29 July 2011

Pointless Comparisons

Reviewing the latest disc of music by British composer Judith Bingham on Naxos (8.572687), I find myself comparing her musical style with that of others.  There's a terse little mini-concerto for organ and strings which in places reminds me of Copland while Alain, Langlais and Messiaen spring into my mind when I hear some of her organ solo pieces.  I dislike this habit of drawing comparisons between different composers rather than recognising their individuality, and I am exercised in expunging some of these references from my review before I submit it to Gramophone.  But I am in two minds.  Despite the obvious problems of drawing loose connections, which probably are not even there and which might even hint at a lack of originality, is there not some value in introducing the unfamiliar by emphasising its similarities with something familiar?

This has been a good month for Judith Bingham; helping, no doubt, to sugar the pill of next year's 60th birthday (don't worry, Judith, I'm only two years behind you, and so I know we're both still young!).  She had a BBC Proms première last Sunday week and now the release of this, the second disc from Naxos devoted to her music.  She's certainly not an unfamiliar name to record collectors or concert-goers, but to date it is mostly through her choral music that she has become known; both this month's Proms piece and this Naxos disc are of her organ music. 

Those who enjoy and collect organ music live largely in a state of denial about the rest of the musical world (and, of course, vice versa), so even though the larger musical world will know of Bingham, for organ buffs the name means nothing - well, not quite nothing, mention Bingham to organists and they will immediately assume you are referring to the American organist/composer Seth Bingham (1882-1972) familiar through his pastiche suite, Baroques.  I recall telling a very well-known organist that I was undertaking research into the music of Frank Martin and being appalled when he, in all genuineness, asked whether there was enough to warrant a graduate thesis; "I know about the Passacaille.  Good piece.  Has he written anything else?"  I never dared asked whether he'd ever heard of Schoenberg, Berg or Webern (useless composers – not a note of organ music between them!); while his own gods – Dupré, Vierne and Rheinberger – remain complete nonentities to anyone outside the organ world (or at least they did then – adventurous record companies have begun to show that all three had profitable lives outside the organ loft).  Into this environment I cannot just introduce the name of Judith Bingham and expect everyone to know about her background and style.

So it helps to be able to introduce her music by describing it in terms those most likely to buy this disc will understand.  The easy thing is to draw parallels with which they are familiar, but this is probably as pointless as describing every meat which is not beef, pork or lamb as "tasting like chicken".  (The first time I ate crocodile – ironically in the company of the late Steve Irwin at his Australia Zoo in Queensland – I was asked to describe its taste.  "Most people say it tastes like chicken", I was told; "No", I honestly responded, "it tastes like crocodile".)  The fact is, though, it is very difficult to hear any organ music written in the last 100 years without finding parallels with the French masters – Messiaen, Dupré, Alain – simply because these French composers were so influential in writing for the organ that their models are just about impossible to ignore.  So is there any value in suggesting that aspects of Judith Bingham's writing for the organ are reminiscent of them?

Judith Bingham's writing for the organ is certainly original; you could never listen to it and confuse it with someone else's.  But it is not particularly distinctive; unlike, say, Mathias (with his dancing rhythmic rows of bare fifths) and Leighton (with his insistent chromatic steps full of seventh and second harmonies), she does not write in a style which has an immediately identifiable individuality about it.  You would hear it and know who it was NOT, but you would not be able to say who it WAS.  So, to that end, I feel it is incumbent on me to describe her musical language to the uninitiated.  Just because it's organ music should not be excuse enough for buying the disc - although some will – nor should the fact that it reveals the latest re-fashioning of the Harrison and Harrison organ in St Alban's Abbey.  Perhaps some might buy it simply to hear how good Tom Winpenny, a fairly new entrant on the British organ scene, is.  My review will, of course, address these elements – but you will have to read my thoughts in the pages of Gramophone's Awards issue in October – but my main focus is to describe to potential purchasers what they might expect musically.

Without drawing on other comparisons, I suppose I would describe her organ writing as sympathetic rather than idiomatic, a little too reliant on registration effects rather than sustained musical arguments (she herself confesses to having demanded registration changes in every bar in her earliest writing for the instrument) and aiming for a "churchy" sound rather than strong, self-contained structures – there is something almost improvisatory here, not least in the Prelude and Voluntary.  She's not a great melodist, but as one who is both a singer and a very experienced writer for the voice, melodies are ever-present and are held within fairly limited compasses; perhaps reflecting her own singing experience as a choral alto. The harmonic language is pungent rather than acerbic, chords terse rather than tense and textures never thin but neither overbearingly fulsome; except for the closing chord of Voluntary which sounds to be an exact crib of the final chord of Alain's Litanies.  She is not really comfortable in handling slow music on the organ – what works well for the voice and other instruments doesn't work in the unforgiving uniformity of the organ's sustained tones – and pauses and moments of repose can seem painfully pointless (as with the aimless opening of Annunciation I).  Above all her music strives to tell a story – in most cases here, one drawn from The Bible and Christian writings – so it pursues a logical and coherent path with a definite sense of direction. 

Unfortunately Gramophone stipulates pretty harsh word limits effectively preventing such a detailed description of her style.  How much easier it is to say "this bit reminds me of Copland, this bit reminds me of Langlais, and this bit suggests Alain".  But does that really help create an impression of what is a unique musical voice?

25 July 2011

Consistency between Music Examiners

Accidentally stumbling into that hornets' nest of candidates, teachers, parents and assorted relatives which is the waiting room at the start of any examining day, a music examiner will almost certainly be faced with the question; "Are you a generous or a mean examiner?"  My stock answer is "I'm a fair one", which cuts no ice with the assembled throng since they are not interested in fairness, just marks. 

There seems to be a general belief that music examiners set out from London with a bag full of marks which they distribute or retain entirely at their own whim. That the examiner has total jurisdiction over marking is simply not true, but that certainly is the perception and gives rise to the perennial question about consistency between examiners. I used to use the analogy of a German bank teller with ready access to thousands of Marks but having to account for every single one, but since the advent of the Euro the joke falls rather flat.

In graded exams, the ABRSM system does not entrust the examiner with any marks in the first place.  The candidate enters the exam room with 100 and effectively invests them in the subsequent performance.  If the investment is good, interest is earned (merit, distinction), if it is bad, a loss is incurred (failure).  The examiner merely oversees these investments and reports them back to London who check that the assessment of the candidate's portfolio has been consistent with the rules and regulations, and issues the relevant certificate.  Those rules and regulations are set out as a series of criteria, and from the comments the examiner makes it is clear what the correct amount of marks to be added or subtracted should be.  It allows for great consistency across the whole examiner panel, and at one of the last examiner meetings I attended before I parted company with the ABRSM in 2000, some 500 or so of us sat in the ballroom of a Park Lane hotel watching videos of examination candidates and discussing our marking.  One candidate, whom the Chief Examiner had decided deserved a total of 118, drew from the assembled throng marks ranging from 115 to 124; which was seen as a major crisis.  The ABRSM ideal was to ensure that across the whole panel of examiners marks not only stayed within the same category but did not vary by more than two.  Their methods and standardisation procedures have always been remarkably successful in achieving that goal, to the extent that one teacher I knew offered parents of his pupils their exam fee back if his estimate of their mark was out by more than two – and he rarely had to give back any money.

