17 February 2020

Has Music Stolen Our Emotions?

“Shall I tell you why people like us need fine art and good music?”  I caught an old 1990s TV series set in a judges’ chambers, and while my real intention was to veg out (chillax, is how David Cameron put it) in front of some mindless entertainment, one of the characters uttering those words to a new young female appointee puzzled by the apparent lack of concern judges showed for the consequences of their decisions, brought me back to reality with a jerk.  “It’s because we have lost the ability to feel.  We need other people’s feelings and passions to fill that hole in our own souls”.

Far be it from me ever to elevate the words of a jobbing TV script writer, charged with providing fodder for a series of hour-long episodes primarily concerned with giving exposure to a couple of once hugely popular actors in order to boost the channel’s viewing figures, into deep and considered thought, but this struck me as being – consciously or otherwise – remarkably perceptive.  And it offered a credible solution to a conundrum that has puzzled me for years; why has music suddenly become so ubiquitous, and why has it now become such a permanent feature of our daily lives that we seem almost to have taken it for granted?

Today, if you ask anyone to describe a piece of music, they will not tell you what they hear but offer their emotional response to it.  Music has become “beautiful”, “awesome”, “lovely”, “moving”, “passionate”, “angry”, “vicious”, “terrible”; words which indicate an emotional state rather than a physical one.  When Victor Hugo wrote in the mid-19th century, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”, he was implying that music could express those deep, innermost sensations in us which we call our emotions, and for which we cannot find words to articulate.  There is no similar quote about music from previous centuries and, indeed, the linkage of music with emotion seems to have come only with Beethoven.

When people declare that Bach’s music is “beautiful”, they may be speaking the truth in the context of our own time, but I would argue that for Bach, beauty and music were wholly separate entities.  He wrote his music in praise of God and not as a kind of self-serving, stand-alone aural monument to be regarded solely on its own terms.  I suspect he would be horrified if he knew his offerings in praise of his God have now become a conduit through which he himself has been elevated to near God-like status.  We may find humour and wit in Vivaldi and Haydn, and love and happiness in that of Telemann and Mozart, but does that mean that this was why they wrote their music and what they expected their listeners to perceive in it?  If so, where are the rest of the gamut of human emotions?  Where is the anger, the spite, the viciousness, the desperation and the depression?  Yes, we can dig deep and, with a lot of imagination, find these other human emotions in their music, but the very fact that they are buried so deep, indicates that the channelling of their own human emotions was not their prime purpose in composing what they did.  We may find it difficult to believe that there was an age where emotions were so suppressed as to be virtually non-existent, or to understand a people who had neither the desire nor the ability to express, in any form, the inner feelings we now believe to be the very raison d'être of music.

It seems that no composer before Beethoven saw music as a means of expressing emotion as we now understand it.  Perhaps we have replaced a once blind obedience in the omnipresence of God with a blind belief in our right to voice and express our own sexuality, personality, beliefs and emotions, and thereby can no longer understand how society existed without these rights of self-expression.  Certainly the French Revolution started a train of consciousness which travelled far beyond the mere overthrowing of aristocratic rulers and a liberation, politically and economically, of mankind.  The freedom we now enjoy to express our innermost thoughts in a public arena and have them treated with respect is surely one of those unforeseen consequences.  Wherever the roots of it may lie, since the beginning of the 19th century, music has become a channel for emotions in a way it never was before.

Even that, though, does not explain the extraordinary ubiquitousness of music today.  Once the preserve of the gods and the god-like, the rulers and the religious, it is now the very fodder of daily life in all strata of society.  We have music force-fed to us in stores, taxis, station concourses, aircraft, we have it seeping out of the ears of our fellow citizens and we sell the latest technology on the strength of its ability to store ever greater numbers of musical pieces.  And that it is what puzzles me.  I know (or I think I know) why and how emotion first came into music, but I do not know why everyone and everywhere seems to use music as they use the air we breathe and the environment in which we live.  And seeing the destruction we wreak on our air and our environment, the consequence of having taken it for granted for so long, I can only see music suffering the same fate; as we destroy our physical environment, surely we are similarly destroying our aural one.  If we could recognise why we need music all around us, we might begin to find some way of saving it; otherwise, music is surely doomed.

