14 February 2018

Nothing Ever Really Fuses

Wayne Kramer and I share two points of common interest.  Firstly, neither of us knows who each other is (I found his name on a blind internet search) and secondly, Kramer is on the internet as having said; “I hate that expression, 'fusion'. What it means to me is this movement where nothing ever really fused”.   And with that sentiment I wholeheartedly concur.

I suspect we are actually talking about different things when we decry “fusion” music, and if you really get down to it, all music is fusion.  A fusion of the old and the new, of different styles, of different identities, of different functions and of different cultures.  My dislike is of what you might call “manufactured fusion” – where you deliberately set out to take two very different things and force them to co-exist.  We find that in food; and while some fusion food is interesting, it is never quite as good as 100% of the one or 100% of the other.  I love Japanese food, I love Italian food, but when I had a Wasabi Pizza, I fervently disliked both; fusing the two diminished each of them equally.  So with music.

Working in south-east Asia one is constantly aware of the pressure to create a fusion music.  Those with a fundamental misunderstanding (or, more likely, no real knowledge at all) of the history of what we call “western music”, claim that it is an alien import and that we should exert our own cultural muscle and fuse the Western with the Asian.  Such people, blissfully unaware of the province of most musical instruments (very few of which can be said to have originated in “the west” – wherever that might be), and of the enormous influences on the works of the accepted European masters of music from “the east” (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their admittedly ersatz “Turkish” music, Debussy, Ravel and Britten and their less ersatz Javanese, Messiaen and Harvey and their sincere Indian), go with the mindless flow of popular political correctness and say that for music to be representative of the region, it must have obvious Asian characteristics.  Picture postcard images rather than subliminal messages, if you like.

The problem is particularly acute in Singapore which has no indigenous culture and is made up of a mind-boggling array of cultures each with their own musical traditions, none of which is in any way Singaporean.  What links these various cultures present in Singapore society is the fact that they are not “western”.  During the SG50 – the year when Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence from Malaysia (no such big celebrations marked 2007, the 50th year of independence from Britain – which may or may not be a significant point to make) – calls for a “Singapore Sound” in music resonated loud and clamorous.  As reported in this blog, the ever-enterprising Adrian Chiang even created an orchestra and a concert specifically to fuse western and Asian musical elements.  Like so much fusion stuff, it was interesting but ultimately a failure – the experiment has not been repeated with such a high profile.

But that has not stopped people from calling for such Asianized Western music.  One amazingly gormless Singaporean pianist is on record as saying “I find it ironic that though we are born in this part of the world, we mostly play composers in the western tradition”.  The piano is one of those instruments unequivocally rooted in European soil and its repertory, inevitably, is skewed towards “the west”; if this pianist is so opposed to the “western tradition”, why on earth does he attempt to make a living out of playing the piano?

But such an attitude – and you hear it almost daily - is not hypocrisy, but simple ignorance.  A failure to recognise that all music we describe as “western” is in fact such a successful fusion of cultures that we no longer identify its constituent parts but regard it as a conglomerate whole.  Nevertheless, in a society where glib cliché is regarded as superior to deep understanding, calls to have a Singaporean identify in Western music continue to resound, and last Saturday I attended another concert put together by Chiang which took a rather more realistic approach to the issue of Asian/Western fusion than the SG50 debacle.  (I reviewed it for Straits Times, and my review can be read here -  http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/fusion-work-and-beautiful-sounds-let-down-by-technical-issues).

The idea of using just ethnic flutes against a Western orchestra was certainly based on sound common sense, but it failed in practice on three counts. 

Firstly, Asian flutes, with their difference in materials, psychology and playing styles will inevitably be overwhelmed by the western orchestral instruments.  We live in an age where amplification can help address such balances.  But once amplification is involved, the musicians lose control of the result and are totally dependent on the sound engineers.  On Saturday those sound engineers were dreadfully incompetent, and ruined the experience for both audience and performers.

Secondly, the idea of fusing ethnic flutes with a western orchestra was never practicable before the advent of effective amplification, so there simply is not the repertory to make up an entire concert.  As a result new works were brought in from composers who lacked experience and full understanding.  Sterling though their efforts were, musically the programme was very shallow indeed.  There were plenty of nice sounds, but nobody had worked to evolve something that went beyond nice sounds.

Thirdly, the beauty of Asian flutes lies in the subtlety of their sounds but, more especially, in the cultural traditions which lie behind the music they play.  Amplification can obscure subtlety, but fusing Asian with Western instruments utterly destroys any cultural tradition within the Asian flute.  At one point the players were reduced to appearing in national costume so that we could tell, visually, where they were from – the sound had lost its cultural, ethnic or even geographical identify.

Had Wayne Kramer been there, I am sure he, like me, would have found some of the sounds fascinating and recognised a potential for something worthwhile to evolve.  But I imagine he, like me, would ultimately have felt it had all been a pointless experience.  I came away with the strong feeling that nothing ever really fused.

13 February 2018

Gender Fluid Choirs

Apologies to the copyright holder - Hoffnung's Choir is gloriously gender-neutral
Choir directing is one of the most inclusive and non-segregative occupations there is.  In my time I have probably directed around 50 choirs.  These have been all-male, all-female, mixed, professional, amateur, members have included people with every imaginable disability, blind people, deaf people, people with limbs missing, people recovering from trauma, the battle-scarred, the very young, the very old, the white, the black, the brown, the lurid yellow (that was me with a bad attack of jaundice); you name it, it’s been in one of my choirs.  My father, at 100, has recently left his church choir, not because his singing has deteriorated, but because he can no longer easily process with the others.  Some of my very best friends have been in choirs, and some of my worse enemies.  The thing about choral singing is it is a complete and utter leveller, drawing in people of all shapes, sizes, creeds, colours, ages, abilities, sexual orientation and political affiliations.  It does not matter to the director; so long as you want to sing, there is a choir for you.

