13 December 2013

Music Exam Roadblocks

With more than 30 years conducting graded music examinations under my not inconsiderable belt, I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to inspiring talks given to teachers by chief executives, chief examiners and examiner colleagues (I’ve even done it myself more than once) during which the exam system is likened to the “rungs of a ladder”.  It is a useful metaphor for seeing examinations in the wider context of musical education and reinforces the idea that exams are things which are passed along a journey, but are not in themselves the ultimate destination.  I particularly like the ladder analogy since it not only implies a sense of striving upwards but hints that, while the exams are rungs which, sequentially, help reach whatever is at the top, each also represents a certain level of achievement which can, if needs be, serve as a goal in its own right while promoting a desire to progress further.

Invited to give a series of lectures in China to students preparing to work as music teachers, I have decided to include some mention of graded music examinations.  Students in China live in blissful ignorance of this peculiarly English approach to music education; indeed, beyond the British Isles and its former colonial possessions and protectorates, graded music examinations are largely unheard of.  Music education in such places as the USA and Russia, China and Venezuela, carries on perfectly well without them,.  However, as I believe fervently that there are enormous benefits and advantages in the graded music exam system, I feel fully justified in, at the very least, explaining what it is and how it works; even though these prospective music teachers will have never experienced it for themselves and are unlikely to have the opportunity to involve their own students in the process.
So, in preparing my lectures, I have almost decided to go down the ladder route (if you get my drift), thinking it the best way of explaining the function of graded music examinations to those for whom examinations are usually regarded as essential rather than helpful.  I did have some reservations about this, since my lectures will need to be delivered in the presence of a live interpreter, and I’m not sure how the rungs of a ladder analogy works when translated into Mandarin.  I have thought long and hard for a more obvious Chinese metaphor, but none springs to mind.

However, after travelling in a remote and somewhat hostile border area in south east Asia, a new idea struck me.  There was a history of hostility between the two countries on either side of the border, while a third was actively claiming part of the territory as its own.  The result had been some insurgencies during which foreign tourists had been particularly targeted.  Along the road we encountered numerous road blocks where nervous soldiers and police unsmilingly demanded to see passports, permits and the contents of cases.  After the third of these, and its attendant queues, my driver was clearly getting frustrated, and when a parade of flashing headlamps coming in the opposite direction foretold of yet another roadblock, he lurched on to a dirt track and barrelled through some pretty desperate countryside, until, eventually, he bumped back on to the road.  It terrified me and, having shared his frustration with the roadblocks, I realised that I felt much more comfortable with them than without them.  They were an inconvenience, certainly, but they helped ensure my safety and increased my sense of security in strange and alien surroundings. 
It has since struck me how much these roadblocks have in common with graded music exams.  They are an inconvenience, interrupting and obstructing what we would like to be the free and easy passage from one point (complete beginner) to another (brilliant virtuosity) but ensuring that, at every stage of the journey, we are not only progressing safely, but helping us to feel more prepared and secure on the lonely journey ahead.  A good teacher should understand that graded music exams are an inconvenience, but a useful one.  Having to stop and check things like technique, interpretations, aural and reading skills, theoretical knowledge and musical understanding, seems a lot of trouble at the time, but if we skip them, we risk heading into disaster.  You can bypass an exam, just as you might a roadblock, but are you totally confident that you haven’t put your future wellbeing in jeopardy? 

Continuing the roadblock theme, we can also see how the pupils of a poor teacher - the one who only works towards examinations - will soon lose heart and abandon the journey.  Hopping from one roadblock to another, stopping only to sort out the papers and requirements for the next, makes the journey incredibly frustrating and, ultimately, pointless.  We do not need security on the road if we are not actually going anywhere.  I cannot imagine anyone sitting stationary waiting for the police to set up a roadblock; yet this is exactly what an awful lot of music teachers do.
So, I have rather taken to this road block analogy. 

But there is a problem with it.  I was once in a car stopped at a roadblock on a road out of Shanghai.  The driver calmly wound down his window, handed the police officer a wad of currency notes, and then sat back as the barricade was lifted and we could carry on unmolested. I am not sure that is a message I want to give to my Chinese students, so, regretfully, it’s back up that ladder.

11 December 2013

Nein Audi Einaudi

Asked rather less often than the tiresome, “Who is your favourite composer?”, people do occasionally pose the more entertaining, “Who is your least favourite composer?”  It’s an impossible question to answer because, while it is astonishingly easy to list pieces of music one never wants to hear again (strange how much easier it is to compile this list than one of pieces one could not live without), every composer whose music appears on that list can salvage their reputations with at least one moderately acceptable musical offering.  We do not write a composer off for writing a few bad pieces; even if we are happy to describe a composer as “great” on the strength of one or two really good works (can one claim every single Bach Chorale Prelude to be the work of an absolute genius?). 

Usually at this time of year, if anyone asks me which work I’d like never to hear again, I’d have no hesitation in pouncing on Lowell Mason’s banal Joy to the World, possibly the most irritating and overblown of all Christmassy melodies.  (I find it incredible that there are still sadly deranged people out there who believe this piece of musical drivel to be by Handel: you have to be pretty ignorant of Handel’s genius to recognise any connection.)   But even then, I would never write off Mason as my least favourite composer (he did, after all, compile some rather nice tunes in his many song books for children), and I live in hope that I might one day see the light and recognise what this Christmas tune has that justifies its ceaseless exposure for around two months of the year.
However, this year even Mason’s music has an allure, largely because it is not by Ludovico Einaudi, a composer of whom I had never heard until I attended a piano recital last week.

I hope you will, like me, on hearing this name instantly ask; “who?”  I must confess that when I saw his name on the recital programme my initial reaction was that it was a spoof.  After all while the given name is Italian-ish, there is something suspiciously concocted about the family name, which could loosely be translated as “One who hears oneself”, and when I heard the piece performed – called Divenire – it sounded suspiciously like a basic improvisation using simple chords which, after a predetermined period of time, stopped dead in its tracks.  The “programme note” with the recital, and I put it in inverted commas because it conformed to none of the criteria one would normally expect in a recital, was of use only if you had the score in front of you (which even the pianist did not), since it merely suggested points of reference in specific bars.  It was dreary, aimless, unstructured and served no point other than to fill a bit of time.  I left convinced it was a very feeble attempt to hoodwink a gullible provincial audience.

But then, during the week, two students presented the same work to me and I began to wonder.  None of the performances convinced me it was anything other than a pointless waste of time and (admittedly minimal) effort, but clearly the students were under the impression it was serious music, and in fairness to them and to Einaudi, I tried to find out more.  I came across an article dated April this year from the London based Daily Telegraph in which a nicely impartial reporter wrote; "The music of Ludovico Einaudi may defy definition – you could call it pop, classical, minimalist, easy listening”.  What dread such a statement engenders in my heart.  We do like to categorise things, and I am the first to accept that defining music in such terms is dangerous and misleading.  But there are limits.  It’s a bit like suggesting a certain drink defines definition – "you could call it wet or dry, sweet or sour, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, tasty or bland" - there have to be some basic perameters.  I am reminded of the time André Previn was supposed to write a new work for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music.  In charge of writing the programme notes, nothing I did could get Previn to respond to my request for some description of the new piece.  In the end, the Festival Director wrote to him direct and received this matchless description of the new work; “It may be long, it may be short.  It may be fast or slow.  It is scored for a flexible ensemble which probably includes a piano.”  As the Director deduced; “He hasn’t bloody written it yet!”