And this is where our fictional judges’ chamber comes in.  Judges’ emotions may well have been blunted by continual exposure to the emotional wreckage they see before them in their courts.  I have no way of knowing the truth of this, the only high court judge I ever knew being an elderly Sri Lankan who used to tell me, with some glee, about the people he had sentenced to death and the appalling crimes they had committed (or not, as he also seemed unafraid to admit).  But I do know that the vast mass of our population is continually exposed to the greatest horrors life and imagination has to offer on a daily basis through our personal screens and cinema.  We see and hear so much that presents humanity in an extreme way, that in comparison we find our own experiences mundane and sense that our emotions lack the sharp-edges of those we witness on these various visual media.

Away from the screens and the cinemas, the reality of our lives seems dull and uneventful, we do not seem to experience the emotional highs and lows we see happening in front of our eyes electronically on a daily basis.  In short, our emotions have been blunted; we do not seem to experience the same passion, pleasure, joy, anger, terror or love of those who appear on our screens, so we feel bereft.  This is where music comes in.  It can personalise those emotional excesses and become our own channels for expressing a level of emotional consciousness we do not ourselves feel.  In short, it has become a substitute for genuine human feeling.

14 February 2020

The Nonsense Composers Write

This week I seem to have been upsetting composers, but that is neither surprising nor even unusual; composers should be fiercely possessive of their art and leap to its defence in the face of any negative criticism real or implied.  However, the offence has been caused not by my words about their music, but by my words about their words.  In short, I have come across that familiar situation where a composer has tried to explain or justify his music and has, so far as I am concerned, failed dismally.

I better be careful not to name names, but on Thursday a letter reached me from a Russian composer now resident in Switzerland whose music I had encountered for the first time when I reviewed a newly-issued CD of his recent works.  I have to say I was bowled over and loved every second.  My overwhelming impression, however (and I certainly did not intend this as a negative criticism) was that it was rooted in the sound world and musical idioms of the late 19th/early 20th century.  I commented that if Rachmaninov had been castigated in his life time for seeming to be backward looking, how would those narrow-minded critics react to music written in 2015 which inhabited a sound world which would have been familiar to listeners a century ago.  My point was that we have, critically moved on, and we now assess a work on its own merits, not on any misguided belief that music written today should sound difficult for the sake of sounding difficult. 

Here is what the composer wrote to me in response to that;
“You write that my Fourth Symphony ‘belongs firmly to the late 19th century sound world’ and ‘seems almost more backward-facing than Rachmaninov’.  But you are wrong!  The music has many characteristics that can only be heard in works from the twentieth century”, and he goes on to suggest that his music owes much to Verklärte Nacht, Gurre-Lieder, “early Berg and early Webern”.  I’m not sure that allying your music to the pre-serial days of the so-called Second Viennese School composers at the dawn of the last century is a convincing way of telling me that this music of the 21st century is NOT backward-looking.   On top of that, on the basis that the work is titled Symphony no.4 in G minor I observed that it was “firmly rooted in tonality”.  Yet the composer objects to this too; “the polytonal and atonal segments…you seem unable to hear”.  Whether I heard them or not does not alter the composer’s clear statement of tonality in the title.  If he wanted it to be seen as “polytonal and atonal”, why did he unequivocally state that it was in G minor?

In short, here is a composer who writes wonderful music, but would do well to keep his thoughts to himself when it comes to words; I am now not sure whether he really understands that the musical world has moved on since 1914.

The day before I received this letter, I had been taken out to dinner by another composer who told me that a third composer, a premiere of whose I had attended and reviewed earlier in the week, was baying for my blood.  One of that composer’s acolytes (I assume) has since written an anonymous message to me suggesting that my future existence on earth is by no means guaranteed.  It seems the fact that I was not ecstatic about the new work did not cause so much offence as the fact that I appeared to assume it was something it was not.  From the title of the work, as well as from the composer’s own fulsome programme notes oozing with lyrical prose and evocative imagery, I suggested in my review that the sound of the music did not live up to the expectations.  Frankly, there was just about nothing in the composer’s description of his music which related to what the music actually sounded like, and while I accept that everything he suggested was there in the composing process, it had been so enveloped within a desire to emphasise the technique of writing music, that to the casual listener, the description and the reality were two very different things.  “What was he expecting?”, is a phrase which the composer apparently uttered after having read my review. 
I am happy to answer him.  If you tell us that the piece evokes images of a rustic scene, that it incorporates a couple of famous folk melodies, and that the music represents a very picturesque image, then that is what I expect to hear.  The fact that what I got was a lot of random sounds, a chaotic assemblage of musical and extra-musical effects and an incoherent progression from great volume to near silence, means that, whether I liked what I heard or not, it certainly did not live up to the false expectations set up in the composer’s own words.  How much better this would have been if we could have assessed the work on its own merits, unencumbered by preconceptions set in progress by the composer’s pre-performance words. 