Yet I learn from a radio report this morning that choral directors are dinosaurs, stuck in the prejudice-laden segregation-obsessed mores of the past.  It seems that those of “fluid gender” (defined as “unwilling to accept the random gender stereotype imposed at birth”) feel dispossessed of their right to sing in a choir.

I once conducted a “gay” choir – which was just like every other choir but liked to parade under a banner which made them seem different – elitist – from others.  And from several choir tours I did with other choirs, I seem to have conducted choirs comprising a disproportionate number of people with an obsession with sexual relations with those of the opposite “imposed gender”.  If people want to give their choirs labels, let them; my rule is that if you want to sing, there is a choir for you and you should be welcomed in to it regardless of any other aspect of your psyche.

Of course some choirs are exclusive in their insistence on gender, occupation or vocal prowess.  Yet for every one of these, there are a thousand who accept those excluded.  In short, every choir director manages a complete balance with no hint that anyone would ever be excluded.  We, as a body of professionals, have never really thought about it, simply because inclusivity is endemic in the profession.

Back to the radio report.  A daft idiot (oh yes! I did once direct a choir made up of inmates from a hospital for the criminally insane) felt that in the world of choral singing, there were barriers caused by sexual stereotyping.  According to this twit, we expect women to sing with high voices and men to sing with low ones.  As a poor counter-tenor and highly able falsettist, that’s an assumption I never make – and I have had innumerable female tenors in my amateur choirs (although I have yet to encounter a female basso profundo – but I live in hope; it’s just about impossible to get hold of a male one these days).  Who expects women to sing with high voices and men with low ones?  Not choir directors, certainly.  Possibly only those who see an issue which does not exist and use it to promulgate their own private agenda.

As a result, choirs in one American state (I did not catch which one, I was off in search of the sick-bag at the time) are being forced to abandoned one-sex rules.  But it was not an issue of forcing barbershop ensembles to admit both men and women – after all that’s been going for years.  It was an issue of allowing those “real people” (according to Loony Toons) who genuinely do not know what their gender is and who choose to identify with no established gender.  Choirs, we were told, must be ready to accept those whose gender is fluid and who, therefore, cannot be boxed up in the prejudicial stereotypical labels of soprano, alto, tenor or bass.

I would say this is all bollocks – but that would be an unfortunate word given the context.  In all my experience I have never once encountered anyone changing gender during a choral rehearsal (let alone a performance).  I’ve certainly encountered plenty of people whose voices change from high to low in mid-flow; but the breaking of a boy’s voice, tragic though it seems at the time, is not indicative of a gender shift – more a natural process of gender confirmation. 

However, I do concede that there might just be something to learn from all this.  The labels we have long given to the voices do have gender implications which, perhaps, are no longer relevant.  Technically you cannot have a male soprano (that would be a treble), a male contralto (that would be an alto) or a male mezzo-soprano (that would be a counter-tenor).  Funnily enough it does not work the other way round, and while we assume tenors, baritones and basses will always be men, choral directors know otherwise.  Although I am a stickler for correct nomenclature, I am willing to let this drop if it helps make choirs seem more inclusive.  Bring on the gender-free sopranos and the gender-neutral contraltos; anything to prevent anyone thinking that they are excluded from what is the most enjoyable and wonderful activity known to man, woman or gender fluid.

08 February 2018

Why Teach Piano?

How many piano teachers are there?  I am certain that nobody knows or could even hazard a realistic guess.  Teaching piano is about the most comprehensively unregulated profession in the world, and amassing realistic statistics as to how many people do it is made all the more difficult because it is also a leading contributor the black economy in many (most…all?) of the countries where piano teaching takes place.  But while a great many piano teachers collect fees for teaching the piano of which the taxman remains blissfully unaware, the issue is more to do with intentions than finance.

In short, why is there such a huge and international demand for piano lessons, and why has that demand not abated as the piano has lost its once ubiquitous place in society?

When teaching amateurs to play the keyboard began – we can pinpoint the date to around 1716 when François Couperin published his L’Art de toucher le clavecin, the first written tutor to give guidance to teachers – society was in a state of change.  In the main, before then, those who played a keyboard instrument had served an apprenticeship, either with their own father or a master at the court to which they were, by virtue of birth, attached as a servant.  Under the reign of Louis XIV making music had become a respectable pastime amongst the nobility, and people began to learn to play for pleasure rather than for employment.  Over the next century, the ability to play the keyboard was seen as a valuable addition to the armoury of young women about to enter the marriage market, and the ability to play became an essential in the world of aristocratic and noble daughters.

The world has changed.  It’s a good few years since I last went a-courting, but I doubt whether today’s young men, spotting an attractive girl at a disco (or wherever courting is carried out today) is going to go up to her and say “I fancy you.  Do you play the piano?”.  It never crossed my mind all those years back to enquire whether my prospective bride had pianistic abilities?  I knew she could sing because we used to spend evenings in the karaoke bars.  (Be fair!  In deepest Sarawak, once you had traipsed for hours through a mosquito and leech infested jungles to stare at a flowering Raffelesia and savour its unique aroma of rotting durian, visited the orang-utan sanctuary and attended feeding time at the crocodile farm, there really wasn’t much else to do!) So I doubt that modern-day piano teachers see their role as helping to improve the marriageable prospects of young women.

In the 19th century playing a keyboard instrument was recognised as a useful social skill, a way of whiling away the long evenings in formal Victorian drawing rooms.  But the invention of first wireless, then television, then the internet and finally social media (there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – engaging with social media is a solitary activity and one which actively discourages social intercourse) has thrown the piano into another anti-social box; you go and play it on your own, in isolation and usually careful not to be overheard by neighbours or friends.  You even learn it on your own, closeted in a room with nobody other than the teacher, while for many in south-east Asia, the focus of their lessons is to play it on their own, closeted in a small room with just a visiting examiner (and the day when people will wake up to the potential hazard of this situation cannot be far off).

