28 August 2012

Music's Geographical Future

Vincent, one of this blog’s most loyal and frequent followers, comments that “For many parents in Asia, learning an instrument without aiming for a grade or competition is pointless”.  That is typical of the good sense and realism Vincent brings to every comment he makes in this forum; and it depresses me deeply.

When I first settled in south east Asia some 30 years ago, that was very much the prevalent attitude.  Music was seen as a competitive sport on a par with badminton, soccer or running, and the pleasure that Asian children derived from it was similar; the joy of winning, the joy of showing one could do better than one’s peers and, most of all, the joy of being the source of parental pride.  I quickly accepted that many Asians enjoyed music, but in a very different way from those in the West who regard it as a means of enriching the intellectual and emotional aspects of daily life.  Music’s function in Asian society seemed to be merely as another vehicle through which the joy of competition and public success could experienced. 
My belief was that, after a while, those in Asia who saw music only as a channel through which to improve their standing in society, would eventually come to appreciate its deeper and more fulfilling elements.  When Victor Hugo suggested that “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was telling us that music was a means of expressing our most deepest and profound thoughts, and thoughts which went beyond the confines of language.  To a certain extent, this quote led to the cliché about Music being an International Language.

Vaughan Williams, in his wonderful essay National Music, put the lie to that by pointing out that while English and French “have 24 of the 26 letters of the alphabet in common”, their languages are mutually incomprehensible.  So it is, he argued, with music, where notation may be pretty standard (although ask any German to play the note B on a keyboard and you will hear a very different note from what the English play) but the use it’s put to differs so much as to make it often quite incomprehensible to those from another culture.
It has long worried me that people describe music as being “Western” not least because most of the instruments in our orchestras originated in Asia, notably the Arab lands and China, and even my own instrument, the organ, was not only of Arabian origin, but long after the foundation of Islam, was regarded as primarily an Islamic device.  A report on the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, screened on the BBC today, interviewed an Iraqi girl playing what the reporter described as a “western musical instrument” – the cello – and while in that particular case the reporter was technically correct, the implication was that the entire orchestra was attempting to adopt an alien culture.  One of the recurring comments made about the growing disintegration of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has been the perceived folly of “imposing an alien culture” on Malaysians.

Vincent’s comment stresses that cultural divide.  Asian parents, as he puts it, do not accept the cultural dimension of music, only the physical one.  I would not be so distressed by his comment were it not for the fact that this was exactly the comment made to me 30 years ago.  At that time, I hoped that with the growing interest in music in the region – after all I was one of those who believed that we were on the brink of an Asian revolution, when the next generation of great musicians and composers would come from Asia – it was only a matter of time before its essential qualities became apparent and then uppermost in Asian musician’s minds.  That the old attitude still prevails with the children and grand-children of those parents who I encountered in the 1980s makes me realise that Asian attitudes to music have not changed one iota.
True, there are some wonderful Asian musicians as well as Asians who do derive full emotional and intellectual joy from music, but they are a tiny minority of those who indulge in the physical activity of music, and their ranks show no sign of increasing.  Who would have thought, for example, that 15 years on, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has not yet been able to find a Malaysian with an ounce of musical knowledge to head up its organisation?  When it started the CEO needed the support of a professional musical management team from Europe.  That team has long since gone and now the organisation is teetering on the brink because there is nobody in command who knows anything of the business they are purportedly running.  Who would have thought, again, that the kind of catastrophically low marks handed out to examination candidates in south east Asia are still being handed out today?  When I gave 17% to a Malaysian grade 8 candidate in 1985 I assumed that, as musical life improved and understanding of musical skills developed in the country, so standards of teaching would also rise.  I hear from colleagues that marks of 15-20% are still given.  True, Asian students have always included a few of such phenomenal skill that they earn higher marks than anyone else – a colleague recently handed out 100% to a Chinese diploma candidate, a mark I would have thought just about inconceivable in Europe – but their numbers do not seem to be increasing.

In short, my belief that Asia was on the brink of becoming the hub of great musical activity, has been proven wrong.  I see no evidence at all that Asia is going to supplant (if that’s the right word) the West in musical prowess any time soon.  The attitudes Vincent highlights condemn it to its role as competitive sport for decades ahead.
This, though, doesn’t stop westerners churning out the tired platitudes about Asia being the future of music.  Reviewing a recent disc of Lutosławski (a brilliant performance of the Piano Concerto, by the way, on Chandos CHSA5098) by pianist Louis Lortie, who many will remember well for his phenomenal Beethoven performances with the MPO – one of the great achievements of that orchestra’s life – I noted in his biography that one of its highlights was “an historic tour” of the “People’s Republic of China”.  No mention of Malaysia.  Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but has any orchestra in China half the quality of the MPO in its heyday?  Has any concert hall in China half the acoustic and environmental sympathy of Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS, in Kuala Lumpur?  Does any concert audience in China possess half the etiquette and understanding of the Malaysian audience?  For as long as western artists believe that the worst of Asian orchestras, concert halls and audiences represents the great future of music, then the elevation of the bad and the mediocre to world-beating status seems inevitable.  In the light of that, who can blame Asian parents for seeing the function of music merely as one where you can earn grades and win competitions.