In both these cases, the composers have written music which may or may not have great merit and which I may or may not have enjoyed on its own terms, but have undermined that by trying to verbalise their intentions.  Whatever happened to the old dictum of composers; once the music is in the public domain, you no longer have any control over it?

I raised this very point with my composer dining-companion and found that this was by no means an accepted dictum among today’s composers.  Surely, I was told, the composer knows better than anyone else what the music is all about.  Yes, that is true at the creative stage, but once it is in the hands of the performers and the ears of the listeners, it takes on a life of its own.  E T A Hoffmann told us that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was all about fate; Beethoven told us that it was all about the singing of birds.  Most of us accept Hoffmann’s interpretation and dismiss Beethoven’s.  And were we to accept Beethoven at his word, and accept no other interpretation of that famous four note motiv, I am not sure the Fifth Symphony would have gone on to achieve such immense popularity.  Composers have to learn to let go and let us interpret and respond to their music on our own personal terms.  They have given us the raw material to which we attach our own personal and emotional baggage; many might suggest that this is the very purpose of music today.

“We should dispense with programme notes altogether”, my dining companion suggested.  The answer to that is a resounding NO.  We need programme notes to guide us through the music, to point us in a suggested direction of listening (and thereby unravelling what can sometimes be a confusing array of sounds) and to give some context to what we hear, but possibly the composer is the last person who should do that being, as they are, too close to their own creation  - the same concept as used to prevent close relatives from testifying against each other in a court of law.  (Programme notes also exist to provide a tangible and physical souvenir of the occasion.  When the music has stopped sounding in our ears, the programme notes can help it continue sounding in our memories.)  There is an art to all this while avoiding the danger of setting up false expectations in the listener’s mind; and it’s an art few composers seem to possess.  By all means tell us why you wrote it, when you wrote and what your dog was doing while you were writing it, but please don’t tell us how to listen to it.  Our ears are not the same as yours, and we need to approach your music on our own terms and in our own way.

Back in the early 1970s I was the editor of the programme book for the Cardiff Festival of 20th Century Music.  As publication day dawned I had still not received any word about a new commission from a certain well-known German-born Jewish American naturalised composer.  I wrote to him time and time again, asking for some basic information so that I could mould it into a coherent programme note, but he insisted he was going to write his own note for publication.  He was, he reminded me, famous as a communicator and he felt he knew his music better than anyone else and could describe it more precisely.  On the very morning the copy was due to go off to the printers, his note arrived.  I remember it vividly; “This work may be long or short, loud or soft, it has rhythm and melody and is scored for piano, violin and possibly some other instruments”.  Such perceptive writing from a composer puts the carefully-chosen words of the professional programme-note writer to shame!

13 February 2020

Such Orchestras As...

It began with Viagra.  Then came a sheath of medications of dubious value, to be followed by miracle cures for my excessive weight, hair loss and failing eye-sight.  Next, a Nigerian gentleman with extraordinarily generous philanthropic tendencies who only needed me to furnish him with a small sum to cover administrative costs before he would transfer vast sums  into my bank account (full details of which he urged me to pass on to him).  Then came the offers of free petrol for a year, gift vouchers for stores of which, if I had heard of any of them, I would never have ventured inside and, latest of all, free membership of casinos and assorted gaming dens.  Luckily my email Spam filter has long since worked out how to discard these, and I only know of their continued existence when I periodically check the Junk Mailbox to make sure a genuine offer of fulsomely paid employment has not passed me by.

I suppose I could set my Spam filters to add to the huge pile of junk they, I presume, divert from my daily inbox, any material which includes the egregious phrase “such orchestras as…”.  But, despite an earnest desire never to see this phrase again, I have no choice.  It is an inevitable consequence of the life I lead.

For reasons which defy my meagre intelligence, artist agencies assign to the most junior office clerk or unpaid intern the task of writing promotional biographies of artists.  The agencies assume, I imagine, that it is the one area of their work that can most easily be interrupted in mid-course by the need to make the tea, refill the water cooler or replenish the towels in the washroom.  But how wrong they are.  If major artists knew just how despicable they come across in the descriptions their agents send out, they would surely jump ship and take control of their own musical destiny.  If they knew, for example, that there are people like me who immediately assume that the quality and ability of an artist is in inverse proportion to the amount of “mesmerizing renditions”, “garnering accolades” and “recognised worldwide for insightful performances” on their biographies, they surely would realise that their agents, far from extolling their virtues, are turning them into laughing stocks.