So if learning the piano is no longer a means to secure employment, to secure a wife or to engage with society, why on earth do we bother to teach the skill to young people?

Innumerable surveys have been conducted which have shown the beneficial effects of a practical involvement in music.  We are told of its power in developing brain power and motor skills, fending off dementia, of its therapeutic value and of its role in helping channel emotions.  And all of that is true.  A survey we did many years ago to mark the centenary of the ABSRM saw us contact major captains of industry and leading figures in political, military and civil life in the UK.  It revealed that a disproportionate number of successful people had, in their youth, learnt the piano.  (We did not delve further to see whether we could prove a correlation between pianistic ability and success in public life – it was enough to hint that, if you did your ABRSM Grade 1 you stood a more than average chance of becoming Prime Minister!)  And I am totally convinced that there are huge benefits – beyond musical ones – in learning to play a musical instrument and in studying music in general.

My interest is the focus on the piano, and why that focus, perhaps explained in the past by the piano’s social status, remains even in an age where the piano is largely irrelevant to society, and indeed, has developed a certain anti-social stigma.  Attempts by imaginative and eager advocates of the piano to bring it back into the social foreground by placing pianos in public areas and encouraging anyone to play them, seem to have attracted much attention, but I have yet to see some conclusive evidence that this has resulted in anything more than people seeing a piano and playing it, regardless of who is listening.  I am not aware that there has been a significant shift for the piano to regain its once dominant social role.

So again I ask, why do we teach the piano?  It remains the most taught of all musical instruments, to the extent that when people talk about “music lessons” they usually mean “piano lessons”.  People who learn the violin, the cello, the trumpet, the flute, the harp, the drums, the organ all have a clear goal; and that is to play their instrument in an orchestra, church or some other social environment.  (Harp teachers tell me that the wedding market has done wonders to their income levels.)  Yet still these are the minority instruments.  A vast majority of people who learn a musical instrument learn the piano.

The motor skills required in piano playing – finger dexterity, hand/eye coordination – do not actually have much use outside playing the piano.  I used to tell my piano students that, if they did not end up playing the piano, at least they had the necessary physical skills to become good typists.  But now type-writers and word-processors are ancient history – as are the finger and hand skills they require – and written communications are by means of two thumbs on a tiny touch screen or voice activation.  So pianistic skills seem largely confined to playing the piano.

The piano has a huge repertory, yet since the instrument has only been in existence since the early part of the 18th century, a knowledge of the piano repertory is hardly sufficient to broaden one’s eyes to the vast scope of social history which is open to those who study music history.  Similarly, while a familiarity with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, precisely defined on a piano keyboard, is an inevitable consequence of learning the piano, few other instruments have such a clear black-and-white distinction between pitches.  Pianists cannot comprehend the myriad micro-tones and subtleties of intonation which are the basis of string and wind instrument technique.  Listen to a pianist conduct an orchestra and you will invariably notice how little effort is made in tuning chords – a string player, on the other hand, will devote a lot of time in rehearsal to this aspect of a performance.

We might suggest, in the light of all this that learning the piano enables the student to detach themselves from society, to indulge in a wholly solitary pursuit which, in its complete inability to relate to other activities, is a self-sustaining occupation of little worth.  But it’s not.  It cannot be.  Why else would so many the world over indulge in it?  Are we really teaching people to exist in their own unique capsules, detached from their fellow men?

A good piano teacher will use the piano as a catalyst for a whole world of other things, using the piano to arouse pupils’ consciousness to listening, imagining, thinking, feeling, reading, relating and society in general.  You can learn more about the history of the world, and you can learn more about how society has developed by touching a piano than by reading any number of academic books.  All you need is a good piano teacher.  The trouble is, in such a widely unregulated business, who is good and who is bad?  And I remain completely in the dark as to what those bad teachers think they are doing when they teach their students to play the piano.

04 February 2018

Destroying a Special Musical Genre

“No composers of international standing emerged from Britain in the 200 years between Purcell and Britten.”  That phrase is repeated so often and by so many people (myself included) that it has become a cliché.  And like so many clichés, it is simply not true.

It might be argued that no British composer wrote operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music or piano sonatas to equal those of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, et al. (although even that is contentious), and that composers like Berlioz, Chopin and Debussy caught the public’s imagination in a way which few of their British contemporaries managed.  Yet we might turn that premise on its head and suggest that, in one significant musical genre at least, a great many composers of significance emerged from Britain.  Not only that, they were so supremely successful that they totally eclipsed the efforts of their foreign counterparts.

And what is that genre which so exercised the creative talents of several generations of British composers that it drove almost everything else from their minds, resulting in a relatively desultory flow of British operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music and piano sonatas?  The answer is the humble hymn tune.

Not so humble, either.  At its peak, the hymn tune was a common musical currency on almost every continent and among cultures and peoples for whom opera, symphony, etc., etc., were completely unknown.  If, as one estimate has put it, over 10,000 symphonies were composed between 1700 and 1800 - "from Sweden to Sicily the Symphony dominated” -  probably at least as many hymn tunes were written in the subsequent hundred year period, and were regularly sung from Cape Town to Cairo, from Sydney to Singapore, from Patagonia to Nova Scotia and from Gibraltar to Grimsby.

Of course, in terms of time-frame, musical resources and intellectual input, the hymn tune would seem to be very much the poor relative of the big musical structures associated with Beethoven and the Boys.  But hold on a minute, can we really say that?

