12 February 2011

An Award-Winning Writer

(This post first appeared on drmacrrochester.wordpress.com on New Year's Day this year)

Always at this time of year there is a plethora of awards being handed out left, right and centre. I, myself, have had to vote for awards here, there and everywhere – for best CD of the year, for best performance of the year, for best up-and-coming young musician of the year, and so on – and so it comes as a pleasant surprise actually to receive one from an unexpected quarter. In its Year End round-up of the Arts Scene in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post named me as “the most consistent aspect of this year’s classical concert scene”. True, it did rather temper the honour by suggesting that, handing it to the writer of programme notes rather than a performer, was “a touch outrageous”, but I accepted it with a good grace and feel honoured that my work in Hong Kong – I’ve been writing the notes for the HKPO since 2004 – has been recognised. It has, however, prompted me to cogitate a little on the work of the writer in the music world. I’ve always had a problem explaining to others exactly what my profession is.

If I tell them that I am a musician, they immediately assume I’m a performer and ask me what instrument I play. I could tell them that I play the organ, but as almost every organist I know is terminally dreary, I don’t like to tar myself with the same brush – even if I am myself terminally dreary. (And, as if to prove a point, I’ve just been interrupted in the writing of this post by a 35 minute call from an organist in London who wanted my views on how to play a couple of bars of one of Mendelssohn’s most dreary organ pieces – one which even he had the good sense to discard – and wouldn’t take seriously my earnest urgings not to play it at all.)

If I tell them that I am a musician who writes, they immediately assume I compose. And, to be perfectly frank, there’s nothing in the world I’d want to do less. Composers are, in my experience, either chronic alcoholics or utter weirdoes, often both, and the world is awash with ghastly new music which gets played (if at all) once and is then passed over by all except the composer who feels that it’s worth sending round to anyone unfortunate enough to have their names listed in some list of music critics. To feel that I might be one of that barmy army of congenital third and fourth raters who not only foist their horrible attempts at composition on others, but have the nerve to think that it might be worth hearing, is too much to bear.

With thanks to the MPO who drew up this flattering caricature
to go with  my by-line in their concert programme-notes.
So I tell them I am a professional listener. That really gets them. After all, like driving, just about everyone thinks they do it, so they don’t appreciate that anyone might do it for a living. More than that, as with driving, as everyone can do it badly, they assume that bad is the norm and have no perception that there are advanced skills to be learned before you can do it professionally. (Just go on to the roads and you will see what I mean; whether it’s the spotty youth in his Dad’s Lamborghini in Singapore, the nerdy student in his souped-up Proton in Malaysia or the blatantly halitosis-laden taxi-driver in Hong Kong.) Yet the one thing driving all my professional life is listening. As a critic I have to listen intently to pick up the salient points in a single sitting (if it’s a concert review) or in a concentrated period of time (if it’s a CD review). As an examiner I have to listen with extreme concentration in order to produce a fair assessment of what may be the deciding test in someone’s career. And as a commentator on music (which is what a programme note writer is) I have to listen in order to guide the readers through the maze of what they are to hear, be it a dreary organ performance or a ghastly new composition. I have tastes – likes and dislikes – but they have to be set aside when it comes to guiding others through the music; my job is to encourage others to listen and enjoy, not to get them to pre-judge according to my own tainted taste-buds.

Listening to music for a living is no easy task, and it has taken years of hard work to develop a good pair of ears. Nobody teaches you how to listen (perhaps they should – it would certainly help built up a solid audience for music in the future) and nobody appreciates the sacrifices that have to be made before you can really listen to classical music. I cannot, for example, sustain any sort of conversation when there is music going on in the background – it acts as a magnet to my ears and holds them close, obscuring all non-musical sounds – so attending parties is an activity long lost to me. Similarly, I cannot concentrate on financial transactions when there is music playing, which rules out most shopping centres or malls. I can’t go to gyms, since physical exercise has now become irremediably associated with pulsating rock music. Travelling on long-distance coaches – once the highlight of my life – went the day they introduced in-coach hi-fi. When I drive, the radio has to be tuned to talk radio only, which means no radio when driving in Malaysia. When I am put on hold by a telephone operator, I drop the call, for invariably some music is thrown down the line at me. And as for visiting bars or dining in almost any restaurant, that’s a pleasure long gone.

Indeed, it was my hideous experience in a KL Delifrance which finally brought home to me just how different my approach to listening was from that of the vast majority of my fellow man. Obliged to ask the manager to turn off the loud rap music playing at lunch time, I suggested that the lyrics – “You f****** c********* have f***** your mother******* mothers” – were possibly inappropriate to the families gathered there, only to be told, not only that nobody else had complained, but that he had never noticed the words before, and doubted whether anyone else had. Looking at happy Muslim, Chinese and Indian families all chewing their imitation meat in boiled bread-type sandwiches, limp lettuce leaves and cocky cockroaches peeking out from under the soggy crusts, I realised that he was right; people simply don’t listen.

So, as the possessor of a rare and thankless skill, I find it all the more welcome to be honoured and awarded. Thanks, SCMP, I’m approaching my work with renewed vigour. (And if you want to read those Awards in full, you can find them in the South China Morning Post arts pages for 17th December 2010.)

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