31 August 2013

Programme Note Follies

Mozart, I learn, spent “the first 22 years of his life studying with Beethoven”.  An extraordinary fact not least because, while we do not know precisely when Beethoven was born, the consensus of informed opinion is that he was born sometime towards the end of 1770, by which time Mozart was 14.  Another apparently incontrovertible fact is that “Scarlatti invented Sonata Form”, which will have come as shock both to A B Marx, who first codified it almost a century after Scarlatti’s death, as well as to Scarlatti himself who described his keyboard works as Essercizii.  Both statements have appeared in programme notes written by students to accompany their own recitals.  Is this a frightening level of ignorance being displayed or a terrifying inability to master language?  In the case of the first claim, I suspect it was the latter - this appears to be an attempt to say that Beethoven was 22 when he studied with Mozart - but I cannot begin to fathom what, if any, real facts might have been the subject of perverted syntax in the second. 

It would be amusing to roll out a whole string of such solecisms presented in programme notes written by students and amateur musicologists.  There’s the statement that Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto “for Jacqueline Du Pré” (regardless of the 11 years which elapsed between the death of one and the birth of the other) or that “Beethoven’s brother, Modest, suggested the title of the Pathetic Piano Sonata”.  But it would  be pointless and little unfair to highlight these gaffes; often the programme notes are written under extreme pressure by students whose own teachers never had to undertake such tasks and are singularly ill-equipped to teach them.  The practice of requiring a student to write their own programme notes for recitals presented for diplomas or as graduation exercises is a very recent phenomenon, and perhaps we should excuse those who find it a task beyond their skill.

The thinking behind getting student performers to do this is admirable.  Not only does it remove the awful pressure that was once put on them by the post-recital viva voce - how to concentrate on a performance when, at the back of the mind you are rehearsing what to say to the examiner? - but it encourages performers to look beyond the mere mechanics of playing the pieces and delve, albeit at a superficial level, into the background of the music they are playing. There is also the opportunity here for an alert performer to justify or at least explain the rationale of an interpretation.  Some established performers do this magnificently – Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt, Benjamin Zander spring to mind – but I have yet to encounter the student who uses programme notes for this purpose.  Far more usual is the regurgitation of notes from other sources offering not only no personal insight into the performance but often clearly addressing a performance by someone else; how tired I am of reading that the second movement of Haydn’s Sonata in E flat is “marked Adagio Cantabile”, only to hear it performed presto e stacatissimo. 

In practice, though, student programme notes hardly ever provide anything of value, and as often as not imply a level of ignorance which positively undermines faith in the player’s interpretative instincts.  The reason for this is that effective programme notes require a degree of perceptiveness which can only be accumulated through long experience in listening to music.  Hence the long-standing convention of getting a world-weary hack (like myself) to pen them; while the performer is busily preparing the interpretations (so the argument goes), people like me can while away their dismal lives cloistered in libraries checking facts and unearthing insignificant anecdotes.   The result: an audience primed to be receptive to the performer’s interpretation by carefully crafted programme notes, putting the music and the performance in some kind of coherent context.  On top of that, those of us who have been in the programme-note writing game for years have built up a fund of peripheral and generally useless information about a whole range of musical works which can be used to keep concert-goers in thrall when they have a dull moment between the interval drinks and the musical presentations.

Given the lack of both listening and writing experience which is an inevitable consequence of being a performer at the very start of a musical career, is it little wonder that these programme notes offer such scant value?  At the bottom of it all is the ready availability and easy accessibility of the kind of information previously only open to those who had both the time and the inclination to root it out.  Students, with a performing technique to hone, were traditionally regarded as too busy to spend their time up to their necks in dusty tomes in secluded libraries; and the fact that to derive any benefit at all from a library you needed some training and a great deal of trial-and-error experience, made the task of preparing programme notes an impossibility for them.  Now that anyone can find out anything with a couple of well-intentioned keystrokes, has suddenly made the acquisition of facts so much easier and so much quicker.  So those who devise syllabuses for students, feel that writing their own notes is no longer the herculean task it once was.  And, given that it’s inconceivable that any of us could work without the benefit of online resources today, that logic seems unquestionable.