25 August 2012

One of my Notes is Missing

An examiner colleague calls up to tell me of an incident; “The candidate came into the room and told me; ‘I’m afraid I haven’t been able to practise the Mozart Sonata in D as the D on my piano at home doesn’t work’.  What did he want me to do; tell him not to play it?  And could it really be that every D on the piano wasn’t working?”, she giggled.  Such things are sadly very common; the violin with a string missing (“It broke last week and we haven’t been able to find a new one”), the trumpet case opened in the exam room to reveal no trumpet (“I think I left it at school after my last lesson”), the saxophone with no reed (“My teacher told me you would have one”) and, my personal favourite, the guitar taken from its case and strummed to reveal six strings roughly sounding the same pitch; “My teacher tuned it for me at my last lesson”, “When was that?”, “Oh, I missed last week’s and the week before was a holiday, so it must be three weeks ago”.

From our privileged and comfortable position behind the examiner’s desk, it is easy to find these things amusing but, at heart, we all sympathise with the poor candidate whose exam nerves, stretched almost to breaking point simply by having to do the wretched exam, are put under even more pressure by instrument malfunctions.  And the problem is, as we all suspect, it’s not the poor candidate’s fault.  What teachers think they are doing sending a candidate into the exam room at an early grade without at least someone present to deal with last minute crises involving the instrument defeats me; and how they can call themselves teachers when they have allowed their students to progress up the grades without giving them even the most basic instruction on simple maintenance and tuning procedures, defies belief.  I’ve seen grade 8 clarinettists unable to deal with a broken reed and diploma trumpeters scouring the waiting room for valve oil; simple matters which should have been ingrained into the student years earlier.
Examiners yearn to help when things go wrong, but their hands are tied.  Some years ago the late Geoffrey Smith - an examiner who loved examining in Malaysia so much that he went to live there – was so upset by the tuning of a young violinist’s instrument and by the inept attempt of the accompanist to tune it, that he took matters into his own hands, grabbed the instrument and attempted to tune the recalcitrant string himself.  The result was not just a snapped string but, somehow or other, a collapsed bridge.  An angry parent took matters further, claiming that the word “Stradivarius” printed on the inside of the instrument was an indicator of its great value (happily ignoring the “Made in Hong Kong” label next to it) and it got as far as the courts.  From that day onwards examiners have been forbidden from touching the candidates’ instruments.

The problem is that so much teaching focuses on playing right notes and assumes that nothing else matters.  Yet it is well said that the sign of a great musician is not an inability to play wrong notes but an ability to deal with wrong ones so that you think they were right all along.  So it is with mechanical failures.  All instruments are prone to these, and the ability to cope with them is part and parcel of learning the instrument.
One of the most memorable concerts of my life was a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by David Oistrakh sometime during the late 1960s.  In so many ways this was an electrifying performance, not least because shortly before the end of the first movement a string broke with an explosive snap.  The collective gasp of horror from the audience, dreading the fact that the mesmerising spell Oistrakh had cast over us was about to be broken, soon turned to one of amazement as, apparently without batting an eyelid, he carried on to the end of the movement before slipping off-stage to replace the string.  Which string it was, precisely where it snapped and what the rest of the movement sounded like, I cannot remember simply because I was held in such thrall (as were we all) by the sheer effrontery of the man to carry on regardless. What split-second mental processes were going on in his head to deal with revised fingerings and adjusting the bow defy imagination, but such things are the mark only of the very greatest players on earth.  “Oh!  My string’s broken, what should I do?”, a not uncommon student response to the problem, is clearly indicative of a future of failure as a fiddler.

Then there was the peerless Sabina Pade, for an all-too-brief time Principal Horn of the Malaysian Philharmonic.  I well remember going backstage to congratulate her after she had done an absolutely brilliant job of the horn solo from the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto.  With her customary self-effacing attitude she thanked me for my praise but added, “I was so worried.  My second valve was sticking”.  You would never have thought it!  And, among the great and good of the MPO one cannot ignore the magnificent timpanist Paul Philbert who I once recall seeing let fly a stick during a rehearsal of Pines of Rome.  Undaunted, he merely picked up another from the stand beside him and continued to the next break with two unmatched sticks.  Now that’s professionalism, and Paul has it by the bucket-load.
Of course every instrument has its mechanical problems, but my own, the organ, seems to suffer more than most, not least because it is more of a machine than most.  I have lost count of the ciphering and broken notes which have necessitated last minute changes of key and registration.  Suddenly discovering the solo Tuba had gone drastically out of tune on the note B flat just before a service in which we were to sing Stanford’s Te Deum in that key, I put the whole thing down a semitone to avoid the ghastly note.  I did all right, but the choirmen were none too happy about it; I hadn’t appreciated just how many of them suffered from Perfect Pitch (and it is a sufferance rather than a boon).

