03 December 2020

A Christmas Present for an Organist?

 Wanting a Christmas present for an organist?  This would do the trick - it was sent for me to review and here is my review from MusicWeb International.


Jenny Setchell

Pipeline Press . 256 pp.  Paperback


“Can you come to the church, as soon as you like?”  It was a call from the Dean of Derry who had gone to take a funeral at a small church on the other side of the city.  I was cathedral organist at the time and, assuming that the church’s organist had not turned up, I grabbed a black cassock, some music, and headed off to the church where I found a Dean and a posse of concerned undertakers standing around outside.  The deceased, it seems, was a spinster in her late 80s who had been living with her twin sister, who was the church organist and had chosen to play for the funeral.  Sadly, as she started to play, she died.  Not wishing to interrupt the proceedings with news of another death, the Dean had decided to go ahead with the funeral and sort out the second death afterwards.  His instruction to me was “to play as if you are a spinster in your late 80s” and I headed to the curtained-off console where, much to my horror, I found the dead organist laid out beside the stool.  I stumbled through the hymns and drooled octogenarian-spinster-style over the keys until the original deceased was taken out, at which point the local doctor (who was in the congregation) took over.  Afterwards I asked the Dean when he had been aware that the organist had died; “Only a few minutes before the service, when I noticed that she seemed to have been playing the same note for quite a long time”.


Scratch the surface of any organist, and you will find dozens of equally improbable but genuinely true anecdotes crawling around just waiting to be released.  Jenny Setchell has done just that, contacting somewhere in the region of  120 organists scattered across the globe (each of whom is given a short biography at the end of the book) and coming up with a wealth of anecdotes.  The marvel in this book is not the amount of material in it, but the amount she must have discarded to keep it in manageable proportions.  Any organist reading this book will respond to every anecdote in one of two ways: That Also Happened To Me, or That Very Nearly Happened To Me.  The fact is, amusing and entertaining as they are, not one of these anecdotes will seem in any way improbable to organists.  The people who really need to buy this book and learn from it – clergy, caretakers, concert organisers, conductors, brides, and, most especially, brides’ mothers – probably never will, and that is both a bad thing – most anecdotes are the result of basic stupidity from one of the above – and a good thing – it ensures a continually refreshing pool of anecdotes for future generations.


In any book of this nature, where the author’s job has simply been to cobble other people’s words into a coherent whole, there is an absence of clear narrative thread.  Setchell has managed to avoid too much sense of  lurching from one story to another, by mixing up first-hand accounts in the contributor’s words with second-hand retellings in the third person, and breaking the book up into several sections each broken up themselves into themed chapters. The “In Church” section includes numerous anecdotes relating to weddings.  We get a chapter on inappropriate choices of music (the complete Grand Canyon Suite was asked of James Welch, while Adrian Taylor had both to play and sing the Monty Python classic,  Always Look on the Bright Side of Life), although I feel a chapter on the problems of identifying what brides want from vague half-remembered titles or snatches of tune/lyrics might have been entertaining: I was once asked to play “that thing about the Bridegroom coming in the middle of the night”, which I took to be Wachet auf. 


Each of chapters is given an amusing title which indicates the general tenor of the anecdotes.  So, in “How to Survive Sermons Without Waking Others”, we get a plethora of all-too-familiar stories about that often interminable moment in all church organists’ lives, when music falls silent for a sermon.  There are several well-established ways of dealing with this (and most organists have experienced all of them).  A popular trick seems to be to interrupt a sermon by making a noise on the organ – Christopher Herrick did it deliberately, while Colin Mitchell spectacularly did it by accident – while others use it as an opportunity to sleep.  One of the best anecdotes in the book concerns Sir John Stainer.  He, too, fell asleep during a sermon, but what makes this anecdote so memorable is the way he so brilliantly covered the fact up.


Jenny Setchell has cast her net far wider than the anecdote-rich waters of the church, and includes a wealth of horribly familiar anecdotes from the world of concert organists.  We get a few additional ones from Gillian Weir, who provides a light-hearted Foreword to the book.  There are terrible stories of being locked out (Paul Derrett tells how he had to move his recital and its audience down the road to another  venue when the original was firmly locked against them), locked in (Massimo Nosetti escaped from an Italian concert hall by breaking into an adjacent house), and left in the dark (Gerard Brooks set off an automatic carillon in his search for the light switch in Trier).


