28 May 2013

Singing With Your Supper

A burning desire to have some Italian food found me taking my seat at a table in a cavernous Italian restaurant where bottles of wine and olive oil competed with prints of Venetian gondoliers and Roman ruins on all the walls.  Not quite a pizza/pasta joint - the staff wore black aprons and could pronounce, after their own fashion, the names of the items on the menu - but with everything soaked in bog-standard olive oil and peppermills the best part of a metre high, neither was it by any means a fine dining establishment.  Food was plentiful, cheap and – inevitably – oily, and I was grateful for the mouth-grating dryness of cheap Chianti to help scrape away some of the oily residue from my Parmesan-Crusted Sole.  All the same, I was more than enjoying my food when, suddenly, I was pulled out of the kind of reverie into which all us solitary diners descend, by a glorious soprano aria from a Verdi opera (I think it was Macbeth, but it was not one of the famous showpieces for soprano) sung, unaccompanied, and at very close quarters by a passing waitress.  She had delivered the food to a table and, on her way back, simply broke into song.  The entire restaurant was silenced by her voice, and even the kitchen staff (it was one of those places where, for some wholly unaccountable reason, it is considered proper for diners to see the workshop in which their food was prepared – rather like going to the bathroom and seeing the whole sewage system revealed before your very eyes) stopped what they were doing to listen open-mouthed. This was a fine, well-trained, fully-developed voice, well able to hold its own on the operatic platform and certainly well used to commanding an audience into silence.  I was hugely impressed. 

But my reaction was nothing compared to that of the other diners.  They cheered, their hollered, they stamped their feet, they rattled their forks against their glasses of cheap Chianti, and generally behaved as if they had just witnessed a world-record-breaking performance by one of their compatriots at the Olympic Games; jubilation, wonderment and unrestrained admiration were the order of the day.

Enquiries to my non-singing waiter revealed that several of the waiting staff were actually music students and it was not uncommon for the ones who had studied singing spontaneously to break into some aria or other; the manager positively encouraged it.  All this brought back memories of Oxley’s floating restaurant in Brisbane which, before it was swept away by floods, boasted a large number of singularly fat waitresses, all of whom were studying music across the river at the Queensland Conservatorium and were similarly encouraged to exhibit their skills when the situation was appropriate.  It is well known that music and food (and wine) go hand in hand; but it’s still a surprise when they appear so vividly in juxtaposition.

What had me the most impressed, however, was the reaction of my fellow diners; none of whom, I imagine, had gone there expecting to hear a Verdi aria sung live by a professionally-trained opera singing waitress.  It may be patronising of me to say so, but I suspect that the vast majority of those diners, if told that the song was by Verdi, would be none the wiser.  I doubt many of them had ever gone into an opera house (the nearest was several thousand kilometres away), rented an opera DVD or even listened to one on the radio.  At best, I suspect, they would have heard a Pavarotti-soundalike singing Nessun Dorma or O Sole Mio on a TV advert.  Yet their admiration for this live piece of opera was genuine and heartfelt.

Opera has an unfortunate image.  It is perceived as being exclusive, elitist, and opera goers are seen as moneyed businessmen attending a kind of high class works’ outing.  Opera singers are seen as fat, conceited divas with more money than musical skill, and only today I caught some imbecilic radio announcer claim; “We usually think of opera as belonging to rich 19th century dukes, but in fact it is much, much older than that, going back to the 1600s, when it was organised by the church”.  With stupidity like that at the end of the microphone, how can we expect anybody to take opera seriously? To be fair, those involved in opera do not go too far out of their way to dispel these mis-conceptions.

There is something in the sheer physical strength of an opera singer heard at close quarters which excites admiration from the most musically-disinterested of people.  I hate and detest soccer; but when I caught a nimble-footed goal on some ubiquitous sports channel showing in a non-Italian restaurant, even I had to admire the skill involved.  And that’s what my fellow diners were doing; admiring a skill which, when witnessed at close quarters, they realised to be pretty near super-human.  It crosses my mind that, if people were made aware of just how much skill and effort is involved in making music, it would be much more widely appreciated.

Television close-ups of sweating athletes crippled in pain and fatigue after some pointless run around a gravel track excites widespread admiration and has helped make sport popular among those for whom any kind of physical activity is anathema.  But we have lost out in music. Everybody believes that all singing involves is a microphone stuck so close to a mouth that one fears electrocution, and a deal of plastic surgery.  Given a glimpse of what singing is really about – sheer, superhuman effort – even the most musically inept cannot fail to be impressed.