Perhaps the best handler of the unexpected organ crisis was Robert (Harry) Joyce, the charismatic organist of Llandaff Cathedral during the 1960s and early 1970s whose antics were as much inspired by his phenomenal musicianship as by his love of the bottle and glass.  Stories were legendary.  Of how, taking a quickie in the Bucher’s Arms between weddings, he suddenly realised that the next wedding was due to start and as he reached the west door of the cathedral was horrified to see the bridal procession already part-way up the aisle.  The Assistant Organist was manfully playing the Wagner, but Harry knew that this couple had ordered the Purcell, and he hadn’t passed the message on.  While they solemnly marched up the main aisle, he darted along the south, bounded up the organ loft stairs, sat next to the puzzled assistant, moved his hands over the keys, motioned the assistant away, and seamlessly moved Wagner into Purcell without so much as a change of key or tempo.
The best Harry Joyce story was the time he inaugurated a new organ at a church in the south Wales valleys. During some monotonous Langlais piece, the siren from the colliery next door (such things existed in the 1970s) started up and drowned out the organ.  Not to be outdone, Harry merely pulled out more stops and as the siren slid up in pitch, so Harry followed it, slid back through the keys and stops as it wound itself down, and jumped off where he had started as if nothing had happened. 

If anyone had the presence of mind to do that in the examination room, they would deserve both our grateful laughter and a fistful of extra marks.

23 August 2012

What's in a Name?

Information released by the UK Office of National Statistics has revealed that the most popular name among boys born in 2011 was Harry.  Obviously, the high profile of one of the members of the British Royal Family (even before he was photographed nude in Las Vegas) has helped keep the name in prospective parents’ minds, but many people genuinely believe that the name you give a child will have a direct bearing on their future careers.

In the recent past, parents have tended to name their children after figures who have assumed popularity in the year of the child’s birth.  Thus it was that when the Australian soap opera Neighbours hit the UK screens in the 1980s there was a sudden upsurge of children called Kylie (after, of course, Kylie Minogue who began her path to stardom as a plastic character in that apparently addictive series).  Around 10 years later we suddenly had vast numbers of Kylies coming into the examination room; the fact that we get none now (it was the 965th most popular girl’s name in the UK during 2011) tells us that a, the name has lost its lustre and, b, those who named their daughters Kylie in the hope that they, too, would become popular stars, were sadly misguided.
Having named our daughter Prisca, we are met with amazement in some quarters when we tell them she is named after nobody and that the name came to us more-or-less out of the blue.  “What does it mean?”, I am often asked, to which I reply “It means beautiful daughter whom I love very much”, which usually keeps the silly questioners quiet, but occasionally prompts the even sillier response, “Is it the same as Priscilla?”.  “No”, I reply, “to call my daughter Priscilla would be to wish her ill” (And you have to think a  bit to work that one out).

But, going down the road of naming a child in the hope that it will live up to the imagined qualities inherent in the name, got me thinking about the most popular names for musicians.  If you want, say, your son to be a great composer, do you call him, for example, Wolfgang after the great Mozart?.  Well, the answer is no.  On my database of composers, there are only six others beyond Wolfgang Mozart - Wolfgang Helbich (born 1943), Wolfgang Thoma (born 1950??), Wolfgang Carl Briegel (1626–1712), Wolfgang Fortner (1907–1987), Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952) and  Wolfgang von Schweinitz (born 1953) – and frankly not one of those can be regarded as a major figure in musical creation.  As for the name Mozart, so popularly used to promote bad music schools (as in “Little Mozarts” – uuurrrghh!), there are only three composers with that name, Wolfgang, his father, Leopold, and his son Francis Xaver.  Bach is the most popular composer surname, but only the most desperate seekers after good fortune would consider destroying the entire family heritage in the vain hope of emulating the great Johann Sebastian.
But there we have what is, undoubtedly, the most popular composer’s name; Johann.  There are 181 of these, and of its variants there are 142 Johns, 70 Johanneses and 32 Jeans; 425 on my database alone.  Franz and its various national variants comes next (134) followed by George and its derivatives (109), William (92), Anton (86) and Thomas (46).  And where do these names come in the UK list of popular boys names?  John comes in at 94th, Francis 298th, William 7th, George 9th, Anthony 148th and Thomas 6th. It really does not look as if British parents have much hope that their sons will turn into great composers; although the chances of them becoming members of the royal family are even more remote.

21 August 2012

Competition Overkill

Writing on his Pianomania blog, Chang Tou Liang bemoaned the fact that “Singapore has organised more Formula One Grand Prix races than international piano competitions”.  That caught me up short.  There seem to be an endless stream of piano competitions in Singapore and, if by international, you mean attracting players from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and possibly even as far afield as Australia, most of these fit that bill.  I’ve adjudicated at a couple, and only the other week I turned down an invitation to adjudicate at yet another on the sound basis that I won’t be in Singapore when it’s held. 

But then the penny dropped.  These have all being MUSIC competitions, ostensibly open to any musical instrument.  The fact that music in south east Asia is almost synonymous with piano means that they are all dominated by that instrument, which cleverly disguises the fact that they are, technically, open to all.  So I image Tou Liang is right in this odd and, if I might suggest, pointless statistic.  Is he right, though, in saying it’s a “very encouraging attempt to bring Singapore into the world of international music competitions”?  I think not.