The Daily Telegraph piece also suggested that Einaudi has legions of “quietly fanatical fans” (whatever they are), and further trawling through the dark recesses of cyberspace, one encounters some of these in full (quiet) voice; “So cute. I love him!” writes Hailey Lytle (albeit beside a picture of a boxer dog, so to whom she is referring remains a mystery).  The more verbose and deeply perceptive Mohammad Nabeel describes Einaudi’s music as “Very very. Very. Very nice”.  Thornham10 has a very clear view; “Just amazing this sing cleanses the mind” (of both grammar and spelling, it seems), while of the 6 million (I kid you not!) who have viewed a performance of Divenire on YouTube, Nick1309 is a little obscure in his comment; “it makes me come the frissons!!”, although his fellow-listener Petr Kolář has neither any reservations nor the need to hide behind pairs of exclamation marks; “this is masterpiece. I love that”.
And if the impression is that Einaudi’s fans are about as eloquent in English as he is in music, here is something rather more substantive from Adarsh Rao; “I live and die for this piece of music. Ever since 2009 I've heard this song on almost everyday of my life. I'm learning to play this on piano and will learn to play it on violin too. I ll play this on every occasion of my life and can't go by a day without listening to it and I hope my family plays this on my funeral”.  The piece which poor Mr Rao’s family must by now be heartily sick of is I Giorno, which is almost as dire as Divenire.  What is it about this aimless, drivelling and pointless music which gets so many people so (quietly) excited?  It passes me by.  Are people’s emotions so superficial that this adequately reflects their mood or fulfils their need for the intensity of experience which only music can provide?

I would hope that one of Einaudi’s quietly fanatical fans will be able to explain what his music has that I fail to appreciate, but unless and until they do, he remains the best placed candidate for my Least Favourite Composer.

03 December 2013

Why Write Programme Notes

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I ever learnt as a performer came, perversely, when I was not directly involved and when the student in question did not actually perform anything. The organist Gillian Weir had been invited to give a masterclass to a number of student organists, myself included.  With a professorial admonition to us  not to let the university down by presenting “Miss Weir” (as she then was) with poor playing, we all worked assiduously over our selected pieces in the days leading up to the masterclass.  One student, a highly capable pianist called Charles Spanner who had only recently turned to the organ (I last encountered him in Sussex where he ran a very fine music school), was determined to show he was as good, if not better, than the rest of us.  Every moment of every day you could hear Charles practising Franck’s Pièce Heroïque until he had it absolutely note-perfect.  When the masterclass started, he was brim full of confidence happy in the knowledge that, when it came to the delivery of his piece, Miss Weir could have no complaints.  He was called, sat down at the organ, pulled out his stops, raised his hands and was then stopped, before he played a single note.  “Why are you using that registration?” asked Miss Weir.  No response.  An extended discussion ensued during which it was apparent that Charles’s registration was not the only thing she queried.  “Why are you starting with those fingers?  Why use that foot? Why choose that speed?”, and so it went on, with barely a note of the Franck played.  At the end as a mortified Charles shuffled off the stool, Miss Weir turned to us all and with her captivating smile suggested that we should “never do anything in music without first asking ‘why?’”  And I have taken this advice very much to heart, never doing anything in a performance without first asking myself “why?”.

It goes beyond performing.  When a teacher came to me the other day and asked for advice about writing programme notes and how she could teach her diploma students to best approach the task, I recalled the Gillian Weir mantra; “Your students must first ask themselves why they are writing the programme notes”.  
The immediate answer is because the syllabus requires it.  As with anything to do with a music exam, if the answer to the question “why?” is “because it’s in the syllabus”, then the answer is wrong.  An exam syllabus asks for certain things which, it is assumed, have already been learnt; after all an exam is merely a checkpoint along the road of musical development, not an end in itself.  Correctly interpreted by an intelligent teacher, a syllabus lists those skills which should already have been taught before the exam is prepared, and part of that teaching should be to get pupils to understand why these are important skills.  If the pupil understands why they are being asked to do something, they will not only do it with real understanding (in other words, better) but will deliver it in the exam with greater conviction and authority.

So, why do we need programme notes? To put it in a nutshell, programme notes increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance. 
We are naturally intimidated by the unknown and that which we do not understand, and a clear, friendly guide to something we do not really know or understand breaks down that barrier.  Almost all Western Classical Music originates from a society and from an age of which we are not part and  which, almost by definition, is moving increasingly out of our range of experience; even the music of our own time is often written by those inhabiting a society, either physical or emotional, from which we feel excluded.  As music is, essentially, a product of the society which produces it, to understand that society immediately helps us understand the music.  By introducing the composers, placing them and their music in historical context and providing some background to the society in which they lived, programme notes open up the audience receptors so that they can more fully appreciate what message or ideas are being communicated through the music.  We can enjoy music on its own terms, but our enjoyment of it is vastly increased by understanding its historical and social context.

That, though, is only part of the answer.  As well as helping the listener appreciate the circumstances of, and the reasons for, the music’s creation, programme notes guide the listener through the particular journey the music is taking.  All musical works can be thought of as a journey, but, as with any good journey, it is more about enjoying what lies along the route than reaching the final destination. 
For many listeners, an unfamiliar piece of music can seem like an endless and incoherent sequence of sounds.  These may be pleasurable sounds, and quite acceptable as they are, but how much better to have some idea where those sounds are heading.  What’s more, in the wash of sound, so much gets missed which the listener would have enjoyed if only someone had pointed it out along the way.  So programme notes also serve as a kind of road map, showing where the journey is headed and pointing out some of the more important and significant elements along the way.  The directions “at 10 degrees north, 79 degrees east, turn in a north-north-westerly direction” may get us to the destination, but they tell us nothing about the terrain we cover.  How much more enticing is this set of directions; “After the Shell station you will see a small wooden house on stilts next to which is a tiny lane, little more than a dusty track heading into the trees.  Turn up there and keep going through the oil palm estate for about 10 minutes.  It’s a long, slow climb, but at the top you will suddenly come across a small clearing with spectacular views.  If you look to your right you can see over to the Indian Ocean and, perhaps on a clear day, see the coast of Sumatra”.  In programme note terms, the former equates to ; “The development starts at bar 56 and modulates to the enharmonic minor of the dominant major, returning to the tonic at bar 76”, while the latter equates to “it opens with a happy little theme, rather like small birds chirping away at the top of the keyboard, but which takes on a more serious character when the music moves down into its lower register and heavy, thick chords introduce seem to appear like the menacing tread of some giant prehistoric cat”.  

