible reasons for this, but my own passion for the work – beyond my admiration for the brilliance of Prokofiev’s invention and scoring – is based on its absolutely infectious qualities.  (When it comes to infection, COVID-19 has nothing on Romeo and Juliet killing far less people, per head  – the death rate in R&J works out around 14% as opposed to the 1.4% of COVID-19 as suggested by researchers at the University of Hong Kong.)  But while four people end up dead on stage, it’s not as a result of the musical virus.  That virus infects everyone who comes near the music, and manifests itself in uncontrollable foot tapping and an urge, even amongst fat slobs with gippy knees (like myself), to start dancing.  My 12-year-old daughter, generally immune to the delights of classical music, claims Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet to be her most favourite piece of music, and it was to satisfy her love for the music and her insatiable obsession with dancing, that I arranged for her to go the matinee performance of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s current production of Romeo and Juliet which is on at the Esplanade Theatre until Sunday night.  As it happened, my daughter could not attend so I went alone. 
  

Matinee performances are not really my scene, and I found myself surrounded by hordes of schoolgirls in their early teens doing what all Singaporean schoolgirls in their early teens do by natural instinct; continually texting each other on their phones and working through their mathematics homework, seemingly oblivious to the action on stage.  But the minute the performance started, I was utterly and completely engrossed, and even the continual chatter of the Greek gentleman behind me translating everything as it happened to his young daughter (although quite what there is to translate in a ballet is all Greek to me) did not for a moment detract from what was, in the true meaning of the word, a mesmerising performance.


As an avid ballet-goer and an even avid-er Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet camp-follower, I suffer that terrible problem of having my own favourite productions by which I subconsciously measure all others.  The auguries were not good for this one.  The lavish and information-packed programme book (what a shame the excellent, if sometimes contentious, words in it were unattributed) warned that Choo-San Goh’s production was very different from the others, in that it “is noted for his invention of a character, danced by a woman, representing Fate”.  I was apprehensive; in my 60s and with dozens of R&J’s under my extensive belt, changes of this magnitude do not sit easily, and I had never seen this particular production before.  Yet from the moment this figure, encased in a grey body-glove, whirred on to stage, I was completely won over.  So powerful a symbol was she that, on each appearance, sliding effortlessly across the stage at speed en pointe, my heart dropped. Not for any other reason than this dramatic presence symbolised the inescapable, unavoidable tragic consequences of the story.  Perhaps the brilliance of the dancer – on Saturday it was performed by Kwok Min Yi – was what made the figure of Fate so fabulous, but as a choreographer’s vision, it was truly inspired.


The dancing from the entire cast was superb.  Juliet (Akira Nakahama) and Romeo (Etienne Ferrère) exuded huge and utterly credible characters even in their extraordinarily long-drawn-out deaths, the former a model of grace and fluency, the latter a powerful and sincere presence on stage.  The Nurse (Samantha Kim) was brilliant, as was Friar Laurence (Yann Ek), the latter immensely impressive as he realised his fatal error in handing the potion to Juliet, and his desperate attempt to get her off stage before she espied the corpse of her lover.  Other memorable performances came from Lord and Lady Capulet (Mohamed Noor Sarman and Elaine Heng), especially in the remarkable ballroom dance, and from Tybalt (Reece Hudson), whose physical representation of extreme anger was nothing short of marvellous.


Perhaps, however, if there was a fault in the choreography, it was in a tendency to overuse certain technical devices.  Tybalt’s anger was dramatic first time around, but second time it rather lost its impact, and if poor Juliet was bent double at the back in a lift one more time, I suspect she will have permanent curvature of the spine.  But the choreography also had some dazzlingly brilliant moments.  The three Montagues’ “Masks” dance in the first act was truly breathtaking, as were their various subsequent appearances, and the sword fights were vivid and genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff.


Every time I attend a performance where an accompanying orchestra is conducted by Joshua Tan, I become even more impressed with his instinctive ability to respond to what is going on on stage.  His timing was effortless yet perfect, his pacing ideal and his command unwavering yet unobtrusive. It’s probably unfair to gauge the quality of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra from a Saturday afternoon matinee performance; suffice it to say that among the many great strengths they exhibited in this performance, intonation and precision of attack were not among them.  But I can only heap oodles of praise on the trumpet section which, throughout, was nothing short of magnificent.


