22 June 2012

Abu Dhabi Classic FM

Radio is, for me, an intimate medium.  Rarely do I ever listen to it in public or, indeed, when I have company.  It travels with me in the car – which is where most of my listening is done – and has made bearable many thousands of long journeys.  My preference is for talk radio, where intelligent conversation or knowledgeable voices broaden my intellectual horizons and stimulate my thoughts.  Listening to music in the car I try and avoid, simply because I cannot concentrate on that and the driving; and both deserve my fullest attention.  However, when BBC World Service is not available on FM or there is no decent local substitute (which is, sadly, the usual state of affairs), I scan the channels for something musical.  If I’m lucky I hit on a jazz channel or something broadcasting harmless middle-of-the-road stuff which serves as background sound to blot out the silence of a long solitary car journey.

A two hour drive through the desert to Al Ain, the other day, however, netted a jewel.  As the Dubai transmitter for the BBC World Service disappeared behind the sand dunes, I eventually found the scan button on the hire car radio and set it off.  Suddenly it stopped and I heard the magnificent strains of the Gordon Jacob Trombone Concerto; the whole thing – from beginning to end – not just the tuneful bit in the middle.  A relaxed voice (more Welsh than Arabic, it must be said) told us what it was, who was playing, and then introduced the next piece, the Ritual Dances from Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage.  We also had all of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and the Nielsen Aladdin Suite, all in absolutely first-rate sound and nicely introduced with pertinent information and minimal chatter (although there were some informal anecdotes since the presenter was a former orchestral trumpeter – Alan Cuff).  Good, intelligent and listenable stuff.
It ran into the next programme just as I reached my destination, which seemed to offer back-to-back “relaxing classics”; but none of the mindless 2-minute extracts from Dvořák 9 or The Pearl Fishers. I caught a large slice of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and while the segue into Taverner’s Protecting Veil was decidedly disarming, it was both clever and effective for those who just wanted background classics while they prepared lunch, and offered some worthwhile music for those who like such things. True, there was no commentary here, and possibly the programme was bought in from one of the many companies who provide such services, but it was scheduled to last just two hours and was followed by a live “drive-time” which I did not hear since I had someone with me on the return journey.

Intrigued by what I had heard, and unable to pick it up in Dubai, I investigated Abu Dhabi Classic FM (http://www.adradio.ae/abudhabiclassicfm) and discovered it was the pretty near ideal classical music radio station (I also discovered I could pick it up in Dubai – but I also pick up the World Service, so it won’t be with me on car journeys around town).  It offers proper music in nicely packaged programmes with intelligent, knowledgeable and genuinely musical presenters, it organises itself to suit the different listener profiles of the day, it never dumbs down even when the “back-to-back relaxing classics” takes to the air, and manages to give local colour and information alongside a worthwhile listening experience.

There are few countries which boast a really good classical music radio station - I count Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa and the UK among them – but many more who make an absolutely mess of it.  When I wrote on this blog about the paltry state of classical music broadcasting in Singapore I received a huge amount of feedback supporting my views and going quite a bit further.  I received just one long and vaguely offensive email from one of the Singapore station’s supporters; a presenter telling me I had got my facts wrong (the usual cliché for those defending the indefensible – especially when the original comments are based on opinions rather than facts) and that, as a fact, Symphony 92.4 was regularly praised around the globe for its broadcasts (a stated fact I treat not so much with scepticism as with downright disbelief).

It is perfectly possible to run a very successful classical music radio station in a country where classical music is not high on most people’s lists of priorities and to run it so that it meets the demands of classical music aficionados as well as those who just tune in for some light background music.  It is possible to people it with intelligent, knowledgeable and personable presenters who are musicians rather than personalities.  It is possible to focus it to meet the unique requirements of the country and the listenership. 

In Singapore, a country where the potential audience is generally both more musically literate and informed than that in the UAE, it is little short of scandalous that the classical music radio station is so utterly abysmal.  Frankly, to judge from what you hear from the local radio stations, musical life in Singapore is pretty near dead compared with the exciting things going on in the UAE.  The reality is dramatically different, but you’d never guess that from listening to the radio.