If I read any biography that contains the words Mesmerising, Rendition or Garnering, I scream.  When I read that someone has performed with “such orchestras as…” I jump out of the window – luckily I inhabit the ground floor and the windows are too small to accommodate my bulk – but you get the point.

Take this.  “Wong Noat  [not his real name] has performed with such orchestras as The Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and others”.  Now I ask you, what orchestras ARE like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic?   It can hardly mean; “He has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Braddell Heights Symphony and the Sarawak State Symphony”.  Somehow it doesn’t quite have the same impact.

In its heyday, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra used to look down its collective nose at any of its players who slummed it on an occasional basis for a modest fee with the Singapore Symphony.  To lump these two together as being alike shows such a fundamental lack of knowledge that even to make the suggestion is to indicate utter musical ignorance.  And if it’s true of two neighbouring Asian orchestras, think how true it is of every other orchestra.  An orchestra, especially a good one, is a unique animal, with its own distinct character and its own distinct personality.  To say they are alike is to reveal a complete lack of musical consciousness.  So when an artist is said to have played with “such orchestras as…” you can be pretty sure that whoever wrote that comment has never heard the orchestra in question.

But here’s another thing.  Those “such orchestras as…” are invariably the famous ones.  I don’t recall reading “he has performed with such orchestras as the Thailand Philharmonic”; no criticism of the TPO – a pretty good bunch of players all things considered.  Neither have I ever seen an artist who has performed with “such orchestras as the Hong Kong Philharmonic” – an orchestra of considerable musical quality.  No, orchestras seem only to be able to be compared with those in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, Cleveland or Philadelphia.  Could it be that, by selecting the great orchestras of the world and suggesting that our artist has played with similar groups, one is trying to hide the fact that our artist spends most of his time playing with the third and fourth rate bands and once, probably by accident, ended up on a platform alongside the Big Boys from Berlin?

Orchestras in Asia rarely get a look in.  At best, we can read “he has played with all the major orchestras in Asia” (hmmm? ALL of them?  And does that mean he has never played with any of the minor ones?).  And nobody, but nobody, ever seems to have played a note with an African orchestra.  Yet, the orchestras of Natal, Cape Town and Pretoria have, in their time, been a pretty impressive bunch.

No, I’m afraid the phrase “such orchestras as…” combines musical snobbery of the worst kind with musical ignorance in the extreme.  As one whose job it is to edit artist biographies for inclusion in concert programmes, I have long ago given up rephrasing this detestable utterance.  If an artist agency can’t be bothered to tell us precisely which orchestras the artist has played with, then I can’t be bothered to read about it and this barely illuminating line from the biography gets consigned, along with all those mesmerised renditions, garnered accolades and worldwide recognitions for insightful performances, to such places as the rubbish bin.

[this post first appeared in 2013 and is reprinted by request]

12 February 2020

Missing Suzuki's Bach

The risk that someone in Singapore might succumb to COVID-19 (so far quite a few seem to have
been infected but nobody in Singapore has died) has left the state in virtual lockdown.  And while most musical events are going ahead as planned, those associated with the National University of Singapore have almost wholly been cancelled.  That means next Friday’s visit of Masaaki Suzuki to continue his Bach Cantata odyssey with the Conservatory orchestra and singers is off.  What a pity.

All I can recommend by way of recompense is to listen to his recordings of Bach cantatas with his own Bach Collegium Japan; which, COVID-19 or not, never fails to soothe frayed ends and calm the beating heart.  Walking into the office this morning I picked one at random off the shelf and as I sat luxuriating in sublime music and excellent music making, I wondered where the disc itself had come from.  I could not remember buying it and assumed I had been sent it for review.  Paging through the archives, I eventually found the review I had written back in 2014 for the now very sadly defunct International Record Review.  The prime reason why IRR went to the wall was despite a fiercely loyal readership, there simply was not the money to keep the print run going once its founder and chief financier had died.  It had never had an online presence, its readership clearly preferred the physicality of a print magazine, so without the funds to keep the physical magazine alive, it had nowhere to go but down the drain.  And with it went a huge archive of informed, intelligent and often extremely well written reviews.  A hugely knowledgeable and extremely literate editor ensured quality was always an absolute priority, and going back over the reviews I wrote for it I am conscious of always having had to look over my shoulder to make sure I did not get an editorial rebuke.  What a shame all that has been lost.
I do not think there is an online IRR archive for anyone to mine, so as I listen to this delightful disc I read with a certain pleasure my own review of it published exactly five years ago this month.