The staging, lighting and entire production worked seamlessly and flawlessly – a great tribute not just to Janek Schergen, set-designer Peter Cazalet (whose costumes were fabulous) and lighting supremo Suven Chan, but to the whole backstage team – and the only serious downside was an ingratiatingly-voiced announcer who  irritatingly ran over a whole list of sponsors and glibly interrupted our applause by promoting other shows and encouraging us to spend lots of money.  My daughter missed a real treat, but, hordes of teenage schoolgirls and Greek fathers notwithstanding, I had one of the most magical times I can remember for a very long year.

17 February 2020

Has Music Stolen Our Emotions?


“Shall I tell you why people like us need fine art and good music?”  I caught an old 1990s TV series set in a judges’ chambers, and while my real intention was to veg out (chillax, is how David Cameron put it) in front of some mindless entertainment, one of the characters uttering those words to a new young female appointee puzzled by the apparent lack of concern judges showed for the consequences of their decisions, brought me back to reality with a jerk.  “It’s because we have lost the ability to feel.  We need other people’s feelings and passions to fill that hole in our own souls”.

Far be it from me ever to elevate the words of a jobbing TV script writer, charged with providing fodder for a series of hour-long episodes primarily concerned with giving exposure to a couple of once hugely popular actors in order to boost the channel’s viewing figures, into deep and considered thought, but this struck me as being – consciously or otherwise – remarkably perceptive.  And it offered a credible solution to a conundrum that has puzzled me for years; why has music suddenly become so ubiquitous, and why has it now become such a permanent feature of our daily lives that we seem almost to have taken it for granted?

Today, if you ask anyone to describe a piece of music, they will not tell you what they hear but offer their emotional response to it.  Music has become “beautiful”, “awesome”, “lovely”, “moving”, “passionate”, “angry”, “vicious”, “terrible”; words which indicate an emotional state rather than a physical one.  When Victor Hugo wrote in the mid-19th century, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was implying that music could express those deep, innermost sensations in us which we call our emotions, and for which we cannot find words to articulate.  There is no similar quote about music from previous centuries and, indeed, the linkage of music with emotion seems to have come only with Beethoven.

When people declare that Bach’s music is “beautiful”, they may be speaking the truth in the context of our own time, but I would argue that for Bach, beauty and music were wholly separate entities.  He wrote his music in praise of God and not as a kind of self-serving, stand-alone aural monument to be regarded solely on its own terms.  I suspect he would be horrified if he knew his offerings in praise of his God have now become a conduit through which he himself has been elevated to near God-like status.  We may find humour and wit in Vivaldi and Haydn, and love and happiness in that of Telemann and Mozart, but does that mean that this was why they wrote their music and what they expected their listeners to perceive in it?  If so, where are the rest of the gamut of human emotions?  Where is the anger, the spite, the viciousness, the desperation and the depression?  Yes, we can dig deep and, with a lot of imagination, find these other human emotions in their music, but the very fact that they are buried so deep, indicates that the channelling of their own human emotions was not their prime purpose in composing what they did.  We may find it difficult to believe that there was an age where emotions were so suppressed as to be virtually non-existent, or to understand a people who had neither the desire nor the ability to express, in any form, the inner feelings we now believe to be the very raison d'être of music.

It seems that no composer before Beethoven saw music as a means of expressing emotion as we now understand it.  Perhaps we have replaced a once blind obedience in the omnipresence of God with a blind belief in our right to voice and express our own sexuality, personality, beliefs and emotions, and thereby can no longer understand how society existed without these rights of self-expression.  Certainly the French Revolution started a train of consciousness which travelled far beyond the mere overthrowing of aristocratic rulers and a liberation, politically and economically, of mankind.  The freedom we now enjoy to express our innermost thoughts in a public arena and have them treated with respect is surely one of those unforeseen consequences.  Wherever the roots of it may lie, since the beginning of the 19th century, music has become a channel for emotions in a way it never was before.