The Trinity system differs in that the individual examiners do have much more control over the marks, allowing up to 100 per candidate, but these need to be accounted for in the examiners' written commentaries which closely accord with the published criteria setting out the range of marks available.  Much more importantly, while the ABRSM offers a single mark for each piece played, Trinity breaks it down into three categories; a mark for getting the notes right, a mark for being able to control the instrument, and a mark for communicating the music to the examiner.  This system has the dual advantage of allowing candidates and teachers who either cannot read the examiner's scrawl or don't understand written English to see at a glance where the strengths and weaknesses lie, and also ring-fences the objective areas of assessment while reducing the number of marks available to purely subjective judgement.  This certainly makes for considerable transparency, although it does not achieve anything like the consistency of marking from examiner to examiner we get with the ABRSM system. 

But there again, is consistency important?  In an art form where consistency barely exists, why should examinations create an artificial need for it?  No two live performances are ever the same, recorded performances lack consistency – otherwise there would be no demand for ever-more recordings of the same repertoire – and even professional critics do not have consistency; read different reviews of the same performance and you will see immediately what I mean.  And the thing is, nobody worries.  That's music; different performances, different ears, different perceptions. Why should exams, which, after all, ought to reflect the real world of the subject, seek to impose something alien?

Of course for any examination to have broad legitimacy, there need to be universally accepted yardsticks, and these yardsticks require some kind of quantifiable elements which can be consistently recognised.  Music exams attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, but I doubt that consistency for consistency's sake is really useful in this context. 

When I was an ABRSM examiner I knew colleagues who were so terrified of the Chief Examiner's "moderation" (the equivalent of the "re-education" practised by totalitarian regimes) that they did not so much assess the candidate in the room as write a report which London would recognise as being consistent with the marks awarded.  The first thing I noticed when I switched from ABRSM to Trinity was that the focus was on the candidate rather than on the consistency of the result.  So, while with ABRSM an examiner heard all of one teacher's pupils together and was able to recognise immediately his individual consistency (and in London they were able to see from the teacher's previous results that the examiner was consistent with previous examiners), Trinity examiners are never told who the teacher is, nor which candidates are taught by which teachers, so on a daily basis see a very divergent series of results from which they cannot begin to infer a personal consistency; and as Trinity is differently constituted from the ABRSM, it never knows the teachers either so cannot easily identify an individual examienr's consistency against the global pattern for that teacher.  The guarantee each Trinity candidate gets, however, is that the examiner assesses them as individuals, and not in comparison with others from the same teacher or even, as can be the case, by preconceptions prompted by knowing the teacher's name or being intimidated by the teacher's long list of qualifications. 

That's how it is with graded examinations.  But performance diplomas present a very different picture when it comes to consistency between examiners.  A recent comment on my post about Balanced Diploma Programmes asked me whether my views were shared across the panel and whether, while I may think one thing, another examiner might think differently.  Having no first-hand experience of the ABRSM diplomas, I can only talk about Trinity and here, again, we have a useful level of transparency by breaking up the marks between the purely objective elements (accuracy, observance of detail in the score) and the subjective ones (communication, interpretation).  I might dislike a particular way of playing a Chopin Mazurka and mark it down accordingly, but I still have to give, say, full marks for accuracy and attention to detail.  As a result my mark may be lower than a colleague whose feelings about the Chopin are more receptive, but it will not substantially affect the global mark.

On top of that, I may feel that a particular programme choice is unbalanced, being based purely on historical periods rather than style or character.  But I can only allow this to be reflected in the 10 marks (out of 100) I am allowed to issue in that section of the diploma labelled "Presentation Skills".  And as that mark also involves assessment of programme notes and stagecraft, in reality I have no more than three marks at my disposal to retain because I don't think the programme choice is balanced.  Along comes a colleague, old, doddery and out of touch with reality (there are some) who still thinks that balance only refers to historical styles, and seeing Bach, Haydn, Chopin and Debussy, salivates with satisfaction.  But he can only give three marks, so the difference between us, while it might be a little more than the two of the ABRSM, is hardly going to be a matter of great concern to those anxious about consistency.

With 200-300 words to write in a diploma exam report (the length, it must be said, of an average newspaper music review) the comments from different examiners on the same performance may well differ radically both in content and in the hierarchy of assessing the constituent elements.  That has to be a good thing, for it reflects the reality of the musical world.  But when it comes to the marking, the criteria and the transparency of the Trinity system ensures that there is sufficient measure of consistency between examiners to legitimise the result and the system. 

23 July 2011

Musical Philanthropy

Suffering the bouts of sleepless nights and distracted days which are the lot of any free-lance writer and musician worried about where the next bit of money is going to come from to pay for his daughter's schooling, clothes and toys (not to mention her insatiable appetite for pony rides), to run his car, to pay his rent or to settle any one of the myriad domestic bills which are the stuff of life, I yearn for someone to call up and offer me money to let me sit down in peace and seriously get down to work on my book.  A book, I should add, which will immeasurably enrich the lives of anyone foolish enough to read it if and when it eventually sees the light of day.  How I pray for a munificent benefactor.  But my prayers will be in vain; who has ever heard of anyone handing out cash to a humble-ish music commentator to write a book of necessarily limited appeal?

But, there again, who has ever heard of anyone handing out cash to a humble composer to write a symphony which will be of even less interest to the great swathe of mankind?

Actually I have – many times - and, by a pleasing coincidence, even as the red bills come and the petrol gauge on the car is reading empty, a commission comes in to write some notes for a series of concerts featuring all seven Sibelius symphonies.  True, the fee - what with fluctuating exchange rates and criminal bank charges – will be swallowed up the first time I fill the car's petrol tank, but it's work, and I've never been one to turn my nose up at that.

It could be very easy work if I didn't have a certain sense of old-fashioned honour.  I've written about the Sibelius symphonies countless times, and it would be the simplest thing in the world to do a cut-and-paste job, churn out properly researched but hardly original notes, and watch the "DR" column on the bank statement reduce by an infinitesimal amount.  But I do take pride in always coming up with something new, and even if an inevitable by-product of having been a writer on music for almost half-a-century is that some stock phrases get churned out time and time again, I always try to look at even the most familiar works from a new angle each time I write about them.  So with the Sibelius symphonies I decided to avoid the customary angle – Internationalisation of Finnish nationalism, blah blah, blah – and go for the financial one.  After all, if something is at the forefront of one's thoughts 24 hours a day, what better than to turn it into a creative force?  My notes about Sibelius have often touched on his profligate life-style (booze, fags, syphilis – you know the sort of thing) and his frequent chronic cash shortages, so why not look at the symphonies as potential cash-cows rather than expressions of Finnish cultural ideals.  And that's where I came across a munificent benefactor.