The vast amount of information available to users of the internet is certainly a Godsend to programme note writers, but it is also the principal cause of the appalling gaffes we read.  While books go through the many filters of editors, proof-readers and peer reviewers, any old Tom, Dick, Harry or Dr Marc can publish whatever they like on the internet.  The fact that it is there does not make it true.  I advise my students that if an internet site about music is free, it is unlikely to be a reliable source of correct information.  But there again, even the legitimate, pay-for-access sites have to be handled with care; inexperienced surfers are just as likely to make fools of themselves by misreading the information given on these.  Take the young clerk in the office of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra who, having been shown how to access Grove Online, decided she did not need to refer to an expert in the office before sending out the publicity she was charged with preparing.  Thus we had the billing for “Beethoven’s Second Violin Concerto” and the promise of “Music by two great Hungarian composers, Liszt and Mahler”.  True, Grove does refer to an earlier violin concerto by Beethoven and an association between Hungary and Mahler, but anyone with an iota of musical knowledge will know that these “facts” are not as clear-cut as they might seem to the uninformed reader.

This explains how so many false facts manage to find their way into student programme notes.  But what causes that mangling of syntax which in turn leads to the words saying something totally different to the thoughts?  This may be simply down to poor command of language, but there’s another, perhaps more sinister, reason: The Spectre of Plagiarism.

The very accessibility of internet resources led to the widespread practice of cutting huge swathes from one article and pasting them into another.  Apparently, university students in the US had this off to a fine art; passing off the work of other, often anonymous, writers as their own.  Pretty quickly the authorities stamped down on it and issued dire threats against those caught out.  They even devised an ingenious computer program which compares a student’s work with a few million online articles to test for plagiarism.  As with so much that originates in the US, pretty quickly the rest of the educational world began to fear plagiarism as if it was some kind of plague, and now few students can begin any work without a stern admonition that “Plagiarism is ILLEGAL” and threatening all manner of retribution on the perpetrators. 

Nobody in their right minds looks to programme notes to provide original research.  The best examples simply gather together other people’s ideas in order to provide a broader picture of the work in question.  As a programme note writer I am much more of a cherry picker than I am a seed-sower; and I’m proud of being able to select and collate relevant material from a wide spectrum of sources.  I cannot imagine anyone seriously reading programme notes and not imagining the writer has rifled through a whole host of other writings to arrive at the facts and comments printed in the programme books.  But how can young students, terrified beyond measure of having the charge of plagiarism levelled against them, begin to take ideas from other sources without risking their whole academic futures?  The obvious answer is that they are so careful to avoid the wording of their sources, that they change the words so dramatically that the whole meaning gets lost.

So we end up with amazing distortions of the truth such as, “Britten’s sham marriage ended in 1976” – which is clearly an attempt to rephrase this published comment; “Britten and Peter Pears lived as husband and wife until Britten’s death”.  And I’m not at all sure that the recent trend amongst student programme note writers to list the works of Bach not with the letters BWV but with BMW is not an over-zealous attempt to avoid a charge of plagiarism. (Which raises the intriguing question; is a BMW 5 series a kind of car driven by successful drug dealers and unscrupulous businessmen or a non-chorale-based organ work by Bach?)  There again, that may be down to the vagaries of a computer spell-check, which is quite often the only editing that the writers of these programme notes undertake.

There really is no need for those who write these to worry about plagiarism.  Most of the facts that are ever needed are widely in the public domain, and if the writer comes across a particularly pithy phrase which they would dearly love to use or a published statement which seems to stretch the bounds of credulity, all they have to do is acknowledge it.  Far better to write; “As Pauline Yore-Legge suggested in her book about the composer, ‘He wrote his first music when he was one year old and continued to de-compose long after his death’”, than to risk public ridicule or worse by pretending you are the instigator of such appalling rubbish.

25 August 2013

Asian Youth Orchestras

It was in 1992 that I first heard the Asian Youth Orchestra.  It was their first visit to Malaysia and, if I recall correctly, they were performing in a hotel ballroom in Petaling Jaya (I’ve probably got that wrong; orchestral concerts in Malaysia before the construction of Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS and the arrival of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra had a nightmarish quality and I have largely tried to expunge the memory of them).  I certainly cannot recall what they played or how they played, but I do recall a very lengthy conversation I had afterwards with a piano teacher from Malacca (sorry, Melaka) who had been in the audience.  She had been very impressed and declared how she wished Malaysia might one day have a youth orchestra of such ability, but was convinced that it could never come about.  I agreed.  At the time I was working in a dismal music school in Kuching where hardworking teachers fought against grim conditions and desultory expectations and despite the occasional passionate outburst from our Vietnamese violin teacher – the only one of around 20 who did not teach the piano or drums – it was clear that all the school was aiming to achieve was a healthy corporate bank balance.  From my examining and consultancy work around Malaysia, I knew this to be the norm but I also knew this teacher’s school in Malacca (sorry Melaka) stood out as a beacon of hope in a desert of musical apathy.  If she saw no likelihood of Malaysian youth taking to orchestral music, then it seemed the case was cut and dried.

