08 October 2018

Baroque Baloney

A Giant by virtue of ability or an accident of time?

Over the weekend Singapore staged a Baroque Festival.  I’m not sure that three very short programmes containing barely three hours of music in total by three composers (and a part of a fourth) constitutes a true “Festival”, but I am open to persuasion either way.  What concerns me more is the use of the word “Baroque”.

You do not have to have read many of my blog posts to know that I am strongly opposed to what I regard as the seriously flawed practice of using the word Baroque as a synonym for a specific period of world history.  We might all have been taught in our grade 5 theory lessons, or at our High School music classes, that every and any composer writing music between the years 1600 and 1750 was Baroque, but at various times in our history we have also been taught that cigarette smoking is an acceptable social habit, that asbestos is a wonderful material for use in domestic buildings, that a woman’s place is in the home bearing children and caring for her husband’s every need, and that same sex relationships are repugnant.  Just as we now recognise that those attitudes fail because they misrepresent health considerations, and demean both women and homosexuals, so we should recognise that to lump every composer together by coincidence of dates is similarly to misrepresent and demean their individuality and the value of their music.

Any composer is influenced by a whole raft of things - culture, geographical location, technology, personal relationships, individual sexuality, gender and social standing - before the accident of time.  Do we look at today’s USA, with its idiosyncratic political attitudes, at today’s North Korea with its oppressive and dictatorial government, at Saudi Arabia with its unshakeable belief in its inalienable right to administer life and death to its subjects, or to Singapore with its comfortable, safe and unexciting life-style, and say that everybody thinks and does the same by virtue of the fact that they are all alive in 2018?  We do not do that in our 21st century, so why do we see no incongruity in making those very assumptions of sameness in earlier centuries? 

Almost every child who has had a few superficial lessons in music history can trot out the statement that Baroque comes from an Old Portuguese word meaning deformed pearl.  That may (or may not) be correct, but do any of them (or their teachers) take it any further and ask why music should be likened to a deformed pearl, be it Portuguese or any other nationality?

The application of the word Baroque to music was first recorded in a highly derogatory critique of Rameau published in 1733.  It was, in short, a term of abuse and ridicule.  Rameau, for his part, relished controversy and contention, and I suspect he deliberately had written music which was seen as the antithesis of his French counterparts.  Set beside the clean, clear, no-nonsense rhythms, harmonies and melodies, of Couperin and Charpentier, Rameau was almost gleefully wayward, introducing complex inner distractions and confusing outer details to which the description of a “deformed pearl” must have seemed utterly appropriate.  I think we might suggest, even, that Rameau was deliberately courting controversy and attempting to trigger debate.

So how is it that a composer like Bach, who, in his music at least, was never controversial (even if, in life, he was anything but simple and uncontentious) has ended up not just being described as “deformed” but celebrated as the most “deformed” composer of all time?

The answer lies in the passion amongst educationalists in the early 20th century to put everything into boxes with neat little labels so that it was readily comprehensible to the ignorant masses.  Sadly, music education – always slow to change with the times – has got itself stuck in that rut, and still loves its boxes and labels.  How much easier it is to describe all those myriad composers who lived and worked between 1600 and 1750 as “Baroque” than to endeavour to identify them with the kind of unique set of circumstances which have ensured that their names and their music have been preserved into posterity.  Gardeners talk of Bedding Plants and Perennials when suggesting to amateurs what to grow and where – and there is some value in this – but by doing the same thing with music, we do it a big disservice.  “Let’s begin our programme with Baroque and then move to Classical before finishing with Modern”, is the mantra of bad piano teachers and weak-kneed pianists when planning programmes.  Forget issues such as tonality, style, character and impact.  You can have a programme comprising three pieces all called “Prelude in D” provided they are taken out of different historical boxes, yet a programme of Powerful Opening Statement , Long Sonata, and exciting Toccata is deemed unacceptable since they all have come out of the “Modern” box; no historical variety here, so bad programme!