Even that, though, does not explain the extraordinary ubiquitousness of music today.  Once the preserve of the gods and the god-like, the rulers and the religious, it is now the very fodder of daily life in all strata of society.  We have music force-fed to us in stores, taxis, station concourses, aircraft, we have it seeping out of the ears of our fellow citizens and we sell the latest technology on the strength of its ability to store ever greater numbers of musical pieces.  And that it is what puzzles me.  I know (or I think I know) why and how emotion first came into music, but I do not know why everyone and everywhere seems to use music as they use the air we breathe and the environment in which we live.  And seeing the destruction we wreak on our air and our environment, the consequence of having taken it for granted for so long, I can only see music suffering the same fate; as we destroy our physical environment, surely we are similarly destroying our aural one.  If we could recognise why we need music all around us, we might begin to find some way of saving it; otherwise, music is surely doomed.

And this is where our fictional judges’ chamber comes in.  Judges’ emotions may well have been blunted by continual exposure to the emotional wreckage they see before them in their courts.  I have no way of knowing the truth of this, the only high court judge I ever knew being an elderly Sri Lankan who used to tell me, with some glee, about the people he had sentenced to death and the appalling crimes they had committed (or not, as he also seemed unafraid to admit).  But I do know that the vast mass of our population is continually exposed to the greatest horrors life and imagination has to offer on a daily basis through our personal screens and cinema.  We see and hear so much that presents humanity in an extreme way, that in comparison we find our own experiences mundane and sense that our emotions lack the sharp-edges of those we witness on these various visual media.

Away from the screens and the cinemas, the reality of our lives seems dull and uneventful, we do not seem to experience the emotional highs and lows we see happening in front of our eyes electronically on a daily basis.  In short, our emotions have been blunted; we do not seem to experience the same passion, pleasure, joy, anger, terror or love of those who appear on our screens, so we feel bereft.  This is where music comes in.  It can personalise those emotional excesses and become our own channels for expressing a level of emotional consciousness we do not ourselves feel.  In short, it has become a substitute for genuine human feeling.

14 February 2020

The Nonsense Composers Write

This week I seem to have been upsetting composers, but that is neither surprising nor even unusual; composers should be fiercely possessive of their art and leap to its defence in the face of any negative criticism real or implied.  However, the offence has been caused not by my words about their music, but by my words about their words.  In short, I have come across that familiar situation where a composer has tried to explain or justify his music and has, so far as I am concerned, failed dismally.

I better be careful not to name names, but on Thursday a letter reached me from a Russian composer now resident in Switzerland whose music I had encountered for the first time when I reviewed a newly-issued CD of his recent works.  I have to say I was bowled over and loved every second.  My overwhelming impression, however (and I certainly did not intend this as a negative criticism) was that it was rooted in the sound world and musical idioms of the late 19th/early 20th century.  I commented that if Rachmaninov had been castigated in his life time for seeming to be backward looking, how would those narrow-minded critics react to music written in 2015 which inhabited a sound world which would have been familiar to listeners a century ago.  My point was that we have, critically moved on, and we now assess a work on its own merits, not on any misguided belief that music written today should sound difficult for the sake of sounding difficult. 

Here is what the composer wrote to me in response to that;
“You write that my Fourth Symphony ‘belongs firmly to the late 19th century sound world’ and ‘seems almost more backward-facing than Rachmaninov’.  But you are wrong!  The music has many characteristics that can only be heard in works from the twentieth century”, and he goes on to suggest that his music owes much to Verklärte Nacht, Gurre-Lieder, “early Berg and early Webern”.  I’m not sure that allying your music to the pre-serial days of the so-called Second Viennese School composers at the dawn of the last century is a convincing way of telling me that this music of the 21st century is NOT backward-looking.   On top of that, on the basis that the work is titled Symphony no.4 in G minor I observed that it was “firmly rooted in tonality”.  Yet the composer objects to this too; “the polytonal and atonal segments…you seem unable to hear”.  Whether I heard them or not does not alter the composer’s clear statement of tonality in the title.  If he wanted it to be seen as “polytonal and atonal”, why did he unequivocally state that it was in G minor?

In short, here is a composer who writes wonderful music, but would do well to keep his thoughts to himself when it comes to words; I am now not sure whether he really understands that the musical world has moved on since 1914.

