26 June 2011

Seeing Music

Decent venues for musical performances may be thin on the ground in India, but that seems to present no obstacle when it comes to putting on a show, and while the hotel I’m staying in at Pune (we used to call it Poona in the Good Old Days) – the Vivanta Blue Diamond – is very much a business hotel with small meeting rooms, plenty of bars and restaurants and the ubiquitous business centre, they managed to accommodate a live jazz performance last night.  True, it took place in what seemed like a long, thin corridor with seats arranged 10-abreast in the manner of the upper deck of an old London Routemaster bus, and the musicians were put on a fairly low stage at the far end, but the amplification was comfortable and even stuck at the very back I was able to hear well enough.
There was a very good singer indeed by the name of Shefali Alvarez.  Unfortunately she only sung a couple of numbers before calling her father – Joe Alvarez – up on stage to do most of the show.  This was particularly unfortunate not only because papa Joe had none of the vocal presence of his daughter, but insisted on performing a couple of his own compositions which were as embarrassing musically as they were vocally.  He also donned a pair of dark sunglasses halfway through his first number and kept having to put them up on his forehead while he tried to read the music in the rather dark and eccentric stage lighting the hotel had rigged up.  He is, however, regarded as something of a legend in musical circles here, so perhaps I was catching him on an off day.  The rest of the band, described as “New York based drummer Adrian, Indus Creed bassist Rushad and London based piano genius Karim Ellaboudi”, did not seem ever to have played together before, but despite taking a long time to warm up between numbers, they did very well indeed, quite spectacularly so given the paucity of material papa Joe seemed keen for them to play.
Karim certainly lived up to the promise of being a keyboard genius, and in places he was little short of dazzling, doing things with the two chords on which one of Joe Alvarez’s songs was based, which defied imagination.  Unfortunately he was playing a small electronic keyboard.  I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting and it looked for all the world as if he was just hunched over a laptop computer.  He had to be playing, no computer programme could have been so immediately responsive to the ensemble, but we had to take it on trust.  We could neither see him physically playing nor could we see an actual living musical instrument. 
Of course, in jazz as in many other musical performances, electronic instruments are the norm, and the benefits of the electronic keyboard with its myriad different voices cannot be ignored.  Somehow, though, even when you can see it, it looks wrong; and when, as last night, you couldn’t even see it, it just looked silly.  How much better it would have been if, even at the back of the long room, we could have seen a propped up lid of a grand piano, and how much more we would have subconsciously recognised the “piano genius” for what he undoubtedly was.
Which brings me to the issue of the visual element of a musical performance.  There are those who think that there is no real benefit in attending a live performance when there are so many extraordinarily brilliant performances available on disc.  I know of people who only listen to recorded music, finding either the visual element or the inevitable flaws of a live performance distracting.  Of course, much as I relish recorded performances, I can never accept that a live performance is not infinitely preferable, no matter how bad it is.  After all, without a live performance, recorded music could never exist and for me, although I do spend an awful lot of my time in a live performance with my eyes shut, the visual element is essential.  I actually like to see musicians working.  I appreciate their results better when I can see them doing it; just as there are those who like to dine in restaurants where they can see the chef at work (hence the obsession with cookery programmes on TV I assume) and those who like to watch football, cricket or tennis matches unfolding before their eyes rather than merely read the results in the next day’s papers.
Football, cricket and tennis all have their own purpose-built stadia where the focus is on seeing the action.  Somehow music gets pushed aside, and it is desperately sad that while, wherever you go in India, there seems to have been no expense spared on building sports stadia (although in most cases no expense whatsoever has been devoted to their upkeep, and they all seem to be crumbling away) everyone seems to think that music can be shoved into a back room or corridor.  After all, the thinking goes, we can stick a few microphones and loudspeakers about the place and people will be able to hear it. 
That’s an attitude which must change.  Music needs an environment which not only enhances the aural experience, but the visual one too.  Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur is one of the great concerts halls of the world because of its ability to achieve these two goals with almost complete perfection.  And, while elsewhere in Malaysia, there are still occasions where musical performances take place in hotel ballrooms and dingy school halls, it is plain that people are increasingly aware of the importance the environment is to a musical performance. 
We can’t expect great concert halls or musical venues to crop up overnight in India – after all there is so much money to be spent on nuclear weaponry, state-of-the-art fighter jets, advertising budgets for luxury goods and politicians’ kick-backs – but someone ought to take the trouble to hire in a proper piano when hosting a “piano genius”.  It may not make a world of difference to the sound, but it will certainly look more professional and give out the impression that the country is serious about music.

21 June 2011

Fusion Music?

