20 January 2013

Byrd Scheidt Music

The announcer on the BBC World Service told us what was coming up in the programme; “And we shall hear how birds are producing sweet music from both ends”.  Tantalising stuff, explained further by the reporter who began by telling us that there was “A new piece of Classical Music created from bird droppings”.

What this was, he went on to tell us, was an experiment in which very large sheets of black manuscript paper had been placed under trees where birds flocked.  The birds’ droppings landed on the paper, which was then collected and the shape and location of the droppings on each sheet transcribed into musical notation. And thus was born a new musical work.  (It calls to mind that glorious joke of Humphrey Lyttleton’s in which he described how Mexicans expressed their dislike of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “sheet music” – you have to say that with a Mexican accent to get the gist!)  The artist Kerry Morrison had the idea because, we are told, “she thought it would be fun”; but the joke landed on the Arts’ Council, who then decided to finance it, commission composer Jonathan Herring to formalise it into a readable orchestral score and pay for his orchestra to perform it at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. (To read more, here’s the link - www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21082873.)
This is hardly an original idea, even if nobody seems to have done it with bird droppings before.  There were experiments in which cats walked through a puddle of ink and then over some manuscript paper, and I even recall an experiment in which elephants squirted a dye on a wall covered with manuscript paper.  All good - not very clean - fun, but certainly resulting in nothing serious musically (even if Morrison feels it might encourage people to look at “detritus and waste” in a wholly new way).

It does prompt me, however, to look again at the question of what we mean by “music”.  True, birds singing make a musical noise, but is it music?  I have always believed that the defining feature of what we call “classical music” is that it is premeditated.  Organised thoughts have to be written down in order for them to be disseminated by those with no direct connection with the music’s creator or even the culture from which the music originates; hence the cliché about music being an “international language”.  Birds and animals have made music only by their calls being codified and transliterated into musical notation by a composer, who then uses them as the basis, but not the sole content, of a musical work.  Messiaen spent years painstakingly notating the calls of birds and incorporating those calls into his work.  His music was birdsong inspired; the birdsong itself, however, was not music.
Of course, aleatory music – where the composer gives free rein for unprepared sounds to be brought into a work of music – has existed for over a century.  Grove defines it as “A term applied to music whose composition and/or performance is, to a greater or lesser extent, undetermined by the composer”, and goes on to argue that any piece of music is, to an extent, aleatory since the composer can have no absolute control over the vagaries of performance.  But in truth, it only became a quantifiable element in music with the American Charles Ives (1874-1954) and it was his followers, most notably John Cage, who made it fashionable.  It is one result of the often grotesque experiments of mid-20th century composers which has survived and is still common currency in works being written today.  But in every case aleatory music is created within a fixed time; even the ultimate aleatory work, Cage’s 4’33” has a defined beginning and end.  In the case of our bird excrement, the length of the finished work was largely governed by the material collected rather than a pre-determined time frame from the composer.

The Tate’s publicity describes the works as “A collaborative musical composition that curiously captures avian activity, creating a piece of music celebrating our feathered friends”. But while the goodly folk of Liverpool will certainly be hearing a “musical composition”, in so far that it is a composition which generates musical sounds, it cannot be described truthfully as “a piece of music”; unless, that is. Herring (and I would love to think that the birds involved were seagulls) has added rather more to the score than second-hand excrement.

17 January 2013

Comeback Kid Clayderman


It is news likely to turn every piano teacher who was working back in the 1980s into a quivering wreck:  Richard Clayderman has decided to make a comeback and, after 20 years of glorious Claydermanlessness, the world is about to suffer his innocuous pianistic ramblings once more.  He will be releasing a CD on the Decca label on 4th February.  You have been warned; there’s more glutinous mediocrity on the way.
Richard Clayderman – or more particularly his advisers - found a weak point in the sensitivities of susceptible souls and milked it for all it was worth.  He did very nicely out of it financially and huge numbers of adoring fans (mostly female) were convinced he enriched their lives; proof of his immense popularity came with an apparent claim made in the Guinness Book of Records that he was “the greatest pianist in the world” (I got that fact from Wikipedia so I imagine it’s wrong).  A generation of emerging pianists (mostly female) sat in open-mouthed admiration as he played, awe-struck by his ability to elevate the mediocre and to impress with the minimum of physical or mental effort.  Hearing his shallow dribblings over the piano keys and seeing the adoration with which their elders greeted him – not to mention his clean-shaven looks and dewy-eyed romantic film-star image - young pianists wanted, in the nicest possible way, to ape him by playing the piano the same way that he did.  With music-making of almost imbecilic banality and a studiedly vacuous image drawing on his Gallic good looks (a bit like a romantic lead in a soft-core porno movie, but with his black tie and white wing-collar shirt always firmly kept in place), he single-handedly redefined the piano.  Under his hands it became the musical equivalent of a thick, feather duster, gently caressing the side of the head but never venturing further into the consciousness than a superficial tickling of the outer ear.