Against such spectacular near-disasters, some of the anecdotes Setchell has included seem a little mundane.  An organist stopping a recital because of cramp hardly seems worth mentioning (although it comes via an old friend, Richard Francis, about whom I have a far better anecdote concerning a capacious academic hood, a crate of empty beer bottles, and a procession up the nave of Bangor Cathedral). Similarly, I imagine you had to be there to recognise the humour of the situation when an organist gave a recital in Japan dressed in “a cute and frilly 18th century blouse with his 20th century evening tails”.   Jenny Setchell had been there, however, for the organist in question was her husband, Martin Setchell, who figures prominently throughout the book.


Of special interest to readers of MusicWeb International will be the anecdotes relating to recordings.  I well recall my own experience of making a commercial recording on the brand new Peter Collins organ at St David’s Hall Cardiff.  Restricted to a single Sunday in cold February to get the whole programme in the can, as luck would have it, the organ played up mercilessly.  In the end, the builder had to sit inside the organ console to operate the numerous stops which, for reasons known only to themselves, refused to operate when I physically pulled them out. It is refreshing to learn that I was not alone; an anecdote concerning Mary Mozelle’s recording at Princeton makes me realise I got off lightly. She had to time herself to record between the sound of heavy machinery operating day-and-night in an adjacent building site, while Graham Barber, recording in Lincoln Cathedral late at night, was seriously distracted by the squealing of bats disturbed by so much nocturnal activity. (Trying a daytime recording in Leeds, Barber came up against a perpetually chirping bird; proving the fact that when it comes to an organist recording, you just can’t win.)


The question is, why are there so many anecdotes associated with the organ and organists?  Setchell explains this in a superbly worded introduction, and throughout, while her personal interjections are few, they offer terrific insights into a dark musical world familiar only to those who inhabit it.  Adorned with humorous drawings from Terence Dobson, thoroughly well indexed, and beautifully produced in a way which means it can be tucked away beside an organ console to provide hours of harmless entertainment – as well as a few warning lessons - during sermons, this is a most entertaining book.  A  welcome read for organists and an essential guide to those who find themselves on the periphery of the organist’s  world.


15 June 2020

Are Musicians Essential?

The Straits Times’ sister paper, The Sunday Times, ran a straw poll in yesterday’s edition asking which jobs were thought of being most essential and which were least essential during the time of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Nobody with any knowledge of Singaporean attitudes will have been in the least surprised by the results.  Top of the list came doctors and nurses, with cleaners and food sellers coming on close behind – after all, it seems that few Singaporeans can clean their own homes or cook their own food.  Equally typical of Singaporean attitudes is what came at the very bottom of the list; artists. 

Of course, this finding ignited a mass outpouring of shock and horror from Singapore artists.  Many responded in remarkably silly fashion, criticising The Sunday Times and its correspondent (why worry about the message, when you can shoot the messenger?), suggesting that the sample of 1000 respondents was not typical (I can assure them, it is!), and going on to social media ironically boasting about their newly-sanctioned non-essential status.  But perhaps the proper response should not be to fight against this finding (which, all my researches over many years, have shown to be utterly typical of Singaporean attitudes to the arts) but to question why something which we artists regard as vital to humanity, is, in fact, not considered such by humanity at large.

It's not for me to argue the case for other branches of the arts – painters, sculptors, architects, designers, actors, film-makers, poets, authors, and so on – nor even to argue the case for those involved in the pop music industry, but I do feel inclined to comment from the perspective of a “classical” musician working in Singapore.

For us, music is vital to our existence.  It’s not just that it earns our income, but that it is such a significant driving force in our individual lives that, without it, we feel we would wither and die.  We know it to be an essential conduit for our emotions as well as for our mental well-being, and its countless ancillary benefits (extended concentration spans, increased mental capacity, heightened intellectual perceptiveness, palliative influence over Alzheimer’s’, etc., etc.) need no rehearsal here.  However, that is not how anyone else sees Classical Music in Singapore, and we must ask why that is.  Have we failed to get the message across, or do we as musicians have an over-inflated belief in the value of our own art?