For several years the annual Music For Youth Festivals in the UK ran a section for “World Music”.  It offered a musical showcase for those schools with a large immigrant community and, in the days before cheap budget air travel and wall-to-wall travel documentaries on TV (admittedly jostling for space among the wall-to-wall programmes on sharks and on cooking), gave adventurous music teachers the chance to encourage their students to explore foreign cultures.  It even gave schools outside the south east of England a chance to explore their own cultural identity through local folk tunes and dances, but few ever availed themselves of that; the thought that there might be something of equal value in a British locality to that of an impoverished African tribe or a ghetto in the West Indies an anathema to most British school teachers, chronically embarrassed by their failure to be anything other than white, wealthy and well educated.

Unfortunately, despite the very good intentions behind the World Music category, it mostly degenerated into a few predominantly middle-class schools (usually, it seemed, girls’ preparatory schools in Surrey) presenting their steel pan bands on stage, invariably performing incongruous arrangements of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven or, incredibly daringly, The Beatles.  They played on custom-made, state-of-the-art steel pans, delivered to the performance venue in a fleet of top-of-the-range urban four-wheel drives.  Quite what the children thought this had to do with the Caribbean slums where, devoid of any other luxuries, the people would bash and bang on used oil drums to accompany their dancing I was never allowed to ask, but I did get quite animated when anyone suggested they were getting involved in a legitimate world music exercise.

The serious study of world music – or ethnomusicology – as an academic subject only really started while I was at university.  I remember my tutor, coughing eloquently over his unceasing chain of Capstan Full Strength, pouring scorn over it; but then he had done his doctorate on the incidence of a certain musical interval on Menstruation Motets of the 11th century (or some such terminally boring subject – no wonder he took to the fags so rabidly) so regarded anything so wide-ranging as academically suspect.  I remember feeling that it would have been an interesting area to study, but there was more than enough in the area I was working on at the time (analysis of European choral music from 1918 to 1968) to keep me occupied, and I had no desire to delve into the murky world of Polynesian nose flutes or Chilean maracas.

Ironically, two of my first musical jobs were in the ethnomusicological sector.  As Head of Musical Instrument research for the Welsh Folk Museum (I was based at the exotically named Ystrad Mynach College of Further Education) I spent a year delving into the musical lives of the South Wales valleys, going way back to the wealth of ethnic music which actually existed in abundance until the non-conformists came along and wreaked their devastation on cultures who didn’t have the benefit of existing after the birth of Calvin.

Even more exotic, was my appointment as director of a project to identify and record the music of the indigenous tribes of Borneo, due to be collectively re-housed (and effectively broken up) by the lunatic decision to build the mega Bakun Dam – a plan which was quickly shelved when Malaysia won the right to host the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and realised it had to build a new airport instead in Kuala Lumpur).  Environmental Protestors had started making noises about the loss of the Sarawakian tribes, so a retired politician armed with a large sum of money and an instruction to do something to keep the EPs off the government’s back, decided to create a company which would record and preserve as much of their indigenous art as possible.  I was charged with finding a way of preserving the music and I spent several months investigating it before getting hold of an experienced Ethno music record producer and getting it all put on to a CD (you can still buy it  it’s called “Sawaku – the Music of Sarawak” and is on the Dutch Pan Records label). I can’t say it sold me on to ethnomusic and I’m quite happy to keep it as a peripheral interest, occasionally going to hear examples when I’m travelling and sometimes buying ethnic instruments as a kind of souvenir from local makers.

But what I learnt from these two ventures into the field was that ethnic music differed from what we call “Western” Art Music and Pop in two significant ways.  Firstly it was very tribe specific, belonging uniquely to one group of people who passed it down from generation to generation by word of mouth and example, not in any written or formalised means, and secondly it was functional.  The music was not entertainment or absolute, it served a very specific purpose.  Whether to attract rains, to scare away birds, to celebrate courtship or worship a particular deity, it couldn’t just be turned on and off; it needed a purpose to be performed.  We memorably had one musician on our Borneo project who refused to record to order, saying that it was the wrong time of year for his song.

Since then, of course, ethnomusic has exploded into the largest growth area in music at the moment.  There are festivals all around the world, not the least of which is the Rainforest in Sarawak – something of a by-product of our original work – which starts next month.  But with this sudden popularisation of ethnic music comes a very real danger that it will destroy itself.  Reading today’s edition of The Hindu, I have come across an article which highlights this danger vividly.  “Seven years ago”, runs the article, “Ganesh Govindswamy chanced upon a djembe and had an irresistible urge to master the new wonder.  Acquiring one of the skin-covered drums for himself, he founded the Bangalore-based African trance tribal group Beat Gurus”.

Now that gets alarm bells ringing!  Illustrated with a picture of seven dark-skinned Indians dressed in colourful South African garb and holding African drums and spears we have such a confusing mix of ethnicities, I’m not surprised that Govindswamy recalls that “At first, I was received with a little scepticism”.  But he seems to have started a trend and we read that “classical Carnatic troupes such as Bangalore-based Layatharanga also use the djembe in a few compositions”.  It’s controversial and an “artiste who did not want to be identified” observed to The Hindu’s reporter; “Some bands just place tribal drums on stage just to get a good reaction from the audience”. 