There are, without a doubt, too many competitions around and, like music exams, they have become a self-serving exercise breeding a crop of pianists whose sole interest in music is to get top prize at a competition.  Let’s forget the fact that most  winners in the top-end competitions seem to burn themselves out in the first year and it is the second, third and non-placed people who go on to achieve musical stardom, are there not now so many competitions that they have become a pointless exercise?  Students feeling the need to flex their muscles against their peers in a competition have so many to choose from they can almost select who they want to be pitted against; “So-and-so’s doing the Beethoven Competition in Balikpapan, so I won’t do that as he always wins.  He’s not doing the Chopin competition in Chiang Mai so I’ll do that one”.  It’s a bit like the world of boxing where, I gather, there are several different World Championships resulting in the ridiculous spectacle of these pugilists slogging it out in totally different contests in order to claim World Titles differentiated by various sets of initials.  So are the days of the Singapore International MAR Piano Competition, the Singapore International CTL Piano Competition or the Singapore International YST about to dawn investing different people with different titles all of which claim to be THE Singaporean standard?  In short, if there’s more than one international piano competition in a country (or possibly a region), there are too many and ultimately dilute whatever value they may have had.

Competitions are not without their value.  They can give prestige to a venue – provided they attract the star names as adjudicators and are able to set the winners off with such riches as recording and broadcast contracts and international concert tours – and it has to be said that, for all its excellent musical life, do not most people in the world of music associate Cardiff with the eponymous Singer of the World Competition?  They can also give a huge boost to the fortunes of those who compete, fast-tracking careers which otherwise might have languished long in obscurity.  In some cases, they can even promote the work of a forgotten or underrated composer – and I’m the first to praise Chopin competitions when they encourage sensitive and artistic performances of that composer’s over-exposed output.  On a more local level they provide a useful barometer as to the standards of teaching in a country; the Thailand Trinity Piano Competition is an absolute eye-opener when you see the extraordinary quality of work being done by teachers across that country.  And they certainly provide students with a goal in performing to a wider audience than just their teacher and their immediate friends.

But against those benefits lie the very real issues of integrity.  A great many competitions are more intended to give prestige and financial kudos to the organisers or sponsors, and have little regard for the musical outcomes.  I once adjudicated at a competition sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels.  At a time when the words Nuclear and Fuels were about as unpopular a combination of words as Assange and Ecuador, the clear intention here was to legitimise this organisation as a force for artistic good.  Vast amounts of money were spent on hospitality and in giving the whole thing an air of respectability.  Who won?  I have no idea, and I chose the winner!  And I suspect that most competitions start up to create an interest in the work of the sponsors as much as to raise artistic standards. 

I can’t really see the world standing back and saying “Wow” when they read that Zheng Qingshu got First Prize at the 1st Ars Nova International Piano Competition in Singapore.  (And, for the record, as one of my former students at Yong Siew Toh, I can vouch for the fact that she is not only a very fine pianist indeed but an intensely astute musician who should not need competitions to secure her on the path of a very creditable musical career – I’d recommend her to any concert promoter.)  But when it comes to piano competitions, fewer is most definitely better.  Rather like the huge wisdom of Alastair McCall Smith who suggests that the number of Mercedes Benzes in any third-world country is in inverse proportion to the wealth of the general population, I believe that the more International Piano Competitions a country hosts, the weaker are its artistic credentials.

18 August 2012

Portable Music

Suggestions in this blog that the iPod, or its imitators, might not be quite the epitome of musical reproduction perfection it’s so often cracked up to be, generally prompts a flurry of comments from those who claim that it not only deeply enriches their lives but has become something without which they cannot imagine their continued existence.  Typical is this comment from a Singapore-based musician for whom I have the highest respect; “The accessibility of the iPod has made it my go-to choice for most of my listening, making countless bus, MRT and plane trips immeasurably more bearable”. 

I never leave a home without it
It had always been my impression that those of us fortunate enough to be musicians carry around with us a vast resource of music which we can call upon at any given moment, not on an iPod or Walkman, but in our heads, where our musical memories have stored just about every bit of music we have ever played or heard.  More than that, we have it with us in flawless performances and in the perfect sound unimpeded by the shortcomings of human ears.  Whenever I move house, for example, as I survey a bare room bereft of all the bits and pieces which, for so many years, made it a home and thoroughly imbued it with memories both happy and sad, I call to mind a passage from Delius’s opera A Village Romeo and Juliet where Vrenchen takes her leave with the aria, “The Last Sad Night in My Old Home”.  It is the perfect summation of my own mood and I relish the chance to hear again in my inner mind music which is both deeply beautiful and apt.  Strtangely, having never heard the opera live and only ever having heard it through my increasingly scratchy LP box set (on which, for some unaccountable reason, a blob of marmalade was deposited on The Walk to the Paradise Garden), what I hear and see in my mind is a version with all the technical and musical flaws expunged and with a staging which brings it more wonderfully to life than would be possible by even the most talented director.
What’s more, we don’t have to download selected tracks on to a device nor scroll through lists to find what we want to hear, it often comes unbidden to our consciousness.  Yesterday, for example, after a long day’s examining in Hong Kong’s New Territories, I took the train back to my hotel in Kowloon.  Sharing a packed carriage with hundreds of Hong Kong families returning from a day picking up cheap pirated goods across the border in Shenzhen (why do Hongkies returning en masse from over the border make so much noise?  It puts a whole new meaning on the word Caterwauling), I suddenly found escape from the hubbub all around me with a lovely passage of calm, tranquil music which completely took me away from my surroundings.  I had no idea what it was, but it worked a treat; and when I revisited it in my mind once I got to bed, I realised it was the slow movement of the Beethoven Spring Sonata. 