His music was harmless, his image refreshingly clean and his persona virtually impossible to dislike.  But he exerted a pernicious influence over all those emerging pianists (mostly female) and it is for this reason that any comeback needs to viewed with a certain anxiety by piano teachers, especially those unprepared by his first coming.

Readers of this blog will probably not know the Richard Clayderman sound.  For their benefit let me explain in a simple step-by-step manner; much as the Claydermeister might approach the artlessness of playing the piano his way; 

1.       Take a carefully voiced piano incapable of any sharp edges or sudden sounds, bereft of rattles or action noise and with a seriously restricted dynamic range. 

2.       Put your right foot (preferably wearing an immaculately polished patent leather shoe) on the sustaining pedal and keep it there throughout steps 3 and 4.

3.       With one finger of the right hand gently caress the keys from middle C upwards, probably repeating them several times with gradually increasing rapidity (to rhyme with vapidity) for a maximum of three steps before going back down again.

4.       With three fingers from the left hand play a root position triad of C and simply follow the right hand up and down again. 

5.       Record it in a gently reverberant acoustic, ensuring there is no hint of aggression or angularity about it all and that the sound wave stays as even and level as possible.

6.       Finally, release it to the public with a glossy cover including a large, misty image of a gently smiling young man.

As a young piano teacher in the 1980s I thought of Clayderman as a bit of a joke; a failed Paris Conservatoire student who celebrated his inability with piano playing of mind-numbing innocuosity.  But then the problems started.  Pupils (mostly female) used to turn up and, rather than clutching their latest ABRSM “Graded Piano Pieces” books, came with glossy publications with alarming titles like “Richard Clayderman’s Greatest Hits”.  They asked me to teach them how to play the succession of grisly C major inanities in the book.  Unlike most books of popular music designed to capitalise on the success of a record, these simple musical arrangements did not so much sound wrong as sound horribly right.  In fact, the music we had in these books aimed at the grade 2 or 3 student was, if anything, rather more technically challenging the Clayderman’s originals.  I banned these books from the teaching studios, but what was the point of getting students to go through week after week of grinding scales, technical exercises and ghastly morsels from the likes of Clementi and Grieg, when they could witness huge success, both financial and personal, being harvested by a man of limited musical skill.

For a generation, the Clayderman syndrome has lain dormant and students have begun to learn again that playing the piano well requires mental and physical effort.  It fills me with dread that Count Claydermanstein appears to have risen again from the grave.

11 January 2013

Careless Classical Comments

The headline – Classical Music Makes Careless Drivers – in a British newspaper yesterday naturally stopped me in my tracks. What rubbish! What arrant nonsense! These were my initial thoughts and when I read the accompanying news story I almost boiled over with rage, not least at the observation that "drivers who listened to classical music drove the most erratically". Apparently some researchers "using GPS technology" had discovered that motorists who listened to "Beethoven's Fifth, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor or Strauss's Blue Danube" were more careless than those who listened to pop music. What made my blood boil was the suggestion that these much-vaunted findings were produced using a sample of just eight drivers each of whom drove some 500 miles. Notwithstanding a national newspaper's natural desire to catch attention by over-simplifying the facts, the basic research on which the item was based appears to be fundamentally flawed. Perhaps the "GPS technology" made the research seem more sexy and clouded brains which might otherwise have seen the more blatant flaws in the findings, but what possible validity can there be in studies involving just eight samples?