That inability to identify variety when it stares you in the face, because you are blinded by the label on the box, was the big flaw in this Baroque Festival.  We had a concert of Bach.  Yes, we could argue that Bach is a true Baroque composer, in that his music is complex, often difficult to comprehend and usually quite astonishingly deformed.  Various theses are propounded to justify Bach’s love of Bach’s love of counterpoint; that he intended his music to be incomprehensible to man and comprehensible only to God, that he was so fascinated by mathematical formulae that he allowed it to govern his approach to writing music, and that his obsession with the mechanical intricacies of the organ led him to write music which celebrated mechanical workings above all else.  Whichever argument you put forward, the fact is that Bach wrote the way he did because of the technological, cultural, intellectual and social circumstances not of his day but of his geographical location and his professional position. 

That said, the other two composers in this festival came from very different backgrounds.  Purcell was English.  At the time England was tearing itself apart with political and religious divisions; divisions in which music played a pivotal role.  The restoration of the theatre to the hub of social life in Purcell’s London, the emergent Anglican Church and the way singers were recruited and trained all had a bearing on the way he wrote his music.  There was no sense that he was writing music to be appreciated only by God – his music had to be appreciated by the large mass of people being enticed back to music after a period of musical famine.  There is nothing in Purcell’s background which points to a fascination with mathematics or machines.  So in every respect he was different from Bach.  He spoke a different language, he breathed a different air, he answered to different employers with different agendas, and he lived in a very different city.  He happened to live (briefly) around the same time as Bach, but while that would seem to be of no significance whatsoever, it so happens that they both lived at a time which music historians have packaged up and labelled as “Baroque”, so we lump them both together and consider them as closely related. 

This undermines them both as individual composers, but particularly hard-hit has been poor Purcell.  19th century historians defined Baroque in such a way that Bach’s music was the ultimate example of it, so the further a composer was from writing like Bach, the less good he was.  Purcell’s music is nothing like Bach’s, so he is, by extension, a much worse composer.  And for years poor old Purcell has been castigated as inferior to Bach because both have been labelled Baroque.  Let’s turn it on its head and suggest that beside Purcell, Bach’s music for the theatre was so absolutely dreadful that it has all been lost, and that since it is virtually impossible to play any of Bach’s organ music on the English organs of Purcell’s time, he was not as good an organ composer as was Purcell.  Nonsense?  And yet how many reading this call Bach “great” purely on the evidence that he could write Fugues well and could retrospectively be assessed against a set of phantom ethics devised a century later to define a theoretical period of musical history?

The third composer was Handel.  When it comes to fitting into a box, he was so large and expansive that no box was ever conceived which could accommodate him.  Yet, once again, he was a “Baroque” composer for this festival, and music written for a very different place, a very different society, a very different audience and under very different circumstances than either Bach or Purcell, was presented as if it was their equal.

In short three composers, from three very different backgrounds, writing in very different places and for very different audiences, had nothing in common to link them other than the accident of living around the same time.  If that’s sufficient to build a coherent festival, why not build one based on composers whose names begin with R, with composers born in the month of April, or composers who are known to have preferred wine to beer.  It makes as much sense as lumping together composers living around the same time in history, but lacks the enticing attraction of a single label.

I mentioned part of a fourth composer.  Well, in one of the concerts we heard Bach’s transcription of a Vivaldi Concerto.  Only a stone deaf gorilla might have mistaken Vivaldi for Bach, proof positive, I would have thought, that the term Baroque has no validity in assessing individual musical styles.  Yet the cursory programme notes (written, I would imagine, by an eager if ill-informed student) persisted in calling this Bach’s Organ Concerto.  For some reason, there is an attitude abroad which suggests that Vivaldi is not the kind of composer which respectable festivals like to play alongside the music of Bach.  When it comes to Baroque, what we really mean is Bach is best and nobody else is worth serious consideration.

04 October 2018

Who is Music? What is She?

Long ago I came to the conclusion that music is indefinable.  Everybody knows what music is, but when you ask them to define it they either offer you their emotional response (“music is beautiful”), define the kind of music they like (“harmonious sounds”), or use such a wide-ranging and generalistic description that, while it encompasses what most people regard as music, goes on to describe things which most people do not consider to be music (“music is organised sound”). I have my own sense of what music is, which I occasionally attempt to contain within words, but since I can identify innumerable flaws in my definition, I certainly do not wish to share it with anyone.