Of course, having something to do to pass a journey has always been a necessity with most travellers.  Long before the advent of iPods, cellphones or even the Sony Walkman, whole train carriages were full of silent crowds intent on extracting every last scrap of entertainment from their newspapers.  I well recall bumping into my old school mate, Alyn Shipton, on the commuter train from Waterloo to Surrey one evening and incurring angry looks and barely suppressed mutters of discontent as we interrupted the mass read of the Evening Standard without our talk and laughter.  Tables are turned now, and we get angry looks when our newspapers impinge on someone’s listening space.  Gone is silence; in its place the hissing of escaping sounds from iPods and the loud monologues of those on the phone (and what is about railways which renders mobile phone microphones useless causing the callers to shout at the top of their voices – a problem which seems particularly prevalent amongst Indian gentlemen using mobile phones?). 
But are journeys in Singapore that tedious that entertainment has to be found to while away the hours incarcerated in bus or MRT? My daily commute from Tanah Merah to Clementi was about the longest journey it’s possible to make on Singapore public transport, but even that was not long enough to get through an entire Beethoven Symphony, and if I chose to do it by bus (which usually extended it to an unimaginable 75 minutes), there was so much to see outside the upper deck windows that no music to distract from the tedium of the journey was necessary.  Yet Singaporeans seem to find even 10 minutes on a bus irksome.  The SBS decision to axe that offensively inescapable on-board TV channel which ruined so many bus journeys (and I’m glad to see that Hong Kong has now followed suit in ridding its buses of on-board TV) was made because so many passengers were finding their personal entertainment for the journey through their own portable devices that there was no longer any need for public entertainment media.  Now, on bus or MRT, nary a soul exists without white leads running from a portable device into their ears, and the space is filled with the insistent sibilants of poorly-suppressed ear-pieces.

Musicians should celebrate their freedom from such horrors; not sacrifice their own personal and uniquely wonderful musical equipment in favour of them.

13 August 2012

Synthetic Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia – the unbidden association of certain differing senses – seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon.  If, as the old cliché has it, bulls are angered by the sight of a red rag, then, in unconsciously associating colour with emotion, all bulls are synaesthetes.  And if music affects the mood of those who hear it, it follows that all who appreciate music are also synaesthetes; is not the “feel good” factor of Mozart or the sense of national pride inspired by Wagner a manifestation of synaesthesia?  (And, to take it to extremes, is not my desire to strangle anyone who plays Chopin or Liszt with excessive emotion, indicative of synaesthesia within myself?)  But, when it comes to music, we tend to reserve the label Synaesthesia to those who inadvertently associate certain tonalities with certain colours.
Rimsky-Korsakov, who clearly had a mild form of the condition, suggested that all Russian musicians experienced synaesthesia, and  without doubt the most famous musical synaesthetics was Skryabin for whom various keys created such strong colours in his mind that he devised the colour keyboard (see above) which bathed the hall in the appropriate light during a musical performance.  At university we did a performance of Prometheus with the colour keyboard, and very thought-provoking it was too - unlike the simply hideous attempt by the American pianist Evan Shinners to convey his synaesthesia in a video of the colours he feels while playing, with extraordinary ineptitude, a piece of Bach - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9PxsEFSlqU&feature=player_embedded.  For me this is both distracting and confusing, seeming more like a student disco than a serious musical illustration. 

A Sussex Cottage in E flat major
A discussion after the Skryabin performance revealed a number of my fellow students also experienced synaesthesia to a greater or lesser extent, usually inadvertently associating colours (or, in one case, a strong taste) with certain keys.  For my part I had no sense of colour/key linkage then, but, whether as a result of thought stimulation or growing aural experience, I find I have developed it very mildly indeed since.  I don’t feel or experience any colour sensation when I hear or play music, but as I read scores in certain keys, very specific colours impinge on to my consciousness.  D minor, for example, is purple (the ecclesiastical colour for Lent and Epiphany), E flat (my favourite key), a rich golden yellow not unlike the tablecloths in expensive Chinese restaurants or the colour used to paint the doors and window frames in the houses belonging to the Cowdray Estate in Sussex.  D major is red and F major a very fresh green.  But some keys have no colour association whatsoever.  When I read through the score of Bach’s Toccata (BWV540), I sense green throughout the F major bit, but when it lurches into C major, any sense of colour disappears totally from my mind.
Beyond synaesthesia, colour and music do have some linkage, subconsciously or otherwise, and many of the problems which have befallen Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS can be dated to the time when the faded green of the original upholstery was replaced by a faded maroon.  Coincidence?  Perhaps, but I have my doubts.  Certainly many have claimed that the dusty, sandy shade used for carpets and upholstery in London’s Royal Festival Hall created an unwelcoming ambience, while when the Royal Albert Hall went for rich maroons and dark reds, it suddenly seemed a much more rewarding place in which to hear music.