Deciding which level of information is appropriate is key to writing good programme notes, and for them to be truly effective they do have to be tailored to the particular audience.  How desperately sad it is when orchestras and performers download their programme notes from some anonymous source on the internet or steal them from other performers’ websites, careless of how appropriate they are to their own audiences.  I, myself, have sat in concerts reading cut and paste notes which mean nothing, offer not a hint of help in guiding through the music, and quite often alienate me to the extent that I switch off totally and regret paying the money to attend the concert.  Understanding the audience is essential, as the notes need to be focused on their particular environment.  A note on Elgar, for example, would be quite different when intended for an English audience (the English regard Elgar as part of their heritage and resent any hint that the programme notes might not realise this) rather than a Chinese one (for whom England is associated primarily with David Beckham, Margaret Thatcher and, possibly, Chris Patten; none of them major cultural icons, for all their qualities in other fields).
In the situation of a diploma, the audience is well known beforehand; it is going to comprise one or two professional examiners.  At this point the candidate has to revert to that question, “Why?”.  The examiners do not need to be told anything about the music, they know it all already.  So the inclusion of programme notes in the diploma is not to tell them anything, but to show them that the candidate knows how to explain and describe the music to a wider audience.  To do this, it is vital to remember why we have programme notes in the first place – “to increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance”.  Writing programme notes in this context requires the ability to stand aside from the actual performance and appreciate it from a different vantage point (the “listener’s-eye-view”).  Showing that you understand the historical context of the music and can step far enough away from your intimate knowledge of the detail of the music to describe its journey coherently is the reason why programme notes are included in diploma recital examinations.

02 December 2013

The Missing Piece

“Handel’s Messiah oratorio is recognised as one of the four major choral pieces performed in Western Classical Music.”  A statement from an article in today’s Borneo Post newspaper about a forthcoming performance of Messiah in Kuching.  Newspapers – especially local ones with limited access to expert knowledge - are adept at making claims which they cannot and do not substantiate, and I imagine the reporter here simply jotted down a phrase from a press conference without noting what else was said.  Which leads me to think of suitable candidates for the other three pieces. (And how refreshing, if odd, to describe Messiah  as a “piece” rather than as a “song” - although the joy is shortlived; later in the article comes the lovely phrase which grotesquely mangles the English language; "a repertoire of Handel's Messiah songs" ).

Bach’s St Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass have to be two of the others, would anyone disagree with that?  But what can the fourth be? 

It does not specify that the other major choral pieces are sacred, but certainly there are plenty of sacred ones in the running.  Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Fauré’s Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; they surely are leading the pack.  However can any of those really stand alongside the Bach and Handel offerings?  Both Mendelssohn and Elgar have their detractors, in a way which the Bach and Handel do not - musicians who justifiably point to innumerable solecisms and weaknesses in both scores and texts.  The Fauré is quite lightweight in comparison with the others, while the Mozart… Well, it’s not by Mozart so you have to decide which completion you would list as the most important.  As for the Beethoven; great music, certainly, but so wholly unsympathetic towards the human voice it has to be discounted on the grounds that it is out of the reach of most choirs.  And, by that token, we must probably also rule out the Verdi Requiem and Berlioz Grande Messe de Morts.  I would be tempted to suggest that the fourth work is Haydn's Creation, but is that a better work than The Seasons or even some of his sublime Masses?

The creation in the 19th century of what we call the “Classical Canon”, that list of composers and works decreed by certain 19th century musicologists as being the apogee of musical creation, has led most to believe that great music can only originate from the 17th and 18th centuries, with a few exceptions reaching into the 19th.  So we tend to imagine that those “four major choral pieces” will be of that vintage.  But let’s forget those outdated notions, and look to music written in the last 100 years.  With the centenary of Britten this year, the War Requiem has been very much to the fore in the field of choral music, and there are many who would undoubtedly list this as the missing piece.  Not for me, though; as with Mendelssohn and Elgar, its flaws are too numerous to be ranked alongside Bach and Handel.  Even my very favourite 20th century choral work, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, could hardly stand comparison with such august company.  Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder must be in with a chance, given its monumental stature, while choirs have developed such a liking for the atmospheric doodlings Eric Whitacre and his chums, that I suspect there are quite a few around who might tentatively put their names forward without, perhaps, daring to suggest a single work.

It has not really crossed my mind before, but if asked to list the greatest choral works ever written, I can only think of three.  What does the Borneo Post know, that I do not?

25 November 2013

No Music from the Grassy Knoll

Mao, Khruschev, Kennedy and Napoleon
Who is the odd man out?

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, marked by TV and radio documentaries complete with grainy footage and crackly tape recordings, has vividly brought back to me memories of that day.  It has become something of a cliché to say that everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing the day President Kennedy was shot, but, certainly in my case, it’s true.  And why, I have often wondered, do I recall it so vividly?  I was a nine year old boy living in London, my horizons bounded by my bicycle, the big red buses which thundered past our front window, the 78 rpm records my father let me play on his old wind-up gramophone and, most importantly, the piano and my imminent grade 3 piano exam.  Like so many post-war English families (and the wartime damage wreaked on London was still very much with us – a huge bomb crater in the woods behind our house down which we all raced our bikes to see whether we could gain enough momentum to get up the other side without pedalling was our favourite playground), we regarded Americans with a certain dislike; many of my parents’ generation voiced their feelings with the statement that the “Yanks came into the war late, and then claimed they had won it”.  Despite the fact that my father worked in the Civil Service and that, during the War, my mother had been on Winston Churchill’s staff, we were a family without particularly strong political feelings; certainly nothing which percolated down to a nine-year-old boy obsessed with bikes, buses and Bach (I put that in for alliteration, but in truth Purcell was my favourite at the time).
Indeed, it was Purcell I was playing in the front room of our house at 655 Rochester Way, Eltham, when my father came in to tell me that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  This did not excite me at all, and my indifference clearly angered my father, as did my retort to his anger; “But you and Mum hate Americans”.  At that point he told me to stop playing the piano straight away and come into the back room where the tiny black-and-white television was replaying those unforgettable images of a slumped JFK cradled in Jackie’s arms in the back of a huge open-top car as it hurtled off to the hospital in panic.  I remember vividly that I was playing Purcell’s Prelude in C, a work which, while I was to play it a few years later for my Grade 5 (and, by a curious coincidence, it appears in this year’s Trinity grade 5 list), was not one I was learning for my Grade 3. (I do recall that the grade 3 pieces I had to play were pretty dire, and I responded with such disinterest that the examiner awarded me 104 for my efforts.)