Here we see both African and Indian cultures being diluted in the name of the latest buzz word, “Fusion”. And if we are seeing the growth of a new musical genre called “Fusion Music” than I’ve bad news; it’s been around since before the 17th century, only we call it Western “Classical” Music.  

Cross-fertilization is the bread and butter of Western Classical Music.  We can point to Messiaen getting his rhythms from Hindu culture, Debussy from Javanese Gamelan, and even Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven were happy to draw from what they labelled “Turkish” back in the 18th century.  It’s part and parcel of what the genre is all about and it’s what makes it so universal and accessible to all cultures.  And being in Goa I can’t overlook the huge influence Indian music had on the pop music of the 60s and 70s, what with George Harrison and the gang having flocked to absorb sitar, yoga and mind-bending substances on top of an Indian mountain. 

But both pop and classical music can do this because they are not culture, race or tribal specific; the music is designed to be played in any circumstances (and certainly is).  But if you have cross-fertilisation in ethnic music, surely it no longer becomes ethnic music.  The sight of seven Indians pretending to be Africans might seem “ethnic” to European whites, but it has as much validity as Surrey schoolgirls pretending to be Caribbean slum-dwellers.  To me it borders on the offensive.

15 June 2011

New Musical Paths

A cri de coeur reaches me from an orchestral librarian who has come to the end of his tether.  I cannot divulge his name because orchestral librarians are supposed merely to exist, not to hold any opinions on music nor admit to any musical tastes, despite the fact that most orchestral librarians have more musical understanding and knowledge in their little fingers than most conductors have in their entire bodies.  Be that as it may, this particular orchestral librarian fears for his sanity under the latest onslaught of contemporary music which his orchestra is being forced to perform in the next few weeks.   “How unfortunate”, he writes, “that all this rubbish will be around for another 50 years if universities keep making students write in this manner and publishers pay them to be on their roster”.  And what has prompted this desperate plea for moral support?  A score which includes the instructions; “Keep repeating until cued by conductor, final result should be chaotic”. “Pitch bend, ad lib”.
Who can blame him for cracking under the pressure?  Any sensitive and capable musician will surely sympathise and, despite being a passionate believer in the need for music to develop and move onwards, my sentiments are with him one hundred per cent.  What’s gone wrong with composers that they have drifted so far away from their art? 
It’s tempting to suggest that this fad for musical inaccessibility is allied to the teaching of composition as an academic study in universities; after all great composers in the past have learnt their art from eminent practitioners.  Look at the list of university professors of composition and you see a list of names which, so far as most concert-goers are concerned, are utter nonentities, known, if at all, for their association with young composers rather than for the music they themselves have written (which, in most cases, is pretty well unperformable - and is usually shown to be so after just one public airing).  But that’s a red herring. 
The blame for the inaccessible, unperformable and wholly unattractive music being churned out by so many young composers rests, in my view, with a certain Gavrilo Princip.  He it was who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 and thereby sparked the First World War.  Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that one day John Cage woke up and had his eureka moment - “Thank God the Archduke Ferdinand has been murdered.  Now I can write 4 minutes 33 seconds!” – but that the shells which landed in the trenches of musical progress during the war exploded with such force and violence that they annihilated everything.  The dust and debris from that explosion has yet to settle almost 100 years on.
The First World War dramatically changed society, and as music is a product of society, that dramatically changed too.  Gone was the old order of things, the principles on which generations of composers had based their creative ideas.  If kings, kingdoms and countries could be overturned, if mankind could be slaughtered in its millions, then what was to stop the same thing happening with music?
Up until the First World War music fell into pretty easily definable stylistic periods.  We had the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic.  Such labels are distracting and often irrelevant, but they do recognise certain common features in the society and technology of the day which were reflected in the music.  Thus, as society changed and technology evolved, so music changed and while this was a continual evolution, there came a time when the dominant characteristics of music swung in favour of the new.  So, while in 1650 some composers were still writing music which conformed to the principles of earlier years, a majority had absorbed more of the new, and so we can say that it was around that year that Baroque gave way to Classical.  That, in turn, gave way to Romantic during the 1820s as music reflecting the new became more common than that reflecting the old. 
Around 1908 Schoenberg began to experiment with a consciously un-romantic approach to composition, and thus were sown the seeds of his 12-note system and of its later manifestation, serialism.  But this was still very much the Romantic era – Mahler, for example, was still writing his gargantuan and unequivocally Romantic symphonies, and despite the outrage they caused at the time (and still do, I regret to say, among some older music teachers), Stravinsky’s great ballet scores are nothing other than extreme examples of late Romantic music – and it’s more than likely that Schoenberg’s experiments would have fizzled out totally had not the First World War turned everything on its head.
Although the 1914-1918 war marked the death-knell for musical Romanticism, it was such a violent death that all paths leading out of it were destroyed and had to be re-forged.  Into this void stepped Schoenberg and his friends, giving some historical significance to a musical genre which has long since been shown to be both sterile and discredited; this path, as we learnt by the time of the Second World War, was a complete cul-de-sac.
It seemed for a while as if every composer took his own path.  Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss led those who looked back to see if they could retrace their steps, Shostakovich and Bartók led those who decided to stay where they were walking round in circles, Varèse and Stockhausen led those who looked forward, while Stravinsky ran up and down quite a few paths never really finding one which suited him.  Add to the mix the fact that the First World War brought into the frame countries from outside Europe, allowing American, Asian and even African composers to take to the world stage, and it is not difficult to see why music has taken so long to find a new common path.
However my frustrated orchestral librarian and the millions of other music lovers who despair at the state of modern music, should feel optimistic, for I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, that the path has been found and is being trod by an increasing number of young composers.  Of course, some of the more loopy ones will still add anti-musical directions to their scores and strive to make their music so inaccessible that university professors will drool ecstatically over their students’ abilities to de-popularize the art, but I think the way is opening up, and it’s the one discovered in America by what we call the “Minimalists”; Riley, Adams, Reich et al.
I confess to being a huge fan of minimalism, but that in itself is a pretty pointless musical genre, creating effect over substance.  It’s what it has led to that makes it exciting for me.  The attraction of defined melodies and harmonies make it readily accessible (which is, surely, an important function in any art form) but, as taken forwards even beyond such established composers as Tavener and Pärt, it has developed an intellectual rigour and emotional depth which goes far beyond the mere attractive and into the realms of the stimulating, absorbing and mentally challenging, which are essentials in any higher art.
It may take 50 years for the composition students of today to grow up, but, at last, I think they might just do it, and the days of “place a vibrating mobile telephone on the piano strings and then slam down the piano lid while ululating” are numbered.