The seeds of hope had, none-the-less, been sown by the AYO, and it could have all changed in 1998 when the members of the Malaysian Philharmonic arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a wealth of global experience under their belts and a desire to pass that on to Malaysian youth.  A crazy edict forbidding them from teaching killed off that golden opportunity then, but when, a few years into its existence, the rules began to bend and members were allowed to take on students hand-picked by management, it quickly became apparent that there was both potential and enthusiasm.  Even then, when Matthias Bamert took the bull by the horns and declared that a youth orchestra was to be formed – and, moreover, one not made up of a few scrawny violins and cellos supported by hordes of electronic keyboards and drum kits – most of us, including both myself and the teacher from Malacca (sorry Melaka) remained deeply sceptical.  Kevin Field proved all us sceptics wrong when he pulled together an amazing selection of Malaysian players and unveiled the outstanding Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in 2007. 
I heard the Asian Youth Orchestra again in concert in the far more congenial environment of Kuala Lumpur’s Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in 2011 by which time the MPYO was at the height of its powers and, by comparison, the AYO seemed unexceptional.  But the AYO in 2011 was, so far as I recall, a truly multi-national bunch and it was impressive that young players from so many widely different cultures could produce such results.  Again, I recall a conversation with a music teacher who had been in the audience (this time one from Penang (sorry Pinang) – my Malacca (sorry Melaka) friend having died in tragic circumstances a few years earlier).  She was adamant that the MPYO was much the finer of the two youth orchestras, and put this down to the fact that the players of the MPYO all came from the same country and were able to get together rather more often.

Move on two years and I find myself hearing the AYO in full flood again, this time in Hong Kong on the penultimate leg of their 2013 tour which has taken in Vietnam, Singapore, China and Taiwan;  they just have Japan left to do next week.  I was sorry to miss the first of their two Hong Kong concerts in which they were conducted by James Judd (it clashed with a performance of Dido and Aeneas across the harbour) but I was glad of the chance to hear them do a popular programme of Brahms, Haydn and Beethoven under their founding director, Richard Pontzious. 
The Hong Kong performance was the fifth outing of this particular programme within a fortnight, so it was clear from the body language of the players that they were wholly familiar with it to the point whereby they could relax and enjoy the fun of playing together.  It was this which communicated itself most vividly; Pontzious’s penchant for heavily labouring important structural points, his eagerness to draw out detail usually deeply embedded within the texture and his desire to show off how softly the musicians could play, resulting in performances which contained lots of lovely-sounding moments but lacking any sense of fluency or coherent shape (and helping stretch the programme out to the best part of three hours).  But this was a celebration of youth rather than a serious attempt to interpret standard classics, and to see so many young players really committed to the music long after they could have been forgiven for getting a little bored with it, was well worth the ticket price.  The orchestra itself certainly enjoyed the experience, and long after the audience had given up applauding, there they all were thumping their feet and waving their bows demanding that they be allowed to give an encore or two, clearly not as concerned as we in the audience were that the time for the final ferry was long past, and the time for the final MTR was rapidly approaching.

This was an inspirational performance, and while musically it was by no means perfect  – there was some loose ensemble, a couple of tentative entries and a persistent failure to achieve precise intonation on the long drawn-out chords which ended most of the pieces performed – it showed  that, among the youth of Asia, there is an abundance of orchestral talent. 
But there was one thing which I found mildly disturbing.  The AYO seems to have become an almost exclusively Chinese orchestra.  Amongst the hordes of players from Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were the merest sprinkling of Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian players all, it seems, drawn from those countries’ Chinese communities, a tiny number of Thais, Philippines, Vietnamese and Japanese (not forgetting the sole Korean whose presence, when the nationalities of the players were revealed to the audience at the end of the concert, elicited ecstatic applause from the Korean gentleman seated beside me) and a single Eurasian.  Not an Indian in sight, no evidence of any players from the Muslim communities of Asia and certainly none drawn from those European families settled here whose off-spring, born, brought up and educated in Asia, are too often regarded as alien.  Surely the AYO has had a more diverse ethnic mix in previous years? 

