23 August 2019

Instrumental Integrity


All musical instruments in one?

Around 30 years ago I was on an examining tour of South Africa which involved a day examining in a violin teacher’s private studio.  The door list showed a plethora of early grade violins and, strangely, just one candidate listed as doing grade 5 piano, harpsichord and organ.  I assumed that the teacher had merely “invented” the three grade fives in order to meet the requisite number of hours needed to qualify for a personal visit from an examiner.  On arrival I did question the teacher about this and, much to my surprise learnt that they were indeed legitimate examination entries.  It appeared that her students’ accompanist was about to go off to university and wanted to equip himself with three more music certificates before abandoning music in favour of chemistry, law, horticulture, or whatever it was he was going to study at university.  I asked where the harpsichord and organ exams were going to be held and was told, “here”.  “Here” was a half-converted garage beside the teacher’s house equipped with a music stand and an electronic keyboard, which was to be used for all three non-violin exams.

Around 30 years ago, such instruments were quite unusual and examination regulations had yet to catch up with technology to the extent that they made few provisions for non-acoustic instruments.  I was able to say that the organ exam was not possible; the syllabus did specify an instrument with at least “two manuals and pedals”, and here we had a single keyboard. Despite protestations that the instrument had been “approved” by the exam board (it had not, although the local rep, unsure of the regulations, had said it “should be all right”) and that the requirements could be met using the single keyboard and its accoutrements, I was sure of my ground and refused to allow the exam to proceed.  I was on no such terra firma when it came to the harpsichord exam as no provision at all was made in the examination regulations concerning the nature of the instrument.  The candidate duly finished his piano exam, and switched the keyboard from “grand piano” mode to “harpsichord” for the next exam.

Around 30 years on, this horrific memory has re-surfaced because of two comments made this week by two colleagues.

Last weekend one of them posted a provocative piece on Facebook suggesting that there should be a competition in which contestants play the piano, harpsichord and organ.  That was like a red rag to a bull to me, and out I came, nostrils flaring and feet pawing at the ground, vehemently opposing the whole vile notion.  Organists continually suffer the gross ignorance of those who have a look at what they imagine to be their instrument, think it resembles a piano, and assume anyone who can play the piano can easily switch to the organ.  Piano teaching colleagues are similarly appalled when their students are press-ganged into playing the organ (or harpsichord) by those whose monumental stupidity cannot recognise that they are wholly different musical instruments.  The organ is demeaned by those who believe playing it merely involves pressing down the right keys at the right time.

It looks a bit like a piano?  Surely any pianist can play it?
Playing the notes is the least of the organist’s concerns.  An organist’s skill involves understanding registration, understanding the properties of the movement of wind through channels and pipes, manipulating the stop knobs, foot and toe pistons and crescendo pedals which direct the flow of air to specific ranks of pipes, and operating the swell pedals which regulate the volume of sound coming from certain ranks of pipes in certain physical locations within the organ case, which is as often as not, some distance away from the console – that box of keyboards, pedals and buttons which the unthinking ignoramuses assume is the instrument itself rather than simply its command centre.  And all that before you get to the issue of musical interpretation and accurate playing of the score.  In fact, playing the notes on the keyboard as one might play them on the piano is one of the very least of the organist’s essential skills. 

And, as if that was not enough to convince even the most stupid that the organ and piano are as different as chalk and cheese, an organist, unlike both the pianist and harpsichordist, is primarily concerned with the release of notes rather than the attack of them.  Articulation is the principal topic in any organ lesson, followed by registration, registration control and hand/feet coordination.  Do any of these feature regularly in piano lessons?

A second colleague asked me this week in all innocence if I was “going to the organ recital tonight?”  He was referring to an intriguing computerised presentation of light and sound in the conservatory staged by a couple of our more illustrious alumni.  I would have loved to have gone, but I had another concert elsewhere last night, and tonight (when the event is being repeated) I shall be flying off to a meeting in Kuching.  But I would not go expecting to experience an “organ recital”; for there was no organ present.  True, one of our alumni was playing some organ works of Bach on a computerised device which has been programmed to make a sound like a church organ; but it is not an organ and does not even begin to behave like one.


Where the sound emerges shows the REAL difference these two instruments
In a world where we regard music not as an art but merely as a sound, most people would regard my strong and heartfelt resistance to such machines being labelled “organs” as the last throes of an aged, out-of-touch old man, whose mantra is “things were better in my day”!  I certainly feel as if I am swimming against an ever-increasing tide where if the sound seems right, then it is a legitimate musical instrument.  And I do not deny that I hold dear to my very soul Sir Thomas Beecham’s amusing but deeply perceptive comment that people “don’t like music – they just like the sound it makes”.  But I hold firmly to the intense belief that music is something far more than sound, that sound is merely the means by which music is made manifest to humanity, and that musical instruments need to have true integrity to convey in the sound they make the essence of the music behind it.

