25 June 2013

Touring Orchestras

In Berlin for a short examining stint, I stumble across a magical little restaurant in the lee of the Deutsche Oper and settle down in a corner for a fine glass of wine and an even finer jaegerschnitzel.  As ever when dining alone, my ears reach out to my fellow diners and I give in to my passion for eavesdropping.  Here, I have the excuse of trying to shake the dust off my very rusty German in advance of a day’s examining where some linguistic facility will inevitably be called for, and before long I feel fully tuned into a discussion going on in earnest at a nearby table between six very distinguished looking diners.  I am intrigued to hear them discussing the merits of Wolfgang Sawallisch and it is some time before I realise that my comprehension of their discussion is heightened by the fact that much of it is being conducted in English.  I look over a little more closely and, as I do, one of them catches my eye.  There is a shock of recognition and we politely nod, but I quickly turn back trying to rack my brains as to where I’ve seen him before.  He, however, has no such English reserve and gets up from his table and comes over to speak to me.

After some preliminary skirmishes in German which quickly resolve into English, we realise that we met when he was on a panel discussion I chaired at a Live! Singapore forum a few years back.  At that time he was manager of a German orchestra but I learn he has now retired and is a leading light in a small society of retired professionals who share a passion for the arts and for the English language.  They meet every Monday and as this is a Sunday evening, he is thrilled that, by good fortune, I will be able to join their meeting the following day.  I have no choice but to agree and I am then asked if I can deliver a short talk in English on the Classical Music Scene in Asia.
Leap forward 24 hours and I meet my contact again at the restaurant and, fortified with a refreshing beer, we head off to the apartment where about twenty distinguished ladies and gentlemen are assembled in a room which could almost have come out of a movie film set; full of dark wood panels and creaking leather chairs.  I’ve had a busy day examining so my preparation for this talk has been non-existent.  I resort to that tried and tested opener of asking my audience what they know of Classical Music in Asia. 

Quite a lot, it turns out, and quickly my talk becomes an animated discussion about Chinese concert halls, audience behaviour and Lang Lang; it turns out most of them followed both the Berlin Phil and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on recent Asian tours.  Interestingly, though, none of them had heard of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (which distressed me deeply, not least because it does have a German conductor – although I quickly learn that Claus Peter Flor is not a name that engenders universal admiration among the great and good of Berlin society) nor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and while they were conscious of orchestras in Japan, Taiwan and China, the only Asian orchestra they really felt they knew enough to pass comment on was the Singapore Symphony.
This was a group of people who listen avidly to music, not on disc or radio, but live.  For them, music only exists as a live performance art – and, as if to prove the point- our Monday evening meeting ended with three of them performing a Beethoven Trio.  They vividly recalled the visit of the SSO to Berlin in 2010 and were even more impressed when the Singapore National Youth Orchestra visited the city last year as part of the Young Euro Classic Festival – a performance I was supposed to attend but was sadly prevented by family illness.  For serious music lovers living in a city with possibly the finest orchestra in the world on their doorstep, to recall performances by two relatively lowly orchestras from Asia shows either good manners or a genuine level of admiration at the standard of playing they heard.

I am convinced that the Singaporean musicians really did make an impact; not the “how-clever-the-Asians-are-to-do-this-sort-of-thing” impact but a genuine belief that these orchestras both contributed something significant to the musical life of the city.  It reinforces something which every orchestral manager knows, but can rarely convince his financial backers to appreciate; and that is an orchestra on tour not only offers musical performances to audiences overseas, but performs an ambassadorial function on behalf of its country far beyond the purely commercial benefits accrued from any number of trade delegations or tourist promotional expos.
We may know that there are plenty of fine orchestras in Asia; but for the rest of the world to know that, Asian orchestras have to get out and about; building audiences at home is important, but there is huge value far beyond the confines of music, in international touring.

12 June 2013

Labelling Music History

Some years ago I found myself caught up in a discussion about re-aligning the perameters of the periods of musical history.  We were all taught that music fell into four neat historical eras – Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern/20th Century (in my youth we rather regarded anything before Baroque as Primitive, but now we are more generous and call it Renaissance) – and that those eras were defined by certain key musical events.  The Baroque began with the first operas around 1600 and died with Bach in 1650 and the Romantic began with Weber’s Freischütz in 1821.  The bit in the middle was called Classical (it contained just two composers, apparently, Haydn and Mozart) and everything after has been called Modern or 20th Century.  Even as a boy in the 1950s it seemed odd to describe Debussy as “Modern” (as my teachers told me he was) and I find it appalling that students are still being told that he is a “Modern” (or – worse still – a Contemporary) composer.  Yet nobody has come up with a handy label to stick on music written since 1900, the random date given for the end of the Romantic era largely by those who were born at a time when the 20th century still seemed to an age of disturbingly challenging ideas.  So, even to this day, anything after Romantic is Modern.

