24 July 2013

Silly Endings


Having never attended a composition class, I can only guess what is taught in one.  I assume a lot of attention is given to the craft of composition; things like orchestration, handling various ensembles, the potential of percussion (if the preponderance of new works involving batteries of percussion is anything to go by) and non-percussion instruments.  I also imagine that things like texture, structure and harmony get covered.  Certainly most new works seem to show an understanding of instrumental (and vocal) techniques and most have some basic sense of a structure.  True, contemporary ears, unlike Classical ears, are less willing to exert themselves to recognise complex aural structures, so most new works involve a structure which is either glaringly obvious (such as a superficial cyclical form in which the opening reappears just before the end) or associated with some extra-musical image which is more accessible to modern-day audiences (hence the current passion for film music, where audiences know what is going on because of their familiarity with the movie itself and so project the movie’s structure on to the music they hear).  The one thing which does not seem to be taught to new composers is how to end their compositions.

The way a work ends is vital; something which Beethoven clearly recognised as, determined that his audience should not only know that the ending was upon them but also that what they had heard leading up to that point was of great stature and significance, he would hammer his final cadences home with so many repetitions and restatements of dominant/tonic chords that they verge on the farcical (surely nobody can take the closing of the 8th Symphony seriously?). Others – Wagner is a classic example – felt that a short, sharp and decisive cadence is the perfect summation for expansive musical arguments - for me, Charles Villiers Stanford was the master of the decisive Perfect Cadence - while no composer in history was so adept at finding exactly the right way to end his music, providing both summation and peroration, than J S Bach.

Yet, as the 20th century progressed and composers began to place more of an emphasis on the detail within their music, endings fell by the wayside.  While in 1879 Widor reserved all his inspiration for the final cadence of his famous Toccata, creating a closing passage so exciting as almost to demand rapturous applause (and nicely expunging the acres of sterile invention which has gone before), 70 years later Gy├Ârgy Mushel did things entirely the other way round, his Toccata full of stimulating ideas until the very end when, in effect, it simply peters out.  (Noel Rawsthorne, who introduced the work to the British public, once recorded it with a spectacular finish full of gushing octaves and glissandi.  When I asked him about it, he confessed that he felt the original ending was so weak he decided to improvise a brief but effective postscript to it.)

The cause may well be the tendency for composers now to work to set time limits.  I remember Alun Hoddinott telling me about his Sarum Fanfare.  He had been commissioned to write the piece and approached it with so little enthusiasm that, as the deadline approached, he had only written half of what was wanted.  He then hit on the brilliant idea of simply making up the shortfall by reversing what he had written and tacking it on to the end; creating one of the few musical palindromes.  Unfortunately the student he charged with writing it out for publication never thought to transfer the accidentals, so much of the second half includes weird harmonic effects which do not work and, more particularly, an ending which, to be kind to my late professor, redefines the dismal in music.

A particular habit composers have when writing new organ music is simply to stop the piece when the time (or invention) runs out and throw down a hulking great chord.  And it is this which got me thinking about the silly endings composers now seem happy to adopt.  Attending a very fine recital last night in St Salvator’s Chapel, St Andrews, the organist, Thomas Wilkinson, performed what he told us was the third performance of James MacMillan’s St Andrews Suite.  MacMillan is unquestionably one of the most talented new composers on the scene right now, and few would question his ability to write very fine, thought-provoking and intelligent music.  The St Andrews Suite is all those things and a lot more besides, but there was more than a hint that the work, commissioned to mark the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of St Andrews, had been produced under rather tight time constraints.  The title itself seemed unimaginative (if apt), but the three movements, each very distinctive, were simply listed as I, II and III (which helps nobody at all).  The first movement was a scintillating Toccata, the second a somewhat complex Trio (Wilkinson eliciting intakes of admiring breath from the people behind me as his fingers and feet twinkled delicately over the independent strands of musical agility) and the third a kind of jig based on a jaunty little jazz-like theme.  This third movement started to head towards the character of the opening Toccata, and I thought that here we had a classic case of a cyclical structure, creating a nice, neat musical circle.  However, just as we got into the apparent peroration, Wilkinson stopped and pulled out a fistful of stops (for all its charms, the St Salvator’s organ has such noisy stop action that every registration change sounds as if a broom has fallen over in an adjacent cupboard).  He then sat on a big, unrelated chord and I wondered what was going to come next.  The answer was…nothing.  That was the end.  And very disappointing it was, too, somewhat diluting the impact of what had, up to that point been a very satisfying piece.