Lavishly colourful orchestral effects, vivid and often extremely witty word-painting, robust humour – almost of the student prank variety – and powerful dramatic gestures may not be the kind of things usually associated with the music of Bach, but in their leisurely trawl through all his cantatas, Collegium Japan have landed two rarely-heard ones in which these elements are very much in evidence.  Both were written for two specific members of Leipzig University and both may well have been commissioned by the university students; indeed Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten was written to a libretto by a student.  (The other, Zerreisset, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft, is one of the first pieces in which Bach collaborated with the poet known as Picander who was later to create the very different texts of the great Passions.) 

The first academic to be honoured by Bach in these cantatas was August Friedrich Müller, 40-year-old teacher of law and philosophy.  He was, by all accounts, extremely popular with his students, and to mark his name day on 3rd August 1725, Bach set a Picander text based on an episode from Virgil’s Aeneid in which the winds have been imprisoned by Aeolus until the summer is over and they can be released with their full force on the world.  Klaus Hofmann’s entertaining booklet notes draw a connection between this summer-based story and the date of the cantata’s performance, suggesting it may have been given out of doors in an evening entertainment.  Certainly this boisterous (there is no other word for it) performance has that unrestrained and straining-at-the-leash feel we might expect from an open-air event. 

An orchestra substantially expanded by the addition of three trumpets, two horns, oboe d’amore and timpani – Hofmann sees in this evidence of some very wealthy backers to the performance and it is certainly the widest variety of instrumental colours Bach ever employed in a single cantata – gives Bach a wonderful opportunity to depict the winds clamouring over each other in a bid for freedom.  Possibly it all becomes a little too rowdy and unrestrained in the opening chorus, where loose intonation and rough-edged voicing of the brass jar a little on the ears, but with the second movement things become much more controlled as the winds are magisterially restrained by the awesome presence of a stony-voiced Roderick Williams.  He sounds every inch the mighty King Aeolus, but more than once a mischievous impishness creeps in to his superb portrayal of this powerful being; his laughter in the delightful aria “Wie will ich lustig lichen” brings to mind none other than the late lamented British comedian Jimmy Edwards. 

In almost startling contrast comes the graceful and restrained Wolfram Lattke as a gently floating, occasionally fluttering Zephyrus pleading to the king on behalf of all the winds.  His aria “Frische Schatten, meine Freude” is a model of not just vocal restraint but also supreme elegance in orchestral support, the gently wafting individual instrumental lines – including viola d’amore and viola da gamba - lovingly balanced by the gently guiding hand of Masaaki Suzuki.

The second academic celebrated in this pair of cantatas is the youthful (he was just 28 at the time) Gottlieb Kortte, who had just been appointed Professor Extraordinarius.  He delivered his inaugural address (from memory since he had forgotten to bring his text with him) on 11th December 1726, and to mark the occasion Bach composed his Cantata No.207.  The music - especially in the opening chorus – draws heavily on the first “Brandenburg” Concerto, but the libretto was written especially for the occasion, and presents four allegorical characters which Bach apportions to the solo voices. 

Happiness is a soprano; and it is hard to imagine a more joyous voice than that of Joanne Lunn as she skips happily around the crisp tones of Honour (the bass of Roderick Williams) in their duet “Denn soll mein Lorbeer schützend decken”. Gratitude is an alto, who is one of the two voices given an entire recitative and aria to themselves.  Here, the alto is Robin Blaze who blends in with perfect ease to the delightful mixture of a pair of flowing flutes and jabbing strings (representing the soft chipping away at marble to create a lasting memorial to the popular professor) in “Atzet dieses Angedenken”.  The other solo voice is that of Diligence, represented by the tenor (Wolfram Lattke).

These are unusually colourful and vivid performances, even by the standards so far set by Masaaki Suzuki’s Collegium Japan, and both singers and orchestra get their teeth happily into some of Bach’s most joyous and gutsy music.  The recording is clean and unrestrained, and once again heaps of praise have to go for the wonderfully enlightening booklet notes.