For those who have missed out on this peculiarly English approach to music education, the need to label and compartmentalise everything is seen as a basic tool in the instruction of history; hence the rote learning of the dates of the Kings and Queens of England (note the word “England” rather than “Britain”) in the history lessons of my youth.  Fortunately British schools adopt a much more enlightened approach to history teaching nowadays; sadly, music teachers do not, and it is still asked of most students; “What period does this composer belong to?” and, “What are the features of Baroque music?”.  Our old friend Wikipedia even provides us with a graphical representation of this on one of its myriad pointless pages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dates_of_classical_music_eras).  (You will note the wonderful idea that the 20th century runs well beyond the year 2000, as if heading towards infinity.)

So our discussion was primarily concerned with deciding when the Romantic era really ended and what to call what came next.  The death of Mahler (1911) was a preferred choice, and as Schoenberg devised his 12-note system around the 1920s, there was a strong vote in favour of 1920 as being the end of the Romantic era.  That Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss carried on writing Romantic music well into the 1940s cut no ice with those who regarded these, in any case, as insignificant composers in the course of musical history.  
Feeling that the whole thing was an utterly pointless exercise, I came up with the suggestion that we call everything after 1920 “Dysfunctional”; which got the derision it so fully deserved and, not long afterwards, my interest in the discussion waned and I headed off to more fruitful pursuits in the bar.

My former University tutor, Arnold Whittall (who was, for me, the most inspirational man in my educational history, although I did not appreciate it at the time – thanks, Arnold, if you’re reading this) preferred to define musical periods in terms of social upheavals, particular war, and while his seminal book on 20th century music puts it in a nutshell, Music Since the First World War, I was also greatly taken by his definition of the Romantic era as being that period between the French and the Russian Revolutions.  Indeed if, as we must believe, music reflects the society in which it is created, surely wars have to be a defining moment in every musical era.  With the First World War catastrophically changing everything about society, it is little wonder that it had a similarly catastrophic effect on music.  I myself have written that the First World War “dropped a bombshell in the trenches of classical music which scattered fragments so far and wide, they have still not been collected back together into a semblance of cohesion”.  The problem we have in defining music after the Romantic era, irrespective of whether that finished in 1900, 1911, 1914 or 1920, is that there has been no stylistic unity.  The similarities for an audience between Stockhausen and Arvo Pärt are so extreme as to render any attempt to link them stylistically as irrelevant, while even the works of Stravinsky encompass such a vast stylistic range that they define single-label categorisation.
But then wasn’t it ever thus?  What possible link is there stylistically between the keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti and those of his exact contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach?  Yet we glibly categorise them both as “Baroque” composers and search, in vain, for stylistic connections.  T

True, there were social connections - both men worked under royal patronage – and the Europe of their lifetime had certain artistic standards to which both men adhered by default rather than design.  But try and interpret Scarlatti as you would Bach, and you miss the essential character of their music.  I have heard teachers explain ornamentation in “Baroque” music as if every composer - Bach, Scarlatti, Purcell, Byrd, Lully, Rameau – needs to be approached the same way, and I have more than once came across students asking whether it is right or wrong to use notes inégales in “Baroque” music, as if there is a one-answer-fits-all solution.
I can see why teachers like to use these terms to help their students get to grips with the vast panoply of musical history, but I’ve long ago given them up, preferring the more arbitrary (but, ironically, more relevant) use of centuries to divide up musical history.  I find it easier to trace the development of music through the 18th century, say, than through the “Classical” era; that certainly helps put Bach in his true place, not as the final voice of the Baroque but as the siren call of the Classical.    Understanding society and the changes in it are much more helpful to understanding music and its development than a random sequence of labelled periods which create a wholly false impression of music written within them as being stylistically related.