The day before I received this letter, I had been taken out to dinner by another composer who told me that a third composer, a premiere of whose I had attended and reviewed earlier in the week, was baying for my blood.  One of that composer’s acolytes (I assume) has since written an anonymous message to me suggesting that my future existence on earth is by no means guaranteed.  It seems the fact that I was not ecstatic about the new work did not cause so much offence as the fact that I appeared to assume it was something it was not.  From the title of the work, as well as from the composer’s own fulsome programme notes oozing with lyrical prose and evocative imagery, I suggested in my review that the sound of the music did not live up to the expectations.  Frankly, there was just about nothing in the composer’s description of his music which related to what the music actually sounded like, and while I accept that everything he suggested was there in the composing process, it had been so enveloped within a desire to emphasise the technique of writing music, that to the casual listener, the description and the reality were two very different things.  “What was he expecting?”, is a phrase which the composer apparently uttered after having read my review. 
I am happy to answer him.  If you tell us that the piece evokes images of a rustic scene, that it incorporates a couple of famous folk melodies, and that the music represents a very picturesque image, then that is what I expect to hear.  The fact that what I got was a lot of random sounds, a chaotic assemblage of musical and extra-musical effects and an incoherent progression from great volume to near silence, means that, whether I liked what I heard or not, it certainly did not live up to the false expectations set up in the composer’s own words.  How much better this would have been if we could have assessed the work on its own merits, unencumbered by preconceptions set in progress by the composer’s pre-performance words. 

In both these cases, the composers have written music which may or may not have great merit and which I may or may not have enjoyed on its own terms, but have undermined that by trying to verbalise their intentions.  Whatever happened to the old dictum of composers; once the music is in the public domain, you no longer have any control over it?

I raised this very point with my composer dining-companion and found that this was by no means an accepted dictum among today’s composers.  Surely, I was told, the composer knows better than anyone else what the music is all about.  Yes, that is true at the creative stage, but once it is in the hands of the performers and the ears of the listeners, it takes on a life of its own.  E T A Hoffmann told us that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was all about fate; Beethoven told us that it was all about the singing of birds.  Most of us accept Hoffmann’s interpretation and dismiss Beethoven’s.  And were we to accept Beethoven at his word, and accept no other interpretation of that famous four note motiv, I am not sure the Fifth Symphony would have gone on to achieve such immense popularity.  Composers have to learn to let go and let us interpret and respond to their music on our own personal terms.  They have given us the raw material to which we attach our own personal and emotional baggage; many might suggest that this is the very purpose of music today.

“We should dispense with programme notes altogether”, my dining companion suggested.  The answer to that is a resounding NO.  We need programme notes to guide us through the music, to point us in a suggested direction of listening (and thereby unravelling what can sometimes be a confusing array of sounds) and to give some context to what we hear, but possibly the composer is the last person who should do that being, as they are, too close to their own creation  - the same concept as used to prevent close relatives from testifying against each other in a court of law.  (Programme notes also exist to provide a tangible and physical souvenir of the occasion.  When the music has stopped sounding in our ears, the programme notes can help it continue sounding in our memories.)  There is an art to all this while avoiding the danger of setting up false expectations in the listener’s mind; and it’s an art few composers seem to possess.  By all means tell us why you wrote it, when you wrote and what your dog was doing while you were writing it, but please don’t tell us how to listen to it.  Our ears are not the same as yours, and we need to approach your music on our own terms and in our own way.

Back in the early 1970s I was the editor of the programme book for the Cardiff Festival of 20th Century Music.  As publication day dawned I had still not received any word about a new commission from a certain well-known German-born Jewish American naturalised composer.  I wrote to him time and time again, asking for some basic information so that I could mould it into a coherent programme note, but he insisted he was going to write his own note for publication.  He was, he reminded me, famous as a communicator and he felt he knew his music better than anyone else and could describe it more precisely.  On the very morning the copy was due to go off to the printers, his note arrived.  I remember it vividly; “This work may be long or short, loud or soft, it has rhythm and melody and is scored for piano, violin and possibly some other instruments”.  Such perceptive writing from a composer puts the carefully-chosen words of the professional programme-note writer to shame!

13 February 2020

Such Orchestras As...