13 June 2011

Indian Music Scene

At the recent Live! Singapore exposition, I chaired a discussion on the Musical Scene in India.  Perhaps not the most obvious choice of chairman, I fell into the role after the original plan – a discussion on the Musical Scene in Malaysia – fell through for lack of interest. It got enlarged to one discussing the Musical Scenes in Thailand and India as well, but in the end, it was decided that the time would be better spent concentrating just on India.  Fortunately I had three exceptionally good panel members who, by accident rather than design, were able to give deep and perceptive insights on three different areas of musical life in India both culturally and geographically.

From Mumbai we had a respected and gifted sitar virtuoso who was able to give a powerful overview of the state of Indian Classical Music in the country and beyond as well as some insights into the general scene in the west.  From Kolkata we had a composer and producer of stage musicals who gave an eloquent account of the situation facing those chasing audiences and finding suitable theatres in the east.  And from New Delhi we had a man who has put on western operas in India and was able to recount his pioneering work as well as giving a valuable overview of the musical scene there.
The consensus of opinion was that there was immense enthusiasm around the country for music of all styles, and with a burgeoning jazz scene, a huge rock band following and plenty of western chamber music presentations, it was clear that musical spin-offs from Bollywood and the distinctive sounds of table and sitar, don’t have a clean sweep of India’s musical life. Of course there is the big problem facing those who are involved in symphonic music, and that was exposed when the Chairman of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who was in the audience, asked about the possibilities of touring the country.  Unanimously the panel agreed that, while they could get decent audiences – possibly very large ones - there was only one suitable venue to house a symphony orchestra in the entire sub-continent.

That’s a problem I’m very conscious of myself, for some years ago I was approached by a man in Cochin who wanted to set up a symphony orchestra there.  He had the finance, he had the official support, he had the potential audience and, most especially, he had a pool of capable if inexperienced players.  I was charged with finding suitable experienced professionals to lead each section, tutor the local players and helping put the orchestra on its feet.  I also had to find a conductor and, with him, draw up a realistic time-frame to get the orchestra on to stage for the first time.  We had meetings in India, KL and Hong Kong and we even identified an apartment block in Cochin where the foreign musicians could live during what was intended as their two-year contract in India.  And then we hit a snag.  There was nowhere for them to perform.  After exhaustive investigations, looking at large halls which might be adapted, we realised that the only option was a new, purpose-built concert hall.  That proved to be a bridge too far for the financial backer and the plan fell through.
Indian Classical Music is such an integral part of Indian culture that, as our speaker put it, every venue in the country was suitable.  Musical Theatre, rock bands and Bollywood singers need staging and lighting, but when it comes to sound, heavy amplification can cover a multitude of design defects, and Indians are nothing if not very capable at working with electronics.  Opera is, of course, more of a problem, but with good singers and a chorus and a well-equipped theatre stage, the orchestra can be reduced to a piano or two.  The problem with western orchestral music is that it relies wholly on the natural projection of sound from a stage, calling for an entire auditorium to be geared up for sound, not just the stage, and that’s where the problem lies.