I know the members of the orchestra are recruited through open audition and that there is no agenda, hidden or otherwise, to ensure a Chinese majority. Perhaps Chinese players are, indeed, the finest in Asia.  But wishing no disrespect on the excellent musicians who make up the AYO – the horn section, in particular, was outstanding, there was some truly sublime playing from the bassoons and clarinets, and the string tone, while a little hard-edged, wanted for nothing in incisiveness and ensemble – I don’t think this is the reason.
My totally unfounded and speculative suggestion is that the Asian Youth Orchestra is the only really good outlet for young orchestral players from China and Hong Kong, while their contemporaries in other parts of Asia can now look to join their own national youth orchestras. Having been an inspirational force in Asian music for the past 23 years, it may be that the AYO has inspired the establishment of youth orchestras in countries which never would otherwise have had one.  I hope this orchestra continues - its value goes beyond music to inter-cultural relationships – but if it finds the supply of really good young players beginning to dry up, it should give itself a pat on the back; the Asian Youth Orchestra might just be a victim of its own success.

23 August 2013

Seeing is Hearing

If we see a blind person in the street, most of us will feel pity and either give a wide berth or offer a helping hand.  If we see a deaf person we will either ignore them, unaware of their disability, or assume that they are slightly unbalanced mentally.  This is a cruel but inescapable fact and the clue lies in the very terminology I have just used.  We emphasise in our daily speech the sense of sight above the sense of sound.  We would hear someone in the street every bit as clearly as we would see them; it’s just that we have come to rely more heavily on our sense of sight than on our sense of sound.  We believe what we see: we do not necessarily believe what we hear, and while that dreadful old cliché “The Camera Never Lies” eventually died with the widespread use of digital imagery, it was never true; it’s just that we had to accept the evidence of our eyes otherwise our world collapsed around us.

There is a hierarchy of senses.  We put sight at the top and smell at the bottom, with hearing, touch and taste somewhere in the middle.  My aunt has lost her sense of smell, and finds it mildly amusing but in no way an inconvenience.  My mother lost her sense of taste shortly before she died, but still complimented the quality of the food she ate because it looked good.  My father has lost the hearing of one ear and, even though he is a musician and still – at the age of 95 – sings in the church choir, he claims it is only a minor irritation. A colleague wrote to tell me that he had caught his hand in an escalator and lost all sense of touch in it – but he still managed to work unaided.  Yet when my old friend Pete van Biene lost his sight after attending a party where the punch was laced with methyl alcohol, he was devastated and never recovered from the shock.
Blind and Invisible?
But has it always been like this?  Certainly in musicians loss of hearing has been regarded as a more serious problem than loss of sight.  Everybody knows that Beethoven went deaf, but how many know that Bach went blind?  I doubt whether many of us would even have heard of Smetana had he not gone deaf and, as a result, poured his energies into composing (including the hugely popular Vltava), yet there is no evidence that Delius’s blindness enhanced his compositional output (“It all sounds the same to me”, is one harsh, but not entirely unjustified, reaction to the music of Delius).  Being blind has certainly not prevented the emergence of great performers.  On the organ, alone, one can point to a veritable plethora of dazzlingly virtuoso French organists who were blind - Vierne, Dupré, Langlais, André Marchal – and during the 1960s the Royal College for the Blind positively urged its members to take up a musical career; my youth seems to have been surrounded by blind piano tuners.