Great organ music (and I put much of Bach in this category) is not merely about nice sounds, it’s about something rather more fundamental.  Pipe organs do not create sound so much as they create sensation.  Air is at the very core of their being – the movement of air through channels and pipes may produce a sound, but it also generates a series of vibrations and a total reorganisation of the environment in which the air is moving so that those within its physical range do not so much hear the sound as experience the sensation.  The speakers which serve as the conduits of sound manufactured electronically may move air, but that is a by-product not a fundamental generator of the sound; and while that difference may not be discernible to many untrained ears, it governs the whole complex process of playing the instrument. 

Alexei Sourin and his Theremin
Electronic sound-producing/musical-instrument imitating technology has developed in leaps and bounds over the past decades, and now we can imitate pretty convincingly the sounds of almost anything we care to mention.  On Tuesday, I attended a fascinating demonstration of the Theremin in which the presenter, the marvellous communicator Dr Alexei Sourin, was able to get this weirdest of all electronic sound-creating devices to sound remarkably like a soprano singer.  I myself have played synthesisers which give a pretty fair impression of the sound of string instruments. 

Now, around 30 years later, I am inclined to go back to South Africa, along with my two contentious colleagues, and meet again the violin teacher in her half-converted garage.  I’ll give a violin recital.  I can’t play the violin (I passed grade 3 and then gave up) but I can use a digital keyboard to make a sound like one.  Surely, if we accept that a computer can give an “organ recital” we must accept that one can also give a “violin recital”. 

I hope no violin teacher would accept my playing the Paganini Caprices on a keyboard set to “violin mode” as a legitimate violin performance.  So please, do not belittle us organists by claiming that making a computer sound like an organ is the same as playing an organ.  We must all preserve the integrity of our real musical instruments so that we do not lose sight of the fact that their prime purpose is to make music, not to generate sound.

20 August 2019

Who Killed Improvisation?


Listening to an interview with cellist Matthew Barley on his latest recording of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, the issue of improvisation came up.  In this wonderful new recording (and I wholeheartedly recommend it) Barley sets the Tavener work alongside, not the usual suspects (ie other works for cello or Tavener’s own music), but some of Tavener’s favourite poetry and, most interestingly, Indian music.  Much to the fore in the Indian music is improvisation, and Barley is keen for us to know that his performance with tabla player ‘Pinky’ Singh, was recorded in a single take, as were his own improvisatory additions to an orchestral arrangement of Tavener’s Mother and Child.  In the interview (with James Jolly on a Gramophone podcast) the question was asked, when did musicians stop improvising? (Hear the whole interview here - https://www.gramophone.co.uk/podcast/john-taveners-the-protecting-veil-matthew-barley)

As an organist, improvisation is not so much a part of my musical life but vital to it.  An organist who cannot and does not improvise is not an organist – they may be able to play music on it, but they cannot play it as a musical instrument.  It worries me deeply how many so-called organists there are who do not improvise.  Only the other day a few organists came to look at our tiny little chamber organ – five stops and a heavily truncated single manual.  Surely, with such a diminished instrument, the obvious way to explore its potential was through improvisation.  But did they improvise?  Not a bit of it.  They tried little bits of half-remembered hymn tunes and party-pieces designed for something with rather more resources.  Nobody thought to doodle around exploring how the stops in individuality and combination might sound in their own right.  A visiting so-called organist to a church I was attending was invited to play the concluding voluntary.  He asked for music, but music was there none.  So he fumbled his way grotesquely through a partially-recalled Bach Fugue much to the detriment of himself and the organ.  Why did he not just improvise?

That said, proper organists do improvise, proper organ teachers guide students on the joys of improvisation, and proper organ students seek out a teacher who can instil into them the confidence to become competent improvisers.  In the worlds of jazz and most non-western musics, improvisation is key to being a musician.  The question is, however, why have “classical” musicians lost the ability to improvise?  How many piano teachers, string teachers, wind teachers, brass teachers teach improvisation?  I suspect one in a million, if that.  And if I ask why they don’t teach it, the response is always “there is no need”.  Yet there is surely no better way to familiarise yourself with the instrument you play than through improvisation.