It began with Viagra.  Then came a sheath of medications of dubious value, to be followed by miracle cures for my excessive weight, hair loss and failing eye-sight.  Next, a Nigerian gentleman with extraordinarily generous philanthropic tendencies who only needed me to furnish him with a small sum to cover administrative costs before he would transfer vast sums  into my bank account (full details of which he urged me to pass on to him).  Then came the offers of free petrol for a year, gift vouchers for stores of which, if I had heard of any of them, I would never have ventured inside and, latest of all, free membership of casinos and assorted gaming dens.  Luckily my email Spam filter has long since worked out how to discard these, and I only know of their continued existence when I periodically check the Junk Mailbox to make sure a genuine offer of fulsomely paid employment has not passed me by.

I suppose I could set my Spam filters to add to the huge pile of junk they, I presume, divert from my daily inbox, any material which includes the egregious phrase “such orchestras as…”.  But, despite an earnest desire never to see this phrase again, I have no choice.  It is an inevitable consequence of the life I lead.

For reasons which defy my meagre intelligence, artist agencies assign to the most junior office clerk or unpaid intern the task of writing promotional biographies of artists.  The agencies assume, I imagine, that it is the one area of their work that can most easily be interrupted in mid-course by the need to make the tea, refill the water cooler or replenish the towels in the washroom.  But how wrong they are.  If major artists knew just how despicable they come across in the descriptions their agents send out, they would surely jump ship and take control of their own musical destiny.  If they knew, for example, that there are people like me who immediately assume that the quality and ability of an artist is in inverse proportion to the amount of “mesmerizing renditions”, “garnering accolades” and “recognised worldwide for insightful performances” on their biographies, they surely would realise that their agents, far from extolling their virtues, are turning them into laughing stocks.

If I read any biography that contains the words Mesmerising, Rendition or Garnering, I scream.  When I read that someone has performed with “such orchestras as…” I jump out of the window – luckily I inhabit the ground floor and the windows are too small to accommodate my bulk – but you get the point.

Take this.  “Wong Noat  [not his real name] has performed with such orchestras as The Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and others”.  Now I ask you, what orchestras ARE like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic?   It can hardly mean; “He has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Braddell Heights Symphony and the Sarawak State Symphony”.  Somehow it doesn’t quite have the same impact.

In its heyday, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra used to look down its collective nose at any of its players who slummed it on an occasional basis for a modest fee with the Singapore Symphony.  To lump these two together as being alike shows such a fundamental lack of knowledge that even to make the suggestion is to indicate utter musical ignorance.  And if it’s true of two neighbouring Asian orchestras, think how true it is of every other orchestra.  An orchestra, especially a good one, is a unique animal, with its own distinct character and its own distinct personality.  To say they are alike is to reveal a complete lack of musical consciousness.  So when an artist is said to have played with “such orchestras as…” you can be pretty sure that whoever wrote that comment has never heard the orchestra in question.

But here’s another thing.  Those “such orchestras as…” are invariably the famous ones.  I don’t recall reading “he has performed with such orchestras as the Thailand Philharmonic”; no criticism of the TPO – a pretty good bunch of players all things considered.  Neither have I ever seen an artist who has performed with “such orchestras as the Hong Kong Philharmonic” – an orchestra of considerable musical quality.  No, orchestras seem only to be able to be compared with those in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, Cleveland or Philadelphia.  Could it be that, by selecting the great orchestras of the world and suggesting that our artist has played with similar groups, one is trying to hide the fact that our artist spends most of his time playing with the third and fourth rate bands and once, probably by accident, ended up on a platform alongside the Big Boys from Berlin?

Orchestras in Asia rarely get a look in.  At best, we can read “he has played with all the major orchestras in Asia” (hmmm? ALL of them?  And does that mean he has never played with any of the minor ones?).  And nobody, but nobody, ever seems to have played a note with an African orchestra.  Yet, the orchestras of Natal, Cape Town and Pretoria have, in their time, been a pretty impressive bunch.

No, I’m afraid the phrase “such orchestras as…” combines musical snobbery of the worst kind with musical ignorance in the extreme.  As one whose job it is to edit artist biographies for inclusion in concert programmes, I have long ago given up rephrasing this detestable utterance.  If an artist agency can’t be bothered to tell us precisely which orchestras the artist has played with, then I can’t be bothered to read about it and this barely illuminating line from the biography gets consigned, along with all those mesmerised renditions, garnered accolades and worldwide recognitions for insightful performances, to such places as the rubbish bin.

[this post first appeared in 2013 and is reprinted by request]