I have just started a lengthy examining tour of India, my sixth visit to India in this capacity.  I’m not alone, the country is currently teeming (it seems) with music examiners, and it is one of Trinity’s biggest and most actively growing markets.  True, the dominant instrument amongst Indian children has long been the Electronic Keyboard, but that seems to be changing.  In my tour (which has begun in a soggy Goa) I have French Horns, Trumpets, Flutes, Clarinets, Violins, Percussion and Pianos, while the ubiquitous Electronic Keyboard only just outnumbers all those others; and that’s not happened before in my experience. 
This month’s in-flight magazine on Jet Airways is devoted almost wholly to music, giving copious details about jazz venues and festivals dedicated to Indian Classical Music.  The absence of any western music from its pages (although there is a full-page advert for Kawai grand pianos) seems more the result of the problems staging it, rather than any real lack of interest in it. India may not be able to possess a true symphonic orchestra as yet, but that has not stopped a surge of interest in its sound and instruments, and I suspect, before too long, someone will take the gamble and sink their money into a new purpose-built concert hall.  And then, I suspect, India is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the international musical scene.

09 June 2011

Getting to the Music

It's that time of year again.  The time when I have to collect my array of parcel cutters, scissors, letter-openers and my trusty old Swiss Army Knife in order to sit down and listen to some music.

Why the assortment of vaguely lethal stationery requisites?

In the next few days large boxes of CDs will be arriving at my door, every single one shrink-wrapped in plastic, some so tightly wrapped that only a young woman squeezed into her Little Black Number in order to strut her stuff at a Saturday evening concert in Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS has less air between inner self and outer garments.  Some CDs even have two transparent wrappings, a visible one and an invisible one which announces its presence only after you have broken every fingernail attempting to prize open the jewel case.  Some add a tricky band of gooey and irremovable tape over the top.  And while some give you a small strip of coloured plastic around the case, by the time you have worked out where the end is and pulled the thing off only to leave the two parts of the transparent wrapper still firmly adhered to the jewel case, the temptation is to resort to the sledge hammer.  In over 25 years of opening CDs I have still not mastered the art of removing the wrapper without damaging the jewel case.  My desk and library floor are littered with razor-sharp fragments of plastic from disintegrating jewel cases. 

And it doesn't stop with the prising off of the transparent film (ironically called "protective", yet every bit as damaging to the contents as placing it under the wheels of a slow moving military tank transporter).  Bits continually fall off the jewel cases and most quickly develop an unnerving inner rattle as those viciously sharp teeth which hold the centre of the CD in place fall out one by one.  Even as I write, I have stabbed my foot on one such nasty lost tooth – age detaches but certainly doesn't wither them.

Why do CD manufacturers insist on wrapping their products up in such tight and irremovable films?  The answer is probably to do with terrorism; an openable jewel case is seen as a potential repository for an incendary or explosive device.  If I were a terrorist, certainly, I'd scour the shelves of HMV for an opeanble CD of Chopin in which to place my device.  Just imagine the triple satisfaction for a terrorist of causing mayhem in a shopping plaza, for a shopper of destroying one of the world's less endearing retailers, and for a musician of blowing up some of the most flaccid and insipid drivel known to man. I just wish someone could devise a secure means of packaging CDs so that it doesn't require a surgical operation (with an 80% failure rate) to extract the jewel case intact.

At this point there will be several of my regular followers slavering with glee, barely able to get the words out of their mouths (or typed on to their touch-sensitive screens).  I can anticipate them now; "Told you so...Dinosaur technology…CDs are dead…Downloads...File Sharing…Cloud…blah blah blah".  My avoidance of such methods of obtaining recorded music being well documented.  And they are right.  You don't have these problems when you file share, legally or otherwise.  Downloads, Cloud, files uploaded to iPods may have their drawbacks (don't ask me, I don't know) but removing moulded transparent wrappers is not one of them.

But I cannot live without the CD despite the problems.  No other music carrier, I understand, is as convenient when it comes to quality of sound, ease of access to specific points in the music, choice of performance, side-by-side comparison and readable documentation.  I sit on the plane, CD in my portable player, earphones on the head, listening to the greatest recorded performances of all time and reading detailed, learned and immensely informative documentation – often with a lovely piece of art work to feast one's eyes over – and wonder if life could get any better.  Can you do this with those other methods?  I'm told not and, frankly, I've never seen anyone with those irritating white wires hanging from their ears enjoying themselves so much; in almost every case they are doing something completely different at the same time as hearing their music – reading a semi-pornographic magazine, playing on their games console, texting on their phones or jogging.  Which makes me think the sound and presentation of music cannot be anything like as absorbing as it is with the good old CD.

