25 November 2013

No Music from the Grassy Knoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 November 2013

Battling for Britten

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

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

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

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

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

Purcell made it on to a postage stamp

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

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

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

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

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

20 November 2013

Ban the Band

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope hell freezes over first.

19 November 2013

The Sacrament of the Microphone

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

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

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

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

12 November 2013

Just a Song at Sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 November 2013

Page Turning Terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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