What does a hymn tune do?  In a matter of seconds – possibly just one or two notes – it can create and establish a mood, define a character, lodge itself in the memory and either inspire or move.  Even pop music, the musical genre we usually accept as being the most successful in history, pales in comparison with the immediate impact of a good hymn tune.  What Lennon and McCartney and the rest took a minute or two to achieve, the great hymn tune writers achieved in less than 30 seconds.  Can you get past the first four notes of “St Anne” (composer William Croft 1678-1727) without feeling the immense strength of a melody which has sustained (inadvertently) 300 years of civil war in Ireland? Can you allow the first four notes of “Eventide” (composer W H Monk 1823-1889) to pass without feeling a sense of extreme calm?  Does not the heart race and the hair rise on the back of the neck with the opening of “Laudate Dominum” (composer C H H Parry 1848-1918).  And you would need a heart of stone not to be deeply affected by the tantalising beauty of “St Clement” (composer Clement Scholefield, 1839-1904).  How many of the sumptuous slow movements of Mozart or Schubert achieve in their opening stanzas a fraction of the emotional power found in any one of these hymn tunes?

The insatiable appetite for hymns which went with the spread of the Anglican church as Britain spread its colonial wings in the 18th and 19th centuries, meant that anyone who could write music was obliged to devote their energies into that, rather than musical genres which may have impressed a handful of foreign intellectuals but would have left African natives, Asian converts or American zealots completely cold.  Hymns were not just hugely popular but were an essential tool of colonialization.  Whether we approve in the 21st century of Britain’s empirical ambitions is irrelevant.  It happened, it affected millions of people across the globe, history cannot be undone, and certainly should not be forgotten.

Yet we are losing that wealth of great hymnody with a rapidity which is alarming.  Ignorant, uncultured and philistine clergy, more anxious to appeal to contemporary morals than historical legacy (a weird trait considering their very raison d’etre is based on a historical event which took place over 2000 years ago) feel that the celebration of a Christian art which dates back to a time when those who governed and ruled us were not the kind of people we’d like to govern and rule us today, is inappropriate.  Out, then, go the great hymns with their fabulous tunes and absorbing words to be replaced by cheap and nasty off-cuts from failed Broadway musicals and ersatz pop tunes with which even the most dismal failure of a commercial pop singer would never in a million years associate themselves.  Memorable, uplifting and powerfully-charged music and words are replaced by the bland and banal on the basis that it does not stretch anyone’s brain nor make demands on their artistic sensitives.

As usual, I attended a mass in Singapore this morning.  It began with those epic and visionary words “O Worship the King” sung to that uplifting and unforgettable tune “Hanover” (another great William Croft tune, although, sadly, the organist would insist on opening it with a dominant seventh chord – but I suppose I cannot complain in an environment where a dominant chord without a seventh is regarded as the height of dissonance).  What glorious visual imagery in the words; “chariots of wrath”, “pavilioned in splendour” - a phrase which, once understood, lodges in the brain in a way which “looking good” (as one modern hymn has it) does not begin to match.  What a way to begin the glorious celebration of Eucharist.  And what next? A couple of desultory and utterly forgettable songs which inhabited a few notes near the bottom of the range and had no significant features other than cheap and nasty clichés set to cheap and nasty music (what is “Good News” that we feel we need to sing so much about it?).  Did anyone go out humming to themselves one of those horrible songs?  Will anyone carry it around with them for the week as a kind of instant reference to a moment of inspiration at a Sunday service?  I fear not.  Our clergy, in their desperate desire to make worship “relevant” destroy its very uniqueness.  How sad that the great legacy of two centuries of great music and literature has been so comprehensively destroyed by those who believe in the power of the cliché.

And one thing more.  With our loss of hymnody we lose that common musical currency which has kept English (and colonial) music education alive.  There was a time when every child knew the hymns – they were the cultural property, if you like, of those who subscribed (willingly or otherwise) to the English way of life.  When I used to teach, I could get every one of my pupils to recognise a simple interval instantly.  And I did it with hymns.  Major Third (“Once in Royal David’s City”), Perfect Fourth (“Away in a Manger”), Perfect Fifth (“All Glory, Laud and Honour”), Major Sixth (“Crimond”) and so on.  Children do not have this exposure to clear, concise memorable melodies any more.  How much harder the work of music teacher must be as a result.  (Interestingly, Welsh hymns do not possess this intervallic opening, nearly all of them opening in step-wise movement.  I wrote an academic paper on this – fascinating, though I say it myself – but basically I put it down to the fact that Welsh hymns were to be sung en messe by untrained singers, while English ones were led usually by a trained choir.)

Throw out the hymn, and you throw out so much more than a few pages from a dusty book.  But some places still keep the hymn alive, and if you have doubts about the veracity of what I write above, check out this magnificent display of English hymnody on a disc I recently reviewed for MusicWeb International.  Here’s my review;.


Great Hymns from Liverpool

The Choir of Liverpool Cathedral

Ian Tracey (organ)

David Poulter (conductor)

Priory PRCD1180 [78:08]


The choir of Liverpool Cathedral sing their way through 25 wonderful hymns in this spectacular and sumptuous celebration of English hymnody.  My Welsh friends might well be up in arms that this city, so close to their borders, seems studiously to have avoided the truly great hymns which have largely given rise to the claim that Wales is the Land of Song (perhaps next time?), and there will be others, equally passionate about their hymns, who will boil and fume at the omission of a particular favourite.  For my part, how I would have liked to hear “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” (Helmsley) and “Thy Hand, O God, Has Guided” (Thornbury), but I would not want their inclusion to be at the sacrifice of such marvels as “Angel voices ever singing” or “Just as I am, without one plea”.  So, I can offer nothing but praise to whoever devised this programme, recognising the painful decisions on omission and inclusion which had to be made.  As it is, essential favourites are here, there is a fine balance between celebration, meditation, old, new, grand and intimate, and only a stone-hearted gargoyle would fail to be hugely impressed by this selection.