For me, the most irritating habit young pianists have when playing Bach is to end with a significant diminuendo.  When I was a boy, I used to be criticised for adding stops and (occasionally) opening the swell pedal as a Bach Fugue reached its culmination (I still love the occasional admonition in the old Novello edition of Bach Fugues to “add solo tuba” near the end); it seemed natural to me that with all those voices coming in and the texture thickening with every bar, the volume should likewise broaden out.  The current fashion is to fade away, ending great works of contrapuntal complexity with a whimper rather than a shout. The blame probably lies with generations of record producers who, faced with young writers who have written a good song but have no idea what to do with it, have made the fade the almost obligatory ending to pop music. 

In its place, however, the fade can be very effective.  Holst ended his Planets Suite with one of the most inspired fades of all, getting a wordless chorus to fade off into the distance as if disappearing behind the outer reaches of the universe.  Of course, in practice this does not always work.  I remember the first time we did this with the Malaysian Philharmonic (under James Judd) the decision was to keep the chorus off stage and, to create the fade, put them into the off-stage elevator and close the doors.  Only in the dress rehearsal did the folly of this idea reveal itself.  The only way to close the doors was to press the button to move the lift up to the next level.  Someone duly did this and as we heard the choir fade away into a highly-effective near-silence, Judd smiled with satisfaction, only to have the grin wiped from his face as the lift reached the next level, the doors opened and the chorus emerged still singing.  There’s also a famous Albert Hall story about the chorus leading off from the high balcony and disappearing behind the organ.  The person in front found a set of double doors and, assuming they led out into the back stage area, pushed through them with her fellow chanteuses behind, only to discover she had led the choir out on to the other side of the organ and back into the auditorium.

Another work in last night’s concert tried a similar trick.  Again this was an outstanding piece of new music by a Scottish composer.  Edward McGuire has, apparently, written a four-movement piece for various combinations of brass instruments celebrating Outer Space and the Universe, and Bede Williams and his wife, Vicky Williams, gave us the third movement, Orbit, scored for two trumpets.  It was a highly-effective piece and played with such clarity and commitment as they did, it had a powerful impact.  There were touches of the theatre about it which were highly effective without diminishing the musical impact, the final involving Bede walking off stage like some automaton drawn by its trumpet into the infinite darkness pursued by his wife (a kind of modern-day, sex-reversal Orpheus and Eurydice).  The idea, presumably, was that they should keep going until the sound disappeared but, unfortunately, the chapel geography did not allow this, so they hid behind a pulpit and, with remarkable technical skill, reduced their sound to nothing.  It inspired a few chuckles from the audience - which we must assume was not McGuire’s intention - and I have to confess it did seem a bit silly.

I am deeply impressed by the quality of new music coming from Scottish composers, and this concert showed two of the very best.  I just wish they could find a better way to end their inspired creations.

12 July 2013

Dr Marc's Blog: Iconic Organ Records

Dr Marc's Blog: Iconic Organ Records

Losing Listening Skills

There is a very obvious downside to publishing a blog with universal access, and that is not so much the amount of promotional rubbish that gets sent under the guise of "comment" as the occasional offensive comment posted by some poor soul with nothing better to do than while away the night surfing aimlessly and (presumably) drinking avidly.  In a bid to avoid causing offence to my readers, I try never to allow comments to appear which hide their identity (although most seem to prefer to remain anonymous) and I certainly immediately expunge anything which contains offensive language - and a surprising lot of it does.  I often wonder why people access a blog which makes it clear that it is concerned with classical music if they dislike the subject matter so much; but each to his own, and if some of the comments received are anything to go by, my posts more often entice readers to listen to music or take music exams seriously than cause them offence.