That, though, is the only musical association I have with those events of November 1963.  One thing that has struck me vividly this weekend has been the marked lack of musical response to the assassination; you would have thought that an event regarded by the world at the time as something verging on the catastrophic would have prompted at least a few composers to try to get to grips with it through music, but hardly any did. Even two months after the event, by which time someone could surely have penned something significant (even if it was just adding words to, say, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings - that, however, was not to come until 1967), Kennedy’s requiem mass included music by Mozart, Bizet and Schubert; nothing, it would seem, from those very Americans who professed themselves so utterly devastated by their loss.  I have to confess that my information about Kennedy’s requiem mass is drawn from Wikipedia, so I cannot be at all sure of its reliability, but the fact remains, if anything did get written specifically for that occasion, it has been pretty much forgotten today. 
A year after the assassination, a few pieces did emerge.  Stravinsky wrote his Elegy for J.F.K. in 1964, but performances of it have been only marginally more numerous than assassinations of US presidents.  Rather more enduring, and certainly a lot more emotionally-charged, is Herbert Howell’s Take him, earth, for cherishing which he wrote, also, in 1964.  But what else was there?  I am sure that as soon as I have posted this a host of pieces will spring to mind (I’m sure there is an organ piece with the date of Kennedy’s death in its title, but I can find no mention of it anywhere). Musical responses to the 50th anniversary have been hardly more numerous.  While Hong Kong-born Conrad Tao wrote a work for the Dallas Symphony to perform (The World is Very Different Now - an odd title considering Tao was not even born when Kennedy was assassinated), the only other notable music event was what the Boston Globe advertised as; “Online-only livestream of a musical tribute in Kennedy’s honor, featuring James Taylor, saxophonist Paul Winter, and the US Naval Academy Women’s Glee Club”.  I find it amazing that an event which had repercussions which swept across the globe like a vast tsunami has created not even a ripple on the great lake of music written over the past 50 years.

In fact, when I come to think of it, the deaths of great world leaders have rarely triggered a musical response.   Even the death of that other iconic world figure of our time, for whom so few people had a bad word to say, Princess Diana, only inspired a reworking of a pre-existing piece by the late John Tavener.  Far more profound have been the musical responses to the deaths of “unknown” figures.  There’s Ravel’s matchless memorial to friends lost during the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin (I well remember a lengthy discussion with David Robinson over the obligatory bottles of wine at Chinoz in KL as to whether the Dreyfus immortalised by Ravel had any connection with the notorious Dreyfus Affair – I think we decided it could not), and profoundly moving works inspired by deaths of brothers, sons, fathers, mothers and friends.  Perhaps the great and good of the world don’t inspire passion from composers. 

There is one notable exception; Napoleon.  There is Beethoven’s homage to him in his Third Symphony - but then he excised that dedication, so it doesn’t really count.  But there have been numerous Napoleonic memorials in music since then. Louis Vierne wrote a memorable Marche Triomphale du centenaire de Napoléon I a pretty spectacular romp for brass and organ, Schoenberg wrote an Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, and even Johann Strauss II got in on the act with a waltz named Napoleon.

But that’s about it.  World leaders, political figures, kings, queens, emperors and soldiers, all of them seem to get the bums rush when it comes to music.  Perhaps, I have got it wrong and somewhere out there are great works dedicated to Kennedy, Khrushchev, Mao, Regan, Thatcher and the like which, somehow or other, have passed me by.  Do let me know if I’ve missed them.  And certainly please offer me any suggestions you might have as to why great figures in world affairs have not inspired great music.  For my part, I can offer no coherent explanation.

23 November 2013

Battling for Britten

Few music lovers in Britain will have been unaware that yesterday marked the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.  Even from the remote outpost of former empire, thousands of miles from the UK, where I’m currently based, distant echoes of Britten celebrations reached me - by courtesy of the inbuilt radio of my Smartphone which, from the day I bought it, has saved my sanity more than once with its ability to pick out the great radio stations of the world.  An eight hour time difference, the need to sleep and the obligations of a full working day meant that, unfortunately, all I heard of what BBC Radio 3 was putting on for the day were small trailers, but even that was better than the soprano sax hideously wailing a kind of moronic keening vaguely related to once beautiful Christmas Carols which invades every corner of my hotel.  One trailer included the phrase; “Benjamin Britten was England’s greatest composer”.
Long gone are the days when a Radio 3 commentary offered mildly scholarly information delivered with impersonal authority.  In place has come a colloquial chattiness which places personal opinion over factual statement.  I have to admit I quite like it, even if I still yearn for the days of Patricia Hughes and the sense of unambiguous superiority she brought to the role (if she said it, it HAD to be true).  So when a voice on Radio 3 tells me that “Benjamin Britten was England’s greatest composer”, I don’t accept this as fact but rather as a statement of opinion.  In my lectures, talks and writings I frequently do exactly the same thing; make a bald statement of apparently unarguable fact so outrageous and extreme that those who hear or read it are driven to question it and, hopefully, create an argument during which ideas are shared and opinions formulated or modified.  It matters to me that people think and talk about music, and argue over it; it keeps it alive and fresh in people’s minds, and shows that it still matters to us.  Told that “Benjamin Britten was England’s greatest composer”, I immediately start to dispute the statement.

Very few composers in history have polarised opinions among music lovers more than Britten.  There are those who regard him as, unquestionably, one of the truly great composers of the last century, and others who find in his music nothing of any interest or value.  A discussion in a bar after a concert (in which the Cello Symphony had been performed) led one of those present to challenge us to “show me one real tune Britten ever wrote”, claiming that all good melodies in Britten came from other composers (Folk Song settings, Purcell Variations, Frank Bridge Variations, and so on).  Britten is either regarded as “great” or “terrible”, and comparatively few people seem to take the middle ground.

Putting my cards firmly on the table, I must say that Britten is by no means a composer whose music I consistently like or even admire.  I cannot find it in me to enthuse over the War Requiem or Albert Herring, while most of the purely instrumental works leave me cold; the fact that I once attempted to foist the dire Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria on an unsuspecting audience sends me into a cold sweat.  I recognise the touches of genius in Peter Grimes and the Sinfonia da Requiem, although neither work is one for which I have any affection, but I do profess a personal liking for the Rejoice in the Lamb, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and many of the folk song settings. Generally, though, I look with indifference on the 105 CDs I have in my personal collection which feature Britten, and rarely, if ever, taken them off the shelf purely for listening pleasure.  Personal dislike is one thing, and mine certainly has no bearing on whether or not Britten was “the greatest English composer”.  But the very fact that someone went so far as to make that claim has me trying to find an alternative name to knock Britten off that elevated perch. 

Elgar made it on to British bank note
What of Elgar?  Certainly his Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto have far wider appeal and seem to get far more frequent performances than any orchestral work by Britten, while The Dream of Gerontius certainly gives the War Requiem a run for its money.  And while we can dismiss a lot of Elgar as being too flavoured by English patriotism to have much relevance to the international music-loving public, that same charge could certainly be levelled against at least some of Britten’s music (notably Gloriana).  Evens pretty split there, I think, and I would not like to argue the case for Elgar too strongly, much as I prefer a lot of his music to Britten’s. 

There are many who would (and do) proclaim William Byrd as “the greatest English composer”.  The trouble is, his music resonates only with a relatively small and select group of musicians, and while wide appeal does not, in itself, confer greatness, it has to be taken into consideration. 