That same gargoyle would also, surely, find his stone heart melting under the searing heat of these glorious performances, beautifully and painstakingly prepared by David Poulter.  There is, of course, an inevitable problem in presenting 80 minutes’ worth of non-stop hymnody; the stop-and-start progress through 102 individual verses (plus three refrains and a doxology), many of which last a mere matter of seconds.  Poulter and his no-holes-barred organist, Ian Tracey, both do a fabulous job in maintaining the flow through each hymn with varied arrangements, re-arranged part writing, descants and organ harmonisations for the separate verses of each hymn, but in the end, as a purely listening experience it does tend to move along in fits and starts.  I love the unaccompanied performance of “There is a Green Hill Far Away” with the various manipulations of the four voice parts taking Horsley’s famous melody through a wide variety of guises, which nicely traces the narrative of Mrs Alexander’s words, although the great climax on the words “unlock the Gates of Heaven” seems more an attempt to inject colour for its own sake than to reflect this essentially meditative text.

Liverpool Cathedral is a vast building with an appropriately cavernous acoustic.  Priory, well used to the venue, have done a brilliant job in capturing the clarity of the choir and the essence of the acoustic.  However, the need to project words in the regular round of cathedral services means that, when you hear them at these relatively close quarters, you are very much aware of the choir’s exaggerated consonants, over-dramatized commas and excessive deliberation of phrasing.  It is to Poulter’s great credit that, far from seeming affected or pretentious, there is something quite endearing about these habits, and one thing is certain – which is really important in all hymns – we hear every word beautifully enunciated.

A particularly noteworthy feature of this singing is the choir’s ability to hold and shape a musical phrase.  We first hear that from the top voices in the third verse of Goss’s incomparable setting of “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven”, majestically presented here in an opulent arrangement by Paul Leddington Wright, and even more beautifully in a long-drawn-out performance of “Drop, drop, slow tears” which milks Orlando Gibbons’ melody for every drop of loveliness.  The whole choir does it to perfection in the unison first verse of Vaughan Williams’s classic tune for “Come Down, O Love Divine”, while for “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”, “Come, Holy Ghost” and “O heavenly word of God on High” - plainchant hymns which, while not being quintessential British, are sung very much in the comfortable English cathedral style with smoothed down, carefully manicured expressiveness - the men’s voices exude a mellow mellifluousness which is an object lesson in vocal control. 

There is a simply enchanting arrangement by Simon Lindley of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” with a deliciously delicate organ accompaniment and a splendid solo verse sung by treble Christian Squires, which is difficult to pass by without hitting the repeat button.  There’s also a tremendously sturdy romp through that most uplifting of hymns, “The Strife is O’er”, with piercing arrows sent flying by the chorus “alleluias”.  Spine-tingling descants add a real lustre to the last verse of already sparkling hymns including “Angel voices, ever singing” and Howells’ own for his mighty setting of “All my Hope on God is Founded”. Tracey’s organ accompaniment to “Abide with Me” (incorporating the Last Post) is a real treasure, and while I feel Poulter’s arrangement of Parry’s setting of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is no improvement at all on the superb version which already exists in the hymn books, it certainly offers a great opportunity for him to show the rich quality of his whole choir.  And we can’t mention Parry without a nod towards “Jerusalem”.  Hackneyed and over-used as this might be on the football terraces and in the September Proms jamboree – not to mention at 101 other mass gatherings where its sentiments are given an unsettlingly xenophobic twist – you don’t want to miss this stirring performance, if only to hear how great this musical setting of Blake really is.

As the hymnist wrote, here we have the ultimate example of “craftsman’s art and music’s measure” in perfect and utterly pleasurable combination.


02 February 2018

Cultvating Hostility - A Critic's Dilemma

Are there problems when critics review the work of their friends, peers, neighbours or associates?  Is it possible to be totally dispassionate in a piece of criticism concerning someone with whom the critic is either professionally or socially involved?

I suppose all critics get asked this from time to time. 

Years ago, I reviewed some new music by William Mathias in the Organists’ Review and was decidedly lukewarm in my opinion, suggesting (if I remember rightly) that it seemed to have been written in haste with the minimum of effort or originality.  David Gedge, the then organist at Brecon Cathedral (and himself a personal friend) wrote a letter which was published in the next issue, in which he wondered how I would be able to continue living and working in Bangor where I would come into daily contact with William Mathias, who was the then professor of music there.  It never struck me that it would be a problem, and when I asked Mathias about it, he, too, did not see an issue.  He went on to say that I had been right – it had been written in a hurry and he had fallen back on some previously used ideas; he thought my review both fair and perceptive, and he certainly could not take umbrage at that.  If anything, our personal relationship improved as a result.

As a critic I’ve certainly had my fair share of abuse and vitriol from those who feel I have betrayed my friends and the community in which I live.  It certainly seems to be more prevalent and vicious in Singapore than elsewhere, which may imply that here people are less tolerant of voiced opinions other than their own, are more nasty than elsewhere or that they care more passionately about music.  While I can happily take whatever abuse is hurled at me (try being a bus driver when abuse from your colleagues, other road users and passengers is a daily occurrence  - everybody knows how to do your job better than you do) I have to confess I have largely given up reviewing Singapore wind bands.  For some reason, whatever you say about them is an excuse for a sustained barrage of the most foul, vulgar and incoherent abuse which often seems to have been orchestrated by a single person who, in most cases, has either not read, has only partially read or has been unable to comprehend what you have written.  In the main, though, critics expect and, indeed, quite enjoy abuse and argument; it does show that people read and think about what you have written and that your words have encouraged them to formulate and solidify their own views.  That’s a good thing to which all critics would subscribe.