One thing we can all agree on is that music, at the very least, is communicated by means of sound.  Which is not to say that music can exist without sound – following the beliefs of the ancient civilizations in Greece and China, I subscribe to the notion that music exists without sound and that the desire to contain music within sound places considerable limitations on the scope and range of music.

Proof of this comes in the music of Bach.  Nothing annoys me more (well, actually, an awful lot of things do, but let’s put that to one side for the moment!) than people who describe Bach’s music as “beautiful”.  To reduce some of the highest artistic achievements of human civilization to the level of bikini-clad females parading on a cat-walk, or the visual appeal of plate of pork sausages and mashed potatoes, is, in itself, little short of outrageous.  But we must know that, were we to be transported – Dr Who and Tardis-like – to 1730s Leipzig, we would be absolutely appalled by what we heard.  Shambolic music making, grotesquely out of tune, ill-balanced and largely swallowed up in an acoustic haze and obscured by the noise of people both in and outside the church, (and let’s not forget the distractions of the dreadful stench of unwashed people and unsanitary conditions, and the innumerable open sores and disfigurations of a people yet to be subjected to systematic health care), it would strike us as anything but beautiful.  In our time, carefully tended and respectful performances of Bach’s music put it on a high pedestal and wrap it up in highly-manicured sound so that to our 21st century ears its beauty is so arresting as to be its dominant feature.  Yet even if 18th century ears had a wholly different perception of beauty, I remain unconvinced that Bach ever intended his music to be beautiful.  Indeed, I am absolutely certain that he would be horrified to feel that the sound of his music was regarded as so beautiful as to obscure (even annihilate) the fundamental message of Christian faith he was trying to promulgate.  We like our beauty in the 21st century; I tend to feel that for most people in earlier ages, beauty was a luxury so rare that many never thought to appreciate or even identify it.  But, of course, that’s open to debate. What intrigues me is the relationship between music and sound. 

Attending a programme presented recently by student composers, I was very conscious that what these students were doing was not writing music so much as experimenting with sound.  And since sound is the means by which a composer communicates musical ideas, it is absolutely right and proper that they should be encouraged to experiment and explore the possibilities of sound without necessarily attempting to harness it in the service of music.  Each student stood up and outlined their intentions.  (Unfortunately, while they had all been taught to use an amazing panoply of actual and computerized sounds, nobody had told them how to utter words down a microphone so that they were discernible amongst the audience in the body of the hall.)  From the often garbled collation of indistinct vowel sounds (Singaporeans avoid consonants with the same steely determination that left-wing British politicians avoid sounding the letter T) I was able to make out that these students had very different objectives in their various sound explorations.  That being the case, as a colleague confided in me afterwards, it was astonishing that they all sounded more-or-less the same.  But the fact remains that here were some intelligent and fascinating experiments in sound which, if applied to a musical composition, would certainly open the way for a more wide-ranging channel of communication.

It is usual for those with little musical understanding to dismiss any music they do not like as “noise”, and we can point to innumerable examples through history where great musical works have been so disparaged (Pravda describing Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “Muddle instead of Music”, Hanslick describing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as “giving off a bad smell” and  “does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would not write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?" from an American review of La mer).  But to describe any music as “noise” is to reveal a fundamental ignorance as to what music is; and since nobody is quite sure what music is, perhaps we are all guilty of such ignorance.

However, I am delighted that in our conservatory, at least, we are inculcating an understanding that sound and music may be related but are by no means synonymous.  Budding composers need to work with sound, but if they can appreciate that sound is a tool, not an end in itself, we are breeding a better crop of composers than many of those who came through the 1960s and 1970s where experimentation in sound became the very raison d’etre of a musical composition.  Many back then agreed with Beecham’s famous quote about Stockhausen (“I’ve never heard any but I think I may have trod in some”), seeing in his flippant words a deeper awareness that sound in itself does not create a lasting or valuable work of art. 