Long before "GPS technology" was invented, I advised airlines, hotels and other enclosed public spaces on the best music to select for their use. A natural opponent of background music, I worked on the basis that if it was an inevitable fact of life, I might as well use my expertise to ensure that it is was painless as possible. Extensive research and field studies (done in person rather than relying on technology of dubious relevance) yielded a fascinating correlation between music played subliminally and human behaviour. From a sample of several thousand I discovered how, for example, shoppers would buy less, drinkers would drink more, diners would rush their meals, passengers experiencing flight delays would complain less and guests would perceive a higher level of luxury when different types of music were played. I also experimented with long-distance coach passengers (sampling 3800 passengers over 82 journeys between London and the south of France, Spain, Andorra and Austria) and found their levels of tiredness, enjoyment and general well-being at the end of each journey was measurably affected by the type of music played during the journeys, the length of time during which no music was played and the by the choice of music at specific journey points along the way.

Field studies also revealed driving habits changed significantly according to what music was played, and at one stage an insurance company became dangerously interested in this area; the danger coming from releasing such information to them and seeing them raise premiums, for example, to those who expressed a preference for Rolling Stones over Richard Clayderman (frankly I'd ban both from all in-car audio systems, but that's a matter of taste, not the consequence of careful research). This research, however, I regarded as of dubious value since the number of imponderables more or less prevented any realistic results from being quantified. It certainly does not require any sort of intellectual strength - let alone the use of "GPS technology" – to tell us that, if you play fast music you tend to drive faster than if you play soft music. Beyond that, however, whether the music you play is classical, jazz, pop, solo piano, orchestral, vocal, operatic, electronic or disco, you respond to its speed, volume and complexity and not to its genre. On top of that there is the issue of individual taste. For me, pop music in a car is dangerous as it makes me angry, classical music is dangerous because I get too involved, and jazz is dangerous because I cannot but help tapping my right foot as it plays. My solution: I always travel with talk radio or in total silence, music has no part in my life behind the wheel.

Returning to this latest research, however, having written off all Classical music as encouraging dangerous driving, the researchers came up with a list of 10 pieces which encourage safe driving. Here they are;

1. Come Away With Me – Norah Jones
2. Billionaire Feat. Bruno Mars – Travie McCoy
3. I'm Yours – Jason Mraz
4. The Scientist – Coldplay
5. Tiny Dancer – Elton John
6. Cry Me a River – Justin Timberlake
7. I Don't Want to Miss a Thing – Aerosmith
8. Karma Police – Radiohead
9. Never Had a Dream Come True – S Club 7
10. Skinny Love – Bon Iver

Put anyone of those in my car CD player while I'm driving and I would immediately crash into a wall. Luckily for these researchers the eight sample drivers – possibly all students with such music on their portable playlists – clearly have no objections to musical superficiality.

Which begs the question; who undertook this research and allowed such dubious, not to say downright contentious, findings to enter the public domain? Step forward the London Metropolitan University. Sounds familiar? This was the university which hit the headlines a few months ago when it was discovered it had been encouraging foreign students (and their fees) through suspect visa applications and wobbly entrance pre-requisites. It seems as if their academic research is as rigorous as their admissions procedures.


08 January 2013

A Composing Throwback

Some suggest it was Berlioz.  Others that it was Wagner.  Looking further back, some point to Haydn as the first.  But it was only in the 20th century that the concept of the composer as a self-standing entity – as opposed to a performer who also wrote music – became established.  And, as with so much which established itself in the 20th century, it soon became such an accepted norm that it is difficult to perceive how things were before.  Students regularly express surprise when they learn that Brahms was a true virtuoso pianist who made a fair living through his performances, or that Rossini trained to be a singer before he ever seriously turned to composition.  Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Saint-Saens were all famous for their keyboard virtuosity, while Richard Strauss and Mahler were famed internationally as conductors.  Yet today we almost look askance at a performer who confesses to dabbling in composing.  Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is fighting a battle to try to get people to take his own music seriously, to the extent that he recently wrote an article in The Guardian attempting to forge a link between the two roles of performer and composer; “Over the many years I've been performing, it has become increasingly clear that my attempts at writing music, were significant building blocks in my development as a musical interpreter”.
Hamelin - Taken seriously as a composer?