Musicians’ black and white is considered important, since other colours would detract from the performance, and it is interesting to note that when certain female violinists and singers appear on stage in lavish gowns, critics will often comment on the colour before the music; a sure sign that the colour is a distraction – and many choose to dress this way deliberately for that reason.  When it comes to musical instruments, there is no real reason why they should not now be cast in a whole range of vivid colours, but, matters of uniformity aside, there are important reasons why musical instruments need to retain their brown or black hues, and that goes back to synaesthesia.  If music creates colours in the minds of listeners, then the sources of the music need to be as neutral as possible.  So the very deliberate choice of an orange piano by a German cabaret pianist, Stefan Aaron, is clearly sending some kind of a message. 

For those unaware of the fact, Aaron was yesterday playing his piano on the Great Wall of China.  He has made something of a specialism of playing his piano in weird and wonderful places, and has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the highest piano performance when he played, in August 2011, on the peak of a Swiss mountain at an elevation of 4206 meters. 

So why does he choose an orange piano?  Parsons in Hong Kong currently has both a totally transparent piano and a “Ferrari” piano – a grand piano shaped like a Ferrari and coloured dazzling scarlet.  I’m quite sure that if Aaron was out to create a purely visual spectacle, these would have done him much better than the humble orange upright depicted below.  Similarly, a white piano to blend in with the Swiss snow or a grey one to match the Great Wall, would have made sense.  But no, he is insistent that the piano he chooses for these ventures into stratospherically improbable venues is orange, and the clue comes from his own comment when asked why he does it; "I want to put my orange piano, whose colour fits the positive energy of my songs, in unusual places and see what happens".  He creates a new piece to suit the location, but sees the orange of the piano as an essential means of communicating “positive energy”.  Is this a further manifestation of synaesthesia?
Certainly Aaron’s choice of orange fits in with what Psychology Today suggests are the subliminal messages sent out by the colour; “Orange calls to mind feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and warmth. Orange is often used to draw attention, such as in traffic signs and advertising”.  But how do other musicians see orange?  Scriabin associated orange with G major (see below), a key which many also associate with strength and conviction (the British national anthem, for example, is always played in G major).


However, in 1806 Christian Schubart published a list of keys and their associated qualities as revealed by (as he saw it) the use of those keys by classical composers.  In his list, G major was associated with “Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love.  In a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key”. Sir Isaac Newton saw in the colours of the spectrum an equivalent with musical intervals; in which orange represented the interval of a minor 3rd. But for another of music’s synaesthetes, American composer Amy Beach, orange had no musical associations whatsoever (for her the key of G major was bright red).  

It would be interesting to know whether Aaron was playing his “song” in G major to reinforce the orangeness of the piano, thereby associating himself with the Skryabin’s view, or with a prominence of minor 3rds, thereby following the Newton theory.  My guess, however, is that he had read this on www.empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com ; “The colour orange relates to social communication, stimulating two way conversations. A warm and inviting colour, it is both physically and mentally stimulating, so it gets people thinking and talking!” As, indeed, should all music, wherever it is performed and on whatever coloured instrument. 

12 August 2012

Sport and Music

A letter published in the Straits Times on Saturday claimed that “most Singaporeans rank academic success above sporting prowess”.  Although stated as an unequivocal fact, I suspect it is based on purely anecdotal evidence; it is one of those statements which assumes credibility simply by being made. 

Nevertheless I imagine many reading the letter (from a Christopher Ong) will think for a while and then agree.  Clearly Singapore lacks the manically jingoistic ecstatic response to native sporting success that is the norm in other countries (including the one across the Causeway).  Leaving a United Kingdom still basking in the white heat of improbable Olympic success, I was taken aback by the very low key response Singapore gave to its own Olympic medal winners.  On that evidence alone it seems that Mr Ong has a point.  As if to support this contention, Singapore’s Sunday Times ran a short piece on Singaporean medal hopes at the Olympics and justified one athlete’s failure to do anything worthwhile with the comment that she had been so busy with academic studies that she had only been able to train for six weeks, and quoted another athlete who had been eliminated at the first heat as being worried that it might affect his chances of being admitted to college.  When it comes to the print media, sport certainly seems to sit a little further down the apparent priorities of Singaporeans than academic prowess;  Sunday’s paper also led one of its multitudinous supplements with an article about the cost of ordinary university degrees against medical ones, while it turned to sport only several pages into the same supplement. 
Television, though, paints a very different picture. The obsession broadcasters the world over have for promoting sport would seem to imply that there is a vast appetite for it which, when set against the almost non-existent coverage of more erudite, academically-minded matters, points to a widespread preference for sport over learning.  But let’s not forget broadcasters prefer to dictate rather than reflect public tastes.  Who, apart from a gaggle of fat, beer-swilling blokes in a pub, knew anything about darts or snooker until colour television came along and decided it was an easy and cheap way of filling air-time?  This swamping the public with sports they neither understand nor appreciate has come to its head with the gargantuan gorge of the Olympic Games.  Suddenly everyone is deeply intrigued with coxless pairs, canoe slalom, dressage and that peculiar spectacle of two cyclists trying to stay on their machines at the slowest possible speed.  It was beautifully summed up by a cartoon in the Daily Telegraph in London earlier in the week.  It showed an elderly man, smoking a pipe and shouting at his television from the depth of a well-worn arm-chair; “Come on! Come on whoever you are doing whatever it is you are doing!”  An even better example came from the couple with whom I was staying in England.  The wife, loyally glued to the Olympic coverage on the BBC, let out a shriek of excitement as the commentator’s voice rose in a remarkable crescendo of excitement.  Apparently a British competitor had kept on the mat, or jumped off it, knocked the ball over the net, or over the line – whatever they were supposed to be doing in whatever sport it was.  From another part of the house the husband called out in a deeply resigned voice; “Shut up, please!  You’ve no idea what’s going on”. 