Often I have mentioned the figure of Axel Carpelan as being pivotal in starting Sibelius off on the road to symphonic greatness.  The common belief is that Carpelan was so impressed by the First Symphony that he passed Sibelius the money to get down to work on the Second.  Deciding to follow up on this line, I searched for references to Carpelan.  Who was this generous spirit?  Might he have relatives alive today who might be similarly predisposed to pass on their cash to impoverished musicians (like me)?  It was a lot more difficult than usual, not least because Carpelan seems to have been an utterly insignificant figure in history.  Eventually I found a genealogical reference which showed him to be a Baron.  Ah!, thought I, an aristocrat with too much inherited wealth and not enough to do with it.  But then came two shocking comments. An American research paper referred to him briefly as "a penniless nobleman", while a single sentence about him on a French website suggested he "had no money".  How was he then able to give funds to Sibelius?  Where did they come from?

The answer came with some recent American research, cryptic references in various books and encyclopaedias and, best of all, a paragraph in the second volume of Erik Tawaststjerna's exhaustive study of Sibelius.  I learnt that Carpelan was ambitious to become, in one memorable quote, "a friend of great men", that he spent much of his life writing letters (mostly anonymous ones) to the rich and famous, had wanted to be a violinist but smashed up his instrument in a fit of rage when his parents banned him from pursuing musical studies and that he was, to put it bluntly, a total weirdo.  Tawaststjerna is a little more generous describing him as "a hypochondriac who had done little with his life, had precious little money and eked out a bachelor existence in lodgings in Tampere".  However correspondence Carpelan had with a wealthy Swede called Axel Tamm resulted in the latter frequently sending money to him.  Nobody can explain why Tamm was so willing to give financial support to a man who was by all accounts a total wastrel (and there's a word I don't think I've ever used before!), and one reference makes a fleeting but wholly baseless mention of homosexuality.   The fact is, though, that Carpelan certainly had some pull with Tamm, and when he first befriended Sibelius and realised that money was urgently needed, he generously devoted his time to extracting some from Tamm.  Sources differ about the extent of this, but Carpelan was clearly one of those people with a gift of sniffing out funds, not for himself, but for others.  Oh, how I wish I were to come across a modern-day Carpelan!

There are, of course, plenty of other examples where money has been paid to musicians from generous philanthropists who appear to have no motive other than to see great – and mediocre – art flourish.  The trouble is the financial world is such today that we tend to look first to governments and commercial organisations to do the work of these philanthropists; and they often do have an ulterior motive.  We don't talk about the "Carpelan Symphony" or even the "Tamm Symphony"; both men's absolutely vital contribution to the existence of Sibelius symphonies is now virtually forgotten.  Can you imagine the same thing happening today?  The "BBC Proms", the "UBS Verbier Festival", the "HSBC Piano Festival", "Toyota Classics", "Petronas Philharmonic Hall" clearly show what the driving force is behind modern-day philanthropy.

In a brief moment last week when UK Phone Hacking (why the shock-horror at this, by the way, when anyone with half a brain knows that it's been going on for years?), the Greek debt crisis, the imminent collapse of the Euro and the Famine in parts of Somalia had become merely tedious news stories, the British press – especially the down-market end of it where news is driven by jealousy – told of a Scottish couple who had won an inordinate amount of cash in a lottery.  Newscasters had a field day discussing what they would do with the money, and when we eventually saw the two Scottish winners it was clear that they would not need to spend any of their easily-earned cash on food and drink.  So the question was what would they spend it on?  Holidays, Cars, Houses, Handouts to Relatives, Donations to Charity (ha!  Pull the other one!); that's what we all expected and that's what we got. No surprises there.  What would have been the reaction were our Scottish couple to say "We'll give 100 million to sponsor a new orchestra, encourage a new composer, subsidise an opera season, finance a penniless music commentator's new book.  We'll give it all to promoting the arts"?  There would have been incredulity and questions about their sanity.  After all when an oil company in Malaysia did some of that (minus, sadly, the music commentator's book) the country's third-world-mentality politicians and gormless "social commentators" set up howls of anger and outrage.

Please don't think I'm knocking commercial sponsorship of the arts (indeed, I'd positively encourage commercial sponsorship of my book - I'd happily call it "The Shell, BP, Caltex, Rolex, OCBC, RBS and Standard Chartered Guide to Writing About Music"), but I am asking what it is that has changed in society which means that philanthropic gestures are no longer entirely without self interest.