And it’s not mere semantics.  A huge, huge problem music examiners face when hearing recital diplomas is the completely erroneous belief that to achieve a “balanced” programme one has to draw on different stylistic periods.  So we might have a programme of Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Debussy which, from a listener’s point of view, is utterly unbalanced, but which looks good in that it covers different stylistic periods;  on the other hand, a programme of Debussy, Grieg and Rachmaninov, while perfectly balanced in the ears of the listener, is dismissed merely because all three composer lived in the same era.  Only the other day I sat through a performance of Debussy, Brahms and Percy Grainger.  When I commented to a teacher on how satisfying it had sounded, she shook her head in dismay – “But it was so unbalanced”, she told me, “All three works were written within 20 years of each other”. 
The trouble with labels is that they block our ears.  How much easier it is to see balance when it has nice clear letters and numbers than when it has that elusive and indefinable element we call music.

05 June 2013

A Noise of Music

One of the more regular correspondents to this blog opines that - and I paraphrase him here - noise is sound which is not wanted, whereas music is sound which is wanted.  The inference is that it is the listener who defines music, not the performer.  An intriguing argument, certainly, but one with which I have the greatest difficulty in accepting.

I agree that noise is unwanted sound (although some dictionaries specifically refer to it as loud or unpleasant), but unwanted by whom?  If the musician is creating sound which he wants people to hear, is it really correct to say that those who hear him are divided between those who want to hear him (who are therefore listening to music) and those who do not (who are being subjected to noise)?  In other words can the distinction between music and noise merely be at the behest of the listener? And, indeed, are music and noise mutually incompatible?
Of course we are all guilty of dismissing some music as “noise”.  I, myself, have referred to certain musical performances as “unpleasantly noisy”; but that does not prevent them being musical as well.  For me, the word noise refers to a loud or irritating sound, but not necessarily one which is not musical.

The problem boils down, as it always does, to the impossibility of producing a clear, unequivocal definition of music which isolates it from any other kind of sound.  Without the clear perameters provided by a proper definition, we cannot say precisely what music is, so therefore cannot say when it ends and noise takes over.  I do not agree that music is “wanted” sound; there has to be more to it than that.  And I certainly do not agree that music is defined as such by those who hear it. 
Taking this as a definition – “Music uses an organised series of pitches and rhythms within a finite time-scale to communicate unspoken concepts, primarily emotional and intellectual” – one can describe music as “organised sound”, although it is, of course, much more than that.  Words like “harmonious” and “melodic” are useless in any definition simply because neither is present in all music.  I do feel that descriptions of music which highlight its spatial element get close to the nub of the matter.  Music has a definite beginning and a definite ending (even if part way through The Ring you begin to doubt that) and perhaps the clue to this comes in the quote I once read; “Music is the best way to pass the time between silences”.  I can’t remember where I read that or who wrote it, and I’ve never been able to locate it since.  However, Stokowski came up with something similar when he said;  “A painter paints pictures on canvas; musicians paint their pictures on silence”.

So this might seem to offer some resolution to the issue.  For, if music is preceded by, succeeded by and continually refers to silence, that seems to differentiate it from any other kind of sound.  The blank canvas of music is silence, whereas noise is built upon pre-existing sound; which is why it is so annoying to the ear.  Noise is an accumulation of unyielding sounds, and so does not have that essential moment of preliminary repose which is a pre-requisite of music. 
Or does it?  What is an explosion other than sudden noise?  Oh dear!  Back to the drawing board.
(Incidentally, I've borrowed this blog post title from a book written in 1968 by Alan Ross Warwick giving a fascinating history of the musical life of London.  I imagine it's long out of print, but worth getting hold of if you can find a copy.)

01 June 2013

Noisy Pianos

To be without a book is to feel naked.  It’s a friend whose company you crave at any free moment of the day.  Returning to it at night makes going to bed something to be eagerly anticipated, while there is joy in the morning when a few minutes can be grabbed while the tea cools down and the story left reluctantly the night before can be briefly revisited.  The pain of travel is immeasurably eased in the company of a book, while flight delays are little more than heaven-sent opportunities to get back to where you left off earlier. 