I'm no dinosaur, although admittedly I still listen to vinyl and 78s (I was never ever into cassettes), and I embrace new technology for what it is; I do not assume that all new technology is designed to supplement or replace earlier technology.  Nobody has come up with a suitable replacement for, say, automated traffic signals (despite the fact that all cyclists and most Malaysian drivers appear unaware of their existence in the first place) and this piece of 1920s technology is still part of our everyday life.  Ditto the CD.

And why, you must be burning to ask, am I about to unpack so many CDs in the next few days? 

The Gramophone Awards voting process is upon me and in the next month I have around 100 hours of serious and intense listening to do.  How convenient it would be if the companies could simply transmit their latest CDs to us online.  But they don't because, quite simply, there is no alternative at present to the CD.

06 June 2011

Shopping in Singapore

It hasn't much to do with music, but it's too good an insight into Singaporean life to be allowed to pass.

About to head off to India for a prolonged examining tour during which I foresee long and lonely evenings accompanied by cockroaches and rats in dreary hotels, I have been anxious to stock up on good reading material.  I'm heavily into Evelyn Waugh's tales of Guy Crouchback and the Second World War and, having consumed the first two volumes, I went in search of the third, Unconditional Surrender. 

Of course, overlooking the obvious problems of finding authors in a culture where forenames are regarded as family names (hence, Evelyn Waugh is often filed under E - for Evelyn - Auberon Waugh under A -for Auberon - and so on), there was the fun I had getting the staff (who, in bookshops are usually employed because of their inability to read) to grasp the difference between Waugh and War. 

Then there is the impossibly weird filing system, in which each bookstore (even different branches of the same chain) adapts its own unique variant.  Well versed in the machinations of shelf-stockers who would put the Mma Ramotswe novels of Alastair McCall Smith (variously listed under A, M, C or S, depending on that day's shelf-stacker) under Crime (misled, I assume by the "No.1 Ladies Detective Agency" tag), Feminism (Mma Ramotswe), Race Relations (the characters are all Black Africans) and even Non-Fiction (true, McCall Smith's characters really do come alive through his marvellous prose).  I assumed it was too much to expect Evelyn Waugh to be under either Classics of Fiction, and looked at War, Auto-Biography and even Gay and Lesbian (well his Brideshead Revisited has a certain homosexual tinge to it).

Not finding it on the shelves I sought out staff and their trusty computers.  One shop maintained it was not published yet (Penguin brought it out in 1955), while I eventually found it on a counter display beside an assistant who, ogling the computer, claimed it was "Outta Stock".

But not before two hugely amusing encounters with desperately daft shop assistants.  Painful spelling attempts to get both title and author across eventually yielded this response; 
"When was it published?"
 "Oh, in the late 1950s I think". 
"Oh.  Then we won't have it.  We only sell new books". 
"But I want a new copy.  I gather it's been reprinted many times since then".
"No.  We only sell modern books.  There's no demand for anything over 10 years old".
 "In that case, are you telling me you don't sell The Bible or Shakespeare?".

Imagine going into a music shop.  "I want a copy of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata".  "Sorry.  We don't sell old music.  Would Richard Clayderman's greatest Drivel suit?"

And they used to laugh at the stupidity of Hong Kong shop assistants??!

Children Singing

There are few things in music more likely to get the "oohs" and "aahs" flowing, the hankies coming up to dab the eyes, or the cheerful laughter bubbling up around the audience, than children singing.  As a parent of a three-year-old I know just how much my daughter loves singing.  She sings away merrily to herself whenever she's happy (which seems much of the time) and has a particular fondness for making up words to familiar songs.  No car journey is complete without her singing about the colours, shapes and occupants of the other vehicles on the road.  I'm sure there are plenty of children out there who don't like singing, but I'm equally certain they are in the minority; in my experience children love to sing, and only lose that love when they are aware that people are listening to them or when they are obliged to do it under instruction.

Which is rather a disadvantage when it comes to creating a children's choir.

To overcome this hurdle a lot of directors of children's choirs dupe their charges into believing that they are not really doing any singing at all but are actually dancing, acting or re-living moments from popular television programmes and movies.  Hence the pitiful spectacle of children on stage performing all manner of weird and wonderful antics in all manner of weird and wonderful costumes while attempting to make some kind of singing sound, the quality of which directors don't feel matters so much as the quality of their actions.  We see them gyrating, stamping their feet, running around, twisting and turning from side to side and waving their arms about all in the name of "singing".  Add to this the ghastly pseudo-music they are encouraged to sing (once-popular hit numbers from long-forgotten soundtracks or hideously deranged versions of hideously deranged Andrew Lloyd Webber excrescences) and you have the recipe for the intensely embarrassing children's choir concerts which all parents and relatives seem to have attended out of duty rather than artistic desire.