Perhaps the most intriguing consequence of this attitude comes in the figure of a recent alumnus from the conservatory, a young man by the name of Mervin Wong, whose fascination with the properties and uses of sound have led to him carving a special niche for himself in the outside world as a self-proclaimed “Sound Alchemist”. Overlooking the awful pretentiousness of the title, Wong has it right.  You can play around with sound and use it to create golden effects without ever quite crossing that invisible and debatable border between sound and music.  That indefinable thing called music is by no means the same thing as that definable thing called sound.

02 October 2018

Organ; A Church Instrument or a Musical Instrument?

We are approaching the time in musical history when the organ will have been associated with the Christian church for as long a period as it was not associated with the Christian church.  The fact that the organ, synonymous for so many people, with the church, not only was not designed as a church instrument but, more particularly, was effectively banned from churches for over 1000 years may come as a surprise.  Typical of this ignorance is the concert-goer who, at the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur (the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas) for the organ’s inaugural concert on 29th January 1999 with Simon Preston, asked; “Why do we have a church organ in our concert hall?”  The answer was that the organ is NOT a church instrument and that, if anything, the presence of an organ in a Malaysian concert hall was a symbolic returning home of an instrument whose natural habitat had been the Islamic world centuries before it found its way into the Christian church.  Moreover, at the time there were more fully-functioning pipe organs in concert halls in Malaysia than there were in the country’s churches.

DFP Angklung-inspired organ
Nevertheless, that deep-seated belief in the organ as an archetypically Christian instrument persists.  The woman who financed the KL organ did so because she loved the visual effects of organs in the great European cathedrals and felt that our new concert hall demanded some such similar visual device to arrest the eye.  At the design stage, Philipp Klais, whose company built the organ, was confronted with a dilemma stemming from this belief that the organ is a “Christian” instrument.  Voices objected to the facts that the pipes “pointed to Heaven”.  His solution came from the Angklung, hanging in one of the ante-rooms off the auditorium.  An Angklung consists of several bamboo rods on a frame – much as organ pipes of differing lengths sit side by side on a frame – and Klais saw that if he described his design as being inspired by the Angklung, people could hardly object.  He also added false tops to the pipes to avoid any suggestion that they pointed to heaven.

The first organ, ca 250BC
We know almost exactly when the organ was invented; in the year 250BC in Alexandria in Egypt.  We know exactly when the organ first appeared in the Christian world; in the year 757 when Constantinus, the Byzantine Emperor, presented one as a peace offering to the King of France. (“The Emperor Constantinus sent King Pippin many gifts, amongst them an organum; which reached him in the villa at Compiegne where he was holding a convocation with his people”.)  We know vaguely when the first organs started to appear in churches; around 900.  And we know even more vaguely, when the organ first started to become an accepted and common feature in Christian churches: in the early 1400s.  So for 1150 years, at least, the organ had nothing to do with the church, and for no more than 600 years it has been synonymous with music in church.

Early organ history is largely speculative, but it appears to have been invented and used as a machine to make noise, with no obvious musical connotations.  It roused the rabble at gladiatorial contests in the colosseums of ancient Rome, and it adorned the houses and palaces of wealthy Arab rulers and merchants in much the same way as a fleet of Mercedes or a portfolio of properties and football clubs in the UK does today.  When King Pippin got his organ, one suspects its value was more in its presence than its sound.  The idea of putting an organ in a church came centuries later.

At various times between the 8th and the 16th centuries, the church banned instrumental music, and it was not really until the founding of the Lutheran Church that the organ really established itself as the pre-eminent church instrument.  Its function in the Roman church had been essentially accompanimental, but with Luther’s belief in the value of corporate worship and active participation through the mass singing of chorales, the organ really came into its own.  So it’s no surprise that church organists look to the heady days of North German Lutheranism in the 17th and 18th centuries as a Golden Age; a time when the organ was, at long last, elevated to the position of Serious Musical Instrument and earning the closest attention from composers we today regard as “great”.