Perhaps young singers should show off their skills at close quarters in a non-musical context.  That way they might find that they are not just building up their own reputations, but encouraging a wider audience to enjoy opera for what it is; one of mankind’s most physically demanding activities.

27 May 2013

Whence Great Musicians?

Visiting a private music school run by an expatriate Russian lady, I had a glimpse into the kind of intense musical training which threw up so many of the iconic musical figures of the 20th century.  Some of the most memorable occasions of my concert-going career were provided by Russians – Oistrakh stunning the Royal Festival Hall audience with a matchless Beethoven Concerto, Rubinstein leaving me breathless with a one-in-a-million Rachmaninov 2, Maxim Shostakovich directing the unforgettable non-Soviet premiere of his father’s 15th Symphony (with Dmitri there in the Royal Box) – while Rozdhestvensky, Rostropovich and Ashkenazy are still regarded as great musical heroes by today’s concert-going public.  The music of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich was among the most popular written during the 20th century, and even the “second rate” figures, such as Khachaturian (whose Spartacus was, for a time, the biggest-selling classical recording of all time) and Kabalevsky (where would young pianists have been without is music?), won over audiences who baulked at the mere mention of Schoenberg, Britten and Stockhausen.  Soviet orchestras were about the finest in the world (I recall a visit of the Leningrad Phil to the Proms which had most of us in ecstasy for the rest of the season) and only last year the Australian Limelight magazine suggested that the five “Greatest Pianists of All Time” were all Russians.
How did Russian musicians come to achieve the kind of world domination of which Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev could only dream?  The answer is obvious; the education system which nurtured promising young musicians from an early age and sent them through a veritable hothouse of rigorous and unrelenting musical training.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent disbanding of so many musical organisations, musicians who had been brought up under the Soviet system suddenly found themselves not just able to travel to the west, but obliged to do so in search of employment.  Would the Malaysian Philharmonic ever have achieved the heights it did without its large contingent of East Germans and other “outcasts” from the Soviet system?  How would the Singapore Symphony have developed with out an iconic leader forced by circumstances beyond his control to find a suitable playing position far from his Russian homeland?  Indeed, for a time, it seemed that every orchestral chair in Asia was competed for by a product of the Soviet musical education system.  And, with the demise of conservatoires and universities in the former Soviet states, a flood of music educators came on to the scene, often finding themselves faced with conditions of employment and a level of student ability they must have found heart-wrenchingly awful after their privileged existence under the Soviet regime.

At Universiti Putra Malaysia, where I lectured for a while before the establishment of the MPO, we took on as a staff member Zhakid Khaknazarov who had been Professor of Music at Tashkent Conservatory (where, organists will be interested to note, his staff included Gyorgy Mushel), and it seemed as if every other private music school in Malaysia employed a Russian violin teacher.  Indeed it was one of these who gave me my first taste of just how intense the Soviet system was when she harangued me with alarming vitriol after an examiner had given one of her grade 8 students a very high distinction.  Keen to defend both my colleague and the examining board from this unusual but undeniably bitter complainant, I asked for more details and was told that the teacher had heard from outside the door (don’t they all?) the candidate play a C natural in a particularly demanding piece.  “Every time I tell her; C SHARP, C SHARP”, she railed at me in heavily accented Russio-English, “But this girl she so stupid.  She cannot play violin.  She cannot read music.  She cannot hear.  Why C natural?  Always C natural.  And this idiot examiner (call himself a musician?) give her 146 marks!”  A suggestion that one wrong note out of several hundred right ones is no reason to lower the mark, let alone fail the candidate (as the teacher was demanding) fell on deaf ears.  The fact is that it had to be perfection or nothing.  And under Soviet training system, who could blame her?  One tiny lapse, one almost unnoticed error, could be the difference between a career as a musician and one as a factory worker.
On this present occasion I was a little more forewarned and could sympathise with the teacher who despaired at the quality of students she was obliged to take.  “I much prefer Asian students.  At least they have the same work ethic as the Russians and are prepared to practice hard.  My European students are lazy, but the Americans are the worst!  They do not see any reason to take it seriously.  They are all told that music is FUN!  Fun!  I ask you, what is Fun about playing everything badly and never getting any better?”  I’m not sure I agree totally with her view; music should be fun, and if you make it too deadly serious as a teacher, you are likely to put more students off music for life than to open the doors to one of the greatest avenues of pleasure available to mankind. But she is right that music is only worthwhile when you put your heart and soul into it and aim for perfection.  In my view perfection is unattainable, but there’s a huge amount of fun to be had trying to attain it.
The teacher went on to say how much she valued the examination system as it gave her students a discipline which many were otherwise unwilling to accept.  She wouldn’t countenance my suggestions that there was sometimes as much to be learnt from taking the exam as from passing it; for her if the result is not stratospherically high, the candidate has failed and may as well give up music.
As I listened to her, it dawned on me just how huge a gap there is between the way music is taught under the western system and how it was taught in Russia; and I was not sure if, culturally, that gap could easily be crossed.  With a five year old daughter, I have been determined that her childhood should not be stolen from her in the single-minded pursuit of excellence.  I want her to become a thoroughly rounded and socially competent human being, not a total social outcast able to do one thing perfectly and, if not achieving perfection, destroying herself in the belief that she has become an abject failure. 
But am I right?  My approach denies her the chance ever to become one of the great musicians of the future; at best she will become a competent musician and an enthusiastic member of a concert audience (and, goodness knows, the musicians of the future will need those).  As a teacher, I did used to think that at best my students would appreciate music as an entertainment rather than see it as a career.  But what if every teacher thought this way?  We’d have lots of knowledgeable people for our audiences, but no great musicians to perform for them, just a whole load of mediocrities having fun while the audience drift away aware of, and dissatisfied with, such grim incompetence.
It’s a dilemma, and one which is certainly not solved by the Chinese method of hothousing its young musical talent in imitation of the Soviet model; simply put, China does not have any of the musical infrastructure Russia gave to its Soviet music educators.  Perhaps my old colleague Professor Zhakid as well as my Russian expatriate are providing the answer, the former by returning to Tashkent and the newly-reopened Conservatoire and the latter by bringing her Russian standards to bear on a new generation of non-Russian students.