Many Singaporeans believe Classical Music to be alien to their society, forced on them by their former colonial masters.  In this, they have been greatly influenced by Lee Kwan Yew’s dreadful speech in 1980 when he claimed that, if a Singaporean had the sort of brain that could memorise and comprehend classical music, said Singaporean should not waste energies on music, but instead turn to a career in medicine, law, or anything else which was seen then, as now, as being “essential” to the good of society.  By stating there and then that music should be provided exclusively by “foreigners” (whatever they are in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-transitory Singapore) he indoctrinated a whole generation of Singaporeans with the notion that classical music was alien to Singapore society.  That is an attitude which still persists to this day; ask almost any Singaporean who has tried to turn to a full-time study of Classical music, and you will find somewhere in their family group, strongly voiced opposition; the common belief being that they should really be learning something which is useful and will earn them a respectable income.

Beyond that ill-considered utterance of Lee Kwan Yew, Singaporeans have, since independence from Malaya in 1965, been so concerned in building a stand-alone society, that their focus for 50 years has been on creating strong commercial and financial foundations to society.  Again, that ethic has been so driven into Singaporeans, that they see no intrinsic value in anything which does not yield immediately tangible results in either a physical object or a clearly delineated financial profit.  Classical music yields neither, so it is regarded as a peripheral activity.

Assuming that our conviction that classical music is an essential aspect of daily life is correct, to inculcate that conviction into others is a matter for education.  And that is where Singapore fails miserably.  Yes, we do have a handful of world-class tertiary music colleges and, yes, there are growing numbers of highly able Singaporean students emerging from them, but in other respects, Singapore’s music education is abysmal.  Primary and secondary schools too often approach the teaching of music as a competitive sport.  Choirs and bands are shown to be successful only by winning awards and competitions, while other aspects of practical and theoretical music are taught with the sole view of achieving examination success.  Graded exams are not seen as stepping stones towards an eventual goal of a wholly rounded human being, but as goals to be achieved as quickly and as numerically largely as possible.  In only a very few rare instances is music taught for its emotional and culturally enriching benefits.

But there is one area of music education which is universally understated in Singapore’s music education at all levels, which musicians must learn if we are to become regarded as an essential part of daily life; the role of classical music in the totality of our society.  We equip our students with the physical tools of the trade – instrumental skills and composing techniques – but we do nothing to equip them with an understanding of their place in daily society.  Yes, we show them the benefits of music when presented to care homes, hospices and schools, but for music to be regarded as essential, we need to show them how music fits into society outside these specialist (if very important) environments.  We need, in short, to teach the context of music in daily life.  We do not do this.  How many graduating students really know how music affects the generality of the society in which they live?  They perform brilliant virtuoso pyrotechnics on the piano, which excites the pianophiles and leaves everyone else cold, they write complex musical scores, which excite fellow-composers but, again, leaves everyone else cold.  We try to bring music to the “man in the street” (as we once labelled the general public) by offering free concerts and colourful musical gimmicks; but, obviously, it fails.  How do we merge our music into society?

I have long believed passionately that fully rounded musicians are those who understand their role in society.  As part of our own society with an unavoidable bias towards what we do, we cannot really step back and look at our role dispassionately.  We need to study the history and see how our predecessors squared their musical lives with that of the societies in which they lived.  Music history is currently taught too often as an exclusive, society-alienated thing.  We tell our students that Beethoven was a great hero because he worked against society, and we hold up Wagner as a social outcast, Mozart is elevated above Haydn because the former was an exception to society, while the latter quite happily absorbed himself within it.  We compound all that by placing protective boxes around composers to alienate them further from the societies in which they lived; hence Bach lived the Baroque Box, Mozart and Classical Box, Chopin the Romantic Box, and so on.  That merely serves to distance music from the society in which it was formed.  Yet, if we can teach music as something which was not apart from, but an integral part of society, we begin to see how it has been essential rather than peripheral. 

In Singapore society, classical music is certainly not essential.  But it should be, and with careful nurturing of musicians so that they are less concerned with the exclusive technicalities of their craft, and more involved in the daily context of the world in which they live, it will be.

02 June 2020

Singing is Killing

Amongst the plethora of confusingly contradictory scientific comment on the COVID-19 pandemic (it used to be called Novel Coronavirus until the novelty wore off and we realised the common cold was also a coronavirus), one nugget has earned my serious interest, and it concerns music.