Suddenly, it seems, things have changed and music has become a visual rather than an aural art.  Which brings me to the research mentioned in my last blog post.  Chia-Jung Tsay, from University College London, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America in which the results of some interesting research were revealed.  Presenting non-musical volunteers with either video-only or sound-only recordings of classical music competitions, the volunteers were asked to identify the winners of each competition. (I paraphrase the details in the interest of brevity, but you can read the whole paper on http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/16/1221454110.full.pdf+html).  Those who used the video-only recordings were far more likely to get it right than those who used the sound-only ones.  The conclusion to be drawn is that contemporary audiences (and judges) rely more on sight than sound in assessing a musical performance.  As I’ve observed time and time again in this blog, the current generation of music-lovers needs visual images before they can appreciate a musical performance.  Asked to comment on recordings, students assume that one is talking about a DVD or YouTube.  Asked about classical music coverage on the media, and most will complain that there is not enough; assuming that by media, one means television and forgetting the ready availability, thanks to internet ubqiuitousness, of those classical music radio stations outside south east Asia which broadcast 24 hours, seven days a week, intelligent and tasteful programming.  For today’s music lovers, sound-only classical music is second best; and for many not an option at all.  Hearing, for them, is seeing.
Thus the desire of record companies to sign up attractive, young players, often of dubious musical quality, but who are, in the eyes of those for whom superficiality is a three-dimensional word, attractive.  What chance would the wart-faced Liszt, the cadaverous Chopin or the ghoulishly gaunt Paganini have in today’s climate?  None.  Brilliant as your playing may be, if your stomach bulges over your belt, if your hands and face are smothered with liver spots or your eyes focus in contrary directions, there’s no hope for you as a performer.  Back in the 1980s there was a magnificent British tenor called Ian Partridge, with whom I had the great good fortune to work alongside in a memorable performance of the St Matthew Passion.  His was a tremendous voice, but I remember one record producer telling me that his stage career never took off because he has "an unfortunate face". (He also described the composer John Gardner as “looking like a bull dog with a harelip”, so generosity of spirit was not part of his make-up.)  Sadly, that record producer became a leading figure in one of the multi-national labels which first started to market recordings through pictures of the artist rather than through the descriptive landscapes or abstract images which, up to that point, had adorned record covers.
A Bulldog?
An Unfortunate Face?

Tsay’s research showed that pianists who looked to be passionate while performing and who wore their emotions on their sleeves were correctly identified by the volunteers as the winners.  Without the benefit of that image, those who listened to sound-only recordings had only musicality and technique to go by – and they largely got it wrong.  So much, then for those great musicians of the past who believed in maintaining a stern, unbending posture and expressed no emotion or sensitivity in their faces.  Rachmaninov, unfairly described by one of music’s ugliest men – Igor Stravinsky – as “a six-and-a-half foot scowl” (it was not true - as pictures of Rachmaninov proved – but he rarely smiled or, indeed, showed any emotion while playing) would stand no hope in today’s climate; the greatest pianist of the 20th century confined to the dustbin of no-chancers by the 21st century appetite for clean and sexy visual images.

Where's the Scowl?
Music's Ugliest Man?
I saw the late-night Prom in London where John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir gave a scintillating account of some Bach choral works.  Those around me commented on the “intimacy” they brought to the Albert Hall and to the “authenticity” of the performances.  Authenticity my foot!  There’s no way Bach would have recognised these polished, neat and, above all, visually arresting performances.  He wrote his music with the full knowledge that nobody would see the musicians stuck high in a gallery, and would surely have been horrified to think that the performers would one day become centre stage, eclipsing even the God for whom he originally conceived his marvellous music.   
Several correspondents to this blog, when I wrote a piece about listening to live music, confessed that they listened with their eyes shut, because they were distracted by what they saw.  I confess to the doing the same.  Interestingly enough, those correspondents, like me, list a whole range of musical heroes at odds with those who are the popular heroes of today.  In the organ world, a passionate following for Cameron Carpenter is not so passionate amongst those of us who choose to hear rather than see (although I’m the first to admire his phenomenal technique). Ecstatic praise for Sarah Chang seems reserved only for those who like what she looks like on stage.  And I’m inclined to question how many records Kathryn Jenkins might have sold were she not so captivatingly photogenic.

The Man on the Left is the Better Organist because he looks sexy in a

For the great mass of people, music is no longer about sound, but about sight, and while many would suggest that this is merely “packaging”, a necessary route to the hearts and dollars of a 21st century market, I would suggest that you only need study the reaction of children to “packaging”.  Spend a fortune on their Christmas present, wrap it up, and you will find that they spend many more hours playing with the colourful packaging than with the present itself.  Sadly, we have now reached the stage where people prefer the  packaging of Classical Music to its content.  This research has shown that, so long as you can see, you can appreciate what now passes as Classical Music.

22 August 2013

Spotting a Competition Winner

The newsbar which runs along the bottom of the screen on BBC World television the other day included a tantalising snippet which, if it was reported in any of the bulletins, passed me by.  It ran something like this; “Research shows that public can identify winners of classical music competitions from watching silent videos”.  I am not surprised this item did not make it beyond the few lines of text put up on screen in a lull between the latest atrocities in Egypt and Syria; it’s hardly earth-shattering news.  Indeed, for any of us involved in assessment of classical music performances, it is not news at all.  We’ve known it all along.