10 May 2013

Water Music

It has crept up with the inevitability of the incoming tide.  Like the tide, one has hardly noticed its gradual encroachment, and now it’s in full flood, it’s hard to think how things were before. 


Bosham in Sussex - where neither King Canute
nor any car driver can hold back the tide
It suddenly dawned on me when, after a day of examining wind candidates, I looked around the room to make sure nothing was left behind and realised there were no less than 15 plastic bottles left in various stages of emptiness by departing candidates.  Every single candidate had come in with a plastic bottle of water, most had gulped down the contents at various pauses during their exams and one, I remembered, had delayed every single scale and exercise by taking a large swig before each attempt.

Then I think back to previous exam sessions.  The times when, assuming a candidate to be taking a somewhat overlong break between movements, I had been busily writing up the report only to be disturbed by a strange gurgling noise from the candidate; looking up I would see a swig being taken from one of those expensive bottles capped with a teat – the sort of thing my five-year-old daughter, weaned from feeding bottles, would now look at askance. (How long, I wonder, before she returns to the feeding bottle, now adorned with an expensive label, as an essential fashion accessory.)  The times when a teacher has bustled in just as the exam starts to give the candidate the bottle forgotten in the panic of entering the exam room.  The times when a panicky house-holder has dug out a large cloth to put on the precious grand piano so that bottles do not leave indelible rings on the polished surface.  The times when, after a quick swig, the candidate has dropped the screw lid and spent the next few minutes frantically crawling around the floor in order to retrieve it.
What is it about water in bottles that means nobody ever goes anywhere without one?  Surely, you would have thought, a child could survive the 10 minutes it takes to get through a grade 1 without frequent recourse to the bottle?  Not a bit of it.  I’ve seen more bottles drained during an exam than I’ve heard correctly played scales.  It is rare, indeed, for a candidate to enter the room without clutching instrument, music, appointment slip and water (forget that, some forget the instrument, some forget the music, some forget the appointment slip). 

And it must be a bottle. Cups, glasses, jugs clearly don’t have the same cachet.  My examining yesterday was in a room where a large jug of water had been strategically placed.  It ended the day as full as it had been at the start.  I then noticed that next to my examining desk a huge, sealed bottle of water had been left for my exclusive use.  This was not a plastic one, but one in etched, tinted, designer slick glass.  I studied it.  The contents were special water percolated over centuries through the mountains of Norway (how odd that, when it comes to water, freshness is not an attribute – the staleness of centuries is a positive marketing tool).  I broke the seal and removed the wire stays to extract the rubber-tinged top.  I had a swig and, frankly, couldn’t taste any difference between that and the London tap water the Pepsi Cola Corporation bottle in Catford and sell to the Indians, or the straight-from-the-tap water with which I used to top up my whiskey when I lived in Ireland (don’t tell them I did that to their precious whiskey).