10 February 2020

Stifling the (Bassoonist's) Argument

Picture the scene.  Two elderly music reviewers - one of them dozing in a post-lunch stupor, the other muttering to himself about the vagaries of a Singapore public obsessively buying up toilet rolls and noodles in case the Coronavirus suddenly mutates to cause bouts of diarrhoea and extreme hunger -  sit on a bench inside the air-conditioned lobby of Victoria Concert Hall awaiting an interesting afternoon concert of Chinese orchestral music in which both have a professional interest.  Suddenly a young lady known to both as an eager up-and-coming bassoonist on the local circuit comes up to us with a cheery greeting.  Disturbed from our respective reveries, neither of us is in the best of moods when she proclaims that she read my review and wanted to respond, but wasn't sure whether she dared.

It took a bit of deeper digging to discover she was referring to a review I had published in the Straits Times earlier in the week about Singapore's new Concordia String Quartet.  "I wasn't there", she told us, "But I felt very strongly about it".  Quite what her feelings were neither of us had the courtesy to enquire, both of us suggesting that if she wasn't there, possibly she would have had nothing worthwhile to say. We left it at that.

In retrospect, I felt we were both rude and I have since had a big pang of guilt.  Surely a review is not intended for those that were there or heard the concert, but for a wider audience to increase awareness of a city's musical environment or to trigger discussion on musical matters.  I must confess that, even as I penned my review, I had hoped someone who was not there might have been interested enough to ask a question or post a comment; yet here I was scoffing at precisely the kind of response I was wanting.

So I apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly to our our bassoonist friend, and urge her to put up her views in public whenever she feels like it; the views of every performing musician or serious music lover are always relevant, be they positive or negative,

The problem is, the anonymity of the internet leads to those who normally live mundane and pointless lives, who would jump on a chair at the sight of a cockroach or turn the other way if they saw a disabled person in need of help, suddenly feel empowered to become offensive, abusive and super-critical of those whose bravery in speaking out they envy.  Thus serious musicians, politicians, writers, critics and even health care workers all come in for horrible abuse simply because those who abuse them have neither the skill nor the intelligence to emulate the work they do.  Amazingly, I even get death threats for having suggested that so-and-so was not able to walk on water or raise the dead (musically speaking).  People who would not know a treble clef from a treble whisky frequently castigate me for not knowing what I am talking about or for grinding some kind of personal axe.  For that reason anonymous comments are usually erased from the blog - although one or two do fall through the net, especially if they trigger interesting discussions online.  But I welcome all and every considered comment from someone with the courage and brains to put their name where their typing fingers are.

So why should critics not only accept but take seriously comments from those who were not at the performances they reviewed?  The simple answer is that a review, while reporting on what happened historically, also offers an opinion about the wider issues in music.  You did not have to be at the Concordia String Quartet concert to take the point from my review about the legitimacy of externally created string quartets or the wisdom of national ones; and if I can spark a discussion around those two points (and many of the others subliminally referred to in my review), I am happy.

It seems that the age of polite, informed discussion from radically opposing standpoints has died in music; how I long for someone to argue against me without being offensive, or to support my argument without being sycophantic.  Hopefully despite my face-to-face rudeness, Ms Bassoon can buck the trend and add her worthwhile voice to the discussion.

05 February 2020

The Farce of Low Brass

Image result for Gerard Hofnung tuba cartoon"
copyright Gerard Hoffnung

A discussion about graded music exams with a group of students included a strong contribution from one who was a bass trombone player.  She told of how being forced to play “dreadful repertory” for graded exams had almost prompted her to give up the instrument altogether.  She complained that she was obliged to play for the exams studies and technical work which served no relevant purpose so far as she could see and, worst of all, perform “bits of unnatural musical rubbish by unknown 20th century composers” because there was no core repertory apart from orchestral parts.

Having had to endure countless low brass graded examinations, my sympathies were wholly with her.  As an examiner your heart sinks when someone stumbles into the room struggling under the weight of a tuba.  You know you’re in for a hard time.  For a start, tubas have no standard when it comes to tuning or clefs, and the first thing you have to do is ask them what key their instrument is in and what clef they play from.  Even at grade 8 few know this (surprisingly, few tubists – as they like to fashion themselves - know one clef from another, or even what a clef is).  That’s usually 10 minutes of a 20-minute exam gone before a note has been played.  And then you have all that nonsense about “C major tongued, E flat major slurred, G harmonic minor mixed articulation”, which is as nonsensical to the candidate as it is to the examiner.  But the heart sinks when it comes to the pieces, for you know there will be an inappropriate transcription (usually Panis Angelicus) and a couple of hideous scraps of pointless solo music by some inconsequential 20th century composer who has a mission either to prove that the tuba or bass trombone are as valid a solo instrument as the violin, or to screw as much money as he can from gullible, cash-laden examination boards.  With the bass trombone it seems that whatever they play resembles nothing other than a bear growling as it performs its natural functions in the woods.

