Holed up in the Middle East with just myself for company I am suffering from the deepest depression. That surprises me, for I’ve never before lost my buoyant optimism or my insatiable love of laughter – facets of my personality which I know have irritated others, but have kept me going even when things have seemed really bleak.
The cause for this might be separation from my wife and daughter. But, no; I’m often away from them for months on end on examining tours, and from here I speak to them for a good hour every day by phone. (We don’t Skype; my daughter can’t take the emotional strain of seeing me but not being able to touch me, and I don’t fare much better.) They are even coming out here next month, so that should not distress me unduly.Perhaps it’s being on my own amongst strangers that has plunged me into the slough of despond. But, no; I’ve not only spent most of my life on my own (I married late) but spend a good four or five months every year living in solitary confinement in hotels and apartments while examining in far-off lands. It’s never troubled me before.
Is it that the place seems so alien? It can’t be! In fact I have been hugely surprised at how easy it is to fit in here. The Arabs I meet are, if not exactly over-friendly, devoid of that subdued hostility I found in west Malaysia, and they certainly don’t have any of that open hostility I encountered in some of the darker corners of west Africa. And if anything I feel right at home when I hear the regular calls of the muezzin, whose excessively amplified call to prayer interrupted life in KL considerably more than here. The Marks and Spencer’s up the road has even more of the good old British produce than the branches in Singapore, while just over the road is a Woolworths where I can buy trousers off the peg and shirts marked XL without worry that they will fit. The great thing about buying South African is that my XXXL dimension for Asians is just about the norm for Africans.
Perhaps my depression is the dread I have that I will not be going back to my beloved Singapore. The last few years have been the happiest of my life; and I am horrified that I may not be able to find work and return to the one place where I feel really comfortable. But it can’t be that; I have only lived there a few years and, as my wife keeps reminding me, going back to live in the UK will have huge benefits, no matter how those ghastly whingeing poms (to quote that absolutely apt Aussie description of the English) like to tell you their country is facing total social annihilation.And then I realise what it is. I’m not getting my daily fix of great music.
For as long as I can remember I have never let a day go by without listening to some great performance of some intriguing musical work; usually with a nice glass of Irish whiskey in one hand and the CD-player on full blast. On long overseas examining tours and in impersonal hotel rooms, my portable CD player and Bose headphones have invariably kept my sanity and sent me off to bed with a great tune in my head. But not here.Assuming that, as usual, the record companies and review magazines would inundate me with CDs, I sent all of my own off into store in a Singapore warehouse and, sad to say, I have been living here in musical silence ever since. True, I spend every day in the company of musicians, and a lot of time is given over to listening to short and pithy extracts from various great works. But, alone in my room with my cheese and grapes (no whiskey here, of course) I am reduced to back-to-back BBC World on the television. And that, surely, is enough to drive even the most optimistic soul into the depths of despair.
It’s not that the CD companies and review magazines have given up on me. Far from it. One packed off a dozen CDs to my hotel only to have them impounded at customs in the belief that they were proselytising Christian literature (the top CD was of organ music from a Parisian church and depicted the High Altar on the cover), so I quickly told editors and marketing managers to hold off sending things until I was out of the place.But I reckoned without the appalling consequences. Tower Records used to give its staff a sticker which read “No Music; No Life”, which I always assumed to be arrant drivel, especially since most of those wearing it would rather be dead than sat in a concert hall listening to late Beethoven quartets. Too late I realise my error. I should have snapped one up when they were all being sold along with the other effects of the bankrupt chain. It has become my mantra and it’s no exaggeration to say that for me, No Music really does mean No Worthwhile Life.
However, the depression is now lifting. Amazingly, editors and record companies have decided I can’t be allowed to fall below their radar and, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Gramophone Reviews Editor (whom may God preserve), the companies are now sending me their discs as downloads.Now, I appreciate I am a dinosaur when it comes to downloads. I’ve attempted a few in my time and been unfailingly unsuccessful. This, let me remind you, is a man who, when he received his first CD for review in 1983, spent many hours forlornly looking at it until the CD player arrived. How I wished it was an LP because, at least, without a gramophone, you could spin it round on your finger and hear snippets of music with a dressmaker’s needle in the grooves – true, you’d wreck the LP, but psychologically you felt it was not totally useless without the player, whereas the CD seemed just so horribly inanimate. So modern technology is, obviously, slow to catch on with me.
Frankly, though, I am so satisfied with the CD – its convenience, its portability, its exceptional quality and its sheer simplicity – I have never really seen the need to move away. If something’s as good as you want, why change it? No point in new technology if it doesn’t make life better, is my motto.Here, though, I see the value of downloads and am getting first-hand experience of their worth. Will I be turning to this means for accessing all my music from now on? You bet your life I will not. What a dreadful business it all is!
A very nice lady in Hyperion sent me a step-by-step guide and I was able to download their product with ease. In fact, it was so simple I assumed I’d done it wrong, and erased the whole thing! She advised me to read the “Short Guide to Downloading Music from Hyperion”; but by paragraph 7 (“Alternatively, you can download directly into your media player 'watch folder'. For example, iTunes users downloading MP3 or ALAC files (not FLAC) could download direct into the 'Automatically add to iTunes' folder (located within the 'iTunes Media' folder) to have iTunes automatically incorporate new downloads (DO NOT download FLAC into iTUNES—see 'How to work with FLAC files' below") I was so perplexed I gave it up.A couple of other companies put things in a Dropbox for me. Easy to see that they were there, even if I had to delete the Dropbox since it slowed my computer up so dreadfully. But I’m now five days into trying to download those files so that I can actually hear them, and still my screen reads “57mins 34secs remaining”; and that’s track four of seven tracks, and we’re still just 72% into the track. What makes this so frustrating is that the work I’m trying to get, the première recording of the Organ Concerto by Carl Rütti, sounds so devastatingly wonderful – and it’s clearly a top-flight recording – that I am seething with impatience. I am convinced this is going to be the great discovery of the year and I am anxious to share it with others, just as soon as I can listen to the damned thing properly!
But it doesn’t stop there. As I use my computer for work, I can’t listen to music on it. If I do it is continually interrupted by the pinging of the email inbox, and the quality is so execrable I may as well go out and buy a cassette (yes, they still sell them here). So I then have to organise these files, set them up in a special folder to burn them on to a CD, and then listen to it on my portable CD player to hear it in something approaching recognisable quality. Yes, you will say, you need to buy an i-somethingorother. But will that give me what a bought CD does? I’m told not, and I don’t intend spending a fortune on one on the off-chance it might do the trick.No, I am grateful for the downloads and they have lifted me from my depression. But as soon as I am out of here and back into somewhere musically civilised – wherever that may be – it’s back to the CD and the lovely feeling of a glass of whiskey in the one hand and a lovely, professionally produced booklet (on glossy paper, properly folded and stapled by a machine) in the other.