20 June 2012

Out with the Old

My good friend James Griffiths sends me an email by way of an American pharmaceutical company which generously hacked into his computer and accessed his address book, offering me a miracle pill for weight loss.  Apparently, all I have to do is take this pill for a fortnight and the weight will just fall off.  The email has thoughtfully provided numerous glowing references from those who have experienced this miracle weight loss and, decisively, a reference to a news item on Fox News (and you don’t find a more reliable source of information than that, surely?) which has investigated the pill and shown it to be all it is cracked up to be.  Certainly it has to be pretty remarkable; it costs a fortune and if it causes kidney failure, liver disease or heart palpitations, there’s no mention (or perhaps those who suffered didn’t live to report the fact).

Only days before this, my wife had received an email from a kindly gentleman in Nigeria who had experienced the immense good fortune of receiving a multi-million US dollar legacy from a deceased relative.  This man, one of the world’s hidden philanthropists, felt he did not deserve the money (possibly he had bought the deceased relative some diet pills of US manufacture which had proven fatal) and wanted to distribute it among complete strangers.  My wife was selected at random and all she had to do to receive the half million he was going to deposit in her bank account was, naturally, give him the full details of the bank account complete with password and PIN.
James Griffiths preparing for bean pole duties
Of course I realised that both were scams.  For a start, James’s email began with the words “I have tried this astonishing weight loss treatment…”.  For those who don’t know James Griffiths (and it is your loss – he is one of the world’s nicest people), excess weight has never been a problem.  In fact, were I to retire to the UK and grow runner beans, he would be one of the first people I thought of when searching around for suitable poles up which to train them.  The idea that he would ever contemplate, let alone try, a weight loss pill is utterly inconceivable.  And the Nigerian gentleman’s email included a request that my wife deposit a couple of hundred US dollars in his own account to cover costs, which seemed an odd requirement from someone with money, apparently, to give away.

Presumably there are people out there who are so gullible as to believe all this.  And, to a certain extent, one cannot blame them.  If the horizons of your life are bounded by what you see on television, the internet or DVD and read in glossy magazines, then you can be forgiven for assuming that the only requirements for success and happiness are a slim body and a fat wallet.  Those of us who go out and about and see real people and have real conversations about real issues, are well aware that neither is the norm nor a widely-held aspiration.  I certainly have no particular wish to lose weight; I just wish clothing manufacturers realised that in some people stomach size is larger than chest and waist sizes. And I’ve long realised that no matter how much money I have, it all disappears quickly and needs to be replaced with even more.
All well and good, so far, except that this contagion for instant relief from perceived  failings (being fat and having no money is assumed to be a personal failing by those who don’t wish their own failings to be investigated too thoroughly) has passed into the world of music.

At a teachers’ meeting some years ago I was asked if I could advise a teacher how she could get her pupils through a music exam in record quick time.  It appeared her pupils had other things to do with their lives and “needed to get through their grades and diplomas” before reality struck in and school exams took over around the age of 16.  My advice was, if it needs to be done quickly, it is best not to do it at all. When asked what hints I can give to help students improve their results, nobody is interested when I say “it takes time to build up repertory and performing experience”.  They want it quick and they want it now.  If I tell them it takes at least two years to build up the necessary skills and experience to tackle a diploma after a grade 8 exam, I am ignored.  The diploma must be taken the next year and who cares about skill and experience?  There MUST be a quick fix to pass.
When I wrote my piece about writing diploma programme notes (http://drmarcsblog.marcrochester.com/2011/02/how-to-write-diploma-programme-notes.html?showComment=1340073724724#c6033364231944567555), I received a rash of requests for me to write them for various candidates – which rather defeated the object of the exercise.  One very persistent girl offered me money to write her notes, and kept upping the amount until, incredibly, she was offering me three times the cost of entry to the diploma just for writing notes on a programme of Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Debussy and Britten.  I almost succumbed, knowing that for such a hefty sum I could toss off totally false notes which any examiner would instantly discard yet she would, in her immense ignorance, not even bother to check.  Integrity got the better of me and I reminded her that with the programme notes not even warranting 10% of the total, she could happily ignore that part of the syllabus if her playing was up to scratch.  I never heard more, but I would bet all the money in Nigeria, that she has not yet passed her diploma.
The latest piano wunderkind playing the
Ravel Left Hand Concerto
from memory 