But then I thought again.  There is no worthwhile solo repertory for low brass, simply because these instruments exist to fulfil a very different function from that of a violin or other solo instrument.  Without them, much orchestral repertory would not exist.  Can you imagine Wagner, Elgar, Strauss or Mahler without tuba or bass trombone?  Brass bands need them like human beings need air and water.  What is a US marching band without some lycra-clad poseur inserted in a Sousaphone?

Tubists and bass trombonists have to live, and they cannot live by bottom lines of climax points in Holst and Hindemith scores alone.  The US idea is to get musically literate tubists and bass trombonists (not by any means a natural pairing) to write their own pieces so that players can have something which is playable in a solo capacity. These pieces are not real solo repertory, for you never hear them in major concert venues; rather, like mysterious religious cults, bands of secretive low brass players gather together in some forlorn recital room, and admiringly listen through these US-commissioned pieces much as organists collectively gather for an out-of-tune performance of Buxtehude Chorale Preludes or a shrill, mutation-laden expose of a Clerambault Messe.  And, like organists, they have their own set of heroes and superstars of whom the rest of us have never heard.  It is a total closed door to the rest of us, and only serves to highlight the elitism of low brass players (and organists). 

In the case of the UK tradition, things are done very differently. Low brass players, accepting their place as outcasts from respectable musical society, have their unique repertory generated largely by the graded exam system.  How can you offer a range of graded exams to an instrument without there being legitimate repertory to play?  So it is commissioned and created especially for certain skill levels, as dictated by the requirements of each grade of assessment.  And because of that, it is nearly always musically dire.  In order to have music to play, low brass players must live with this unendurable rubbish.  It’s a vicious circle; if you want to play the instrument, you have to play bad music, and playing bad music puts you off playing the instrument.

Without the graded music examinations and their demand for fresh repertory for every conceivable instrument, those instruments would not feature in the exam syllabuses and, as a result, because of the way instrumental education is done in the UK and those countries which adopt that system of music education, children would never learn low brass.  The sad fact is that in many countries (with Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia top of the list) children ONLY learn instruments in order to undergo graded exams; even if, a select few of them then progress into the real world of instrumental performance.  We have to have exams for tuba and bass trombone in order to keep the pool of players topped up for orchestras (where those instruments play a vital role). 

So my hapless bass trombone student has to face the fact that bad repertory is part of the inevitable consequence of playing an instrument which was never intended to be thrust into the limelight of a solo role.   Whether it’s a failing of the graded examination system or not, I am not sure, but it is an inescapable - and definitely farcical - consequence of it.  

04 February 2020

Dazzling Duo, Selfish Spectators

One of the great delights of my work as a Professional Listener (a job description which seems far more apt than mere Music Critic) is that every concert comes as a surprise.  This weekend, for example, I eagerly anticipated the debut concert of a new professional string quartet (see previous post), only to be disappointed by the amateurishness of their playing.  Against that, a violin and piano duo recital yesterday afternoon seemed so unenticing to me that I almost did not go; I stood outside the hall wavering whether to sit in for a bit or go out and do the shopping.  Luckily I plumped for the former, and found myself attending about the most outstanding duo recital I can remember attending for many a long year.  Certainly such excellent duo playing is rare in Singapore, and even when household names appear, they hardly ever reveal the supreme level of true partnership on show in yesterday’s recital.
The Avita Duo’s visit to Singapore got minimal publicity and virtually no exposure; even the main door to the hall was barred, with admission gained through a side entrance, well-hidden from public view.  So when I did eventually find myself among the select group who had made it to sit on the concert hall stage (rightly, nobody anticipated a sufficiently large turnout to justify opening the main auditorium seating) I really was not expecting much.

The best musical collaborations are those which have a personal chemistry and relationship honed over years of working together (which was the big failing with Saturday’s string quartet). Here we had a mother and daughter duo, thereby adding to the shared experience of music-making that innate unity of consciousness which only the closest personal relationships can create.  There were a few occasions when violinist Katya Moeller made a dubious sound or hit a note slightly off-balance, which prompted such a spirited flash of the eyes from her mother, Ksenia Nosikova at the piano, that you wondered whether Katya would later get a smack and be sent to bed without supper!  But this was no junior/senior partnership, but one of absolute musical equals who worked so closely with each other that as often as not they seemed to meld into one.