17 July 2011

Choosing a Balanced Diploma Programme

A singer wishing to do a Fellowship recital complained to me during a recent teachers’ meeting that she could not find a suitable programme which would fit the requirements of the diploma.  She mentioned a vast number of assorted songs and extracts from oratorios, operas and musicals and asked whether the balance was right.  My immediate reaction was that, if at this level of performance she was still rooting around for a style and genre which best suited her voice, she was playing well above her level; a fellowship diploma is the ultimate before stepping out on to the professional stage and by that point you surely must have established some focus on performance niche.  Useful as it is in the early stages of training to cast the net wide to see where your voice and musical personality were the most comfortable, by this point that work should have been done and dusted. When, however, I suggested that she might focus on a genre which suited her and build a programme around that, she was aghast.  “But”, she wailed, “I have to present a balanced and varied programme”. 
And there we have the problem.  So indoctrinated have students become by the obsession of both teachers and the ABRSM to pigeon-hole music into historical periods that they can’t perceive musical variety in any other way. For too many of them a “balanced and varied” programme MUST contain Baroque, Classical, Romantic and what they quaintly call “Modern” (that last named period includes Elgar, by the way, so that’s how relevant it is to reality).  For a singer, no programme is complete unless it contains fragments of cantata, lieder, opera, operetta, musical, English song, French song, folk song, and so on; the vocal equivalents, if you like, to the historical periods which are the bêtes noirs of pianists and others. 
A balanced and varied programme encompasses a whole range of concepts, historical period being the least significant.  Give us a programme of Fugues in C minor by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rheinberger, Healy Willan and Hans Gal and you cover the gamut of historical periods without ever presenting musical variety.  Similarly, a vocal recital of Stradella, Purcell, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, Wolf, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Britten, Warlock, Finzi, Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Berlioz, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Uncle Tom Cobley and all presents such a mind-boggling variety that one suspects neither the singer nor the audience can ever get to grips with what’s being offered.
This obsession with historical period is positively encouraged by the practice the ABRSM has of listing its repertoire in graded music exams that way.  In the current Grade 8 piano syllabus, for example, you HAVE to play, if not a piece of genuine Baroque music, then a piece of pseudo-Baroque (including that most unpianistic of genres, a Fugue) as well as something Classical.  You can get away with avoiding the Romantic era provided you head down the soft jazz route, but your choices are limited.  Certainly there is some educational (if not musical) logic in forcing students to cover the principal eras of musical history, that way they can develop a broad-based repertoire, but I'm not sure one can argue that case beyond grade 5. 
There again, is it the job of examination boards to provide teachers with a curriculum, or is it their job to assess the curriculum the teachers themselves have planned?  ABRSM thinks so, Trinity takes a different approach.  A comment I regularly trot out at teachers’ meetings I give to Trinity teachers or to those in the field of music education who want to know what are the basic differences between the Boards, is that Trinity exams are aimed at the good teachers, while ABRSM aims at the bad ones.  A joke, of course, and I am careful always to let the audience know that I do mean it as a joke,  but it’s got more than a grain of truth in it for, while ABRSM helps the teacher by providing a rough curriculum, Trinity assumes that the teacher has already done this. 
However, once you move from the area of graded music exams to that of diplomas - where it is assumed you are seriously considering a musical career – the two Boards are in full agreement.  By this stage students must have developed their own likes and dislikes, their own feelings of sympathy or antipathy to various composers and musical styles, and to continue to force them to cover historical periods in their repertoire is seriously wrong.  For ABRSM diplomas students are expected to devise a "balanced recital programme", while Trinity specifies "your chosen programme must display a range of moods, styles and tempi".  Note that they do not demand a mixed bag of historical periods and, in singing, neither Board demands a mixed bag of musical styles.  True, Trinity list so many songs that they put them into stylistic groups, but there is no expectation that songs from each group are chosen (despite the weird and contentious assertion that "Most programmes will include music from both the operatic and lieder traditions to ensure a balanced and varied programme"). So if you are planning a diploma programme with an eye to historical periods or as wide a range of musical styles as possible, you are clearly heading for trouble.
In places where, as in Hong Kong, students traditionally do their grades with ABRSM and then jump to Trinity for their diplomas, they carry with them the ABRSM grade ethic, with the result that, rather than present the examiner with their strengths, they attempt to show off their ability (or lack of) to handle a wider range of musical styles and historical periods than they will ever have to do in real life as solo musicians.  Consequently, they are also displaying their weaknesses by playing in diplomas music which they find distasteful , difficult to grasp intellectually and to which they are stylistically unsympathetic.  Result; failure. 
Recently I heard three piano diplomas in two different cities and where the students were obviously taught by different teachers.  Yet their programmes were identical.  This might seem amazing - after all, the piano repertoire is vast and for three pianists to play the same programme would seem an incredible coincidence - but the programme choice was obviously driven by their conviction that they had to choose music from across historical periods.
And what was that programme?  Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp Minor, Brahms Intermezzo in G minor, Debussy General Levine- Eccentric.  One notes, of course, that, far from being a broad spectrum of historical styles, the vast bulk of that programme belongs to the “Romantic” era.  But that strange belief that the Romantic era stopped on 31st December 1899 means that Debussy is a “modern”, while, for all his romantic inclinations, Beethoven lived in years which, according to the regimented list of musical periods, obliged him to be “Classical”, makes the poor candidates believe they are being “varied” in their programme. Note, too, the propensity of minor tonality, but what does that matter when the historical periods provide variety?  And note the astonishing stylistic similarity of the Brahms and the Chopin. Chopin may be “early” Romantic, while Brahms is “Late”, but there is no significant stylistic difference between these two pieces.
The first reaction of any examiner when seeing a programme like that is tired resignation.  “Oh no, not again. Has this candidate given any thought at all to the programme?”  And it’s an uphill struggle for the candidate to convince the examiner that he has something special to say about the programme.  A simple thing like putting some thought into ordering the programme would help phenomenally.  Why begin with the Bach?  Why end with the Debussy?  Why juxtapose the Chopin and the Brahms?  Every one of those decisions has been wrong.  A good recital begins with something light to help settle the player and to get the taste buds of the audience flowing.  A good recital ends with something upbeat to send the audience away happy.  Performing pieces in strictly chronological sequence never makes any musical sense. 
So what should my singer have done, and how should students set about planning their diploma recital? 
Firstly, never attempt a diploma unless you have under your belt a very large repertoire.  If you've devoted your musical training to learning just the 24 pieces demanded by doing one grade exam every year, give up music- you don't stand a hope of progressing any further.  Certainly you should have a thorough knowledge not only of all the major composers for your instrument, but also of a host of minor ones too.  Secondly, you should look for a single major work to serve as the centrepiece of your recital; a sonata, a set of variations, a concerto, a song-cycle, etc.  Then find pieces you like to perform to fill it up to the required time.  A common problem is choosing music which goes on too long or doesn't last long enough.  I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked whether incorporating or missing out repeats in order to force the programme into the required length is permissible.  If you have that worry, forget the piece and choose something else.  If you've got a broad enough repertoire, none of this will present any problem.

To devise an interesting, balanced and varied programme is easy; what a shame so many students don't realise it.

16 July 2011

Malaysian Organ News

My apologies for those in today's audience who REALLY wanted to have an uninterrupted diet of Belgian music.  I hope we can have the missing pieces (especially the Callaerts, which is a gem) if we resurrect the recitals next year.  However, I'm sure you will understand why I decided to move off the printed programme and pull in a few old favourites as well.

As the question-and-answer session at the end of the recital showed, a lot of you are keen that these recitals should continue.  We managed an audience of 580, which is pretty impressive, so I don't think anyone can claim that the organ has no support!  As I said to the man who asked about this, arts' managers the world over think the organ is boring and of peripheral interest, but it's not, and we need to show that it's not by pressing the relevant people to allow recitals to continue.  If you feel strongly that the lunchtime free recitals in KL should carry on, please make your feelings known to the DFP management.  The address is in the concert calendar.

One assurance I can give is that, if we do have more recitals next year, we will hold them on the same day as orchestral concerts so that you can stay on and enjoy the MPO in its full glory!

In response to those who wanted to know the full details of the programme I did play today, here it is;
Lemmens: Fanfare
Bach: Toccata & Fugue in Dm (BWV565)
Lemmens: Priere
Franck: Grand Choeur
Gardonyi: Mozart Changes
Mulet: Tu es Petrus

Please log on to this blog from time to time to get updates on the future of our recitals and to hear about what else is going on.  In the meantime thank you all for your support.