Malcolm Arnold - from Trumpet
mouthpiece to Composing pen
Somehow, though, we rarely seem to take the music of a famous performer seriously and I am as guilty as the next person (perhaps more so) of wondering how seriously some of these performer-composers would have been taken were it not for the fact that their performing reputation has guaranteed them a relatively receptive audience.  Orchestral players rarely make the move to the composer’s desk, and when they do, they invariably quickly leave the orchestra behind (Malcolm Arnold being the classic example).  I am scratching my head desperately to think of a single performer who has successfully crossed the bridge from performing to composing without burning it behind him.
Flor Peeters - Performer and Composer
The exception lies, as it invariably does, in the organ world where few composers for the instrument are not themselves organists.  When we list the principal organ music composers of the last century – Messiaen, Flor Peeters, Herbert Howells, Naji Hakim – all were organists, often as well known sitting at the console as on it (as it were).  Indeed I can only think of two significant composers for the instrument who were not themselves organists - William Mathias and Kenneth Leighton.  The one thing all these organist-composers had was a distinctive voice which makes their music instantly recognisable.   So it is something of an anachronism to come across a major organist whose music far from adding something new to the repertoire, positively revels in running over well-tried territory; barely disguising hackneyed ideas by wrapping them up in brittle musical language.  A composer who seems to be invoking the spirit of Bach but with wrong notes in it.
This was my very first ever Organ LP
As an organist, Helmut Walcha made a speciality out of playing Bach.  Indeed, his recordings (including a seminal series of LPs on the Archiv label) influenced an entire generation to see Bach anew.  I remember a conversation with the late Malcolm Boyd (who went on to become  distinguished Bach scholar) in which he admitted that it was listening to Walcha's recordings that had really inspired him to pursue an interest in Bach, and for my part, my single Archiv LP of Walcha playing excerpts from the Clavierubung III suddenly opened up great vistas for me.  I went straight out and bought the music and still find enormous pleasure working my way through the labyrinth of paired chorale preludes wrapped up in a mighty Prelude and Fugue in E flat.   But Walcha, we now learn, went even further.  He did not just emancipate the chorale prelude, he attempted to resurrect it.  While Flor Peeters idled away many happy hours writing chorale preludes to a series of predictable and uninspiring formulae, Walcha reverted to the Bach models, paring them down to the bare bones, removing every ounce of amiability or emotion, and writing so many that in addtion to the two packed discs that have recently been released of them, we are promised two more.

Wolfgang Rubsam, who single-handedly seems intent on recording every note of organ music ever written (I once suggested in print that he was perhaps doing too much to put his heart and soul behind every recording he made; he wrote an anguished letter back saying that I had almost made him contemplate suicide) can, possibly, be excused for his adoration of Walcha; he was a former pupil.  But his dry playing and the grotesque sounds of over-bearing harmonics and ill-matched stops from this American organ, only undermine the sterility of Walcha's writing.   In short, these are utterly charmless discs which serve no purpose other than to get more on-disc exposure of Rubsam and to undermine the posthumous reputation of a man who was, as a player, one of my personal gods.  I have often wished that Naxos would exert a little more restraint over its output of organ discs – few of them come close to the standards set by such specialist companies as Regent or Priory, while even more general labels, such as Hyperion and Guild, wipe the floor with their organ discs.  These, surely, are discs released for the sake of releasing discs.


07 January 2013

A Christmas Postscript

There is some dispute over when Christmas decorations should be taken down; notwithstanding the customary crop of sad individuals who are rolled out every year on television magazine programmes to claim that they celebrate Christmas every day of the year.  Common belief is that 12th night - the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th – is the time when the decorations go into hiding.  However, when I was a student we used to frequent a pub run by devout Catholics who maintained that Christmas only properly ended at the Feast of Candlemas  - February 2nd – and studiously left their decorations up until then.  There was something infinitely depressing about Christmas decorations hanging on so far beyond Christmas, especially in a pub where the atmosphere was badly polluted by cigarette smoke (smoking was not so much allowed as positively expected in pubs in those heady days). 