A curiously vitriolic comment popped up the other day, however, which I would quite like to have published, but which I could not since it contained language which many readers would have found offensive.  As a critic, an examiner and, above all, as a opinionated commentator, I am used to inciting ire in others, and I am quite happy to take justified criticism on the chin as well as to field derogatory comments from those holding diametrically opposed views to mine, but I really cannot fathom what caused this outburst of venom.  In response to my post about favourite organ records, (follow link above) I received an abuse-laden diatribe suggesting that (and I paraphrase) I should talk to organists of my generation and not be so rude about Helmut Walcha.  Since it was Helmut Walcha's Bach recordings which first whetted my appetite for organ music (something to which I have alluded in other posts, and have no hesitation in pointing out again here), and since the post in question never mentioned Walcha, this comment was perplexing, to say the least.  I can only assume a mixture of undiluted orange cordial and a bad outbreak of acne had affected my apparently adolescent attacker's reason.

On the same day as this comment appeared, an organist of slight acquaintance sent a circular email inviting all of us to access his new account on YouTube.  "Log on to .... and see my latest performances".  Sadly, any exposure to the miserable, puerile offerings on most YouTube channels inspires in me the same irrational irritation as my blog posts do to adolescent glue-sniffers, so to avoid causing offence by taking up the invitation to proffer a comment, I avoid these things like the plague; there's enough music in my life without having to endure the amateurish ramblings of egotistical bores.

There is, though, a link between my offensive correspondent and my inoffensive organist; and that is the refusal to use the word "listen" - an essential element in anything to do with music.  The former suggests I should "talk to organists".  What would that serve?  Surely I should listen to them?  If, as is suggested, I am speaking from ignorance, further speaking would only reinforce that ignorance.  A spell of serious listening might well lift the burden of ignorance from my shoulders.

Similarly, my organist associate does not ask me to listen to his playing, merely to "see" it.  Can it be that he feels his playing is so bad it would be better to experience it mute?  That would certainly make, for me, YouTube a more amenable experience.

And it doesn't stop there.  When I asked a group of students to bring in a recording to discuss in a lecture on music criticism, they all brought in either a DVD or something downloaded from YouTube; the concept of listening as opposed to seeing and hearing was clearly out of their experience.  Whether or not aural tests at graded examinations are getting easier (as many suggest), the average mark being earned by students is going down - in a recent exam session I think I must have written "improve your listening skills" more often than anything else on exam reports as student after student was unable to differentiate between major and minor tonality or between modulations to the dominant and to the relative minor. If you give a talk about music, while your audience will sit spell-bound (no harm in trying it on!) while they can see you talking, as soon as you play a sound-only recording, they regard it as the time to talk to each other or send a text.  Concert audiences seem to find it impossible to sit and listen without accessing their texting device or confiding in a neighbour. Put simply, the art of listening seems to be dying out.  Listening is a skill which needs training and practice.  Perhaps society has become so lazy that the effort involved is simply not worth the outcome.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to music comes not from  general apathy, financial cutbacks or alternative technologies, but the universal loss of listening skills.

01 July 2013

Save Our Silence


There is an assumption that everybody in the world not only loves pop music but cannot survive without it.  Any public space is flooded with the sound of pop; restaurants, cafes, pubs, hotels, shopping malls, railway termini, airport departure lounges and open air markets all resound to it, a visit to a hairdressing salon or a supermarket throws pop at you with unblinking directness and pop music has become so ubiquitous in sporting events that the two have become inseparable.  I am denied access to a gym because I can’t stand pop music blaring at me all the time, I cannot go to a sporting event because of the non-stop pop screaming at me from a sound-system which has cost almost as much to install as the arena has to be kitted out for the requirements of sport, and the only sport I can safely watch on television without having my eardrums assaulted by unwanted pop music is Formula One Motor Racing where, if there is pop (and I suspect there is), the noise of the cars effectively drowns it out.  In a straight choice between a Mercedes six litre and Taylor Swift, give me the Mercedes every time. Television programmes, be they about animals, outer space or food, are flooded with pop, and Call Centres, be they in India, Indonesia or Ilford, assume you prefer pop to a human voice when they put you on extended hold. 
When it comes to what you eat you are given unlimited choices.  I can be pampered with whatever dietary or “lifestyle” fad I may be following at the time; I can be offered alternatives to nuts, dairy products or wheat.  When it comes to what you see you have unlimited choices with hundreds of digital channels offering unlimited porn, religious devotions or various coloured paints drying all at the click of a mouse.  But when it comes to what you hear, choice is a luxury to which none of us, it would seem, is entitled.  I have to hear pop.  I don’t choose to, but I cannot avoid it.  And the odd thing is, with the ready accessibility of all kinds of music, I am surprised that we still pursue the archaic practice of swamping every public and private area with piped music.  Why are those of us who have the gift of hearing denied choice? 