Dr Marc

14 July 2011

A Tasteful Elijah

Tastes in Classical Music fluctuate almost as much as tastes in fashion; although mercifully never reaching the ridiculous extremes of the latter, largely because in music taste is driven by individual consciousness rather than commercial pressures or public relations executives.

There was a time when we loved our Bach on the piano; then we hated it, now we love it again. A time when the Grieg was the last word in piano concertos; some students today have never even heard of the work. Luigini's Ballet égyptienne was once the passion of the time; who's heard of it today? Remember the fervour with which the Bax symphonies were greeted when Lyrita brought them out on record?; they are all but forgotten today. And the once ubiquitous Crucifixion by Stainer is commonly dismissed by the musical Gestapo as "hideous Victorian tat". For years I've been sounding the clarion call for Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony after what was billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime" performance of it in the Royal Festival Hall featuring, among hundreds of others, my old school choir; now it's being performed at the Proms. I can go on forever with such examples, but one particular one springs to mind with a recent review I wrote for a US review website.

As a church chorister I had sung choice extracts from Elijah as anthems, but I had no idea that "Lift thine eyes" and "O rest in the Lord" were actually part of something larger – much as choristers throughout England think L'Enfance du Christ is just another name for "The Shepherds' Farewell" or Brahms's German Requiem contains just one movement, "How lovely are Thy Dwellings". My first exposure to the totality of Mendelssohn's great oratorio came when as a student in the 1970s the university choir and orchestra chose to perform it. It was the cause of a certain amount of controversy, the more "learnéd" members of the faculty objecting to the promotion of what they roundly condemned as substandard and trivial music. Mendelssohn was seen as a ghastly 19th century aberration, the subject matter as irrelevant and the musical language, involving a large orchestra, a large choir and a body of soloists, overblown. This was, after all, the age in which we were all busily experiencing for the first time "period instruments" and "authentic" performances, while there was cutting edge stuff being produced by a host of composers for whom Darmstadt was every bit as important then as Mecca has always been for Muslims.

This first exposure to what many now claim to be one of the greatest oratorios after Haydn was rather clouded by the fellow who stood next to me in the tenors, a composition student who was also studying voice and had become a fervent Christian during his time at University; a nightmare combination! As a composer he took every opportunity to point out despicable flaws in Mendelssohn's scoring, frequently emitting a loud bark of forced laughter when we reached one of - in his view – Mendelssohn's great solecisms (he was particular taken by the appalling idiocy of ending the first part with a simple V7-I cadence). As a trained singer he enjoyed nothing better than to stop a rehearsal in order to ask rhetorically how any tenor was expected to pitch such "idiotic" intervals as the tritone in the last bars of "Thanks be to God", and as a late but enthusiastic convert to Christianity he spent every post-rehearsal session in the pub loudly deriding the flawed theology of the English libretto. How could one not be affected by such a constant stream of criticism at each and every rehearsal, and I have to confess that I came to regard Mendelssohn's Elijah as something of a joke.

However I was absolutely shocked when the Kurt Masur recording of it (left) was nominated in the choral category of the Gramophone Awards in 1993. I have to confess I listened through it and was absolutely smitten, but I never thought my voting colleagues would be able to cut through the years of accumulated anti-Elijah bias which still afflicted the musical world. Nevertheless it went on to win and effectively rehabilitated a great work in the eyes of the musical world. There's no doubt that the Masur recording on Teldec remains a yardstick; there are some priceless moments (the delicious "Lift Thine Eyes", the spine-tingling thrills of "Behold, God the Lord passed by" and, best of all, the simply enchanting "Holy, Holy, Holy"), some incredible orchestral playing and some superlative singing, none of which has yet been bettered.

But it has been (almost) equalled and we are now in the astonishing position of having quite a few recordings of Elijah on the market which are not only of the very highest calibre in terms of artists and recording quality, but which have been nominated for various awards around the world. The way recordings are judged often requires the juries to make a large leap from personal taste to objective judgement, and there certainly was a time when Elijah (rather like Savoy Operas) would have had to fight to attract critical attention even in the most broad-minded of circles. Tastes, as I say, change, and now it's very much held in high esteem. The Masur/Teldec disc (9031-73131-2) is still by far and away the best, in my opinion, but up for a Gramophone award the following year was a very creditable one from Philippe Herreweghe (right) on Harmonia Mundi (HMC901463.64), while the recent one which I reviewed gives both of these a real run for their money. (If you haven't explored The Classical Review then please follow the link, but in the meantime I reproduce my original review below.)

The interesting thing is that all these versions are in German. Now Mendelssohn, like Haydn and The Creation, conceived the work for the British choral society scene and originally worked from an English language text (although it seems both composers had a German translation beside them at every stage to help them get over linguistic hurdles). Somehow, though, both works sound more serious, more elevated and more coherent in German. I can't quite get to grips with why that should be; is it because we feel that German is a language more suited to being set to music than others (take the ridiculous spectacle of the Singapore Symphony doing Das lied von der Erde in Cantonese) or is it simply that both composers were working from seriously flawed English texts while the German translations avoided the more obvious solecisms? I wonder why it is, but I do urge you to listen to one of these recordings, even if you are still in that state of musical snobbery that believes that Elijah is not fit for human consumption.

There was a time when, like its eponymous hero, Mendelssohn's great oratorio was regarded as vaguely ridiculous, a well-meaning attempt to bring Handel into the 19th century while self-consciously proclaiming the composer's Jewish ancestry and Christian beliefs. Its theology was questioned, its choice of texts scorned for their melodrama, and the musical language derided for being hackneyed and banal. Earnest English choral societies loved it because it sounded so grand yet placed so few technical demands on their voices, and provincial audiences adored it because it was so full of memorable tunes. Occasional recordings, usually of the English language version, did little to endear the work to those who saw only its faults, and even the eccentric combination of a German baritone (Fischer-Dieskau, singing the role of Elijah with an undisguised German accent), an English choir and orchestra (what was then known as the New Philharmonia) and a Spanish conductor (Frühbeck de Burgos) on a 1968 Angel/HMV recording did little to dampen the disdain of the musical cognoscenti.

The fortunes of Elias changed dramatically in 1993 when two new recordings of the German version were released. For Teldec, Kurt Masur and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with the Leipzig MDR Choir brought out a performance of such towering authority, such musical integrity and such potent electricity that even the most hardened sceptics were won over, while for Harmonia Mundi, Philippe Herreweghe, the Orchestre des Champs Elysées and voices from La Chapelle Royale and Collegium Vocale added an extraordinary aura of intensity to a work previously regarded as the preserve of amateurs.

Many more recordings have come and gone since then, some worthy some downright silly, but with this new German–language release from Wolfgang Sawallisch and musicians from the Bavarian Radio orchestra and chorus, we have a very serious contender indeed. It's not exactly a new performance - it was recorded exactly a decade ago – but the re-mastered sound is vivid and fresh, and while I miss the presence of an organ adding its blast of air to the stirring "Und der Prophet Elias" and especially the innocent tones of a boy treble doing Elijah's cloud-gazing for him, this is a still a tremendous performance.