Ask any adjudicator or examiner and they will tell you that they know how well an individual is going to perform from the very moment they walk on stage or into the examination room.  It takes only a few notes to confirm the impression and, in truth, you rarely need to hear anything at all to arrive at the same conclusion as you do after 45 minutes of a recital.  There’s something about the way a performer approaches their instrument, the way they hold themselves before singing or the way in which they address their audience that tells you straight away how good they are. 

I occasionally jot down my guess as to what the final result is going to be before even the first note has been struck; and at least 80% of the time I’m absolutely spot on.  Which is not to say, of course, that my colleagues and I do not listen with compete attention to what is being played.  All examiners have horror stories about writing words like “an impressive level of accuracy”, only immediately for the candidate to go off on a wild tangent leaving the score in metaphorical shreds, or declaring “a highly intelligent  and perceptive interpretation” only for the player to commit the most appalling interpretative solecisms.  And it’s only once the very final note has died away (and often the final note can destroy a performance – a nervous player often forgetting that the piece ends only in the silence which follows the final double bar) that a truly fair assessment of the performance can be made.  But the fact remains, those first impressions usually give a fair proportion – if not all – of the game away.

There is a solid reason behind this - it’s certainly not just instinct.  Like any craftsman, a musician develops a relationship with an instrument which evolves to an extent whereby the two seem, if not inseparable, then made for each other.  Look at the great violinists – how their necks seem bereft when there’s no violin tucked in.  Look at great singers – how their lungs seem to have developed to such an extent that their whole body seems to be designed around projecting the voice.  Look at a master cellist’s legs – although perhaps we better not go there!

A drunken session in a pub with fellow music students at university resulted in an animated discussion about how we could tell what instruments people played by what they drank.  Pointless as that exercise was, one can often tell what instrument people play by just looking at them.  Oboists have tight lips, tuba players have great rubbery ones, violinists often seem tense and highly strung while viola players let their bottom lips droop as if trying to catch bottom-dwelling notes (which is probably behind that scurrilous and wholly false assertion that viola players are thick).  Double Bass players lope along like bears in a world of their own, Trombone players often seem to have elasticated arms, and Trumpeters have three fingers of their right hand so well developed that when they hold their beer glasses it sometimes looks as if they are about to squash them flat (which takes us back to the business of telling instrumentalists from their beverage of choice).

Which begs the question.  Is this physical similarity between player and instrument the result of a protracted partnership or merely the coincidental natural physical characteristics of the player?  If the latter, then a musician’s performance might be assessed not just before they have struck a note but years before; before, indeed, they had even met the instrument on which they subsequently perform. If this is the case, then the newsbar text might have written; “Research shows that winners in classical music competitions can be identified at birth”. Clearly, then, for a musician to succeed in later life it is vital that the correct pairing of person to instrument is made at the very earliest stages of musical development. 

Despite a growing industry in identifying through psychological and physical profiling which instruments best suit which children, it is still too often a hit-and-miss affair resulting in thousands of children with pronounced musical potential being turned off because they are being taught on an inappropriate instrument.  The problem is particularly acute here in Asia where the incentive to play an instrument is governed largely by peer pressure.  Tens of thousands play the piano, when it is manifestly the wrong instrument for them, and as a consequence too many potentially fine instrumentalists are, in effect, stillborn.  There is every bit as much likelihood that a Chinese child could become a Clarinet phenomenon as a Piano one, but not while this ridiculous piano-or-nothing culture persists.  Too few parents understand how important it is for a young child to take up a musical instrument with which they can properly relate, and thereby express those inner feelings which remain forever internalised without the outlet of music.

I know there’s a lot of research going into this issue, but I wish it could sometimes hit the headlines. If doting parents saw taut lips on their infant progeny, should not their natural reaction be “my son’s going to be an oboe player”, or, when identifying a tendency to bow-leggedness, proclaim “we have a potential cellist in the family”?  Does baby grasp the bottle tightly with the right hand fingers firmly round it (trumpet player) or dribble its contents over their chin (violist).  So much better this than the tendency to see the natural fun any infant gets out of hammering a keyboard and hearing a noise, as indicating the arrival of the next Lang Lang.