But I can imagine that to receive such abuse from colleagues, friends and neighbours might be disturbing.  Luckily, the Singaporean mentality is always to hide behind a cloak of cowardly anonymity (expressing personal views is not a Singaporean trait) so I have no way of knowing who hurls the abuse at me. In societies and cultures where people are more willing to claim ownership of their own opinions, I have certainly been faced with strong contrary opinions voiced by those whom I know.  And it has never disturbed me.  Sometimes it has led to protracted correspondence – something I try to avoid since critics usually luxuriate in the last word, and should permit it to others when they wish it – and sometimes led to a period of reconsideration on my part.  In no case, however, has it led to any lessening of pre-existing friendships, any sense of hostility in future meetings or any loss of respect towards either party.  Genuine criticism based on objective assessment is respected, whether or not it is accepted, and any legitimate artist will know that the critic is offering a professionally dispassionate rather than personally coloured view.

My absolute conviction is that, when you elect to be a critic, you do so in the full knowledge that you will, at some time or another, find yourself in a position where you are reviewing the work of, or presenting your own critical assessments to, people you know and people with whom you need to maintain an ongoing and amicable relationship.  If that relationship is likely to be affected by something you present in your professional capacity, then you must accept that the relationship was already fragile and potentially unsustainable.  What you cannot do is adapt or even suspend your critical ethos.  It is highly unethical, and therefore unacceptable, for a critic to adopt a different set of values for friends and acquaintances than for those with whom the critic does not have a relationship.  Does the policeman refuse to arrest his brother for murder, simply because it will sour their future relationship?  It is one of the obligations of the role that personal feelings do not interfere with professional ethics whether you are a policeman or a music critic (or a politician, as well, but try telling that to some politicians!).

Of course, critics who go out of their way to cultivate a personal relationship with those with whom they are likely to enter into a professional one are heading for disaster, but the musical world is sufficiently small for such relationships to be an inevitable consequence of repeated peripheral acquaintanceships, and both critic and musician need to have sufficient mutual respect not to let this interfere with the professional relationship.  If a musician is offended by what a critic says, then in all likelihood the critic was right – the musician is not of a sufficiently strong artistic calibre to warrant more generous appraisal.

All this is prompted by my having encountered someone yesterday who had written a review of a concert, but told me he had felt obliged to be dishonest and say it was good when, in fact, it was not.  He felt under political pressure not to express his true thoughts since he lived and worked among those whose work he had reviewed.  For me that undermines every piece of criticism that person has ever written, and will ever write; if critical faculties are adjusted in order to suit the context of a personal relationship, then such criticism is valueless.  There can never, ever be an excuse for such behaviour, even at the risk of breaking personal and social bonds.

I told him as much.  I doubt he will ever speak to me again.  Ah well.  Such is the life of a critic!

29 January 2018

Competitions - A Parallel Universe?

The Singapore International Violin Competition started over the weekend and will run on until February 8th.  I have nothing whatsoever to do with it, but as it is mostly taking place in the building where I work, I take every opportunity I can to drop into the hall and listen to the action.  I like competitions.  The spectacle of the cream of young talent appearing in close succession and performing to the best of their abilities is one I never fail to appreciate.

The cream this year comprises 32 young violinists from Bulgaria, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine, the UK and the USA, each of which is hoping to secure the first prize of US$50,000, a loan of a 1680 Stradivarius and a number of performance engagements. 

I would hope, however, that their real ambition is to win the Audience Prize; their future musical careers will depend on audiences liking the way they play, and if they have that magic touch which gets the audience on their side, that is worth far more than any financial award.  As an occasional adjudicator myself (I will be adjudicating at no less than three competitions during the course of this year) I know how intimidating an Audience Prize can be; you desperately hope that your choice matches that of the audience, but it rarely does.  What adjudicators see in a performance is rarely the same as what audiences see.

Sitting in on the First Round performances, I was very conscious that many in the audience were taking their role seriously, and while during the performance I saw copious notes being taken and assessments made, I overheard some intense discussions between sessions over the relative merits of the players.  Whatever result the panel of adjudicators comes up with, it can hardly have been more assiduously contemplated than the audience’s ultimate decision.

Looking around the audience, however, I was conscious of something interesting. 

Singapore is fairly small place, and as a very frequent concert-goer here, I get to recognise the habitués of a local audience.  At the competition, the handful of people, like me, who go to just about everything was there, but the vast bulk of the audience was made up of people who I never see at public concerts.  They were listening in rapt attention and were eloquent in their reserved and undemonstrative applause to most of the performers.  It struck me then that music competitions (and it is phenomenon by no means unique to Singapore) inhabit a kind of parallel universe; a performance sub-genre which seems to be moving further and further away from its parent, the public concert.  It attracts a very different audience, who are there to witness top class playing regardless of player or repertory, and very confident in their own minds about what constitutes a winning performance.

This idea is reinforced by those who are performing in the competition.  In the booklet with the competition, each of the players had provided a biography.  I found it slightly unnerving to read through these and realise that, for some of them, it seems as if their entire musical world revolves around competitions.  Biographies listing innumerable first, second and third places in competitions held in remote places, along with the names of strings of teachers (why do so many of today’s aspiring professionals seem to change their teacher every few weeks or so?) gave a vivid impression of a life bounded by preparing for and participating in competitions.

(Never let it be said that I am cynical, but I wonder whether the profusion of biographies which mention teachers and competitions are encouraged by teachers themselves - if you can show that your pupils consistently do well in competitions, how valuable is that as a marketing ploy when trying to attract new students – but that’s an unworthy comment.)

As a young player I took part in plenty of competitions myself.  Invariably I came out second or third; the same people turned up at each competition, and one fellow always came first, while I along with another seemed to take it in turns to come second and third.  I can hardly think that, had I been asked to write a biographical note then, I would have bothered to mention this; it seemed such an obvious occurrence that it barely warranted comment.  Much more interesting for me were the performances I gave, often, it must be said, drawing on the repertory I had been obliged to learn for the latest competition (and that’s another reason why I like competitions – players are rarely allowed to wheel out their particular party-pieces, and need to learn something special for the event).