Likewise, do many Singaporeans have any idea what academic success is?  If we take it to mean the furtherance of knowledge in pursuit of the betterment of mankind, then I very much doubt that they prefer it to sport.  I have a strong suspicion that most regard academic success as a sport in itself – let’s pass lots of exams very quickly and ahead of our friends – and this is certainly the case with music, where Singaporeans seem obsessed with their children getting the top marks in as many different exams as they can.  The idea that music may have some value to society as a whole totally escapes them.

Sport and music differ in that the first encourages the individual to strive against his fellow man for the superficial entertainment of society, while the latter encourages the individual to collaborate in order to enrich the lives of the mass of humanity.  Both, of course, must take second place to true academic success, but simply to transfer the attitudes of those that follow sport into other fields does not indicate a preference for one against the other, merely a failure to understand the value of both.    

09 August 2012

Resist YouTube

It sometimes seems as if those of us who enjoy good quality music-making delivered to us in the finest quality sound to be listened to in the ease and comfort of our own homes are not so much in the minority as on the very brink of extinction.  The morass of tenth-rate performances in twentieth-rate sound on YouTube (and its imitators) has become such a widespread phenomenon that it has put a whole new meaning on the term “dumbing down”.  We do not merely accept the lowest possible standards in performance and audio, we positively make a virtue out of them.

Running a class in which I asked students to give a presentation on an opera of their choice, all except one had downloaded grotty sub-standard (and mostly pirated) videos from YouTube.  These students were potential professional musicians whose livelihoods will evolve around getting the public to accept the highest possible standards of performance and may well strive to have their performance immortalised on CD – the only existing medium which can effectively be used as a musician’s calling-card – yet they seemed to accept the sub-standard as not so much the norm as the ideal. 

And when one of my longest and dearest friends confessed that he had been listening to some performances on YouTube, I realised that the end was nigh.  If so died-in-the-wool musical and aural perfectionist as he had succumbed to the lure of the dismal, what hope the rest of us?  I told him as much.  “But you are missing the point”, was his response, “I watch all these awful videos on YouTube and then post anonymous rude comments.  It’s great fun!” 

I know what he means.  Everybody likes to be a critic – just look at the ubiquitous “Write a Review” injunction on just about every download and online shop site – and the great thing is anonymity is standard practice.  How lovely to say what you think without having to answer for it or to respond to those who disagree. What bliss to write reams of words or pithy one-liners without the Damoclesian Sword of an editor or legal advisers hanging over your head.  Word counts, reasoned argument, considered opinion, balanced views and facts can be forgotten about in favour of ignorant prejudice and baseless personal taste. 

And with what results?  Here are the two “reviews” of a performance posted on YouTube by a 7-year-old Thai pianist: “Wow....” (written by the clearly perceptive “robertu07”), while, if that needed more fleshing out, “AndThePincers” gives us a bit more, admittedly with some idiosyncratic spelling; “Ryhthm is off at parts, and it's not very ‘polished’.”  Another performance from a 12-year-old Malaysian got this pair of reviews; “u are AMAZING!!!! Like Lang Lang and Mitsoko Uchida in 1!!!!” (“missyc02”) and “hey kid, who u kidding?  20 years and you might play this shit” (“ “bogmailer”).  Pretty helpful and perceptive stuff, eh?  So much better than the superficial and ill-considered judgements of those who unashamedly adorn their reviews with their own names in the established press, don’t you think?  Commenting on a YouTube performance might alleviate inner stress and allow the expression of true, unfettered feelings, but beyond the mere selfish private relief it offers, it serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

I am minded of the hotel I stayed at in Chiang Mai some months ago.  Checking into the most primitive and ill-equipped room imaginable in a dirty, dusty and distinctly unfriendly hotel, I was soon on the phone to those who had booked it for me.  “But that can’t be”, I was told, “It got Highly Recommended on Trip Advisor”.  (Interesting that direct personal experience is immediately questioned in the light of an anonymous online review.)  Urged to read for myself the reviews, I quickly saw the sheaves of glowing testimonials, all written in a suspiciously similar style, all dated around the same time and all, of course, anonymous.  Surely hotel proprietors aren’t so unethical as to write glowing reviews of their own properties merely to boost bookings?