Purcell made it on to a postage stamp

So what about Henry Purcell? 
Frequently Britten is listed as “the greatest English composer since Purcell”, implying that the two are, at the very least, on a par with each other.  I would be more willing to press Purcell’s claim, not least because Dido and Aeneas has to be in a league of its own in the opera house, while even Britten held that great tune from Abdelazar in high esteem.  Purcell has certainly achieved a greater level of popularity in our own time than almost any other English composer, appearing on a postage stamp and actually making it into the rich tapestry of recent fiction (Diana Norman’s 1994 romp through 17th century London – The Vizard Mask - has Purcell hovering there in a delicious cameo role) and his death - interestingly exactly 218 years before Britten was born - has spawned at least as many legends and conspiracy theories as Mozart’s (I particularly like the story of his wife locking him out of the house overnight and emptying a chamber pot over him – causing him to die from exposure).  The trouble with Purcell is that his genius was rather stifled by the constraints of his age, and the passage of time has led to much of his original music surviving only out of its proper context.  And you can’t fairly judge a composer for good or ill on those terms.

It appears the greatest achievement
of any humn being in the field of
music was written with the
Left Hand
A correspondent to this blog some time ago suggested that Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in Alium, is one of the greatest achievements of any human being in the field of music, and I’m inclined to agree.  A concert I heard given by The Sixteen recently, which included a sequence of Tallis hymn tunes, only reinforced my very high opinion of him as a truly great composer.  And for many church musicians, Orlando Gibbons is a name to be held in awe, even if, like Byrd, his name has not moved very far beyond ecclesiastical musical circles.

While I might pass quickly on over my 105 discs of Britten, I invariably linger long and lovingly over the 47 with music by William Walton.  Without a scintilla of doubt, I prefer everything by I have heard by Walton to everything I have heard by Britten.  My heart races to that tantalising, pulsating start to the First Symphony, sounding like so many F1 cars racing their throttles on the starting grid (albeit in the far distance), and when it does get going, not a moment disappoints.  And few, if any musical works, excite, move and simply electrify me like Belshazzar’s Feast.  Which, if any, Britten opera so cleverly mingles slapstick humour with high artistic ideals and ingenious musical references as Walton’s The Bear? The Viola Concerto, Façade, the Coronation Te Deum…every one, for me, up there with the greatest music ever written by an Englishman and, unlike both Elgar and Britten, he had the gift of producing patriotic tunes which transcend a patriotic audience.  Crown Imperial sends shivers down the spine of even the most ardent republican, while the jazzy whoops of Orb and Sceptre may now seem dated, but they certainly don’t reek of stuffy Englishness.  Walton was a film composer par excellence.  True, Britten may have been rather limited by his role in providing music for government propaganda films (is Night Mail remembered most for Auden’s words or Britten’s music?) while Walton had the great good fortune to supply music for Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare movies, but there are passages from Walton’s Shakespeare film scores, not to mention his score for the war-time classic First of the Few, which are probably better known than the films themselves.
Walton, though, has never earned much support in academic circles.  On the other hand the “trendy lefties” of 1970s and 80s musical thought regarded Michael Tippett as their great God, and I remember a wonderful lecture given by Arnold Whittall in which he suggested that the Tippett and Britten (still very much alive in those days) were the major composers of our age.  I wonder where his thoughts lie today?  Certainly Tippett’s star has dipped some way below the horizon, and I was appalled recently to hear someone promoting A Child of Our Time – for me a work of extraordinary power and vision – on the assumption that it was a forgotten masterpiece.  Perhaps she was right, but I keep a flicker of a flame burning for Tippett and would point to The Vision of St Augustine and the Midsummer Marriage as truly great works.

We tend to gloss over a whole host of significant composers in our desire to find the “greatest”.  Vaughan Williams once carried that label in many people’s eyes, and there are still those who have a profound passion for his symphonies (a passion I, for one, find utterly unfathomable), while for me the really great English symphonists were Bax and, especially, Stanford.  The latter may have been Irish, and his symphonies rather more flavoured by Brahms than we could overlook, but his contribution to English music was certainly more deep-seated and profound than Britten’s.  A fellow university student urged me to seek out the Symphony in G minor by Moeran, proclaiming it “the greatest ever English symphony”, and for a time I agreed.  In fact, I only came to see its flaws when an incredibly dire performance of it was given by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra under Kevin Field, and I began to see that it was a work which relied on an incisive conductor, a cutting-edge orchestra and a sympathetic audience to bring out its glories.  And that rather diminishes its stature as a work of universal greatness.
Some of the greatest music by English composers certainly eclipses even Britten at his finest.  Holst brought something extraordinarily visionary to music with The Planets. Did any composer ever show such a natural affinity with a specific geographical location in his music than Herbert Howells?  Could any composer elevate the mundane to the ethereal through a few simple bars than Delius with his “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” near the end of his great opera A Village Romeo and Juliet?

These are all examples of great music by English composers.  But does this really get us closer to deciding which composer was really the greatest of them all? 
Of course, it’s not just a pointless exercise, it is also a hugely stupid one.  Does anybody ever ask who was the greatest German composer, the greatest Austrian composer, the greatest Italian composer, even the greatest French composer?  No.  To ask such a question, and certainly to attempt to answer it, is to belittle the whole nation’s music.  Britten was unquestionably a superb composer, possibly even a great one, but he would be the last person to diminish all the other composers from Tallis to Tippett by singling one out as special.  Over the last 700 years England has bred marvellous composers – there are plenty of them at work at the moment – it would be a devastating indictment on those centuries of achievement to suggest that in all that time, only one truly great one has emerged.

20 November 2013

Ban the Band

Almost exactly two years ago I posted a plea on this blog for people to stop misusing the word ‘Song’.  Such is the power of this blog that not only do people still glibly go around applying it to any piece of music, but even one of the international examination boards now uses the word to describe pieces of purely instrumental music. 

Continuing, therefore, the November habit of flogging dead horses and hammering my head against a solid wall, I now have another word which I am pleading with the world to stop misusing before it loses its value.  That word is ‘Band’, and, in particular when it is prefixed by the word ‘Live’.
In my murky past I spent more time than I care to confess in various Malaysian bars not so much sampling the drink – gassy beer and ice cold spirits don’t do it for me, I’m afraid – as relishing the live music supplied by a seemingly endless array of young people from the Philippines who combined unbelievable musical gifts with even more unbelievable good looks.  Combos of four or five could make, not so much passable copies of the great hits of the day, as ingenious adaptations of them which usually sounded every bit as convincing as the originals.  Wedged firmly in my memory is one particular group who sung in one of the more seedy Kuching hotels.  It comprised four mouth-wateringly attractive females happily alternating between drums, bass guitar, lead guitar and saxophone, while a single man kept it all under control from a piano with an electronic keyboard placed on top for special effects.  Sadly a misguided belief that Malaysian musical talent was on a par with that of the Philippines, saw the sudden expulsion of these Filipino bands by the Immigration authorities, and I well remember travelling with some friends to some ghastly dive deep in the Klang Valley where one of the few remaining Filipino groups was still, somehow, performing legally.  Five talented men and a single female singer performed with such polish and professionalism it was well worth both the drive and the hideous surroundings to hear and them.  I remember sitting chatting to the singer over a horrendously over-priced miniature of sugar-laden orange liquid.  She frequently referred affectionately to her male co-performers as “my band boys”.