Of course, by now, attentive readers will have found the original research at the heart of the BBC text for themselves (an excellent piece by Chia-Jung Tsay of University College, London available on www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/16/1221454110 ) and discovered it has nothing to do with what I have written about.  But why, as they say, spoil a good blog post with slavish attention to facts and, in any case, the real subject of the research – the reliance on visual over aural perceptions – is too close to my heart not to warrant a further post sometime soon.  Watch – rather than hear – this space.

21 August 2013

The Good and Bad of the Gramophone

When Thomas Edison demonstrated his phonograph in London 125 years ago this year, he asked Sir Arthur Sullivan to record a message.  This is what Sullivan said; “I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening's experiments – astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever”.  How astonishingly prescient of him (and something which only reinforces my belief that Sullivan was a much greater man than his admirable tunes in the Savoy Operas and English hymn books imply).

Unquestionably, the power of the gramophone has transformed the world of music beyond all imagination.  It is amazing how many people, for whom music would not necessarily have meant anything at all, have suddenly become absolutely passionate about it (remember the stupefyingly daft stickers the staff at Tower Records used to have to wear which read “No Music, No Life” when most of them had never even heard of Sir Arthur Sullivan?). People who cannot sing, regularly tell us that they “love singing” when, what they really love, is dancing along and mouthing the meaningless texts of pre-recorded rock music.  A whole industry of “music” has grown up, fed and nurtured not on music, but on the recording industry.  And shopping, flying, eating and sleeping all have to be carried out to the accompaniment of recorded music.  The gramophone has had the power, quite simply, to revolutionise daily life, bringing music to the ears of those for whom it would never have had any meaning and, I hope, greatly enriching their lives.  Speaking for myself, I have had my life immeasurably enriched by the gramophone and my knowledge of music has largely been derived from its pervasive influence.
The trouble is, as Sullivan foresaw, the very ubiquitousness of the gramophone has effectively dulled our critical faculties so that those who profess a “love” – sometimes even a “passion” – for music, have no idea whether what they hear is good or bad.  Of course, most will claim that this is a subjective judgement and if they like something, therefore it is good.  Slowly but surely, the health professionals are teaching us the folly of this attitude.  Cigarettes, alcohol, fatty foods, sugary drinks – people love them, but generally most people know that they are bad.  So the culture that “I like, therefore it is good: I dislike, therefore it is bad”, is gradually dying.  If only it would die when it comes to music!

It is one of the sad consequences of the invention of the gramophone that it has come to supplant live musical performances.  I know of a great many “music-lovers” who not only proudly proclaim that they “prefer” to hear recorded music than live, but who show no shame in confessing that they have never ever heard a live performance.  The expectations of a recorded performance have become the yardsticks by which live performances are measured.  Notwithstanding the ridiculous Malaysian critic who, in his review of a live performance by the MPO, wrote that it was “not as good” as a recorded version of the same work by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Karajan, people have come to expect absolute accuracy in every live performance, happily forgetting that it is achieved in the recording studio only by means of multiple re-takes.  To be fair, performers have worked hard to meet these unrealistic aspirations and many actually do achieve a level of accuracy in live performance which would have been unthinkable in Sullivan’s time. 
At a more prosaic level, we find this obsession with the standard of accuracy found on recorded performances impinging on humble week-by-week piano lessons, when a teacher’s demands for “getting all the notes right” allows little room for individual interpretation or expression of the music’s inner spirit.  How many music students are put off by this dry obsession with a technical impossibility when the true spirit of music is never even mentioned in a lesson? 

Another common feature of recorded music which impinges on live performances comes in the practice established with the arrival of the CD in 1983 of putting precise timings on music tracks. Examiners are continually faced with diploma candidates who, expected to give the timings of their proposed programmes, will suggest that they can rattle off Haydn’s Sonata in E flat in precisely 14 minutes and 39 seconds, or a Bach Cello Suite in 8 minutes and 32 seconds.  YouTube can be that precise; the reality of a live performance cannot, and it’s good fun (if rather unfair) to work out by how much the actuality of performance digresses from the stated timing. 
What is even more sad is that technology is such that live performers are no longer necessary.  For years the classical music industry has accepted that there is a difference between performing for a recording and performing for an audience (and the expressed preferences of some of today’s leading instrumentalists – I can’t say that I know of a singer who takes this attitude – only to record “live” reinforces the point), but in the world of pop the concept of a live performance has long gone.  What is “live” there is at best an attempt to recreate a recorded performance, and is more usually merely a “lip-synch” to the recording itself.