Thankfully the Singapore Symphony Children's Choir and its two directors – Quek Soo Hiang and Wong Lai Foon - are made of sterner stuff.  They not only concentrate on singing, but get their charges to sing proper and well written music which is both stimulating and entertaining.  Here is a choir which does what it is supposed to do; stand on stage and sing.  And while at their Fifth Anniversary Concert this last weekend they did briefly clap their hands together and on another occasion cover their mouths in fits of girlish giggles, it was all about music and not at all about stage antics.  Quek and Wong clearly believe a choir is all about performing music, and that any colour, excitement or variety must come from the children's musical rather than physical abilities.  And, boy, did they make stunning music!

The only disappointment was in the number of boys on stage.  Plenty of girls – all in captivating red – but just a tiny handful of boys (in smart black waistcoats), rather strangely arranged with a bundle of boys stuck out on the left and individuals isolated here and there amongst a sea of girls.  This may have been for musical reasons, but it looked odd and highlighted the imbalance.  So, why so few boys? 

An imbalance of Boys and Girls
Child psychologists tell us that boys mature much slower than girls, but are we to believe this difference is even more marked in Singapore than elsewhere?  Are Singapore boys so backward that they are incapable of the intellectual rigours placed on them by choral singing?  Are they mentally so far behind that they cannot match the girls' ability to handle different languages (I think there were around 10 in this concert), to sing an hour's worth of music from memory, or maintain the levels of concentration needed to stand exposed on stage for long periods at a time?  Are all Singaporean boys loners who cannot work in cooperation with others?  Or is there some reason why Singaporean parents of boys are culturally and artistically more backward than Singaporean parents of girls? 

Then fact is that choral singing is a demanding physical, mental and intellectual activity which has such huge benefits on a child's development, that it is not just a pity that there were not more boys there, but a very serious indicator of the country's future development.

When I was an examiner with the ABRSM we did a survey for the Board's centenary in the UK on famous figures who had been through the music exam mill.  I can remember that it revealed a disproportionate number of the nation's leaders who had learnt music, but more significantly, a very substantial majority of leading politicians, businessmen and financiers had been members of choirs, and all of them pointed to the huge advantages choir membership – with its discipline, its mental challenges, its need for total teamwork and its exposure to a wide variety of cultures and languages – had on their future development as leaders.  In short, if you want to get ahead in life as an adult, join a choir as a child.

What impressed me most about the girls and boys of the Singapore Symphony Children's Choir was their incredible vocal discipline and the clarity of their diction in whatever language they happened to be singing at the time.  We had glorious idiomatic Japanese against flawless Tagálog, instinctive Latin and utterly idiomatic French, to name but four.  Technical things like pitch, intonation, ensemble and articulation were magnificent, and while the songs from Poulenc's Petites voix probably over-stretched them a little, and the fun of Paranjoti's Dravidian Dithyramb was rather heavily suppressed by a conductor anxious to achieve accuracy above communication, from beginning to end this superbly-devised programme showed a choir of real quality.  Lucky them, too, to have two such sensitive and alert accompanists as Joanne Ang and Jean Fang in support.

Highlights were an enchanting account of Rheinberger's Ave Regina and a nattily enunciated Cosy Cat Nap by Miklós Kocsár (what a shame the programme printed his name incorrectly; and on the subject of printing errors, I was sad to see that a confusing and questionable claim about one of the pieces which I had been asked to include in the notes was attributed to me rather than to the person who wrote it – apologies all round for what will have seemed a rare lapse on my behalf).  There was a large number of real musical gems here – notably pieces by Casals, Praetorius and Matsushita – and only one really unfortunate inclusion – why on earth do people sing Whitacre's The White Seal which has to be one of the most uninspired and boring bits of choral music ever penned? – while the extracts from musicals and light opera were nicely presented, not least an immaculately tailored account of Three Little Maids and a rhythmically compelling performance of Something's Coming.

It's not good policy to review a children's choir; everyone assumes you are saying it's good even when it's not, and if you dare say it's not good, then dozens of tiny metaphorical knives are out for you.  But on this occasion I have no compunction in being honest.  The Singapore Symphony Children's Choir is a genuinely outstanding group who make music of the very highest calibre.

05 June 2011

String Quartets - must they change?

Created by four former players from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the T'ang Quartet has made something of a reputation for itself for, as its own website puts it, "pushing the boundaries of classical music".  It attempts to change the function of a string quartet from that of a static, formal and fundamentally introspective ensemble to something which is highly extrovert, highly mobile and, if not informal, very different in its performance style.  It dispenses with black and white attire and replaces it with jeans, trainers and ragged tops.  They often stand up to play and move around as they do, introducing an element of visual drama to their performances. 

My first reaction is; why?