Most of the so-called scientific information doing the rounds has been relayed and, possibly, adjusted according to the relayer’s bias, prejudice or wishful thinking, and in the process has lost its legitimacy.  And when I relay something a friend of mine told me, anybody would be right to imagine I am merely following the trend and reporting ersatz-science which appeals to me regardless of its scientific basis.  But my friend was, until his retirement, a highly distinguished epidemiologist who had produced some valuable research at the time of SARS.  I knew him from a choir I conducted in Cardiff during the 1970s, in which he sang bass, flanked by a pathologist (who was rarely sober) and a dentist (who rarely turned up, spending most of his time in Monaco where he had a yacht and a string of mistresses – which surprised us all since his wife, who worked as his assistant, was jaw-droppingly beautiful and probably accounted for the huge success of his dental practice). The pathologist died in a motor accident (in which alcohol played a part) and the dentist ended up in prison, but the epidemiologist went on to achieve great success as an academic, and we have kept intermittently in touch ever since.  When the latest virus first began to emerge in Asia, he was in Singapore on his way back from a World Health Organisation crisis meeting, and over dinner at his hotel, he told me that the most successful way in which such viruses are transmitted is through singing. 

Since then, I have heard more than one eminent (and not so eminent) authority on the subject of viruses and infectious diseases say the same thing.  While a cough has a spread of several meters (hence the largely universal acceptance that we should keep two meters apart), singing projects the voice, and any germs in the lungs, throat and mouth, over far greater distances.  On top of that, while, if you find yourself in the vicinity of a cough, you instinctively cover your nose and mouth, the only orifices you are likely to cover if you hear someone singing in close proximity, are your ears.  There seems no more perfect spreader for a virus which attacks the respiratory system, than a fully-trained singer.  By their very nature, singers don’t wear face masks, and in these heightened times of wishing everyone goodwill, we even look on those who sing in the streets of an evening as some kind of local hero to be admired rather than avoided.  Yet the science is there; if you want to stop the most effective means of spreading the virus, ban singing!

And not just singing in public, it seems.  In the UK at the moment everyone is going gooey-eyed over split-screen choirs where each voice is singing its part in isolation, then brought together by the wonders of Russian and Chinese-tapped communal computer programs.  In that each singer is singing from his or her own spaces, these are seen to be properly socially acceptable at a time when we must keep apart, but, I ask, who else is in the room, or the house, with the singer?  Is he or she not infecting everyone around him, even if we do not see those others in the miniature fragment of screen allotted to that singer?  In watching these communal attempts at isolationist choral singing, might we not also be witnessing Secret Virus Spreaders at work?  And in the UK, where Thursday nights were previously given over to everyone going out into the streets, clapping, banging on saucepans, and singing in support of health workers, has not the transmission rate (which we are told seems loathe to drop) been kept up by these well-intentioned but ultimately malign singers?

The irony of all this is that, during lockdown, circuit-breaker, or whatever label the politicians like to attach to it, singing has come to be seen as something to be encouraged for the social good.  Lots of people (centenarian Sir Captain Thomas Moore included) have been celebrated for their singing prowess at this time, and I have heard the usual mawkish comments from musical illiterates about how singing “is good for us”.  But beware!  It is not.  It is a killer!

With music in all its guises utterly ubiquitous in society, people have come to look on it not so much as harmless, as unremittingly beneficial.  It is beautiful and makes us all feel better (apparently).  Yet let’s not forget that music is a dangerous, potentially fatal weapon which, not necessarily in the wrong hands, has the power to do great harm.  We may laugh at the sorry tale of Lully, who stabbed himself in his foot and subsequently perished as a consequence of a musical performance.  But when an extreme Ulster Protestant threatened to kill me because I had (inadvertently) played a tune which bore (as I later learnt) an uncanny resemblance to the Irish National Anthem, and a policeman hurriedly urged me to turn off my car radio when, listening to the wedding of Charles and Diana while driving through Derry’s Bogside, fearing that, if an extreme Republican heard me, I would be unlikely to escape with my life, it did not seem so funny.  Deaths and murders have been prompted by music, singing revolutionary songs (some of which have now become national anthems) has led to killings, and operas (think La Muette de la Portici) have sparked riots.

Music is a dangerous thing, and we abuse it at our risk.  Singing during the COVID-19 pandemic is only another example of how music can have fatal consequences.