Bottled water has become a fashion statement.  I assume there’s a class thing in it and the label sends out messages about your income, lifestyle and social leanings.  For me whether it says Evian ä or Lidl, whether it has been percolated over centuries through the mountains of Scandinavia or has been drawn fresh from a tap in Tallow is gloriously irrelevant.  Water is water and, while we need it to live, like going to the toilet, it’s one of those things I choose not to make a statement about.

There is a statistic doing the rounds – masquerading as medical advice but presumably encouraged by the bottled water industry – that we need x number of litres of water a day to survive.  I’ve read that water is an essential part of any diet and that, if you want to lose weight and stay fit, the more water you gulp down the better it is.  I’m sure that’s all true, and having once spent a night in hospital due to dehydration and a lifetime bursting out of my shirt buttons, I can hardly say that I have found an alternative to the health benefits of water.  But do we all need to drink so much of it, so frequently, so demonstratively and so obsessively?  A lady who drove me five miles to my hotel the other day, took huge swigs of water every time the traffic lights turned red.

I’m inclined to suggest, however, that it is the act of clutching and sucking at a bottle, rather than the urge to consume its contents, which is the driving force behind this tsunami of water consumption.  I well remember an occasion when the stage manager had placed plastic bottles of water beside the chairs of the four soloists in a performance of some major choral work.  Whenever not singing, the soloists snatched their bottles and gulped down the contents publicly.  It looked horrible, so the next day, when the performance was repeated, I told the stage manager to put the water into glasses.  They remained untouched for the entire duration of the concert.

Some years ago, when the Trinity diplomas added a section for stagecraft, protracted and heated discussions raged amongst examiners concerning the appropriateness or otherwise of bringing plastic bottles on to the stage.  Old timers felt it looked awful, younger ones couldn’t see a problem.  Perhaps in the 1930s a similar discussion might have gone on about cigarettes.  In an era when everybody smoked, many people barely noticed the packet of fags and the lighter on the piano during a lieder recital (I actually remember just such a thing in 1960s London).  Today there would be a mass audience walk out.  Will not the same happen in a few years when the current fad for obsessive consumption of bottled water fades?

Going back to my wind candidates, I have to say that the water had no significant effect on their performance – indeed, most of them were pretty mundane and I saw no evidence that the frequent recourse to the bottle did anything other than steady their nerves.  But there you have it.  The water bottle is not there for health benefits, it’s there as a comfort.  The bottle itself has become an addiction.  If you were to rip it out of the candidate’s hands, they would fall to pieces.  How long before they start coming into the room with water-filled syringes and start injecting themselves intravenously?

Water may seem harmless, but it has become an addiction which, when you notice it, is profoundly disturbing.  Let’s just hope that the craze, like the tide, eventually ebbs and we can have our music unbottled.

07 May 2013

World Organ Day

Yesterday – Monday 6th May - was World Organ Day.

Should we have all gone down to Statue Square in Hong Kong and protested against the illegal harvesting of human organs in China?  Should we have chained ourselves to the railings outside the White House in protest against the carcinogenic chemicals being pumped into the air in Third World Countries by US multinationals?  Should we have toddled down to Trafalgar Square to form a silent protest urging passers-by to fill in their organ donor cards?  All these are causes for which I have a certain passion, but this was not a day to come out and make a public statement.  Were there mass circumcisions in West Africa, or did German sex workers take to the streets of Hamburg to celebrate their greatest assets?  Sadly, if this did happen, it had nothing to do with World Organ Day.
The organs being celebrated were of the musical variety.

So, did those pop stars famous for using pianos as props swap them for fake electronic organs for the day? (I use the word fake deliberately; CNN aired footage of a fan attacking Justin Bieber yesterday.  The flimsy Bieber fell against his grand piano and the thing collapsed like a pack of cards, proving it was a cardboard replica – and, as if to emphasise the point, the footage was cut on the eight million subsequent airings of it on CNN over the next half hour, showing that an eagle-eyed agent had realised the potential damage to his client and demanded the evidence be suppressed.)  Were there mass play-ins of Yamahas, Clavionas, Electones or Casios?  Did the Hammond Organ Appreciation Society bring out their organs for the day?  Again, if any of this did happen, it had no connection with World Organ Day.