Note the plural.
Marriage and a life of superficial respectability has kept me away from seedy hotel lounges and bars over the past 20 years or so, but recent visits during extended examining tours, have shocked me to the core.  “Live Band Nightly” is a sign I see everywhere, but it is invariably a blatant lie.  Such things just don’t exist anymore; certainly not in my experience.  What these so-called “Live Bands” comprise is a desultory female, minimally bound in something slightly more adhesive and less opaque than cling film, grinding away soundlessly, occasionally uttering incomprehensible vocalisations down a microphone, while a single, bored looking male sits at an electronic keyboard and provides the music.  Not, I add, by playing anything, but by controlling switches and pressing buttons.

It first came to my attention a few years back in a Hong Kong hotel where, sitting with a view of the performers, I suddenly became aware that the sound being made bore no relation at all with the movements of the man’s fingers.  Indeed, whenever one of the bar staff came over to him with a request slip passed on from some customers, he would take the paper, turn away from his keyboard, read it, and then rifle through a large stock of floppy disks in a case behind him.  He would then return to the machine, finish the song (we can use that word in this context), and then, while the singer muttered something incoherent into the microphone (bar singers these days appear to be supplementing their income from a day job working the public address systems of supermarkets) he would take out one floppy disk, put in the other, and keep pressing a button until the required song popped up on the screen in front of him.
It may be large hard drives and USB sticks today, but that’s what happens in so-called “Live Bands”; the machine provides the music, while the “band boy” merely operates the machine.  At a hotel lounge in Penang, I watched a band boy, looking the part in trilby hat and waistcoat, moving his hands and his head so energetically I was convinced he must be playing.  Unfortunately when his phone rang mid-song, he immediately stopped the actions, answered the phone, and I realised he was simply miming to the machine.  An almost farcical band performs in one of the hotels in Kota Kinabalu where, anxious to feel he is doing something, the band boy does actually run his hands up and down the keyboard.  Unfortunately, he once failed to switch the sound off and it was painfully obvious he had no idea what the true function of the keys was, and the conflict between the pre-set sound and his mindless meanderings was horrible to behold.  I still quake at the memory of the Tawau band boy who left his machine on automatic pilot throughout his 20 minute break, and we heard a non-stop tonic dominant sequence which, on his return, he merely jerked up a couple of keys and sped up to start of the first song of the new set. Harry’s Bar along Singapore’s Boat Quay is the ultimate disaster zone for music.  Some years back they threw out one of the truly great jazz bands of Asia (Christy Smith’s ChromaZone) in favour of a computer machine and occasional singer.  I haven’t darkened the doors of a Harry’s since – and I hope none of you does either.  If they are that disrespectful of what goes into our ears, how can we trust them to show any respect for what goes into our stomachs?

Yet, this private karaoke – for that is what it is – is laughingly advertised wherever it appears as a “Live Band”.  I would pursue the matter through legal channels - surely there has to be some kind of Trade’s Descriptions’’ legislation in south east Asia – but it might involve me having to go and listen to more of these foul fiends, and frankly, the prospect of witnessing yet another “Live Band” is too much for my beleaguered sensitivities.
I would be on rocky ground anyway, for what is a band, live or otherwise?  That fount of all musical wisdom, Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, hedges its bets with the wonderful cop-put phrase, “The word ‘band’ has many applications in music”, but the somewhat less scholarly Oxford Companion to Music is less cautious and defines it as “a body of instrumental players”.  Forgetting that modern bands don’t have instruments (merely computer generated sounds), this would seem to confirm that you cannot have a band of one.  However, language is always changing.  Just today we learn that the Oxford English Dictionary has listed “Selfy” as the Word of the Year (a nice alternative to “self-portrait” since it has overtones of the word selfish; which is what these irritating people are who insist on littering the internet with pictures of themselves gawping gormlessly at their mobile phone cameras) and I wonder how long it will be before the definition of ‘band’ becomes recognised as  “A computer operator facilitating the transmission of musical sounds”.

Let’s hope hell freezes over first.

19 November 2013

The Sacrament of the Microphone

Attending a concert and awards’ ceremony staged in Malaysia by one of the international music examination bodies, I was kindly seated in a place of honour right in the front row.  All the same, I had difficulty seeing what was happening on stage and heard only intermittent fragments of the music being performed.  This was particularly galling since the performers, all of whom had achieved high marks in their music examinations over the previous year, seemed exceptionally talented; not least an extremely capable young harpist who played a piece of Grandjany with immaculate poise and grace. 

Music examinations often get criticised for the artificiality of the situation (who ever performs to an audience of just one person who is sitting writing at a desk?) and for allowing students to earn high marks when, throughout their musical education, they might only ever have played 24 pieces (three at each grade).  The great thing about these High Achievers’ concerts is that the students perform in front of real audiences and, certainly in the case of this particular event, are encouraged to play music other than that they have learnt for the examination.  What was notable here, apart from the quality of the performances, was its slick and well-organised presentation and the professionalism of everybody involved both in performing and in back-stage management.
So why was my vantage point so disadvantaged?

My view was continually obstructed by hordes of photographers clambering around in front of the stage, occasionally climbing on to it, and frequently placing themselves directly in front of the performer.  This obsession with recording everything on film has long been a south east Asian thing; it is rare indeed for any Chinese, Japanese or Korean person to attend any event or visit any landmark without seeing it largely, if not wholly, though the viewfinder of a camera.  This practice has, thanks to the growth of Smartphone cameras, now become truly global.  Only the other day, forced to watch the piteous CNN (I stay in a lowly hotel which pipes no other English-language news channel into the guest rooms) I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the near-imbecilic Richard Quest as he asked a loquacious Asian now resident in California about the importance of Facebook.  She threw her head back and launched into a rapid-fire monologue which enthusiastically related how, after work, she could grab a snack, photograph it and share it with her friends.  Poor Quest, possibly for the first time ever, was lost for words and could only utter a bleating “Why?” before being silence by a look which eloquently reduced him in his interviewee’s eyes to a sub-species of rodent.  I still fail to understand why reality can only be legitimised through the lens of a camera; but there it is, and we have to accept the fact.
Even more disturbing at the Malaysia event was the masking of the sound the performers were making not by the extremely irritating clicking of camera shutters (or more particularly the electronically created imitation clicking of false shutters on Smartphones), but by the intrusive presence of microphones.  The country boasts few venues suitable for a large-scale musical performance, and these events invariably take place in hotel ballrooms where low ceilings, thick carpets, heavy upholstery and wide, ill-shaped floor spaces conspire to prevent any live sound from carrying.  The amplification of any performance is just about essential if, as was the case on this occasion, the audience numbers into the hundreds.  However, amplification is one thing; here we had no amplification, rather an electronic screen which largely obscured the sound.  We have come to expect the screeching and sudden, ear-splitting feedback when someone waves a live microphone in front of a speaker, but here the destructive force of a poorly managed and misunderstood sound system went one stage further. 