This desire for a quick fix, however, goes way beyond passing music exams and has now become a kind of industry-sponsored cancer.  Young pianists, violinists, cellists and singers are breathlessly promoted by record companies and, I regret to say, slavering critics who talk of the latest “young” talent.  The not-so-subliminal message is that once you are into your 30s you are a has-been; to hit the big time you have to be young and, regrettably, thin.  So there is this desperate urge to get up there, on to the stage with all the diplomas and competition prizes under your belt (why do music competitions all have an upper age limit?) before you reach your mid-20s and terminal decline into musical decrepitude.
It MUST be good.  It's YOUNG
I was at a meeting last week in which plans for a music festival were being drawn up and a list of performers being shortlisted from reams of names submitted by various artist agencies.  “He’s a bit old”, was a comment I heard more than once.  “She’s a great crowd-puller”, was another, referring to a teen violinist.  Sadly, we are living in an age when the marketing people have come to believe their own rhetoric and that experience counts for nothing against youth.

Perhaps James’s email will be hacked again by a company selling a miracle reversal of advancing years.  The side effect may be that by taking it, you lose all your accumulated experience and maturity of outlook.  But who needs any of that in music when all you really need is youth and a slim body?

17 June 2012

RIPped Cassettes

Of all the drab, dreary, dirty and dusty Middle-Eastern towns I have found myself in over the past months, few are as drab, dreary, dirty or dusty as Sharjah. 
I was told that in the past Sharjah was a hotbed of vice, drunkenness and debauchery, but it managed to bankrupt itself and sought help from the government of Saudi Arabia.  They promised to bail it out on condition that Sharjah imposed strict Islamic values on its residents and rid its streets of all unsavoury activities.  Perhaps that explains the lifelessness I see all around me, and with its crumbling buildings, disintegrating roads, its collapsing pavements, grimy shop-windows effectively masking faded displays of age-old products, and its general air of neglect, it seems like life stagnated sometime in the mid-70s since when nothing has changed.

That sense of stepping back into time was dramatically reinforced when, walking across a downtown sandy waste ground littered with randomly parked cars shimmering in the blazing sun (mix the inability of Middle Eastern drivers to think and drive simultaneously, the impossibility of marking white lines on sand and the enchanting Islamic habit of driving to within 100 meters of a mosque and then simply abandoning the car, and you have the utter chaos which is an Arab car park) I stumbled across this –

 Now for people of a certain generation, there will be nothing remarkable about a discarded cassette with the tape pouring from it like the spilled innards of a First World War bayonet victim.  Time was when you only had to stop by a roadside and find the hedgerows and verges strewn with miles of magnetic tape leading, by way of several impenetrable knots, to an empty cassette case.  Street sweepers in town would get the bristles of their brushes entangled on a daily basis with yards of twisted cassette tape.  There was even a memorable Inspector Morse episode in which a young woman was wrestling in her car with recalcitrant cassette which was spewing reams of tape out on to the floor of the car; we just knew she was going to be the next murder victim and I have often wondered whether the praiseworthy Colin Dexter who wrote these praiseworthier novels was sending out a subliminal message that cassettes were bad for your health (after all, his fictional hero, the eponymous Morse, was renowned for his classic collection of LPs).

The sheer ubiquitousness of the cassette throughout the 1970s and 1980s makes those of us who lived then forget that it is no more.  In the year that Sony eventually stopped making its Walkman and that manufacturing of blank tapes seems to be solely in the hands of two factories in China, its almost total demise has passed almost unnoticed.