Congregational singing in a large space is best supported by an organ.  No other instrument or group of instruments is capable of both leading and supporting massed, untrained voices so effectively.  Just ask any choir-trainer whose choir has performed with a symphony orchestra, and they will tell you even the massed ranks of highly-skilled professional players cannot equal the sensitivity or directness of response of an organist.  And with its powerful bass resonance (physical presence rather than the wall of amplified sound created by electronic basses), strong central core and illuminating upper register, singers can both feel and hear the organ, even when they are themselves singing at full stretch.  Add to this the vast array of colours and timbres, the dynamic range and, of course, the all-enveloping pitch range, and you can see why the organ was so readily adopted as the instrument of choice for Lutheran congregational singing.  Placing the organ at the west end, so that it effectively spoke behind the congregation, pushing the sound forward through their ranks and urging them onwards through its uplifting sounds, also proved the ideal.  And since they were not going to interfere with the visual focus at the east end of the church, organ cases could become increasingly spectacular until you got to something like the stunning organ case at St Bavo, Haarlem, where the organ itself is such an object of visual beauty, that it is easy to forget that the church has a function beyond merely showcasing its organ.
St Bavo, Haarlem

So while it was not originally a Christian instrument, we can thank the Christian church for transforming this noise-producing novelty machine into something capable of making music, and for developing and extending its scope and range to the point where, today, it overwhelms any other musical instrument in its range of pitches, timbres and dynamics.  There is no doubt that the visual aspect of the organ remains, for most people, its most important facet, and it is a sad fact that, even amongst the musical community, many do not see the organ as a musical instrument.  Nobody seems surprised or even perturbed that in Asia’s premiere musical conservatory there is neither an organ (other than a tiny thing designed purely to fulfil a continuo function) nor any training for budding organists; they are not regarded as musicians on the same level as, say, violinists, singers, conductors or (for some reason), players of the electone.  Many subscribe to the notion that the organ is something you have in church which has no connection with mainstream musical life.

The root causes of this refusal to acknowledge the organ’s musical legitimacy can be put, I’m sorry to say, at the feet of organists themselves.  Few players of the instrument ever seem to take that extra step from producing noise to transforming that noise into music, and many seem to regard the mechanical complexities of the instrument itself and the technical minutiae of the music they play on it as the be-all and end-all of organ playing.  Because the organ is a machine in a way no other musical instrument is, to get it to create music, the player has to make a conscious effort to achieve musicality.  While other instruments may have an inbuilt musicality about them, governed by the length of the bow, the fragility of wind supply or the immediate decay of a note, the organ has no such natural musical instincts, and the organist has to think each and every aspect of their performance out in detail in order to produce something musical.  This seems a step too far for most organists today.

Instead they become obsessed with the instrument.  It was a standing joke in my youth that organists would flock to St Magnus-in-the-Mud as it had a 32 foot Ophecleide, and issues of tuning temperament, wind pressures, keyboard action and materials used in manufacture are discussed interminably whenever two organists are gathered together.  The instrument’s enormous repertory is rarely discussed, with the result that organists seem fixated on Bach (usually the Trio Sonatas, which are regarded more as technical than musical challenges) with only very few venturing beyond into the realms of Buxtehude, Franck, Widor and Vierne.  Composers of monumental insignificance outside the organ world (think Flor Peeters, Marcel Dupré, Sigfrid Karg-Elert and Josef Rheinberger) are elevated as demi-gods by virtue of writing music which suits particular stops on particular organs.

Too many organists are also quite happy to relegate the playing of their instrument to a kind of group activity, passing responsibility of some aspects to others in performance.  The sight of an organist playing the notes while a team of acolytes stands in attendance pulling out and pushing in stops and pressing any of the myriad buttons to be found above and below the key and pedal boards, is common.  Surely, it is a vital part of the organist’s skill to control the totality of the instrument – including the manipulation of those parts which directly affect timbre and colour?  Yet few organists see any issue with this.  If I query it, I am told, “I can’t manage this piece on this organ single-handed” (in which case, choose music which you can manage on it single-handed) or, even worse, “Bach did it”.  (Yes.  Bach also fought with his choir in the streets, and was imprisoned for offences against his employer; I’m not sure that Bach was a man whose every action deserves emulation.)  If organists do not think musically, how can we expect the world to take us seriously?