Michael Volle is a relatively low-key Elijah, more compelling in his beseeching moments than when declaiming grandly, Andrea Rost and Letizia Scherrer intertwine angelically in the graceful "Herr, höre unser Gebet", while Marjana Lipovsek positively spits out the venom as Queen Jezebel in "Der Herr hat dich night". Herbert Lippert is pleasantly placid in "So ihr mich von ganzem Herzen suchet", and the closing quartet "Wohlan, alle die ihr durstig seid" is unquestionably one of the highlights of the whole performance.

But while the soloists are a very good bunch indeed, what really distinguishes this performance is the choral singing, which is at times little short of spectacular; there's that spine-tingling moment as "Aber Einer erwacht von Mitternacht" reaches its breathtaking climax, while the valedictory "Als dann wird euer Licht" bustles along with all the heart-stopping excitement of the Kentucky Derby. Firmly holding the reins and wielding the whip, Sawallisch proves himself here to be a masterly Mendelssohnian.

10 July 2011

The Rise and Fall of Asian Musicians

Sweet Sarah Chang
loving her violin

Asian artists pop up in the classical music scene like poppies in a field of wheat (not, perhaps, the best analogy in an area where wheat is not grown in any large measure and where poppies are seen, in some quarters, as a cash crop rather than as a weed, but hopefully you get my drift). We have had Vanessa Mae, Sarah Chang, Lang Lang, and a whole host of others appearing on the world's stage at an age when most children would still be learning to read. There seems an endless supply of child prodigies coming out of China and other countries in the region, and the world's audiences ooh and aah like mad at the sight of all these delightful oriental children displaying jaw-dropping virtuosity in an art form traditionally seen as the reserve of mature westerners. Serious commentators talk about the Chinese taking over the concert platform and about the future of Classical Music as being in Asia.

I certainly wouldn't disagree. The brilliance with which some of these young musicians tackle the most daunting repertoire is simply astonishing, and there are very few orchestras in the world which don't boast an Asian player or two. Certainly in Chinese communities, Western Classical Music is seen as a potentially lucrative career, and some parents, at the first sign of musical inclination (often earlier), force their children to devote their studies wholly towards a career as a concert pianist or violinist, much as others might encourage their children to seek careers in law, medicine, finance or people smuggling.

Unquestionably the musical world has benefitted hugely from the injection of Asian talent on to the world's stage. Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Kyung-Wha Chung, Mitsuko Uchida, Sumi Jo and many others have risen to the peak of their profession and are very much living legends. But will the same hold true when today's young generation of Asian artists reach not so much old age as full maturity?

For my Malaysian Readers - this is, apparently, what
Lang Lang looks like when he's playing the piano
The worrying thing is just how many of these young artists have already started to decline. Mention Lang Lang to many Malaysian concert-goers and the only reason they won't riot on the streets is because they don't want to run the risk of coming up against the dreaded FRU and their chemically-charged water cannon and tear gas canisters; his frequent snubs to them, cancelling concerts willy nilly when something better turned up, has left them wondering whether that young man has any musical scruples left in his soul. Look at the wide range of products he advertises and his frequent "pop-star" image-boosting appearances and you cannot but sympathise with the Malaysians.

Nowdays Sarah Change seems
almost embarrassed to be seen
with a violin
Audiences in Hong Kong and Singapore are more willing to turn a blind eye to such foibles and cheer wildly at the merest glimpse of an Asian face on stage. But the more musically savvy have voiced their concerns about the appalling noises Sarah Chang was making during her recent concerts in both cities and wondering whether she's still got it in her to play the violin, or whether she's just riding on her image as the Sexy Young Thing of Classical Music.

And look at the sad story of Vanessa Mae, promoted well ahead of her time and whose career as a serious musician all but came to an end when she decided to stand in the sea and play her violin for a record cover. She might not have won the top prize in a Wet Tee Shirt competition, but she was certainly highly placed in the soggy violinist category.

Where's my violin? Did I tuck it under my vest?

Whether it's Vanessa Mae flashing her boobs under translucent silk, Sarah Chang showing her leg in a high-slit cheongsam or Lang Lang promoting metrosexuality, what all these players have in common is a willingness to promote image above artistic integrity.

No. It's not there.
 This has in no way diminished their popular appeal, and all of them can draw in huge crowds of adoring fans and correspondingly massive financial rewards. It's this kind of thing which is fuelling the fervour amongst some less scrupulous Chinese parents to push their children into the Classical Music arena. And who's to say whether, faced with the opportunity to earn vast sums in promotion on the back of an extraordinary musical talent (which nobody should deny all these players possess), we might not all go down such a road? Am I not in danger of criticising these musicians out of envy rather than high-flown artistic ideals? But my very real worry is that when so early in their careers (unlike in sport, musical careers usually last decades) they fall into the clutches of publicists, PR men and advertising agencies, these musicians are sacrificing any hope of ever standing alongside the Living Legends of our time. As musicians they may never reach full maturity. 

My concerns are fired by the arrival on my desk of the début concerto recording of yet another of these brilliant Chinese pianist prodigies, Yuja Wang. True, at 25 she's hardly a genuine wunderkind, but there's still a long way to go to develop her real musical persona. The disc, Rachmaninov's Second Concerto and the Paganini Rhapsody is pretty impressive, and she's lucky to be paired with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. For me it's not the last word in Rachmaninov performances, but its place in the shortlist of this year's Gramophone Awards is thoroughly deserved.

Look - I'm Russian!!!
  The worrying thing is the path she's allowed her PR people to take her down. For a start we get the most utterly inane interview in the disc's booklet. One suspects poor Jessica Duchen, who prepared the notes, had her work cut out to make Ms Wang's utterances sound even vaguely coherent. When we learn that "I really like to grasp the flow of the Russian soul through Russian literature", we wonder whether it was Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsyn who helped her gain special insight into the Paganini Rhapsody. As for her interpretation of the Concerto, her main concern appears to have been "cutting through the texture in order to be heard". Considering she had not only a masterly conductor - and a whole team of engineers - to help with balance issues, but also was playing against hardly the most heavy and unsubtle orchestra in the world (not for nothing do they retain the word Chamber in their name), one wonders why she was so taken up with this matter. "In the Second Piano Concerto the big challenge is projecting myself".

As if banging the piano like mad isn't enough to make sure what she seems to consider as the work's manifest weakness ("the piano is almost an accompaniment to the orchestra", she wails) is overcome and that she is always there at the front of our aural consciousness (to be fair, the performance is infinitely more subtle than her words would lead us to expect) her PR people have ensured that the visual images are memorable. So while poor old Claudio gets a couple of action shots looking serious and intense, Yuja Wang has been dressed up as a kind of latter-day Tsarina complete with furry hat and billowing fur coat (proof, if needed, that this is Russian music – let's forget that the Rhapsody was really American).