It has certainly passed unlamented.  It was, after all, a pretty horrible medium.  Beyond its passion for unravelling itself (leading to such extremes of frustration that normally law-abiding motorists would angrily rip them from the machine and toss them out the car window to despoil the passing countryside) it reproduced sound with an insistent hiss and a lack of charm which is matched today only by the town of Sharjah.  You could never find what you wanted on it, and the quicker the fast-forward mechanism ran, the more likely it was that the tape would get chewed up in the machine.  On top of that, its plastic packaging was even more prone to immediate disintegration than a CD jewel case.  I hated it, as did everyone else I knew.  Yet I had hundreds.  When we moved from KL to Singapore, I decided eventually to discard all but a handful of my cassette collection and was astonished by what I had amassed.  There was a stunning version of The Planets from an Australian orchestra (which one, I forget), an off-radio Gothic Symphony from the Albert Hall, every single broadcast of Choral Evensong transmitted by the BBC from 1970 to 1975 (Including a classic with George Thalben-Ball in imperious charge at the Temple church) and a wonderful dramatisation of the life of Percy Grainger taken off a radio broadcast sometime in the early 1980s.

Cassette aficionados will quickly recognise that the vast majority of those in my collection were actually recordings I had made from radio broadcasts (not really illegal, since they were only ever for my private listening).  I could never take the concept of a pre-recorded cassette seriously; did anyone really accept that hollow, hissing sound in preference to the rich and warm tone of an LP, scratches and all?   And that, for me, was what the cassette was - a convenient method of recording things for my personal pleasure. 

For most people, its real popularity lay in its wonderful portability and ability to be listened to (although God only knows why) whilst jogging or involved in some other vaguely ridiculous physical exertion, without the music jumping around or being distorted in some other way.  In that area it could never hope to compete with a pre-loaded iPod.  Certainly, in terms of reproduction quality, it never ever held a match to either LP or CD, no matter how much Chrome, Silver or Gold was added.  So its fate was pretty well sealed once the 21st century dawned.   My last cassette deck ground to a halt a decade ago and it’s almost that long since I last sat in a car – once the cassette’s greatest ally – which had a cassette player attached to its dashboard.  To all intents and purposes it has passed from my knowledge.

Yet, wandering through the bazaars and souks of Dubai I found a plethora of shops selling not just piles of 60, 90 or 120 minute blank cassettes along with cassette head cleaners and other assorted cassette-related paraphernalia, but the hardware as well.  Close to where the dhows come in and off-load their mind-boggling array of smuggled goods from across the Persian Gulf, just about every shop sold cassette players, recorders and walkmen all still in the shrink-wrap that was applied when they left the factory in Iran or wherever it is that so many Sony, Panasonic, LG and Akai badges are attached to locally-made electronics.  I was sorely tempted to buy one; I even got into a half-hearted haggle over prices with a man selling a Sony double cassette deck which, he assured me, was fresh from the factory in Japan.

But then I remembered Sharjah!  Did I really want to take myself back to the drab, dreary, dull and dusty atmosphere of the 1970s?  Nostalgia is one thing, pointless backwardism is another.

05 June 2012

The Pianist Formerly Known As

In Istanbul to catch the Chinese Cultural Year Arts Festival, I happen upon a concert by a pianist called Li.  From the publicity it seemed that this was yet another improbably fantastic Chinese wunderkind whose prowess on the keys was the musical equivalent of walking on the water.  Turning up to hear this latest phenomenon I was, indeed, duly impressed with the technical brilliance and often remarkable sensitivity this young man brought to his programme of mainly Chopin.

Except, of course, he was not the latest wunderkind from China at all but a (relatively) old hand at the game.  For some reason, the pianist known as Yundi to his record label and to a myriad pianophiles in the west, seems to be Li in eastern Europe and Li Yundi to the Chinese promoters.