However, for the vast majority of organists, the organ is not a musical instrument but an integral part of their lives as church musicians.  Big cathedrals and major churches aside, the overwhelming majority of churches with an organ use it almost exclusively for supporting congregational singing, and not only are opportunities for playing musical works of musical worth extremely limited, but since nobody actually expects you to do so, critical faculties amongst listeners are suspended.  You can play a dazzling Langetuit Toccata brilliantly or a dreary Reger Monologue badly, and you will know that someone from the congregation will come up and tell you it was “nice”. In church, it seems, it is more about doing something than doing something to the best of one’s ability, and that attitude has led to an environment in which the organ is becoming superfluous to requirements and irrelevant.  In many parts of the world (south East Asia amongst them) the organ as a church instrument is now virtually extinct.

Here, the fault lies with those who hold responsibility for what goes on in church; the clergy and the various voluntary committees who, by virtue of their willingness to give up their time, take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of what is acceptable and what is not.  Driven by a laudable but misguided belief in involving everybody regardless of ability, and in shaking off the shackles of history (it surprises me that those who peddle a faith based on events which happened over 2000 years ago, fight shy of maintaining practices which go back barely 200), music in church is no longer an elevated and specialist art, but a communal activity encompassing anyone with even the most desultory ability to play a musical instrument.  Miserable, uninspired twangings from guitars, half-hearted thumps from drums and aimless dribblings from keyboard players, all well-meaning and all utterly without musical talent, are accepted because they show “inclusivity” (getting everyone involved) and “relevance” (bringing music into the soft-core pop world of the 1960s rather than rejoicing in the hard-core magnificence of the 1700s).  These people’s complete absence of musical integrity means that the great chorales and hymns of the past, written to inspire and encourage massed participation, have been abandoned in favour of bland, mawkish lyrics sung to wholly unimaginative monochrome melodies.  With church music relegated to the position of simplistic background noise, how can the organist hope to gain any measure of musical credibility?

Over the weekend I visited Penang where, in St George’s Anglican Church, in an astonishing reversal of current trends, a brand new two manual pipe organ by Manders of London had been installed.  A visionary clergyman had encouraged four young people to learn to play the organ and had arranged for them to have a dedicated and committed organist as their mentor.  I had the enormous privilege of hearing each of these young musicians play, and was greatly inspired by not only the quality of their playing but also by their instinctive musicality.  But two things disturbed me during my talks with them after they had played to me.

Firstly, as soon as news of the new organ had reached down to Singapore, the Singapore Organ cadre (a close-knit body which seems hell-bent on preserving the remoteness and inaccessibility of the organ to non-organists) journeyed up to Penang to offer their advice and guidance.  Students remembered instruction concerning technique, registration and pedalling exercises; none of them remembered any advice about music-making or exploring repertory.

Secondly, since the organ was effectively an off-the-peg, free-standing instrument, a considerable amount of flexibility had been open to those who decided where it should be placed in the church.  So it was rather disappointing that it had been placed in about the worst situation possible for supporting congregational singing.  While the ideal places would have involved some structural alterations (out of the question for both financial and aesthetic reasons) it struck me that there was one place it would have been far better placed.  When I asked why this had not been chosen, I was told that to have placed it  there would have blocked the door to a cupboard where the guitars and drums were kept, and the church wanted to have easy access to these,

Notwithstanding the fact that guitars and drums are portable in a way that a pipe organ is not, basic common sense should tell you that, with an organ, all other instruments are superfluous (I attend a church where a very fine organ is regularly polluted by amplified noises from an assembled band of rag-tag instruments brought in to give the music street-cred; and I can tell you the combination of pipe organ and amplified guitars, keyboard and drums, is stomach-churning in its awfulness).  Why on earth would a church which has just spent a vast sum on a new and fine pipe organ be concerned about easy access to guitars and drums?  

I worry that this encouraging trend to bring the organ back to the church will be compromised by the determination of organists to remain on the periphery of musicality, and by the political fence-sitting of church authorities who feel that inclusivity and “trendiness” outweigh the lessons and examples of 600 years of history.