For World Organ Day celebrated the Pipe Organ - the oldest manufactured musical instrument known to man, one of the few musical instruments mentioned by name in the Old Testament which is still in everyday use today, the instrument with the largest solo repertoire of any, which can play higher and lower than any other, and which can play softer and louder than any orchestra.  Yes, there is much to celebrate and I’m only sorry that World Organ Day passed me by.
Organists feel under siege and need a cause for celebration.  Not only do they suffer from so much confusion over the name of their instrument – if you say you play the violin, everybody respects you, but if you say you play the organ, people look at you askance – but their usual stamping ground, the church, has become a distinctly hostile environment.  On a daily basis we hear of decent pipe organs being ripped out of churches because nobody feels inclined to spend the money repairing them.  Organs are under threat, and organists even more so.  A good friend in south London has recently been told by his (female) vicar that his services are no longer “relevant”; her congregations want what she wants - sterile pop and bland, watered-down JesusRock.  The mighty pipes supporting a full congregation in a hymn or bursting forth with a soul-enriching concluding voluntary have been replaced by desultory guitar/drum/keyboard combos wired to portable speakers in the belief that their sub-standard, inartistic maunderings are more in tune with a 21st century Jesus.  Inspiration is out, inanity is in.  Music to praise God must not be elevated; it has to be a pale imitation of what you hear in discos, night clubs and, so I’m told, the dockside bars of Hamburg (where, once, the great Brahms held sway over the piano – can you imagine him as part of a happy clappy combo?).

At best, the church organist is now seen as a somewhat pathetic figure, a cross between an eccentric old codger and a harmless idiot, whose idiosyncrasies give rise to ridicule rather than affection.  Whenever the tag “church organist” gets used in the newspapers, you know something bad has happened.  “Church Organist accused of Molesting Boys”, has a better ring to it than “Clerk in the Council Office accused of Molesting Boys”, even if the latter is closer to the truth.  Over Christmas the pages of the British press were full of an horrific murder, the headlines screaming “Church Organist Killed on Christmas Eve”.  Devastatingly tragic as the story was, the sad fact is the murdered man was not a church organist.  He attended church and occasionally played the piano, but by describing him as a “church organist” the press were implying that he was a harmless, helpless old man with simple tastes.  Why would anyone want to murder him?
Organists, though, only have themselves to blame for their image problem.  As my old music master used to tell me when he wanted to rile me for my love of the organ; “Tell an organist Rubinstein is coming to play Rachmaninov 2 and they won’t know what you are on about.  Tell them that St Magnus-in-the-Mudd has a 32 foot Ophicleide and they will get in to a frenzy of ecstasy”.  He was closer to the truth than I liked to acknowledge, for organists are prone to become so wrapped up in the mechanics of their instrument that they forget the music.  So much organ music is utter crap, yet gets played over and over again merely because it exhibits special stops (look at the number of times the frankly silly Tuba Tune of Norman Coker gets an airing compared with something infinitely more musically credible but far less colourful, like a Hindemith Sonata), and when someone plays a loud French toccata you can almost hear the shivers of excitement from the assembled organists in the audience, while give them a deeply moving, introspective chorale prelude by Buxtehude and it is almost drowned out by a chorus of stifled yawns.

If World Organ Day needs a focus, I suggest it tries to put the music back into the organ.  Forget the mechanics, forget the wind pressures, forget the unequal historic temperament.  Forget the placing of the stop jambs, the authentic materials in the keys, the toes-only pedalling in Bach.  It’s all peripheral nonsense with no musical value at all.  Play the music and communicate it to the listeners; an instinctive thing for most instrumentalists but not, for some reasons, for most organists.  Having spent the last 20 years or so working exclusively in concert halls, I have come to realise that the organ is a credible musical instrument.  It’s now time for organists to realise that too.  

Cut the Crotchets

What was his finest work?
The finest thing which Vaughan Williams ever wrote was not one of his symphonies; most of which seem to me to be terminally turgid.  Neither was it the lovely Lark Ascending or the Tallis Fantasia, both of which evoke a certain transitory atmosphere probably more in tune with English than other sensitivities.  It is not the charming Wasps Overture or even On Wenlock Edge, arguably the greatest song-cycle by an English composer.  A case might be made for Dona Nobis Pacem which includes, in its “Dirge for Two Veterans”, one of the finest choral pieces of the 20th century.  But in my opinion, it is not even written on manuscript paper; it is the essay published in 1934 entitled National Music.