The string quartet medium as we know it has become what it is for very good reasons and its repertoire is built around the assumption that this is what a string quartet is.  Of course, the T'angs get around that by mostly commissioning new work (predominantly from Asian composers who, it is assumed, are less ingrained in the traditions of a string quartet).  When audiences go to a string quartet they know what to expect and go there with their eyes open; I've yet to hear of anyone turning up at a string quartet recital by accident, as it were, expecting something both exciting and visually dramatic.  It fills a very clear and obvious niche and, for its audience, it does it well.  Some string quartets are good and some are bad, some attract big audiences, some can barely muster a quorum, some make their performances musically exciting, some bore the pants off you.  But that's the nature of the beast. 

The T'angs' website also tells us that they believe "in the power of music to change lives".  Well and good.  So do I.  But do you have to change the whole concept of a tried and tested medium to do that?

For a time, especially in the middle years of the 20th century, the piano was the bête-noir of avant-garde composers.  With its roots in the very traditions of western art music, it was the symbol they all wished to destroy.  (And there's really fascinating piece on the net about this; http://www.scrapclub.co.uk/texts/piano-destruction-text#7).  I'm not sure that the string quartet ever came in for such stick then and, clearly, it is not the intention of the T'ang Quartet to change the concept of a string quartet by destroying it.  But I wonder if they are doing it merely to force the musical world to accept them – it is, after all, a field which is pretty well saturated and only the most exceptional musicians can gain wide recognition – or whether they really think that there's something wrong with the string quartet which needs to change.

Last week I attended a concert they put on as part of the Singapore Arts Festival.  I reviewed it for the Straits Times and when it was published, the Straits Times placed alongside it several comments from the audience.  I love that idea; the reviewer and the audience reaction side-by-side, and I wish it was done more often.  Of course audience reviews vary widely, but I was very taken by the general tenor of the comments which, in truth, didn't vary much from the type of comments you might get when any string quartet was performing new music.  They included such phrases as "I found certain parts a bit too long and boring", "It went on for a bit too long", "I found [the music] really difficult to relate to", "I thought that the pieces performed took some getting used to", "I thought that the sounds were too disharmonious", and "It was quite stressful to listen to the music because I felt the musicians were trying very hard to convey the tone of desperation".  (I admit to having selected certain types of comments – read the full range published in the paper on the image.)

In short, are the T'ang Quartet simply trying too hard to be different in a field where audiences neither want nor accept that change is necessary?  Of course, music must always been developing and advancing, but might not the most effective developments come from trying out new combinations of sounds, new ways of producing music, rather than from simply taking something which already works very well and attempting to alter it?  The great thing about classical music is that it has built up traditions over the years which are accepted and enjoyed for what they are, while it is at the same time creating new and different sounds from new and different types of ensembles.  I admire the T'angs as players, but I'm not sure I wouldn't rather they broke out from the string quartet and pushed the boundaries in regions where boundaries are ripe for pushing.

Here's my review, an edited version of which the Straits Times published on 2nd June 2011.

 On to a stage littered with various lumps of wood and bathed in a golden autumnal glow, the T'ang Quartet surreptitiously crept, scraping and hacking at their instruments as they came.  It was a visually and aurally effective moment, the first of many in what was an intriguing if ultimately puzzling performance.

Marcia Tan's stage production was imaginative, and while what appeared to be hollowed-out pumpkins - leftovers from last Hallowe'en - seemed mildly incongruous, a gong dominating the stage like some majestic setting sun was an inspired idea.  There was also excellent lighting and a cleverly integrated tape comprising sampled and reprocessed sounds – as well as a persistent and irritating hum, but that might have been down to the air conditioning.

The members of the T'ang Quartet have a real flair for the dramatic gesture, and throughout the performance they showed intense physical involvement.  When two of them started crashing cymbals and uttering increasingly animated vocalisations, the others became visibly more frenzied, creating a powerful aural and visual climax.  Relying solely on playing their instruments for effect, however, they seemed decidedly awkward, the cellist in particular, writhing about stiffly as he drove himself through a long but flawed solo.  Much of the music may have been improvisatory, but the coordination between them was nothing short of masterly.

As for the music, it neither trod new ground nor pushed the boundaries.  Mostly it rehearsed clichés which were all the rage in the 1960s - but as he was only born in 1976, composer Hu Xiao-ou can be forgiven for perhaps thinking them cutting-edge.  He was at his most inspired when he shook off western pretentions and simply rejoiced in cleverly-contrived Chinese sounds.  Through it all the T'ang Quartet produced playing of impressive assurance.

It would be good to offer some kind of explanation as to what each of the sections in Hu's score was trying to convey.  Unfortunately, in an act of unbelievably crass idiocy, someone had decided to print the essential programme notes over a photograph of dense woodlands, the result being that only isolated letters could be discerned amongst a mass of leaves and branches.  It was a case of not being able to see the words for the trees.