Even as one player was performing, a man would march on to the stage, grab a microphone, stick it to a stand, tap it to see if it was working (even utter the invocation, “testing, one, two three” down it) in preparation for the next performance; which was similarly obstructed by the physical moving of microphones and all their paraphernalia.  Microphones were stuck in front of piano keyboards (a pointless place to stick a microphone if ever there was one – but Elton John does it, so it must be right!), placed precariously in front of guitars and suspended before a pair of violins.  Only the harpist had the courage and strength of personality to wave hers away, much to the obvious disgruntlement of Microphone Man (who at one stage had literally grabbed the microphone from the MC to announce that there was a problem with the clip on microphones some later performers in the show were going to use).  With wires strewn around the stage and microphone stands placed in the most physically obstructive positions (I even had to move one myself so that those receiving awards could actually get up on to the stage) the whole stage looked like some giant plate of colourful spaghetti thrown against a wall during a Mafia shoot-out.
The troubling thing is that microphones now serve not as an adjunct to a performance but, rather like cameras, to legitimise it.  You cannot, it seems, be a proper performer unless there is a microphone very visible to all around.  How often do we see modern day pop divas gyrating around almost wholly naked apart from a headset microphone, when we know they are merely miming to a backing track?  How often does a singer clasp a hand held microphone to a heart, only to drop it to one side at moments of high emotion and, lo, the sound stays exactly the same?  Microphones are not used for amplification, they are used as indicators of professional expertise; and it is a practice I yearn to see ended.  What’s the point of an aujdience attending a live performance when its whole object is to be recorded?  Young musicians need to learn that a microphone is a piece of funtioning euipment, not a religious icon to be held up and revered above all else. 

12 November 2013

Just a Song at Sunset

Sitting watching the sun set over the Sulu Sea from a roof top bar in a Sandakan hotel, all seems perfect.  The view, as the sun sinks gently into the sea dotted with native fishing boats heading back to land, the jungle-clad hills of small islands silhouetted against a darkening skyline, is like something out of a Conrad novel.  The smells are evocative too, the smoke from the dozens of barbecues set up outside makeshift restaurants along the harbour front mixing with that unique smell of south east Asia – a combination of blocked drains, seaweed, durian and two-stroke exhaust fumes which, for all its noxious qualities is surprisingly comforting.  And then there are the sounds.  Luckily Sandakan is spared the aggressive cawing of crows, and behind the high pitched, insistent tweeting of a myriad tiny birds, there is the distant thud of motor boat engines and the splashing of a gentle sea against the shore.  In the distance some shrill whistling comes from the small naval base – some sunset ritual still surviving despite Malaysia’s best attempts to shake off all evidence of its colonial past – and somewhere from the middle of town the Muezzin strikes up his highly evocative, and intensely beautiful, call to prayer quickly followed by his colleague/competitor from the mosque on the other side of town. 

And then the cacophonous caterwauling of an open-air karaoke party bursts in to shatter this tranquil scene.  It is an endemically Malaysian sound, a feeble male voice magnified beyond all reason by a cheap microphone and over-large speakers, straining itself through some inherently miserable Malay song, any hint of melodic content obscured as the voice strains to scream out the words of love and sadness.  But for all its tired familiarity, it still manages to destroy the veneer of sunset calm which had briefly settled over the town.  I am once again prompted to ask myself why in Asia – although it is by no means unique to this part of the world – there is this deep-seated selfishness which breeds the belief that one person’s enjoyment can be imposed so forcibly on others who, it is assumed, will automatically share the enjoyment.  Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Asians are particularly partial to crowding together in close proximity; and that one person’s enjoyment is genuinely shared by everyone else in the crowd.
An Australian couple also enjoying the sights turn to me unprompted as Karaoke Man lets rip and say what I think; “Well, that’s shattered our peaceful evening!”.  We get to talking and, having learnt that he is a marriage guidance counsellor and she his third wife (which begs the question, what value the advice of one who has so obviously failed twice in the very thing on which he is supposed to be advising?), I confess that I am a musician and, moreover, in Sandakan to do a spot of music examining.  “Ah!” exclaims the trader in failed marriages, “So you won’t like that at all”, indicating with a nod of his head, the source of the ghastly din below.  “Too right”, I reply (luckily holding back the word “cobber” just in time), “For me karaoke is the scourge of civilization” (no point being subtle with these Aussies).  At which point Mrs Third Wife pipes up, “I dunno.  He’s plainly having fun down there.  What’s wrong with that?  And what’s the point of music if people can’t enjoy themselves with it?”. 

Where to start?
Luckily, Mr Counsellor has developed diplomatic skills and pre-empts what he rightfully imagines would be a pithy riposte; “My wife won a singing competition at our local pub”.  “Yeah”, she adds, “You probably know it.  It’s well known for its music”, and goes on to mention a place called, improbably, The Bore Hole somewhere near Adelaide.  A short husband and wife dispute follows (surprisingly, Mr Three Wives has not learnt when to keep schtum in the face of wifely determination) which centres on the likelihood or otherwise of my knowing Kevin at The Bore Hole, which is only curtailed by the arrival of the barman who reminds us that the sands of time are running out on Happy Hour and we need to get our orders in quick.  Further discussion on music is thus prevented by the need for cheap alcoholic excess, and by the time I finish my second Sauvignon Blanc, not only has the sun gone completely, but the mosquitoes have arrived and we all need to repair inside the bar where a combination of arctic-style air-conditioning, TV soccer and the mind-numbing musical wallpaper those poor deluded souls at Sheraton Hotels believe creates atmosphere, drives me to my room, but not before Mr Marriage Guidance is seen, out of the corner of my eye, making unsubtle advances to a heavily over-made-up, heavily under-dressed bar girl who looks to be in the running for wife number four.

So, why do I feel that someone wailing piteously and pitifully in the guise of singing is not only offensive but also an inherently bad thing?  The former is, of course, a purely personal matter and I would not expect others to share my distaste for it.  But the latter is a more serious and far-reaching issue which has repercussions on music-making in general.  The trouble lies in the fact that while the man who forced his singing on us was oblivious to everything around him – not least the musical accompaniment on the DVD – those who heard him in even closer proximity would not only have been unperturbed by the awful din he was creating, but would, in every probability, have been enjoying it and registering their enjoyment to all around.  Such enjoyment is contagious and few in that crowd would have dared to suggest  that the singer was not really very good at all.  Very soon, it would have been accepted fact that he was “good”.  Who knows, he might even have won a competition at The Bore Hole; that’s if Kevin has any Malay songs in his armoury.
You need only walk into any Malaysian household where there are children and ask the children to sing.  Those who are not too shy will immediately hold up their hand in a fist right in front of their mouths, pretending to hold a microphone to their lips, and then they will shout and scream for all they are worth.  For them, this is what singing is – they see it at the karaoke and on karaoke-inspired TV shows, and have no other exposure to “live” music.  Singing teachers will, of course, recoil in horror.  But the pernicious influence extends far beyond singing.