Along with Berlioz’s Memoirs, Vaughan Williams’s National Music is the book on music I turn to the most often for pure pleasure (most certainly not, in the case of the Berlioz, for factual reference).  The writing style is easy, the content interesting and the views expressed so uncompromisingly direct and personal that it always lifts the spirits after wading through pages of the politically-correct and culturally-sensitive ideas flavoured by an egotistical self-belief which are the stuff of most books on music today.  There isn’t a writer around who could even get close to the egotistical self-belief of Berlioz, while VW’s complete disregard for the niceties of cross-cultural tolerance would be met with horror if uttered today by any academic.
My very favourite VW quote from National Music – and one which I have referred to more than once in this very blog – is this;

“Unfortunately for the art of music some misguided thinker, probably first cousin to the man who invented the unfortunate phrase 'a good European', has described music as 'the universal language'. It is not even true that music has an universal vocabulary, but even if it were so it is the use of the vocabulary that counts and no one supposes that French and English are the same language because they happen to use twenty-five out of twenty-six of the letters of their alphabet in common.”

Like any self-respecting Englishman, VW was here having a dig at the Europeans – how Margaret Thatcher would have admired the man! – but his sentiments have a resonance on one international musical interface (there goes the linguistically-complex academic in me!) to which he never referred and, possibly, never even acknowledged.  In his day, British English was the language to be used, and if former colonial possessions, such as the USA, decided to deviate from the path of true linguistics, that was of no concern to him.  Yet the Americans have devised their own musical language, and have thus hammered even more nails into the coffin of the discredited cliché that “music is an international language”.  The only problem is, the Americans have improved it immeasurably.
I refer to the words they use to describe aspects of rhythm.

The British English terminology is so obscure that it actively prevents young students grasping the concept of rhythm.  Here’s a tale from the examination room, which might show you what I mean.  Asked to describe a 3/8 time-signature I got this;

“There are three beats in each bar, and each beat is worth a quaver which is worth half a beat, and there are three quavers in a dotted crotchet, which means this is a compound time signature and there are really eight beats in each bar”.
Linguistically what conceivable link is there between a quaver and a crotchet, a crotchet and a minim or a minim and a semibreve, all the names English students are obliged to apply to poor, innocent notes.  A simple note gets so burdened down by linguistic convolutions, that it’s a wonder they survive.  What the English call a Crotchet, the French and Spanish call a Noire and a Negra respectively (sensible in that the note appears on the page as a black dot, although we then run into the confusions of black and white keys on a piano), while Groves Dictionary tells us that the original Latin word for it was a semiminima which has some logic of course (as Latin always does) but I can’t imagine a six-year-old taking the word easily on board in an early music lesson.  Without any clear linkage between the words for notes, it is very difficult indeed for the student to grasp their physical relationships.  Just look how English children lap up the subdivisions of a quaver (semiquaver, demisemiquaver, hemidemisemiquaver, semihemidemisemiquaver – we used to play games to see how far we could go down that route); they crave a coherent sequence which implies spatial relationships – forget the fact that the shorter the note, the longer the name, as long as there is some logic to it, children love it.

Try as I might, I cannot find a coherent etymology for the words Quaver, Crotchet or Minim, and this, by its very nature, renders the words difficult to understand, because they have no clear parallels in the English language; the nearest I can think of, quavering, crochet and minimal, have no obvious connection with their musical lookalikes.  So we present all our young music students with a herculean task of learning difficult and illogical words, and then compound the problem by distilling them into time-signatures which, on the surface of it, are equally incoherent.  No wonder so many of them give up when it comes to learning musical theory.   What IS the difference between 3/8, 3/4 and 3/2; why are 12/8, 9/8 and 6/8 compound times when 3/8 is not?  Of course, the linguistic explanation of something as obtuse as rhythm is always going to be difficult, but do we really need to make it so overwhelmingly so?
The Americans don’t.  They use laser-like logic and, at a stroke, clarify things.  Thus it is that note values are described in terms which indicate direct relation – half note, quarter note, eighth note – and instantly explain time-signatures.  If you say there are three eighth-notes in a bar, how much easier that is to relate to a 3/8 time-signature than if you say there are three quavers. It also stops that terrible habit of teachers telling students that a crotchet is a one beat note (which it isn’t); and by doing that, the real difficulties students have when they come to explain time-signatures are almost wholly overcome.  When you can accept that a one beat note is named in the time-signature itself (bottom figure), there is no confusion.