And to add insult to injury, to achieve the ultimate in ghastly farce and, possibly, to hammer the first nail into the coffin of Yuja Wang's respectability as a serious classical musician, she's been taken down to a beach to be photographed playing the piano. It might be a beach beside the Black Sea, although it looks for all the world as if it's on the outskirts of the Shenzhen industrial zone, but wherever it is, while she battles to pretend she's playing some hideous grand piano of mainland Chinese manufacture, the wind blows her music away and with it, possibly, her artistic future. If there's money to be made looking silly with a piano, why bother to play it seriously?

09 July 2011


Michael Nyman claims to have coined the term "Minimal" to describe the musical genre which began in the USA in the 1960s and has grown to become one of the more potent forces in contemporary music. Whether he was the inventor of the term or not I cannot say, but whoever first thought it up, it is the ideal word. And while it is now far from being simply a clever use of overlapping harmonic and rhythmic cells - Minimal Music has grown to encompass complete operas – it still has at its heart a small cell which generates considerable expansion. Minimalism seems set to be a major driving force in the development of art music.

I can confidently lay claim to having coined a term for another musical genre which originated in America during the latter half of the 20th century. It's a genre which isn't going anywhere and seems destined for a sterile life of its own, detached from other developments in the wider musical world. Yet, as Gabriel Crouch has written, "choral libraries up and down the USA are stuffed full" with it and "music publishers will freely acknowledge that this vast body of work keeps their businesses flourishing". And what is this hugely popular and commercially successful genre which, until now, hasn't had its own label? Unaccompanied American choral music.

Listening to the latest CD of it – "Beyond All Mortal Dreams" performed by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge under Stephen Layton on the Hyperion label (CDA67832) – it suddenly struck me that I was listening to the aural equivalent of one of those large glass domes which revolve at discos (and, in a moment of utter farce during a recent staging of Carmen in Singapore, one dropped down, flashed around a bit, and then disappeared again rather in the manner of a pop diva's "wardrobe malfunction"), or the once-popular child's plaything, the Spyrograph. (I used to be addicted to that. Where are they now? It was a piece of moulded plastic with a circle cut out of the middle with teeth around the outside into which you placed a small perforated wheel. You stuck your pen into one of the holes in the wheel and drove it round in circles over a bit of paper, producing an amazing array of patterns.) What both the disco ball and the Spyrograph had in common was that they remained virtually static but created an impression of great movement and beauty. Which is exactly what so much unaccompanied American choral music does, hence my new word for it; Stasisism.

It doesn't go anywhere, is ultimately sterile and, unlike Minimalism, I can't see it moving outside the rarefied world of a cappella choirs. But, within its limited and introspective world, it certainly creates moments of great beauty. At its heart seems to be the use of one or two unequivocally tonal chords, which are sustained for most of the work, the impression of movement coming from the subtle shifting around of the voices within the chords and the projecting above this of solo lines which move tantalizingly away only to drop delicately back to the home chords. The aural effect is of a luminous, almost hypnotic beauty, shimmering and floating, adding sparkle and intricate patterns around the chords, but never actually moving on from them.

Such music has been the mainstay of Unaccompanied American Choral Music for the past half-century and has thrown up its own great heroes, not all of whom are American but who nevertheless feed the apparently insatiable appetites of American choirs. There's Morten Lauridsen, Eric Whitacre, Stephen Paulus, and dozens more, while the Hyperion disc brings to my attention René Clausen (whose Tonight eternity alone is a classic piece of Stasisism), Edwin Fissinger, Ola Gjeilo and William Hawley (who seems to be a Stasisism master, if his two Motets are anything to go by).

My review of the Hyperion disc will appear in Gramophone in the next couple of months. Suffice it to say that, while the music is, for me at least, superficially attractive but ultimately unsatisfying (like eating Marzipan fruit), you will not hear it performed better than by Stephen Layton's choir. So many American choral directors like to dig around for something "meaningful" or "significant" in this sort of thing, but Layton recognises that Stasisism has no such depth, that what you hear is what you get, so we all may as well enjoy the moment while it's there for, like our pop diva's "wardrobe malfunction", it gets buttoned back up again after a few minutes.

03 July 2011

Hotel Music

For four minutes it was a sequence of just four chords (V7C, VIB, II7B, VIB) repeated over and over again.  And not just chords with a clear movement from one to the other, but electronically generated chords so that the sound was unwavering in its solidity as it oozed, like untreated faeces from a broken sewer, from innumerable hidden loudspeakers.  It then seamlessly moved into a whole sequence of first inversion chords wafting around aimlessly, then a female voice wordlessly oohing and aahing above another basic chord sequence – studiously avoiding anything like a perfect cadence or even a root position tonic - and then back to the four chords again.  All electronically created (even the female voice) with a kind of slowly revolving tremulant to create an impression of wafting in and out of focus, and occasionally superimposed with distant electronic birdsong effects.  In short, it was a wall of unyielding, unpleasant and utterly aimless sound.
And the funny thing is, it is clearly intended to be “soothing”.  You buy CDs of it at Garden Centres, presumably to create a mood in which your weeds can flourish and your slugs, aphids and caterpillars gorge to their hearts’ content.  I always thought it was a bit silly and designed to attract the gullible weekend gardeners into believing that there is some truth in the notion that music helps plants grow, but - God help us – dim-witted hotel executives take it seriously.
Once, frustrated at the terrible inappropriateness of the music being played in a hotel in which I was staying, I was asked to suggest something more suitable.  My recommendations were taken up and I built a small company around the desire of hotels, shopping malls and airlines to create a distinct atmosphere through music.  Research was undertaken which showed that different music at different times of the day had different effects on the clientele (“Duh!”, I hear you say, “Tell me something new” – but honestly, a lot of hotels hadn’t thought that one out before) and we were able to help hotels both achieve their desired image and increase trade (people linger longer if the music is restful, people hurry on if it’s fast and loud).  The company collapsed when the big boys of brand awareness stepped in.
Before moving to Singapore we always stayed at The Oriental, then one of the best hotels in the world.  After a major makeover in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, they re-branded themselves the Mandarin Oriental (to celebrate being part of a hotel chain rather than an individual establishment with its own unique character) and converted their Oriental Club into a kind of quasi-Eastern theme park with assorted artefacts from assorted South East Asian cultures, an oppressively dark wood (which resembled nothing more than black-stained Formica) covering all the walls, and a CD of “mood effects”  playing on a loop throughout the day and night.  The effect was amazing.  You only had to set foot in the place and any happy or calm feelings instantly dissolved, to be replaced by a wave of dark depression and an immediate desire to commit suicide.