In many ways this shift of emphasis from live to recorded performances is a good thing.  It certainly ensures that the performance stands up to repeated listening (which is something few live performances can claim), and has widened the reach of music far beyond the kind of public who appreciated it in Sullivan’s day.  But at what cost?  Forgetting the obvious frisson you get in any live performance - that sense of things being “on the edge” and likely to collapse at any moment – are we not in danger of taking the adrenalin out of a performance?  True, in the recording studio no matter how many takes you allow yourself, there is adrenalin pumping through the body. But that is nothing compared to the blind panic that sweeps through any performer just before a live performance, knowing that one false move can destroy, perhaps irretrievably, a reputation and a career.  Performers can be excused for opting for the safe course, and trusting their reputations to the skills of engineers and producers, but we the public lose that incredible sense of excitement that comes with any live performance.
Soccer fans lose interest in a match when they already know the result; for them it has to be live or nothing.  F1 fans do not experience the same thrill watching a replay of a race when they already know that it wasn’t interrupted by a spectacularly fiery collision.  It is a pity that music fans do not show such commitment and involvement in their art.  A source of endless fun for me is to sit through a live Wagner opera and see how badly a singer gets it wrong and how well a conductor manages to cover things up; an aspect you never get with a recorded performance.

Sullivan got it right about the bad music.  But even he, in all his wisdom, was not able to anticipate the plethora of bad performers made good in the public eyes by the record industry

01 August 2013

August Madness

The Istituto Italiano di Cultura (the Italian Cultural office in Singapore) invites me to the Marina Club on Sentosa Island later in the month to witness an extraordinary event;  “On August 24, famed artist-athlete Alberto Cristini will attempt to swim around Terkukor Island, about one mile away from Sentosa, whilst completing a painting in less than two hours.”
Alberto Cristini in his studio


When it comes to pointless pursuits in the name of art, the Italians have hit a new high.  I’m not sure what, as a spectator, I will precisely see; presumably a soggy Italian bobbing up and down between the oil slicks and the buzzing Indonesian ferry-boats with an inflatable easel and waterproof paints will be there somewhere, but if he’s a mile off-shore (and why this sudden move of the Italians to Imperial measures?), even the most powerful binoculars are unlikely to offer conclusive evidence of his feat. 
There is a fine tradition of great artists coming from Italy, and it is good to know that the heritage of Botticelli, Canaletto, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Michelangelo and Raphael continues with Signor Cristini.  And if Canaletto, for example, never thought to swim in the Grand Canal while painting scenes of Venice or in the Thames while committing Westminster Bridge to canvas, more fool him!  I want to see one of the great Italian painters at work, and if I have to do so from a man-made beach in the South China Sea and through a high-powered telescope, that’s a small price to pay.

There again, it may all be a joke.  And I’m all for that.  There isn’t enough humour in the arts, and while commentators moan and groan about cutbacks, paltry government funding, lack of interest, blah, blah, blah, I think a good belly-laugh is what’s needed to encourage us to enjoy art rather than complain about it. 

Music, luckily, has always had its sense of humour.  Percy Grainger was a fantastic composer, but gave us all (and continues to do so) a good laugh along the way (I still double up with mirth when I recall Andrew Davis carrying on a life-size cardboard cut-out of Grainger to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall when he conducted a live performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto where the soloist was Grainger’s own piano roll), Haydn’s jokes still cause a chuckle while Malcolm Arnold had the knack of turning the ridiculous into enjoyable music.  The wonderful RCO celebration in 1966 – Organ In Sanity and Madness – showed that organists could laugh at themselves, while Gerald Hoffnung’s cartoons still adorn music studios the world over with their hilarious caricatures of musicians at work.  And almost exactly a year ago I reported in this blog about the antics of one Stefan Aaron who liked to play his piano on tops of mountains.
The theatre is, of course, full of humour, and a preponderance of silly sculptures in unexpected places gives a lovely touch of humour to travelling around Europe.  I’m not so much into dance that I recognise humour or satire there, but I’m told it exists.  So it’s only in painting that humour seems in really short supply.  So we must be grateful to Signor Cristini.

There remains, though, a niggling doubt.  Might this actually be a serious artistic endeavour?  Surely not; nobody would be that weird, even an Italian painter.  All the same, I’ll be there, cheering on this modern-day water-colourist from the beach, glass of Chianti to hand.