Of course, the Americans are never really original, and they stole their terminology from the Germans.  But in 1934 Vaughan Williams was hardly likely to hold up the Germans as a shining example to the English and, in any case, the English still giggle at the German’s silly habit of giving pitches different names (what language is daft enough to call a black note B??).  So even for the most ardent anti-Teuton, English people should really discard their antiquated and eccentric quavers, crotchets and minims, and adopt the American terminology.  I have always taught my students to use American terms, and we never have difficulty understanding time-signatures or note-values.  Of course, there is a problem when it comes to exams; the major music exam boards are English and while they tell their examiners to accept either British English or American English terms, in reality both their own publications and many of their examiners refuse even to acknowledge that there are alternatives to quavers and crotchets and minims.  A student of mine told an examiner that the note was a quarter note, only to be told that was not an acceptable term and he had to say whether it was a crotchet or a quaver,  

And American sense does not end there.  How much more sensible it is to describe the interval between two bar-lines as a measure.  The English (with their fondness for the consumption of alcohol) like the word bar and use it to mean two different things in music; the dividing line and the spaces it divides.  So we have the crazy situation where you refer to a bar by number and nobody know whether you are referring to the bar line or the bit after/before the bar-line.  I have to confess, too, that I much prefer staff to stave, the former giving a clearer picture that notes are supported by those five lines.

Are these short measures at the bar?

I know of no international orchestra, conductor or ensemble who use British English terms, and those brought up with British English terminology are obliged to learn the American terminology if they take music professionally.  Why do we not simply discard these terms and allow the Americans to hold sway?  After all, they have a pretty universal hold over what we watch (on cinema and television), on what we eat (the ghastly MacDonald’s), on what we drink (the appalling Starbucks) and on what we write our blogs (God bless you, Messrs Gates and Jobs) so why not let them cast their influence over our music.  Just for once, we can do something to make music more of a universal language.

04 May 2013

The Noisy 1300

The Hong Kong Rieger in an empty (and quiet) hall
There were 1300 of them according to the young girl in charge of front-of-house.  They filled the stalls and most of the upper circles, and the only empty seats I saw were right by the organ where view was restricted and hearing damage inevitable.  It was not the largest audience to which I have ever performed even as a solo recitalist, and I have certainly paid to packed concert halls before; on two memorable occasions large numbers were actually turned away from my recitals in Kuala Lumpur when the hall reached full capacity.  But it was, without a shadow of doubt, the most restless.  From the moment I walked out into the auditorium to the moment when the door finally shut behind me, I was surrounded by ripples of sound – chattering adults, giggling children, crying babies, shuffling feet, rustling programme pages, unwrapping confectionary and crisps, a constant stream in and out of the auditorium presumably in search of a toilet and the occasional oohs and aahs when something particularly comment-worthy attracted the attention of those listening to the music. Mercifully no mobile phones or pages – the Hong Kong Cultural Centre effectively blocks these – but a constant level of hubbub which was utterly disconcerting.

It wasn’t that they did not like the music.  In a programme that ranged from Zachau and Krebs to Nigel Ogden and Zsolt Gárdonyi by way of Karg-Elert, Hindemith and Gabriel Pierné, I really think there was something for everyone (except, of course, died-in-the-wool Bach or Messiaen fans).  They were not there under sufferance – children had been queuing up excitedly over two hours before the scheduled start and adults had been anxiously chasing around trying to find the correct ticket counter (inexplicably hidden away on the opposite side of the concourse to the box office) – and they certainly were not there under false pretences – the occasional Saturday early evening organ recital in Hong Kong is a pretty well-established feature and while star names appear once in the season, most of the players, like myself, are pretty much nonentities in the overall scheme of things.  No, there was a genuine desire to be there in the hall while the organ recital was one.  There just did not seem to be a genuine desire actually to listen to the music once the recital had begin.
Performers instinctively know how effectively they are communicating to an audience and how the audience is reacting to the music. When I felt an audience slipping out of my reach during a performance of Britten’s dreadful, dreadful Prelude & Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria (included in my programme only because of the stipulations laid down by the concert organiser), I subtly hurried it along, giving it more lightness and skipping loosely over its dire textural intricacies (having thought that it was these which would possibly appeal to an audience).  When an audience became deeply hushed during the Fugue of Hindemith’s Second Sonata, I tried to prolong the spell by making a little more of the rests and the silences in the piece.  And when the crowd at Singapore’s Esplanade started clapping along to Nigel Ogden’s Saints on a Spree I confess I hammed it up even more – no apologies due, I’m sure Ogden would have done the same with knobs on.