Apparently right up until the closing years of the 19th century, improvisation was part of every classical musician’s vocabulary.  I didn’t know that.  I knew, of course, that up to Beethoven pianists and other concerto soloists were expected to improvise cadenzas in concertos, and in the 17th and 18th centuries improvised ornamentation was expected of any player.  (And how puerile most modern-day musicians sound when they slavishly follow some desiccated pattern for trills, turns and the like as written out in theory textbooks, rather than fall back on their long-dormant musical instincts.) 

Whenever it was that the art of improvisation was no longer deemed a necessary part of musician’s skill-set, the fact is that hardly any students of western classical music are now taught how to do it.  Most amazingly, vocal teachers seem to avoid it like the plague.  A few years back when Trinity introduced Improvisation as an option in its grades 1-5 practical exams, resistance to it was strong – most notably from singers.  Yet singing is the most improvisatory of all musical disciplines.  One can joke that hearing some singers makes you wonder if they can do anything but improvise, but on a more serious note, with the human voice being such a unique instrument, no music can properly match an individual voice.  Improvisation therefore becomes an essential skill for the singer to transcend the limitations of the voice in its relationship to the written score. 

Two suggestions for the demise of improvisation were raised in the interview.  Jolly, as a former editor of Gramophone, understandably questioned whether the growth of recording might have had something to do with it.  Now that the vast majority of humanity gets its music from pre-recorded performances, improvisation has lost its allure.  After all, when the listener can re-hear the identical performance ad nauseam, that essential spur-of-the-moment inspiration which results in improvisation is lost, and the improvisation becomes as formalised and sterile as the music on the written page.  Indeed, recordings militate against improvisations, because they can be retouched to the extent that the listener is not certain of the credibility of what they hear.  Barley is at pains in his recording to point out that his improvisations were recorded in a single, unedited take. 

The second suggestion seems to me the more likely.  And that is that composers, from Beethoven onwards, have become so prescriptive in what they write that scope for a performer’s free expression is lost.  From Bach, who rarely offered tempo, dynamic or phrasing markings, to Boulez, who burdened every single note with so much detail and performing information that any chance of individual interpretation is lost.  Through the 19th and 20th centuries composers maintained an unwavering path from allowing freedom to the performer to trussing them up in tight, restrictive and unbreakable bonds.

A sceptic might also suggest that composers have a vested interest in closing the door to improvisation.  After all, when you earn your income from writing music down, the last thing you want is for musicians to realise that they can create music for themselves.  Perhaps now we live in an age where everybody thinks music is free and accessible to all (poor, deluded fools!), we will not be so easily seduced by the notion of everything we need to do in a performance being presented to us on a sheet of printed paper.

17 August 2019

September Classical Concerts Singapore

Sunday, 1 September 2019 11am & 2pm ESP Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood SSO, Joshua Tan (cond)
Sunday, 1 September 2019 5.00pm ESP Carmen Singapore Lyric Opera
Tuesday, 3 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Appassionata Alexander Souptel (vln), Seet Wen Kai (pno)
Wednesday, 4 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Association of Singapore Composers omposers' Showcase
Friday, 6 September 2019 7.30pm ESP Inspired by Leipzig Masato Suzuki (cond), Albert Tiu (pno)
Friday, 6 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS 1919 Viola Sonatas Viola: Tan Wee Hsin, Nicholas Ong (piano)
Sunday, 8 September 2019 4.00pm VCH VCH Presents Organ Omakase Masato Suzuki (org)
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 7.30pm ESP Seong-Jin Cho in recital Seong-Jin Cho (pno)
Friday, 13 September 2019 7.30pm ESP French Connections Stephen Hough (pno), SSO, Andrew Litton (cond)
Saturday, 14 September 2019 7.30pm YST Telling Beyond Words Conservatory Orchestra/Jason Lai
Friday, 27 September 2019 7.30pm VCH President's Young Performers' Concert Kevin Loh (guitar), SSO, Joshua Tan (cond)
Friday, 27 September 2019 7.30pm AH By Candelight A Tapestry of Armenian Music
Sunday, 29 September 2019 7.30pm ESP RS Pinnacles of Romanticism Take 5

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory  Concert Hall
AH = Arts House Living Room

New Music in Singapore

Always trust your editor.  That's been a long-standing rule of mine.  After all, your editor is responsible for making sure your work doesn't break any laws, doesn't fall foul of overall editorial policies and is presented in a way which will be acceptable to the readership, about which the editor is uniquely qualified.  Occasionally sub-editors tweak your copy in ways which spoil it, or remove passages which you felt were remarkably clever and perceptive.  But, in the main, I accept what they do and rarely complain.