Those feelings of depression are re-ignited whenever I hear Christmas music after Christmas.  It has always saddened me that the plethora of fine, warm and evocative music so welcoming in the run up to Christmas, seems so hollow and out of place almost as soon as Boxing Day is over; all that effort for so little exposure!  I am especially conscious of the ephemeral quality of so much Christmas music when I get down to my post-Christmas cataloguing of CDs.  Always the recipient of several dozen Christmas discs, it’s only in early January that I get round to cataloguing them and putting them on shelves, and while, in the usual course of events, whenever I do my cataloguing I usually dip into the discs to pass the time while undertaking the onerous duty of typing everything into the database, I studiously avoid listening when doing the Christmas discs.  It’s all just too depressing. 
This year I was obliged to listen through 2447 minutes and 52 seconds’ worth of Christmas CDs in the run up to December 25th. That was not exceptional.  Nor was the fact that one of those discs (totalling 73 minutes and 48 seconds) got singled out for special honours and spent the week of Christmas on my CD player.  What is exceptional is that I am still listening to it.  Unquestionably it belongs purely to Christmas, but it is just too lovely simply to go back on the shelf and rot away until I decide to pull it out next December, so it’s going to be there until Candlemas.

Always a fan of Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers, I have to say I think they excelled themselves with their Christmas CD this year.  Released on the Naxos label (titled A Winter's Light and with the catalogue number 8.573030), it is an object lesson in how to create atmosphere and warmth within the tiny time-frame of 20 Christmassy songs.  One of the longest things here is Walford Davies’s mini-cantata O little Town of Bethlehem (with an amazingly fragile sounding Susan Waton intoning the extended soprano solo introduction) which lasts all of five and half minutes – exceeded only on the disc by Harold Darke’s eternally lovely In the Bleak Mid-Winter which runs a full 10 seconds more. 
I am profoundly impressed by their relaxed, discreet and beautifully measured account of Howells’s divine Sing Lullaby, while my all-time favourite Christmas carol, Pierre Villette’s Hymne à la Vierge, gets about the most spine-tinglingly gorgeous performance imaginable.  God forbid, I am even impressed by their soothing account of Rutter’s Nativity Carol (although here my admiration is focused more on Martin Ford’s beautifully sympathetic accompaniment on the awkward-sounding organ of Tonbridge School), and as for the glutinous pops from Bob Chilcott, Gabriel Jackson and the gang, even they exude a pleasing luminosity in these superb performances.  Most interestingly, the handful of really silly numbers – including a mock-swingle Jingle Bells arranged by Ben Parry and a pseudo-Spiritual version of I Believe in Father Christmas with unapologetic references to Prokofiev by Jonathan Rathbone – do not stick in the throat as they usually would.  The music is often pretty dire, but as an object lesson in how musical drivel can be elevated by a sensitive and intelligent performance, this is a priceless disc. 

03 January 2013

Centenary Riots

While the pundits cite US Fiscal Cliffs, Euro Crises, increased frequency of Severe Weather Events and the Attitudes of the New Political Leadership in China as the things to watch out for in 2013, we musicians should keep at least one eye on the events of 1913 and hope that 2013 might see a resurgence of the kind of audience involvement which defined musical life a century ago.

Today audiences placidly applaud even the direst of performances and only ever seem to get really passionate when someone's mobile phone goes off or the person in front applauds between the movements of yet another anaemic performance of Chopin's anaemic piano concertos. I recall with a certain amount of longing an organ recital given by Malcolm Williamson in the Royal Festival Hall on 7th March 1971 when, after a dismal account of the Bach Prelude & Fugue in E flat, he was actually booed off stage. He returned and gave what Robin Langley in the Musical Times described, kindly, as a "committed if inaccurate account of Tournemire's austere Symphonie Sacrée", but was clearly badly shaken by the audience's reception. (That performance coming four days after a dramatic and unforgettable attempt by the French organist Xavier Darasse to give the first London performance of Ligeti's Volumina: as he leant forward and placed his forearms over the keys with all the stops drawn, he managed to fuse the whole organ.)