Yet there were biographies in the programme here which never mentioned a public performance at all.  If these players had performed to a live audience in a non-competitive environment, they seemed to regard it as of peripheral interest. 

Significantly, the page which recounted the achievements of the laureates from the previous Singapore International Violin Competition informed us that of the six listed, most had gone on to participate in further competitions, some had won prizes and scholarships, but just one confessed to having made an “appearance with the Philadelphia orchestra”.  Is the result of winning a competition the opportunity to participate in another?  Competitions seem to have become self-sustaining, with no need for young musicians to move away from the competitive environment and put their playing out into the public arena.

We might suggest that this is the standard practice in competitions, and we should not question it.  Yet biographies in programmes exert a subtle but undeniable influence over audience perceptions.  We know from research, that most members of an audience (competition or concert) read the biographies first (and often read nothing else in the programme books) and that these biographies affect their perceptions of an artist’s ability.  I am very well aware of this, yet even so, I cannot help myself when I read a biography which suggests the performer only participates in competitions beside one which talks of major performances in iconic venues with leading musical partners and orchestra, of falling into the subconscious expectation that the latter performer will be better than the former.  I assume the latter will have mastered the art of satisfying and appealing to an audience; the former will still be obsessed with the kind of technical minutiae which impresses adjudicators but passes over the heads of most audience members, and I have to battle against this prejudice in order to assess fairly the performances I hear.

It would be good to think that performers and audiences alike see competitions, not as an activity detached from public performance but as one supporting it.

25 January 2018

What's In A Title?

A Musical Chastity Belt?
When I used to do a lot of piano teaching, I would spend a great deal of time on sight-reading.  Partly this was because I, myself, am (or was) a very good sight-reader and really enjoyed it, but largely because pianists are notoriously bad at it; so many regard it as an onerous examination task rather than a vital musical skill.  I would tell my students that before they even looked at a note of the music they should study the title.  I sometimes went so far as to suggest that, armed with the title, the tempo marking ,the expression markings, the time signature and the tonality, you could have a pretty fair idea of what the piece was going to be like without even looking at the minutiae of the notes.  Titles, I would tell my students, were the key to a composer’s intentions.

Now that I seem to have moved away from instrumental teaching and spend my days philosophising about music – trying to decipher what music is, why it exists, why people write and perform it, how we relate to it as both performers and listeners, and how best to respond to it so that we can appreciate its true purpose and the composer’s real intentions – I often find myself pondering over the significance of titles.  And I am not sure that the advice I gave my poor piano pupils was entirely sound.

 Pianists are unusually fortunate in that so much of their repertory has descriptive titles which do, indeed, open the door to an appreciation of the music’s character.  Even where titles seem routine or formulaic – like Sonata in G, Prelude in C minor, Piece in D – to those who understand, the titles still yield a great deal of information.  For certain composers and in certain western musical cultures, tonality assumes great significance, implying a specific mood or character, while words like Sonata, Prelude and Piece often have very clear implications on purpose and design.

 However, a real danger of titles is to assume they were given by the composer in the first place.  A classic example lies in the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.  He would be hugely surprised to learn that he had composed 555 “Sonatas” when in fact what he had written were Essercizi.  With his true title, we recognise the purpose of these pieces – for private use in developing technical facility – while with the incorrect title, we think he intended them as substantial works for public consumption.  It’s not just a semantic issue, the wrong title can lead to serious mis-interpretations of the music itself.  Not helped by Ralph Kirkpatrick who argued quite convincingly in 1953 that Scarlatti designed them in pairs or in groups of three, I have come across countless people who should have known better, believe them to be substantial works, precursors of the “Romantic” Sonata, rather than small intimate finger exercises.  I even read a detailed analysis of Scarlatti Sonatas contorting them to fit into the theoretical concept of “Sonata Form” (a form which was only codified in the 19th century and certainly utterly alien to composers on the Iberian Peninsula in the early 18th century).  By combining “Sonatas” following the Kirkpatrick thesis, this misguided soul had shown how Scarlatti, unbeknownst to himself, had devised a clear, tonally organised Exposition, Development, Recapitulation and Coda.  The result was so totally alien to Scarlatti’s intention and style as to be an insult to those who have a relationship with the music.
The Scarlatti issue is indicative of a problem which I realise is more widespread than I ever appreciated as a piano teacher.  How legitimate are titles? 
We tend to assume, unthinkingly, that composers always put a title on their music; I will often ask a living composer about their choice of title for their music.  But many of the titles we associate with specific works had nothing whatsoever to do with the composer.  There are obvious ones like Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, but many more which slip under the radar.  What about Beethoven’s Bagatelles, for example?

 “Bagatelle” finds itself in music dictionaries usually defined as “a short, inconsequential, light piece”.  The implication is that it is a specific musical term and that Beethoven used it in the full consciousness of its interpretative implications.  Certainly it is a title we associate almost exclusively with Beethoven (as we do “Nocturne” with John Field, “Mazurka” with Chopin, “Romanze” with Schumann, “Humoresque” with Dvořák and “Intermezzo” with Brahms), although we first find it a century earlier in French keyboard. 
And here we must pause to recognise the invaluable work François Couperin did in elevating the title from generic to specific in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin of 1716, the first major tutor on keyboard playing ever to have been published.  In what seems like an extraordinarily perceptive bit of innovation, he realised that young pupils would more readily respond to music with a title vividly describing the mood and character of the piece than through the implications of its tonality, so many of his instructional pieces carry evocative titles.  It is in his 1717 publication of more keyboard exercises that we find a piece called Les bagatelles.  But was explaining the music’s meaning for young players really Couperin’s intention?  As Angela Hewitt wrote in a piece she penned for The Guardian back in 2003, not all of Couperin’s titles were as obvious as they might at first seem;  “I have found internet chatrooms discussing the various possibilities of [Les Baricades Mistérieuses]: some think it alludes to the player's two hands ‘barricaded’ in the lower half of the keyboard, a recent book by Jane Clark and Derek Connon says it has something to do with a divertissement called Le Mystère played to relieve a duchess's insomnia. I have even heard it explained as ‘ladies' underwear’ or, to be more precise, ‘chastity belt’. Couperin left no clues and asked to be forgiven for not explaining”.