Constant complaints to the manager about the atmosphere were met with an apologetic stream of buzz words - “Corporate branding…Directive from Central Control…Designed by professionals to create a specific atmosphere”.  It was the Mandarin Oriental theme, and woe-betide the manager who felt he knew better what suited his customers than a faceless figure in an anonymous office block. I pictured a pock-marked sexless youth, fresh from some insignificant pseudo-art school armed with a diploma in graphic design, sitting at its plastic desk bringing together a hotchpotch of half-baked visual concepts rounded off by a couple of CDs bought from its local garden centre with the magical words “Relaxation…Calming…Mystic” on the cover.  It probably looked good on paper, which is what will have pleased the Mandarin Oriental Central Management, but, boy, did it destroy a once pleasant environment, transforming a friendly club into a hostile, cold and impersonal cavern in which you dared not look down to the floor in case, Lord of the Rings-like, you saw ghostly faces peering up at you as if from under the waters of the Marshes of the Dead.
Hotels have long opted out of thinking about music and have gone for trendy “atmosphere-creating” packages.  Someone, somewhere in some corporate office, has decided what music every hotel in their chain plays, and blow the consequences; long live corporate identity; down with individuality and local taste.  Some do get it right and, to be fair, the corporate sound-track from the Taj Vivanta which I have just left in Pune was quite acceptable.  It did the job well.  Others get it spectacularly wrong.
Last night I checked into the Gateway at Athwa Lines in Surat (also, a member of the Taj Group, but obviously lower down the pecking order) and have stumbled across the disaster to end all disasters of corporate music planning.  The sound infuses every area of the hotel (even in my room I can hear it waft through the corridor outside like the unstoppable force of seeping tsunami) and creates a sheer wall of impenetrable ghastliness.  Breakfast time was terrible. I think the food was OK, but I got so irritated by the incessant inananity of the music that my temper frayed and the staff suffered my wrath at every corner.  The staff themselves are miserable and largely hostile under a forced veneer of helpfulness (prompted, one suspects, by the desire for a large tip), but I don’t believe that’s their character.  They must have been indoctrinated by the horrors of the soundscape to which they are subjected every second of their working lives. 
There is no escape.  It never stops.  It never relaxes.  It never changes its volume.  It is, in a word, terrible.  And if this is a good hotel, I’ll never know it, for the CD they play (presumably called “Atmospheric and Relaxing Sound Experience - Vol.94) completely destroys any ability to comprehend anything beyond this horrific wall of electronic sound masquerading as mood music. 
If you want to enjoy a brain-numbing experience then stay here.  If, on the other hand, you want to find peace and relaxation, you’d do better booking into the dormitory at the Railway Station or taking a trishaw and dozing in the back while the driver takes you on a circuit of local traffic accident black spots.

02 July 2011

Music - The Beautiful Art

In my days as a university lecturer I invariably began my course by asking the students to define music in a way which could not be confused with anything else.  It is, I believe, an impossible task.  One of my favourite definitions is that which defines music as expressing thoughts and emotions which cannot be put into words.  This is a definition which has, in various forms, been ascribed to all manner of writers, and while it certainly does not fit the bill of uniquely defining music, it comes pretty close. 
Another common description of “classical” music involves the word “beauty”.  It seems that the vast mass of the non-musical population feels that “beautiful” and “classical music” are almost synonymous.  And few commentators can mention “classical” music without such phrases as “universal language of peace”, “touching the heart”, “soothing the soul” and “calming the mind” bubbling to the surface. An interview with Lang Lang on the BBC’s Newsday last week was wrapped up by the Singapore anchor, Rico Hizon, never a man to use words when he can express himself through wildly waving hands, clasping his hands tightly together (a sure sign of seriousness) and proclaiming; “I find classical music so beautiful and calming”.
The Times of India, reporting on a recent festival in Pune marking World Music Day (a day which, I have to confess, totally passed me by) gushed; “Music is the universal language, each and every one understands it heals broken hearts and sets the spirit free”.  It went on to talk about “Famous soprano singer Payal John” whose performances of English, French, German and Italian songs “were very touching to the hearts of the audiences”.  At the end of it all we learnt that “The audiences had a joyful and refreshing time at this event, all flowing into the musical mood”.
The picture we get, then, is that the function of music is to provide a mood and serve as an innocuous and calming background to ease the stresses and tribulations of every day life.  Cultural escapism, if you like.
I particular enjoy the claim about music being a force for unity and universal understanding.  Ask the management of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, continually being harangued by their musicians, or the musicians themselves constantly battling against what they regard as the dictatorial and unsympathetic manner of their Principal Conductor, whether music is a unifying force.  Ask the string players in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, getting angry blasts over stage rehearsal time from the brass, whether music calms their stressful lives.  In fact, visit any orchestra anywhere in the world and you enter a hotbed of stress, anger and vitriol.  And not only orchestras.  My music examiner colleagues spend much of their time venting their wrath on the latest inept and money-wasting scheme emanating from Head Office, and this on top of the pressure and stress of working to a frighteningly tight timetable of listening to back-to-back performances of music.
One thing is certain.  Music is by no means a calming or uniting art, and to define it in such terms is seriously to undermine the intentions of its creators and executants.  There are certainly intensely beautiful moments in music – I regard a moment near the end of Vox dicentis, clama By E W Naylor (and there’s a one-work composer if ever there was one) and the “Alleluia” from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as among the most sublimely beautiful moments in all music, and I’m sure you can all find a dozen more – but that’s not what music is all about.  Both Naylor and Stravinsky achieve intense beauty only as part of a much more wide-ranging and emotionally-challenging canvas, and the glory of the music is only fully revealed when one brushes aside the beauty and listens to the message behind it all. 
Even Chopin, the composer who prompted Rico Hizon’s comment and whose music many regard as “beautiful”, had more to him than that.  His music may have been superficially sweet, but it had an iron heart: as Schumann so memorably put it, he produced “Guns in Roses”.  I sometimes wish we were more conscious of the guns and less distracted by the roses.
They talk about football as “The Beautiful Game”.  That’s of course utter rubbish; the nearest a footballer ever gets to beauty is either the synthetic and silicone-enhanced blonde in the bed beside him or the vast reams of noughts at the end of his daily pay cheque.  For a musician, beauty is a much more meaningful element of their art, but it is still only a small part of what they set out to achieve, and to be regarded as simply “beautiful”, “calming” or “soothing” relegates the musician to the level of the footballer whose passion for blondes and bucks keeps him off the field for an entire season. They’ve been a few of those; and the world rightly dismissed them as human failures.  Perhaps it’s time for us to remind the public that such “beautiful musicians” as Richard Clayderman, Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson are, mega bucks in the bank notwithstanding, failures at their art.