DG or EMI, Yundi Li or just plain Yundi, he still can't open his eyes

What’s in a name?  And, of course, Nigel Kennedy’s various attempts to reinvent himself have, at times, thrown up, beyond the funny hair cut, the cosmetic acne, the studied incoherence and the funny voice, the single moniker Kennedy.  I’m not sure whether he still attempts to go under it, but the world will always call him Nigel Kennedy - or Nige for short - and it doesn’t make a bit of difference.  He still plays the violin extraordinarily well.
No Name, but we all know him

For the sake of my computer which invariably asks me to reconsider repetition when I write of Lang Lang (there it goes again – that irritating wiggly red line), I’d love it if a certain other Chinese pianist adopted the single name idea, but otherwise it all seems a pointless marketing gimmick to me.
Making a virtue of an unpronouncable name

The Singer Formerly Known as Prince started it all off, but why the publicists at record labels seem to think this idea can pass on to classical musicians is beyond me.  Why on earth would anyone possibly think that knocking off the Li and leaving Yundi makes any difference?  If his name was horribly unpronounceable (let’s take Trpčeski as an example), there might be an excuse; but I don’t see any sign of a pianist reinventing himself as Simply Simon.  Indeed, there have been cases of pianists with normal sorts of names actively seeking the unpronounceable to reinvent their careers (for Bishop read Kovacevich)   But Li hardly foxes even the most distant linguistic group from the Chinese, and certainly causes no problems to the Americans, Europeans, Koreans and Japanese who snap up most classical CDs around the world.

My suspicion is that these attempts to re-invent have their roots in the change of record label.  Possibly EMI feel that buyers of their discs are sufficiently daft that they will not associate their artist with a similar looking one on the DG label.  Are classical music aficionados that daft?  Yes! I was when I never connected Li to Yundi in Istanbul (or Constantinople as I was brought up to call it until it, too, reinvented itself) so perhaps there’s something to it.

What I can report is that whether it’s Yundi Li, Yundi, Li or Li Yundi, there’s not a scrap of difference in the sound.  I, for one, am glad I heard him because, however you package the name, in classical music, what really matters is the performance, and if more marketing and publicity people grasped that, they could not only save themselves a lot of money but restore to the classical music world some sense of the decorum its rapidly losing at the hands of ill-informed publicists who feel that marketing a pianist is no different from marketing a packet of cigarettes – if, perhaps, marginally better for the health of the consumers.

03 June 2012

Musical Effort

Visiting the music department of a school I am surrounded by all the paraphernalia of modern classroom music.  There are the serried ranks of desks that I remember so well from my school days, but that's where the similarity ends.  These desks have neither the ink stains, the graffiti nor the well-thumbed appearance of the wooden desks of my youth, but are metal framed tables with pristine plastic surfaces each one surmounted by a desktop computer, keyboard and screen, a pair of headphones, a pair of speakers, a mouse and a midi keyboard.  I count 36 of them, while the teacher's desk is weighed down by a huge desktop computer with laser printer, router and enough wires to keep a whole generation of school pet rodents gnawing away for an eternity.  The walls are blank, apart from the statutory notices about fire escape plans and term timetables, and what cupboards there are house a plethora of music-related computer programs - I see Sibelius 7 and something called Cubase Essential - boxes of speakers, keyboards (both musical and computer), mice, CDRs, headphones and wires.  It has all the atmosphere of an internet cafe without the unsavoury smell.  Clearly, the salesman who got the contract to sell all this electronic gadgetry to this school - and bear in mind this is just one classroom in the music block - is even now swanning around in his large BMW and taking 90 days holiday a year on the commission from this one sale alone.

How dramatically different from the music classrooms of my school days.  Then, music was taught in a formal, and decidedly dull manner, with the random dates of musical history, composers' names, nationalities, dates and major works, forms, keys, instruments and their transpositions and the layout of an orchestra drummed into us almost by rote.  There seem to have been endless years of writing Bach chorales and Haydn quartets, studiously avoiding parallel fifths, doubled thirds and unresolved sevenths, while pages of manuscript paper were covered in juvenile scrawl, with whole staves devoted to placing minims precisely on the line or in the space and countless admonitions to Eat Fruit or Deserve Favours, depending on the clef being taught at the time.  I hated music at school and it was only an inspirational private piano teacher who really fired my interest. How lucky school children are today, able to listen in the privacy of their own headphones to the very fruits of their creation without ever the need to rub out an errant crotchet or fetch a ruler to avoid a wriggly bar line.