 To return to Beethoven and the Bagatelle, he wrote 24 which appeared in three groups published during his lifetime.  The first was a group of seven published in 1803 as his Op.33.  Obviously they had been written at various times before then as stand-alone pieces.  One of them Beethoven claimed actually dated back to 1783, when he would have been just 12.  Some have suggested that is unlikely, but we know that Beethoven was something of a child prodigy; it’s just that, unlike Mozart, Beethoven’s prodigiousness has been eclipsed by his maturity.  The next was a group of 11 which appeared in print in 1823 as Op.119, again dating back over a period of years, the earliest piece dating from 1794.  Five of these had been written for the Viennese Piano School published in 1820 by Friedrich Starke, and were rejected by the publisher Peters as being too simple.  From this we can draw the conclusion that for Beethoven, the title “Bagatelle” meant short, simple, inconsequential pieces, and implied immaturity of invention and technique.  He himself used the German title Kleinigkeiten (which is usually translated as “trifles”), so “Bagatelles” seems close enough to his intention.   
Beethoven's contributions to Starke's Wien Pianoschule

But what, then, are we to make of the six Bagatelles published in 1825 as his Op.126, his last numbered composition for solo piano?  They are certainly quite short and none lasts much over 4 minutes.  But not only are they recent compositions, wholly typically of late Beethoven (the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, the Late Quartets and the Grosse Fuga) but they are quite complex.  More than that, they were conceived as a set, not as stand-alone compositions.   Beethoven certainly did not use the title because he considered them trifles – he actually described them as “quite the best pieces of their kind that I have written”.  Nor did he use the title to imply any sense of immaturity.  So the question has to be, why did Beethoven call them Bagatelles? 

There are, as I see it, two possible answers.  First, he did not give them the title, but it was applied by his publisher on the grounds that they were not Sonatas nor sets of variations – the two extended solo piano genres with which Beethoven was most closely associated - and that the public associated Beethoven and simple piano pieces with the name “Bagatelle”.  On a purely commercial basis, they would sell as “Bagatelles” even if, once the purchase had been made, the purchaser realised they were not Bagatelles at all.  The second answer is less palatable to us, but more likely. It may be that Beethoven simply did not care about titles, and could think of no better label to apply to a group of six individual pieces.  In either case, to use the title as a guide in interpreting the music’s character, scale and scope and the composer’s intentions would be wrong.

Even more puzzling is Brahms and the Intermezzo.  He wrote 18 of them, the earliest in 1871 as part of his Op.76, but the majority are contained in four consecutive publications which appeared as opp. 116,117, 118 and 119 between 1891 and 1893, which were Brahms’s final piano works.  So in an interesting parallel to Beethoven whose Bagatelles were associated with youth and immaturity, Brahms’s Intermezzi are associated with old age. 

It would be nice to define Brahms’s use of the title Intermezzo as being a reflective, retrospective, nostalgic work; and those who play the Op.118 no. 2 could be forgiven for using that idea as their interpretative guide.  But what did Brahms really mean by the title? 

Its origins lie in opera, where it was used to indicate a short scene or mini-comic opera performed between the acts of a bigger opera.  (Richard Strauss famously wrote an entire opera called Intermezzo, using the title for its comic allusions.)  But opera and the comic are two things we most certainly do not associate with Brahms, and it seems perverse that he should have used a title with such implications for a piano solo piece with such serious intent.  Philipp Spitta, the 19th century German music scholar, wrote to Brahms after reading through the Op.118 set; “They are the most varied of all your piano pieces and perhaps the most rich in content and depth of meaning.  Ideally they are to be absorbed slowly and in silence and solitude, and they are appropriate not only for meditative afterthought but also for contemplative forethought.  I believe that I have understood you correctly when I suggest this is what you meant by the term Intermezzo“.  Let us not forget that Spitta was a leading exponent of the concept of Hermeneutics, much in vogue in 19th century German musical scholarship, in which abstract concepts were interpreted by descriptive analogies, and it would seem that we have to take his interpretation of Brahms’s use of “Intermezzo” more as a piece of fanciful imagination than a dispassionate definition.

 If Spitta is being more fanciful than realistic, what are we to make of Brahms’ use of the title Intermezzo with so many of his later piano pieces?  When he presented the Op.76 set to his publisher, Brahms had been unable to think of a suitable title and asked for suggestions, and the publisher suggested “Intermezzo”.  In this case, the Intermezzi did indeed come between other works in the same set.  But why that title?  It had only been used for the first time in purely instrumental music a few years earlier (by Mendelssohn) and to that point nobody had written a piano solo piece with the title.  Publishers are not known for having original ideas, preferring to attract customers on the basis that familiarity attracts. 

Where and how the original idea of calling piano pieces Intermezzi came about is still a matter of conjecture, but the reason why Brahms continued to use it even when the pieces he called Intermezzi had moved far beyond the characters displayed in the original ones is, sadly, horribly prosaic.  A simple look through Brahms’s work list will reveal that he had no interest in titles, generally restricting himself to the general and formulaic; Sonata, Waltz, Rhapsody.  It seems that, having come across a new title, he simply did not think to come up with anything more appropriate.  For Brahms, titles meant nothing; should we persuade young pianists needing guidance for sight reading that he was wrong?