11 May 2020

The Demise of BBC House Orchestras

Hansard, the verbatim record of proceedings within the British Houses of Parliament, records a debate which took place on 27th June 1980 following the government’s decision to raise the BBC licence fee.  Those unacquainted with the way the BBC was funded then (and largely still is), should know that everyone in the UK with a television set was obliged by law to pay an annual licence, which funded not just the BBC television broadcasts, but all the radio stations and, most relevantly here, the BBC house orchestras.  The rise (for a colour television licence) was from £21 to £25, and it caused a huge public outcry, not least because the BBC regarded the rise as inadequate to meet their costs, so decided to dispense with a number of their regional house orchestras.  Hansard records the impassioned contribution to the debate from Andrew Faulds, the Labour party Member of Parliament for Warley East (in the English midlands) and a former actor who had, notably, appeared in the Ken Russell films based on the lives of Mahler, Liszt (Lisztomania) and Tchaikovsky (the Music Lovers); so he certainly had something of a professional interest.  He said; “What do the music cuts entail, in detail? In England, the Midland Radio Orchestra will be disbanded, with a loss of 32 jobs. That, of course, is in Birmingham. The Northern Radio Orchestra will be disbanded, with 22 jobs lost in Manchester. The London Studio Players will also be disbanded, with a loss of 19 part-time posts of musicians on first call. The Northern Ireland Orchestra will go, with a loss of 30 jobs, and with the hope that those musicians may get employment in a new orchestral alignment to be set up over the next year or so in a merger with the Ulster Orchestra. What those musicians do for a living in the meantime is somewhat unresolved.  Finally, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be—if I may use the phrase—scotched, with 69 jobs gone…In toto, 172 orchestral posts disappear. I have been given the figures for the cost of running each of these orchestras by the BBC. They are, per annum, as follows: the Northern Radio Orchestra, £180,000; the Midland Radio Orchestra, £220,000 the Northern Ireland Symphony Orchestra, £700,000; and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, £620,000.” 

Today it is perhaps difficult to understand why the BBC ever felt the need to have so many orchestras at its disposal; today, with six “house” orchestras (half the number of full-time orchestras it ran in the 1960s) the BBC remains a major employer of orchestral musicians and certainly has enough orchestras at its beck and call not only to meet the demands of music broadcasting, but also to get out and about at home and abroad giving live concerts as well as spending time in the commercial recording studios.  However, while we now live in an age when music has become omnipresent in our lives, too many take it for granted, care nothing about its provenance or quality, and fail to differentiate between computerised imitations of musical instruments concocted by a handful of computer geeks, and a live orchestra of several dozen highly-trained players.  When you no longer really listen, you no longer really care.

The function of those BBC regional orchestras was largely to provide the kind of innocuous, middle-of-the-road music which is so smooth and well-oiled as to slip all too easily into the background and become an accompaniment to life rather than something which causes us to stop and listen.  So, it seems, in retrospect, a natural consequence that such music should no longer be the preserve of live musicians but fodder for those who like to create musical sounds digitally.  But the computer geeks have changed the nature of background music, and as a result we have lost an entire genre of music; the music which, described as “light”, ploughed a middle furrow between serious classical works and frivolous pop pieces.  That loss is only really felt when you can go back to those heady pre-1980s days and hear one of those now-defunct orchestras strutting its stuff in fabulously re-engineered sound. 

Faulds referred in his speech to the demise of the Northern Radio Orchestra which itself had only been formed five years earlier following a huge outcry over the disbanding of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra (NDO). Four decades after the demise of these orchestras, the NDO Project was set up with the aim of ensuring “that these superb musicians cannot be forgotten”, and it has broadened its reach to preserve the memory not only of the Manchester orchestras but also of the Midland Radio Orchestra which, itself, was formed in 1973 following the disbanding of the Midland Light Orchestra.  Comprising 25 players on strings and woodwind and with a seven-member rhythm section, the Midland Radio Orchestra worked for the first six years of its existence under the legendary Norrie Paramor.  It spent virtually its entire performing life in the BBC studios in Birmingham, although as the booklet notes tell us, it occasionally “emerged from the studio to give public concerts which were also broadcast”. This double-CD set comprises some 46 tracks (along with  three “bonus” tracks featuring small groups from the band) which gives a classic sample of the kind of thing they produced day in and day out mostly for BBC Radio 2 in the days when heavy limitations on commercial recordings played over the air (“needle-time”) made it necessary to fill most of the schedules with live and specially-recorded music.  The ending of needle-time restrictions in the 1980s helped sound the death-knell for the BBC light music orchestras.