The other day, however, my copy came under the green pen of a sub-editor at the Straits Times whom I had not encountered before and who was clearly totally befuddled by my review of the first piece in the concert.  So many changes were made to my copy that it ended up not only being strangely incoherent, but, more significantly, saying something which I certainly did not want to be said in print.  For the first time ever, a protracted email correspondence went back and forth with me asking for changes to be reversed and original statements to be preserved.  In the end, I had so completely lost track of what I had written that I went back to the original and present it here for the benefit of anyone who can't quite fathom what the published version is all about!


Wang Jian – Flowing Sleeves

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Wang Jian (cello)/Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (15 August)

Marc Rochester





Despite both pieces in the first half of this concert being written by composers of Chinese descent within the last 18 months, they could not have been more different.



Joyce Koh suggested that her piece, “one”, focused on the triangle.  But after an initial tinkle, Jonathan Fox and his triangle were quickly overwhelmed by a huge mass of frenetic orchestral sound.  For the best part of five minutes, virtually every member of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was playing flat out, and if there was any kind of aural variety, it passed unnoticed.



The full title of Koh’s work refers to the mathematical Golden Ratio – one point six one eight zero – but its relevance seemed aurally obscure.  However, it is unfair to judge the work on the evidence of just the single movement we heard here (the second “one” of the full title).  If and when the complete work is performed, one certainty is that the fourth movement will not provide any moment of calm respite to either players or audience.



Nevertheless, calm respite was much in evidence in the next work.  Spearheaded by the current crop of outstanding Chinese cellists, Chinese-born composers have produced some exceptional concertos for the instrument in recent years, and Wang Jian is currently doing the rounds presenting Zhou Tian’s concerto Flowing Sleeves which he premiered in Hangzhou last July.  This was Singapore’s turn to hear this concerto, which was inspired by the flowing sleeves of the costumes worn by performers in traditional Chinese opera.



The musical language was rich, opulent, luxurious, infinitely varied and at times profoundly beautiful.  Wang is certainly a compelling advocate of the work, and his performance shone with an almost mystical intensity.  Conductor Jessica Cottis’s own jacket sleeves looked decidedly tight and restrictive, but her hands seemed to mould the orchestra around every nuance and gesture Wang produced.



This was a lovely performance of what deserves to become a classic of the cello concerto repertory.  Towards the end of its first movement, there was a subtle allusion to the most famous cello concert of them all, Dvorak’s, which effectively forged a tenuous musical link between this concert’s two halves - the second half was given over the Dvorak’s ebullient Eighth Symphony.



Ebullient seems the key word here, for Cottis was determined to give it all she had.  The dance passages were bursting with energy, the folk-like melodies laid the pathos on with a trowel, and the scintillating climaxes positively fizzed with supercharged enthusiasm.  All this came at the cost of clear inner detail and, especially in the second movement, secure wind intonation, but it seemed the perfect way to end a concert which had seen the orchestra pushed and pulled around in almost every conceivable direction.

03 August 2019

August Concerts in Singapore

Thursday, 1 August 2019 7.30pm VCH Spirit of the Violin Kerson Leong (vln), SSO, Hannu Lintu (cond)
Friday, 2 August 2019 7.30pm VCH Spirit of the Violin Kerson Leong (vln), SSO, Hannu Lintu (cond)
Sunday, 4 August 2019 4.00pm VCH Encounter Beethoven - A Midsummer Chamber Concert RE:Sound
Saturday, 10 August 2019 7.30pm ESP SSO National Day Concert SSO and Chorus, Joshua Tan (cond)
Wednesday, 14 August 2019 7.30pm YST Visiting Artist Series Roberta Rust (pno)
Tursday, 15 August 2019 7.30pm ESP Brush, Lift, Reflect, Dance Wang Jian (cello), SSO, Jessica Cottis (cond)
Friday, 16 August 2019 7.00pm YST OH 19th century Portuguese Music Marcia da Rosa (ten), Isabel Calado (hpschd)
Friday, 16 August 2019 7.30pm VT Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream New Opera Singapore
Saturday, 17 August 2019 7.30pm ESP OMM Zarathustra Orchestra of the Music Makers, Lu Shao-Chia (cond), Peter Sidhorn (baritone)
Friday, 30 August 2019 7.30pm ESP Moonrise and Aurora SSO, Robin Fountain (cond)
Friday, 30 August 2019 8.00pm ESP Carmen Singapore Lyric Opera
Saturday, 31 August 2019 8.00pm ESP Carmen Singapore Lyric Opera

VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
VT = Victoria Theatre
ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
YST OH = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra Hall