Last night I went to a very fine restaurant in a quiet and outwardly respectable village in the English county of Hertfordshire.  Dining alone, I was assaulted by the chef’s loud transistor radio percolating through from the kitchen, the loud pop music emanating from the bar and the soft, irritatingly monotonous piped music in the restaurant itself.  Why if you are in the business of tantalising the taste buds, do you not think about tantalising the ear?  It’s the aural equivalent of presenting diners with a bucket of pigswill where lots of different bits of food are all mixed into a ghastly mess.    
This morning I was breakfasting in my hotel to the cacophonous wailings of a female “artiste” seemingly in the final stages of labour or, perhaps, in the ultimate moments of sexual ecstasy (it’s difficult to tell the two apart musically).  I am sure that when I get into the taxi the first thing the driver will do will be to turn on the radio to a pop channel before he starts assaulting me with his voice. 

The problem is more acute now than it was previously because the demand for wall-to-wall pop has become so heavy that a pop singer no longer needs any kind of vocal training; electronics will do it all for you.  The result is a plethora of electronically manipulated gender-ambiguous voices expunging all hint of roughness or individuality to create a bland and monotonous whine which is not so much irritating and downright offensive.
The trouble is, I don’t think people do want pop music accompanying their every action (for God’s sake, you even get it in public toilets and hospitals).  It’s simply that they have become so inured to a climate in which it accompanies absolutely everything, that they assume it is a natural and inevitable background to life.  Rather like child abuse, racial prejudice, domestic violence, horse meat labelled as beef or air pollution, we just let it pass, assuming that we have no control over it, until some activist comes along and proves us wrong.  Perhaps the time has come for some activist to show us that we can live our lives in silence.

And I do mean silence.  I love music, but I do not expect to force my tastes on others.  The first thing I do whenever I have a passenger in my car is to turn the radio or the music off.  Why subject a guest to something they may not like?  It seems like good manners to me, even if it is unaccountable behaviour in the eyes of hoteliers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers.  I am entirely in agreement with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes who writes in the booklet of his excellent new disc of Beethoven’s first and Second Piano Concertos of how, when in Brazil, he was almost driven mad by the two concertos being played in a loop in the elevator of his hotel in Sao Paolo.  Surely we are better positioned now than ever before to have a choice in what we admit to our ears; we really don’t need those ignorant, musically illiterate and ill-bred yobs who have control over sound systems in public places to force on us their depraved tastes.

But before that activist comes along and stands up for silence, let us take care.  Those who campaigned against child abuse whipped up such a manic frenzy of public opinion that it is not possible to be in any way associated with children without everyone pointing the finger and looking at you suspiciously (there’s the famous story of a paediatrician being attacked in Portsmouth because the local loonies couldn’t tell the difference between Paediatrician and Paedophile).  Activists unable to stop once they had drawn attention to the appalling injustices of racial discrimination have now encouraged any black person who walks into a bar and is not immediately served by the white waitress to see it as a racial slur (I recently witnessed a black lady, accidentally overlooked by a white bar-tender, calling the police to lay a charge of racial discrimination – and the police had to take her seriously despite the obvious injustice of her claim).  Every husband who has an argument with his wife is accused of harassment, nobody dares eat certain pre-prepared foods because the fanatics have led us to believe that all are in some way polluted, and the entire British landscapes is littered with hideous wind turbines because environmental fanatics have persuaded us that they are “better” than a hidden smock stack.

I don’t want to go there.  I want someone to allow me the right of silence but also to allow others the right of whatever music they want.  It should be easy; in the old days we called it courtesy and consideration.  So I say what is needed is a simple change of attitude; let’s silence the norm and music the luxury; that way we will all appreciate both the more.