It is often said of YouTube that it gives access to so much more music than you could find in even the most comprehensive of CD collections.  That is true, and I myself have used it to listen to obscure pieces which I can’t find anywhere else.  But is easy accessibility really a good thing?  Do we appreciate great art all the more because we can download copies of magnificent paintings which we could never see without, say, a trip to the Louvre and a long queue for the admission ticket?  I suspect not.  In fact, I am inclined to think that the opposite prevails.  Because great art is so readily accessible in, what we might call, condensed form, we not only do not then bother to see it in its original guise and in a properly sympathetic setting, but we take it all for granted and forget the sheer hard work involved.  When you see the brushstrokes up close, you begin to appreciate the effort involved.  So it is with music.  If I can hear a couple of bars of Hammerklavier at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen, why bother to pay to hear it performed properly.  Computer speakers and white-wired ear phones cannot differentiate between bad and good recordings, so why bother with the good?

If every YouTube hit represents another nail in the coffin of the professionally produced CD, it also represents another nail in the coffin of proper musical criticism and, as such, it must be resisted by all true music lovers.

06 August 2012

Anthems for Royalties

Shortly after the 2004 Olympic Games, a large box of CDs arrived for review.  It was an eight-disc set of all the national anthems of the world, and it was suggested that these were the recordings prepared for the medal ceremonies at the Olympics.  I had no idea how to go about reviewing this release; if I singled out a particular anthem for praise I would be accused of ignoring other countries, while if I criticised a country’s anthem, I would be seen as offending national sensitivities.  National anthems inspire enormous emotional responses, and while the Americans seem to like nothing better than to hear their anthem grotesquely disfigured and distorted by hopeless personalities masquerading as vocal artistes, the merest hint of altering the state-sanctioned version of the Malaysian National Anthem prompts sinister threats of punishment and encourages politicians to make public demonstrations of anti-foreigner contempt. In the end I took the coward’s option and never submitted a review.
As it happened, the discs arrived on the same day that I was hosting a party for several members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at the Kuala Lumpur apartment in which I then lived (vast areas of outside balcony and virtually no areas of covered floor space, making it the perfect party venue).  I thought it might be fun to challenge them to recognise some of the more obscure national anthems.  So the assembled throng sat through Kiribati, Nagorno-Karabakh, Aruba; and recognised none of them. 

Then, as the drink flowed, we tried the more familiar ones.  Would, for example, the Americans recognise “Advance Australia Fair”, or the Hungarians “Kimigayo” (the Japanese anthem)?  None did.  But, and this will delight all those who always maintained that the Malaysian Philharmonic was just a bunch of overpaid foreigners with no interest in the country which gave them so much, nobody recognised “Negaraku”.  Finally resorting to one for the British, I played “God Save the Queen”.  And, would you believe, nobody recognised that either, myself included – and I had the disc track list in front of me. 
Perhaps it was down to the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, not perhaps one of the great bands of our time, making a hash of the job in the recording sessions.  And who could blame them?  This is a project which would surely have driven any orchestral musician up the wall; 380 tracks lasting in total 9 hours, 15 minutes and 51 seconds.  (The disparity between the number of tracks and the fact that most lists identify only 206 countries in the world is down to the placing of abbreviated versions of the anthems played at the Olympic Games alongside the complete versions.)  But I suspect the real reason these anthems are all but unrecognisable is down to the arranger, for nearly all of them appear with peculiar harmonies and ornately-filled in textures which just about obliterate any sense of a dominating melodic line.

National Anthems are designed to be sung (well most of them, anyway) by large numbers of untrained voices, so they require as an absolute pre-requisite a readily identifiable and followable tune.  Of course, some of these tunes do outlive their natural life by quite a lot of minutes - Uruguay’s anthem, for example, lasts a whopping five minutes – but in any performance of a national anthem, it really is essential that the melody is what we hear.  Simply put, these eight discs are models of heavy over-arrangement.
Being in the UK for this year’s Olympic Games, I had not got much chance to see or hear any medal ceremonies; after all British television is never too keen on showing them unless, of course, British athletes have won gold.  Surprisingly, though, a very large number of British athletes has won gold, and over the past few days television and radio have been swamped with ecstatic reports of medal ceremonies crowned with “God Save the Queen”.  And, would you believe it, I barely recognise it; and when I do, it’s because the hugely partisan crowds sing the anthem with such gusto that the pre-recorded orchestra has been all but drowned out.  Thank God for that, I say, for when we do hear the anthem, the harmonies are so astonishingly weird that you are brought up short. 

Presenting the National Anthem with unexpected harmonic twists and turns is like trying to follow a croquet match (why is it my favourite sport is excluded from the Olympics?) when you do not know anything about the game and its manifest idiosyncrasies.  Why couldn’t the IOC simply give us the anthems in the straight-forward harmonization everyone normally hears?  Am I to take it that national anthems are copyright and cannot be played in public without payment of a large fee which the IOC side-steps by employing their own arranger?  Or, perish the thought, has some scheming orchestral arranger decided he could make a big buck out of the Olympics by making his own arrangements of all the world’s anthems and then charging royalties on every performance?