How different things were 100 years ago. A tantalising entry in the "Foreign Notes" section of the Musical Times dated 1st May 1913 reads; "Six particularly anarchistic orchestral pieces by Anton von Webern met with such violent disapproval that the concert had to be abandoned".
Here's what appears to have happened. The date was 31st March 1913 and the venue was the hallowed walls of Vienna's Musikverein. The Akademischen Verband für Literatur und Musik presented a concert which included the première of Webern's Six Pieces op.6 alongside performances of works by Zemlinsky (Four Orchestral Songs), Schoenberg (Chamber Symphony op.9), Berg (Five Orchestral Songs op.4) and Mahler (Kindertotenlieder). A short while into the Webern a section of the audience started hissing, only to be opposed by another section who started to applaud vociferously. The noise continued even after the performance stopped, and became even more animated after the Schoenberg. At that point fighting broke out in the balcony and Schoenberg, who was conducting, stopped the performance of the Berg after some of the audience hooted with derisory laughter. He announced that those making the noise would be forcibly evicted if they continued to do so, but that just inflamed the situation. Even more violent fighting broke out, and some were heard calling for honour to be satisfied through the holding of duels outside. Webern did nothing to calm matters by shouting from his box that "all the baggage should be thrown out", while those who objected to the music called out that the composers ought to be confined to the lunatic asylum. The Akademie's President pleaded with the audience to respect Mahler's memory by listening to his Kindertotenlieder in silence, but was shouted down and obliged to withdraw. Several audience members stormed up on to the stage sending the musicians scurrying off for their lives, and even then the rioting continued for another thirty minutes both inside the hall and out in the street.

Less than two months later came another musical riot. On 29th March the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris staged a performance by Diaghilev's Ballets Ruses. All went well for Les Sylphides, but then came the première of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. A few bars into the work and derisory laughter from the audience so upset Stravinsky that he fled the auditorium. Behind him, things went from bad to worse and eventually the uproar was so loud that the dancers could no longer hear the music and had to rely on their choreographer backstage to call out the step numbers. Reports mention how, during the performance, "proponents and opponents resorted to fisticuffs to exchange opinions on the value of art", while one member of the audience complained that the person behind him got so animated that "he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head". The conductor of the performance, Pierre Monteux, later recalled how "two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra. Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on". Diaghilev attempted to quieten things down by switching off the lights, and eventually the police and management ejected around 40 of the worst offenders from the theatre.

It must have been frightening to be in the midst of either riot, but how wonderful that audiences cared so much that they resorted to physical manifestations of their opinions. In 2013 it is usually left to the critic to utter some platitudinous comment on a new work, terrified in case he appears out of touch with modern trends, while audiences, if they voice an opinion at all, merely regurgitate what they have read from the critic or overheard from self-appointed experts in the bar. All of which begs the question; are audiences less interested in new music, or is new music less interesting in 2013?
Frankly, I find it difficult to tell one new soothing sequence of sounds by Morten Lauridsen, Paul Mealor, Eric Whitacre and the rest from another; how can anyone's hackles rise when faced with such aimless drivel oozing out of choirs in an unending stream? On the orchestral and dramatic front, we might expect composers of the calibre of Mark-Anthony Turnage or Unsuk Chin to offer up something thought-provoking, if not positively inspiring, but if there is a musical riot in 2013, it is a pretty safe bet it will have more to do with the sexual peccadillos of the performers or the political stance of the creators than the music itself.

There will be hundreds of premières around the world this year - the association of North American orchestras boasts that their members will be giving 165 by 150 composers. Surely that's too much new music for any one year, and under such pressures new composers are in danger of being thrust into the field before having properly established their creative credentials, while the more established ones have to spread their ideas so thinly that they become almost non-existent. On top of that audiences' critical faculties are dulled by the sheer overwhelming quantity of new music thrown at them. Add to that the toxic mix of mind-numbingly banal back-to-back "beautiful sounds" emanating from radio stations churning out 24 hour classical music wallpaper and the obsession with dismal performances of dire music which is the stuff of YouTube, and it is little wonder that audiences' expectations are dulled. They don't expect much from new music, and composers duly oblige by giving them nothing much; the aim is commercial conformity rather than intellectual discomfort. If only, just once, somebody could inspire audiences to get off their seats and voice an opinion, we might see some way out of the anodyne musical world that faces us in 2013.