Had I been taught in a classroom like this I am sure I would have been much more excited and absorbed by the whole process, and I am likewise convinced that a lot more children enjoy class music now than they ever did then.  Whether that makes them more likely to become worthwhile musicians is another matter, and from my experience I doubt it; I do not see a significant rise in either numbers or standards of those turning to music as a profession since computers replaced blackboards in music school rooms.  But no matter, if the way music is taught today encourages more people to listen to it when they are adults, that is only a good thing. We do need to train people to be audiences - not merely hope that one day they will accidentally stumble across a concert hall, accidentally find their way to the box office, accidentally hand over their credit cards and accidentally find themselves in an orchestral performance where they accidentally discover that they enjoy it and want to go to more.

There is, though, one issue that worries me with this paperless, bookless, musical instrument-less classroom.  There is not a stave, a sheet of manuscript paper, nor even a depiction of a musical note to be found anywhere.  Yes, you can argue, all the music is stored on the computers and as the children create their own, so it is presented before them on the screens in a recognised musical format which their teacher can then print out, but that merely teaches them how easy it is to present a good-looking piece of music on paper.  You only need to have to endure student compositions presented in an examination to know that presentation is 99 per cent of the job; if it looks nice, that's all that matters.

For composers it must be wonderful to be able to have their music presented to erstwhile performers in a format which is readily readable and even accessible, and it must be greatly encouraging for school children to have a visual representation of their hours spent at the computer keyboard and midi file.  In  welcoming any technological advance which makes the job of presenting creation to the outside world easier, we are in danger of devaluing the achievements of the past.

We only need to see what has happened to the writing profession.  I am inundated by adverts and requests to write for blogs and for online publications. On a daily basis I am told there is money to be made writing for such things (I have yet to make a penny from either my blog or for the online publications I do write for, so I remain deeply sceptical) and stumbling across an internet writers' chat room I discovered that there are millions of writers out there churning out characters by the zillion.  And it's mostly rubbish; unedited, unverified and usually ungrammatical words which look great and fill the space but do not bear close scrutiny.  It's a different world from that of the writer who sits painstakingly creating a true work of literary merit, and the sad thing is most people do not differentiate between Charles Dickens or Dickson Charles whose www.dontgizzatossblog.com gets 40 million hits a day and earns him a bundle with its pop-up ads over which he has neither control nor concern.

So it is with music.  Ask a school child about how Bach wrote his music, and the idea that the man might just have had to draw his own manuscript paper and then spend hours on a single page of music, painstakingly lining up the staves so that the harmonies coincided and carefully ensuring that all the bars have the right number of beats in them, is completely alien to them.  They assume that, because they can turn out a nice looking piece of music in a single lesson, Bach tossed off his cantatas in a matter of hours. They may believe that he lived in such backward times that he was using Sibelius 2 and a dot matrix printer, but pen and ink? – no way! And as for printing out multiple copies…how many great works of genius got lost because the mice ate the manuscript before anyone was able to make a copy?

We no longer applaud human endeavour unless we see it in front of our faces; hence the passion for televised sport amongst those who have absolutely no sporting prowess in themselves.  The music being written today is not necessarily poorer because of the ease composers have in putting it down on paper, but that ease of presentation does devalue the labours of those who worked in the pre-computer age.  If the children in the school I have visited, or in the thousands of others similarly equipped around the world, are given just one lesson when they have to write music by hand on to a blank sheet of paper using pen, pencil, erasers, rulers and ink, they will surely then appreciate something of the dedication, determination and sheer genius of those composers we glibly refer to as “great”.  They may not like Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, but they will surely appreciate all the more keenly the monumental efforts they made in getting their own creations into the public domain.