While everyone feels they are entitled to access and perform music (and, indeed, they are), very few appreciate the difference between good and bad.  Very few, moreover, appreciate that there is a difference between good and bad in music, accepting only the difference between liking and disliking.  Thanks to a former Prime Minister, there is a Malaysian motto which, loosely translated, says that “Malaysians Can Do Anything”.  Unfortunately, said Prime Minister forgot the crucial part of his sound-bite; he missed out the final word, “Well”.  So a generation of Malaysians believes that doing is all that is necessary, and the idea of having to work harder to do something better is an alien concept.  Thus it is that Karaoke Man is Good, because he can do; there is no need to take any further steps and do well.
This attitude of celebrating the mediocre as the ultimate has percolated through to a lot of music-making, and one often comes across teachers wondering why their candidates may have failed their music exams.  The fact that the student has spent a year struggling with the notes of three pieces should, in their eyes, be enough to pass.  And if, by some chance, they do pass, that is enough; the concept that there is a difference between passing and passing well (getting a distinction) is immaterial.  So long as people feel that the mediocre is the goal, any concept of quality in music-making is lost.

Perhaps my marriage guidance counsellor might sympathise with the concept; it’s not the quality of a thing that matters, it’s simply its existence.  Get a wife is all that matters, and if you fail with her, simply go out and get another; Get up in front of the karaoke machine and sing, and if it doesn’t work, simply choose another.  The idea that you might have to work at marriage and work at music does not come into the equation.

03 November 2013

Page Turning Terror

It is often said that the most terrifying thing you can do in music is to turn pages for a performer on stage.  If you do it well, nobody notices, and if you make a mistake you can bring the whole performance down around your ears.  A single error from the page-turner can incur the unmitigated wrath and contempt of both performers and concert-goers.  Turning a page of music on stage requires about the same amount of physical effort as striking a match, and both, if misplaced, can have catastrophic results.

American Artist Keith Gantos has
celebrated the page-turner in this lovely picture
(taken from http://fineartamerica.com)
The dread of the touring pianist or organist is the unknown page-turner.  Will they turn up?  Where will they stand?  Will they have bad breath or, more particularly, body odour (after all when you turn pages for a pianist your crotch becomes uncomfortably close to the performer’s face while those who turn for organists usually present an armpit disturbingly close to the player’s nose)? What will they be wearing?  Will they be able to read music?  Often performers send a whole list of instructions ahead of them in the hope that concert promoters will more easily identify suitable candidates for page-turning duties, some will interview and audition the candidates, and many will insist on a short rehearsal.  There are performers, so badly scarred by bad page-turning experiences, that they go to incredible lengths to avoid the need.  While, of course, most pianists play from memory, few organists do using the added complications of registration changes, unusual stop choices and finger and foot directions as an excuse for needing the music in front of them, and I know of numerous organists who painstakingly photocopy their music on to miniature pages and then paste them all on one large sheet of hardboard, carrying on with them to the console something which looks very much like a carpenter’s patch.  It looks unsightly, plays havoc with your eyesight, but these are a small price to pay for the relief of not having a page-turner present.

I'm not sure where this weird picture came
from or what it's supposed to depict,
but I found it on a most entertaining piece
about page turners at

As a student I often was called upon to turn pages and, after the initial pride in being selected to turn pages for some of the great pianists and organists of my youth, I quickly learnt to dread the task.  If I knew the music and read it, I found myself turning the page where I found it convenient rather than where the performer did (I realise I tend to read quite a long way ahead of where others do), and if I did not know the music I became so absorbed with exploring new material that I forgot what I was supposed to do and famously once sat waiting for someone else to turn the page I myself should have been turning.  Faced with an eye-watering array of notes being played very fast , I have been tempted into the trap of following a pedal line or, in the case of chamber music, the pizzicato cello, only to realise too late that the organist is omitting the pedal line or the cellist has decided against pizzicato.  Add to that the blind panic which turns printed notes on a page into an incomprehensible blur, and the shaking, sweat soaked fingers which find it incapable of separating one page from another, and you do not need to be told that my presence as a page-turner was never beneficial to the performance. 
And I won’t even go into the realms of repeats, da capos and dal segnos which are put into printed music with the sole intention of catching out even the most wary page-turners.  In a straight fight between turning the pages for a Scherzo and Trio and attempting to separate a nursing crocodile from her young, I’d opt for the croc every time.

Luckily, for the past few decades, I have been in the position of appointing page-turners rather than serving as one, and throughout my happy 13 years at the console of the now-defunct Kuala Lumpur Klais, I was blessed to have a wonderful page-turner, Tan Eng Pin.  He very quickly got to know my needs and intentions, could cope with the frequent emergencies when I missed out great chunks of music by accident, and was sufficiently intimately acquainted with the Klais that he could even pull out the odd stop or two when I reached for one but missed the target.  He could even effect running repairs when a cypher threatened to disrupt proceedings.  He once confessed that he had a problem in his fingertips which meant they were permanently dry, but I happily forgave his tendency to lick his fingers before turning pages for the comfort of knowing that he was there and was usually doing a better job at turning pages than I was at reading them.  He even withstood my frequent muttered curses as a slightly delayed or premature page-turn gave me the excuse to blame him for a slip of the fingers which was, in truth, entirely my own fault.  Such page-turners are a rare and wonderful treasure.
However, a recent visit to a concert hall in St Andrews by a chamber trio found me once again in the limelight as page-turner.  Quadrupling up as concert organiser, stage-manager, front-of-house coordinator and lighting technician, it was reported to me a little before the concert that the appointed page-turner was ill.  A replacement was found, but when she learnt the concert was being broadcast by the BBC, she steadfastly refused and, with the artists about to go on stage, it was left to me to open the door, fade the lights, start the applause, and then hurry on to stage after them to sit by the pianist and turn her pages (unfortunately I also had to dash off stage before them in order to fade up the lights and open the doors).  Luckily I had lit the stage so that the page-turner was in the dark, but I could not help but think that my glowing red ears, luminous with embarrassment, shone through to the audience, and I know that my red face lit up the platform when, on a couple of occasions, the page turn went many bars too soon to the pianist’s obvious annoyance and audible intake of breath (which the BBC had to remove in a subsequent patching session – eliciting nasty looks from all concerned).

The Trio themselves were brilliant  and I felt privileged to be present amidst such superlative music-making, but behind the scenes they were about the most brittle bunch of musicians I have ever encountered.  It did not help that pianist and violinist were husband and wife.  Their continual bickering clearly disconcerted the cellist who spent most of his time indulging in curt, unhelpful comments and occasionally going into mega-sulks both on and off stage.  

Of course, it is this kind of highly-charged emotional involvement which makes for great performances, and certainly did so here, but it makes the life of the poor page-turner even more wretched; when three people spend their life directing rancour and venom at each other, the chance to direct it to a fourth must come as a welcome relief.

So next  time you see a shadowy figure emerge on stage in the wake of a pianist or organist, have pity.  That person will be, without a doubt, the most nervous, the most terrified and the most frightened person there.  No amount of experience or professional experience can dull the sheer panic of being a page-turner.