In the event I enjoyed myself hugely for, in the absence of a clear lead from the Hong Kong audience to which I could react, I decided to play everything as if nobody was there and simply enjoy myself.  The audience clearly liked what they heard – they stayed through to the bitter end, toilet visits notwithstanding, and many came to see me afterwards to thank me and to recall bits they had particularly liked, they even asked me to go back and play again sometime – and the applause was loud, generous…and frequent.  Every hint of a silence, every moment when the organ descended below the level of audibility, they started clapping.  Less than two seconds into the Ogden, applause broke out; the grand pause just before the end of the Lanquetuit Toccata elicited a premature cheer, and a quiet moment of intense reflection during the Pierné Cantilene was disrupted by an enthusiastic clapper.

A moment when nobody was clapping
The question is why?  Audiences in China are simply disruptive; they don’t want to hear music, they just want to see what it is the Gweilos make such a fuss about.  Singaporean audiences like people to know that they are musically literate, so make a huge fuss of their applauding and cheering, raising their hands into the air and standing up almost as readily as they do when an SIA 380 touches down.  But Hong Kong audiences mystify me.  To all outward appearances they hate music, yet they clearly crave for as much of it as they can (even from sub-standard organist nonentities such as myself).  We could suggest that the noise level in the hall, the willingness to put up with all manner of interruptions, is an instinctive response to living in such a crowded community where personal space and the luxury of silence simply do not exist.  But I have another suggestion.

I blame the music examination culture. 
What?  You cannot be serious?

I blame the music examination culture!
Music is taught to the tens of thousands of children in Hong Kong not as an art form requiring inner concentration but as something akin to a competitive sport testing physical stamina.  The enjoyment is derived from the visual effort of the protagonist rather than the intellectual effort of the composer.  Emotions like excitement and panic are more prominent than those such as passion and pathos.  Music is taught as an activity with definite goals in mind, those goals being Grades 1-8, ATCL, LTCL, LRSM etc. etc.; panic comes when there is a fear you might not achieve a pass, excitement when there seems to be a real chance of distinction.  And it is easy to transfer those concepts to being a spectator to a musical performance.  If it’s usual practice to cheer and talk while sportsmen are doing their stuff on the track, it’s got to be all right to behave the same way when musicians are in the concert arena.  What’s the difference?

On top of that, music, for the exam candidate, consists of single stand-alone pieces.  You play three totally different pieces none of which is more than a few minutes in length.  Extended structures or complex journeys across emotions have no place in examination repertoire.  So, obviously, when there is a break or a change in mood, the piece must have finished and, in place of the examiner’s stern admonition - “And your next piece please” – the void is filled with applause.  Candidates at diploma level – in Hong Kong disastrously attempting a diploma hot on the heels of grade 8 - invariably fail to appreciate the concept of a multi-movement Sonata and will often treat this as three totally independent pieces.  Indeed, the habit of playing an isolated movement from a Sonata or a single piece from a multi-piece work, is prevalent whenever candidates are given free choice over repertoire.  No notion here that a musical work can encompass a wide range of styles, moods, tempi and technical demands, and it’s almost customary for candidates randomly to miss out whole sections of a work simply to keep it within a specified time-framework; time-keeping taking precedence over musical integrity, because a weakness in the former can lead to failure while a weakness in the latter is not seen to impact on the exam result.  How many times I’ve had to ask why certain bars or complete movements are cut out, only to be told that “It would have gone over time if I’d played that” – the idea that, perhaps, another programme choice would have been better is inconceivable.
All this leads is something which music examiners and alert teachers have long seen as a cause for concern - the notion that exam culture has become detached from performance reality.  But I now believe it impacts on audience behaviour. The more an audience comprises those who have been through the examination system, the more they will begin to regard musical performance as the public manifestation of their own experiences in the examination room, and when they sit in the concert hall, they see their function as a vague amalgamation between spectator and examiner

There is a solution to this growing problem and, as ever, it rests with teachers.  The sterile instruction to pass physical goals has to be removed and replaced by a desire to enrich a student’s intellectual and emotional development.  Exams are important, but they are, musically as in every other field, essentially artificial and detached from the reality of everyday experience.  Once a student is made aware that the exam situation is false and the concert situation the reality, they will then understand the concept that there is such a thing as concert etiquette.  Sadly, Hong Kong shows too much the signs of the exam being the reality and the concert the artificial situation, and while 1300 people might have enjoyed themselves on their own terms, I wish I could tell them just how much more they would have enjoyed themselves if they had known what was really going on in the concert hall.