The over-riding impression from these enchanting (and there is really no other word for it) tracks is of extremely polished, effortlessly fluent, and wonderfully balanced and manicured playing.  It does make for easy listening, certainly, but taking the trouble to focus the ears and listen seriously, reaps huge rewards; there is not only some truly outstanding playing here, but a consummate level of musicianship which today we only find when musicians get “serious”; if only we could get back to an age when such supreme quality was the benchmark even in music which places no demands on the listener.

Some of the arrangements, too, are quite remarkable and worthy of more attention than they would have got in their day.  I love the way Johnny Gregory has turned Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F into a busy, bustling toccata, and how Neil Richardson has so cleverly woven together so much authentic Gershwin to create a version of Summertime which, amazingly, does not sound like Gershwin at all.  Bernard Hermann’s version of Fly me to the moon is to die for, as is John Fox’s arrangement of Misty, Gordon Franks evokes Scottishness without it sounding in any way cliched in his version of the Skye Boat Song, and there is real pathos in his arrangement of Love Walked In. Colin Campbell’s arrangement of Mancini’s ubiquitous Pink Panther is a work of pure genius in the way it manages to replace the brass (there was no brass section in the Midland Radio Orchestra) with violins to extraordinarily convincing effect.

A trio of vocalists pops up in various numbers – June Marlow (A Fine Romance), Betty Smith (I feel pretty) and Angela Christian (Masquerade and Chelsea Morning) – evoking through their voices a style of singing long since lost, while it is good to see arrangers Stanley Black and Bernard Hermann appearing as soloists in their own arrangements - Black on piano for Laura, and Hermann on the flute in his somewhat unsuccessful attempt to condense Danse Macabre into the obligatory three-minute time slot.

While this pair of  CDs might present music and musicians from a bygone era, there is something intensely relevant about it to our own time; perhaps a timely warning that if you take it for granted, you risk losing it.  It is amazing to read that many of the recordings were originally destroyed by the BBC so that these outstanding new digital transfers, the work of Paul Arden-Taylor (who joined the orchestra’s woodwind section in 1979), have been assembled from studio backup copies and off-air recordings.  All power to the NDO Project for not just preserving this important part of British musical history, but for reviving it so effectively.

[This review appeared in MusicWeb International and the CD is available ONLY from www.northerndanceorchestra.org.uk]

11 March 2020

The Function of the Cassette

Image result for cassette

80,404 cassette tapes were bought in the UK last year last year, the highest annual figure since 2004.  That seems quite a lot for a medium which has, by all accounts, long outlived its usefulness.  Cars with inbuilt cassette decks are now only to be found in the ranks of vintage vehicles, and you need to find a yard selling house-clearance items to find a machine on which you can play cassettes at home. By common consensus, the cassette tape was, for all its once ubiquitous convincing, a pretty dreadful means of listening to music.  It was impossible to access individual tracks, the sound was masked by a loud and persistent hiss (a kind of mechanical tinnitus) and after a few playings, the tape invariably got stuck in the machine and had to be pulled out by hand, which unravelled the tape from the spool on to which it was physically impossible to rewind it, and knots of cassette tape became a standard feature of hedgerows where they were thrown, in desperation, from car windows.  I remember just one such occasion being a core part of the storyline to an Inspector Morse episode in the 1980s.

The British Phonographic Industry (they were the people who came up with the 80,404 figure), point out that cassettes still only accounted for 0.1% “of all music consumed in 2019” (presumably that excludes broadcast and live performances), and that it paled into insignificance compared with 4.3 million vinyl LPs and 23.5 million CDs. 