I am sure that e-readers, Kindles and whatever else you call them have exactly the same lure, but for me one of the great joys of a book – apart from its physical presence, changing substantively with each new one picked up – is the rooting around in bookshops to find the next.  While CD emporia and record shops seem to have given up on large parts of Europe and Asia (although Hong Kong and Japan are still nirvanas for record collectors and my experiences of the USA have revealed a surprisingly rich seam to be mined, albeit only after much frustrating searching), book shops are positively thriving.  From the aluminium and glass pseudo-offices (there’s a Barnes and Noble in Baltimore which I swear was designed as a factory and turned into a bookshop only at the last minute) to tiny carpeted and clubbish backstreet hideaways - there’s the most endearing one tucked in a close behind Winchester Cathedral – you can find a bookshop just about anywhere.  (Of course, as in so many other things, Singapore is the exception where, in its mindless striving after the latest gadgetry, what ghastly skeletons of bookshops exist are merely fronts for arty cafés and Japanese Animé picture books.)  I don’t pack books when I travel; I know I shall find something in a bookshop wherever I go.
It was browsing through a branch of a mighty chain store, assailed on all sides by the nauseating stench of hideous Starbucks undrinkable coffee (unless, it seems, you add so much to it, the coffee element is all but omitted) and the glaring piles of “Three for Two” Chick Lit, that I stumbled across my latest read.  It’s a pretty unexceptional book, although I’ve only just hit chapter five; an uneasy mix between autobiography, fact and fiction.  Nevertheless, while it’s not exactly un-put-downable, it is most certainly happily-pick-uppable, and I cheerfully took it up just now whilst lazing by the pool after a lengthy swim.  My concentration, barely able to hold the book up to block out the sun let alone take in the words on the page, was suddenly lurched into top gear by the following sentence, giving the author’s childhood impressions of his first encounter with a piano;

“It seemed unimaginable to me that adults would conceive of an entire contraption, at once huge and respectable, whose sole function was to make noise.”
My initial thoughts were of utter amazement.  A piano is a musical instrument, not a machine designed for noise.  But then my conscience reminded me of what I tell all my organ students; “The organ is merely a machine to make noise.  Only a true musician can turn it into a musical instrument”.  So, the thought crossed my mind, if I believe (as I do) that the organ is a machine designed to make noise which only a musician can transform into music, is that not equally true of the piano?

It is a fact that the organ was first designed merely as a noise-making machine, and it’s equally true to say that was its sole purpose for at least 1000 years before anyone thought to look at it as a musical instrument.  To this day, the world is full of organists who still seem to regard it as a machine for making noise, while a substantial number of non-organist musicians look on it in precisely the same way. 
The piano, though, was designed to make music from the very start. In 1700, or thereabouts (we know only that it pre-dates 1711), when Signor Cristofori first hit on the idea of using a keyboard to operate a system of hammers hitting strings, his sole objective was to make a musical instrument; even if its mechanism, so scientifically labelled, seems more like the design of torture apparatus used during the Spanish Inquisition.

And surely the natural sound of the piano is more inherently musical than that of the organ?  Play a piano note and it dies, as all living things must; play a note on the organ and it lives to eternity unless you die first or, alternatively, decide to cut the note off in its prime.  (Is there anything less musical than the dire church organist reluctantly releasing the final chord in each verse of a hymn?)  No other musical instrument needs such care over the release of a note than the organ; even trumpeters naturally expire when the need for a pint of beer presses. 

On the piano the sound is wholly governed by what the human being in control feeds into it.  On an organ, the inevitability of ciphers and mechanical breakdowns ensures that the human being in charge is never entirely free from the tyranny of mechanical intrusion.  However, I have spent more than my fair share of days subjected to human beings who simply seem unable to extract from the piano the music they are so obviously trying to put into it.  As an examiner sitting through interminable candidates forced, by parents and well-meaning teachers, to battle their way through some trifle conceived in all innocence by harmless men like Muzio Clementi and Johann Burgmüller, I have frequently yearned for a cat to walk into the room and march arrogantly down the keyboard, preferring pussy’s purring pianism to grade three’s gut-gripping grotesqueries.   Go into a second-hand furniture store where old out-of-tune uprights adorn the walls, and from the cacophonous jangling of hideous ill-matched strings and moth-eaten felts, the last thing you think of is music.

That, though, does not really support the notion that the piano was conceived to make a noise.  Just like the hideous screeches of a Stradivarius when someone like myself gets a hold of one, or the strangled wailings of an oboe in the hands of someone busily masticating the reed, no musical instrument is really a musical instrument unless a musician is playing it.  Aren’t they all, at heart, cleverly disguised instruments of noise? 

The Book I'm reading:
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank
by Thad Carhart
published in 2000 and in this
Random House paperback in 2008