What intrigues me is why people would buy cassettes.  The BPI has its own thoughts on the matter; “Experts put the revival down to a combination of people who bought them in their youth, and a novelty for younger music fans”.  But I have a different view, and one which was prompted by a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last evening called “New Weird Britain”.  In it John Doran searched out the underground, experimental music scene in the UK.  And weird it most certainly is.  Here are just a few observations from a concert Doran attended while recording the programme: “A man with a mouthguard in a balaclava dribbles into a bag of shopping”, “A film showing bright pink bottoms sitting on Victoria sponge cakes is projected”, “I don’t want to look pretty when I perform, I want to look a bit weird and ugly, like a yellow custard alien”.  While this is unashamedly (and, it has to be said, purposefully) weird, it masks a very serious issue, which Doran explains at the very start; “There’s a new wave of musicians who don’t care about the 80s or 90s…because they are making something completely new out of the remnants”.  In other words, this is not nostalgia, but a genuine attempt to move on from the past.  And, for all my classical inclinations, I found far more to enjoy in the music I heard in this programme than in any of the commercialised pop of our time or the sterile experiments in unattractive sound by academic-based composers keen to show off their ability to confuse and obfuscate. 

But where do cassette tapes fit into all this?

Towards the end of the programme, Doran interviewed a young man who had set up a recording studio called the Greater Lanarkshire Research Council (GLARC) which offered free recording facilities to experimental music groups and released the recordings as cassettes.  As he explained, “it is economically a very sound choice. They are extremely cheap to produce.  We looked into doing vinyl but you usually have to do a run of 300 or 400, and it costs around 1500, whereas with tapes you’re looking at 1 per tape”.  Simple economics have led to the cassette becoming an iconic symbol of experimental music and, as the man from GLARC put it, “you can be more experimental with a tape”.  On top of that, because of their cheapness, you can play around with their physical appearance without worrying too much about any detrimental effect it might have on the sound.  The cassette, in effect, becomes a physical more than an aural representation of the performance; as Doran put it, “Selling cassettes after a gig is like a Masonic handshake”.

This ability to convey a genre which clearly goes beyond sound seems to me to be at least a significant driver of the increase in cassette tape sales rather than any desire for nostalgia or novelty.  And perhaps we are now coming to an age where the medium of carriage for music is dependent on the musical genre.  If the cassette has become the medium which defines experimental music, and vinyl that which defies rock music, perhaps the time has come for the classical world to claim back ownership of the CD.  One thing every performer has in common is a desire to get their music out into the world and, to do that, while you can certainly use online streaming and downloads, there is also the desire – in fact the need – to have some physical manifestation of one’s existence.  As I have frequently reminded students, about to embark on their careers and solo performers, giving an audience a link to a YouTube video has none of the long-lasting benefits of selling them a CD.  What the CD brings to classical music which makes it the ideal carrier, is its highly detailed sound, shorn of the atmospherics inbuilt to vinyl and cassette, and the provision of a booklet which, at some length, can introduce the performer, the instrument and the music.  We could be learning from the experimental music people, and making the CD our own, unique medium and not dismissing it as cumbersome, outdated technology.

08 March 2020

Romeo and Juliet in Singapore

It was never a specific part of my loose and amazingly wide-ranging job description with the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur, but I was the assiduous archivist.  I know the Malaysian Philharmonic librarians kept their own records, but I noted every single piece of music played in the hall, not just by the MPO but by visiting orchestras and artists, as well as the encores they played.  Funnily enough, when I left and offered this huge database to the management, they told me to destroy it. Whether or not I did remains my little secret, but I do not need to check it to know that in the first 10 years of the hall’s existence, the most frequently performed music was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, it was almost always played in part rather than whole: orchestral suites prepared by the composer as well as by visiting and resident conductors, isolated movements performed by one or two pianos, an organist devising her own arrangements of extracts and, most memorably, a pair of mandolins playing, what for my money, is the most magical moment in the complete score.  The MPO even did it complete on one famous and unforgettable occasion.

But whether whole or in part, the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet has become phenomenally popular with both performers and audiences.  There are many possible reasons for this, but my own passion for the work – beyond my admiration for the brilliance of Prokofiev’s invention and scoring – is based on its absolutely infectious qualities.  (When it comes to infection, COVID-19 has nothing on Romeo and Juliet killing far less people, per head  – the death rate in R&J works out around 14% as opposed to the 1.4% of COVID-19 as suggested by researchers at the University of Hong Kong.)  But while four people end up dead on stage, it’s not as a result of the musical virus.  That virus infects everyone who comes near the music, and manifests itself in uncontrollable foot tapping and an urge, even amongst fat slobs with gippy knees (like myself), to start dancing.  My 12-year-old daughter, generally immune to the delights of classical music, claims Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet to be her most favourite piece of music, and it was to satisfy her love for the music and her insatiable obsession with dancing, that I arranged for her to go the matinee performance of the Singapore Dance Theatre’s current production of Romeo and Juliet which is on at the Esplanade Theatre until Sunday night.  As it happened, my daughter could not attend so I went alone. 

Matinee performances are not really my scene, and I found myself surrounded by hordes of schoolgirls in their early teens doing what all Singaporean schoolgirls in their early teens do by natural instinct; continually texting each other on their phones and working through their mathematics homework, seemingly oblivious to the action on stage.  But the minute the performance started, I was utterly and completely engrossed, and even the continual chatter of the Greek gentleman behind me translating everything as it happened to his young daughter (although quite what there is to translate in a ballet is all Greek to me) did not for a moment detract from what was, in the true meaning of the word, a mesmerising performance.

As an avid ballet-goer and an even avid-er Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet camp-follower, I suffer that terrible problem of having my own favourite productions by which I subconsciously measure all others.  The auguries were not good for this one.  The lavish and information-packed programme book (what a shame the excellent, if sometimes contentious, words in it were unattributed) warned that Choo-San Goh’s production was very different from the others, in that it “is noted for his invention of a character, danced by a woman, representing Fate”.  I was apprehensive; in my 60s and with dozens of R&J’s under my extensive belt, changes of this magnitude do not sit easily, and I had never seen this particular production before.  Yet from the moment this figure, encased in a grey body-glove, whirred on to stage, I was completely won over.  So powerful a symbol was she that, on each appearance, sliding effortlessly across the stage at speed en pointe, my heart dropped. Not for any other reason than this dramatic presence symbolised the inescapable, unavoidable tragic consequences of the story.  Perhaps the brilliance of the dancer – on Saturday it was performed by Kwok Min Yi – was what made the figure of Fate so fabulous, but as a choreographer’s vision, it was truly inspired.

The dancing from the entire cast was superb.  Juliet (Akira Nakahama) and Romeo (Etienne Ferrรจre) exuded huge and utterly credible characters even in their extraordinarily long-drawn-out deaths, the former a model of grace and fluency, the latter a powerful and sincere presence on stage.  The Nurse (Samantha Kim) was brilliant, as was Friar Laurence (Yann Ek), the latter immensely impressive as he realised his fatal error in handing the potion to Juliet, and his desperate attempt to get her off stage before she espied the corpse of her lover.  Other memorable performances came from Lord and Lady Capulet (Mohamed Noor Sarman and Elaine Heng), especially in the remarkable ballroom dance, and from Tybalt (Reece Hudson), whose physical representation of extreme anger was nothing short of marvellous.

Perhaps, however, if there was a fault in the choreography, it was in a tendency to overuse certain technical devices.  Tybalt’s anger was dramatic first time around, but second time it rather lost its impact, and if poor Juliet was bent double at the back in a lift one more time, I suspect she will have permanent curvature of the spine.  But the choreography also had some dazzlingly brilliant moments.  The three Montagues’ “Masks” dance in the first act was truly breathtaking, as were their various subsequent appearances, and the sword fights were vivid and genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Every time I attend a performance where an accompanying orchestra is conducted by Joshua Tan, I become even more impressed with his instinctive ability to respond to what is going on on stage.  His timing was effortless yet perfect, his pacing ideal and his command unwavering yet unobtrusive. It’s probably unfair to gauge the quality of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra from a Saturday afternoon matinee performance; suffice it to say that among the many great strengths they exhibited in this performance, intonation and precision of attack were not among them.  But I can only heap oodles of praise on the trumpet section which, throughout, was nothing short of magnificent.

The staging, lighting and entire production worked seamlessly and flawlessly – a great tribute not just to Janek Schergen, set-designer Peter Cazalet (whose costumes were fabulous) and lighting supremo Suven Chan, but to the whole backstage team – and the only serious downside was an ingratiatingly-voiced announcer who  irritatingly ran over a whole list of sponsors and glibly interrupted our applause by promoting other shows and encouraging us to spend lots of money.  My daughter missed a real treat, but, hordes of teenage schoolgirls and Greek fathers notwithstanding, I had one of the most magical times I can remember for a very long year.