The perfection of their duo partnership, as well as the brilliance of their individual playing, was driven home at the very start with a robust and invigorating account of Beethoven’s 1st Violin Sonata.  From start to finish this was absorbing, enlivening and exciting stuff, full of drama and joy and keeping us all on the edge of our seats.  I’m not sure the Hubay Carmen Fantasy really worked so well since it projected daughter above mother in a way which felt a little unnatural.  Dazzling violin playing in this extraordinarily eccentric take on Bizet’s famous tunes, but perhaps it needed a level of virtuoso individuality which does not come naturally in such a partnership.  Perfect for the pair were the Lera Auerbach Preludes.  Inhabiting a distinctly post-Shostakovich world, these superbly written miniatures worked so well in this performance because the duo were so totally attuned to the music and each other that there was no sense of feeling their way into each small musical sensation.  And, ending as they began with a core violin/piano duo work, we had Franck’s Violin Sonata.

On average over the last five years, I have heard the Franck Sonata performed live in whole or in part six times annually in Singapore.  There have been impressive and outstanding performances as well as ignoble and near-disastrous ones, but this swept the floor with them all.  There was something indefinably Russian about the Avita Duo’s interpretation; whether it was the amazing poise of the first movement, the sense of tight-lipped restraint in the second, the pathos of the third or the wonderful expansiveness of the fourth, I can’t tell, but something here gave it a very different feel.  It was a powerful and gloriously committed performance which, like all great performances, will ring in my memory for days yet to come.  Luckily I was sitting near an exit which meant that. when the pair decided without prompting from the audience to launch into an encore, I was able to get away quick before any cheap bit of showmanship could pollute the lingering aftereffects of the Franck.  Why do so many performers think we want an encore to take away the taste of their performance?  Whatever happened to the mantra, Less is Best?

As for the audience, unsurprisingly it numbered no more than 30.  Of these, about five or six were students most of whom spent the concert texting on their phones - no surprise there; I know of no other people on earth less interested in listening to live music than Singapore music students. 

Equally predictably, but much more disturbing, was the posse of general public dotted around the seats who, periodically, took out their mobile phones, held them aloft and, despite entreaties from pre-concert announcements, proceeded to record the concert.  What the hell do these idiots think they are doing?  Do they seriously believe that the tiny little speakers on their ghastly hand-held devices produce a better sound than the live acoustics of a concert hall?  Do they really find it easier to look at a minuscule screen than take in with the naked eye the totality of the concert experience going on around them?  Indeed, do they ever look at these recordings again, or do they merely believe that the act of recording a live concert simply legitimises it?  If you didn’t record it on your phone, it never took place in reality!  Perhaps, these people are so monumentally selfish and inconsiderate, that holding aloft their phones for such extended periods of time is in fact a deliberate attempt to obscure the view of those around them and disturb their enjoyment of the concert.

The first concert hall to place a bin (preferably an incinerator) at the door into which all patrons are obliged to deposit their mobile phones and tablets, will get my unfailing custom for the rest of my life.  Concert-going has become a dreadful experience simply because of the selfishness of these morons who feel that they have the right to disturb everyone else in order to record some part of the presentation for their own private gratification.

And here was a concert which really deserved not to be spoiled in this way.  Such wonderful music making is still very rare in Singapore and it was a privilege to be there; take it from me, it can never sound so good through the eyes and ears of your electronic, hand-held device..

03 February 2020

String Quartets: A Source of National Pride?

Image result for Concordia String Quartet
Can you create a string quartet when you yourself are not part of it?  Does a state need to have its own string quartet to earn credibility on the world musical stage?  These two questions have been rattling around in my mind ever since I learnt that the management of re:Sound Collective, who already run a small orchestra in Singapore, felt that Singapore “needed” a full-time, professional string quartet. 

All the string quartets I know were formed by the members themselves, often having begun their musical relationships as fellow students or members of an orchestra, feeling that they would like to work more closely and intimately with each other.  As these quartets have matured and founder-members dropped out, new members have been recruited, often by audition; and those new members invariably tell of how difficult it was to “fit” into an ensemble which had originally been founded on friendship and commonality of background.  But I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a successful string quartet coming into being from scratch as a result of public audition; which is not to say it’s impossible – just not the way things are usually done.  Neither do I know of any string quartet that has been formed as a symbol of a state’s musical worth; plenty exist which came into being as a result of all the players being in the same place at the same time (think Fitzwilliam, Dartington, Endellion), but are there such things as “national” string quartets?  Again, it’s not the way things are normally done, but that does not mean to say it’s impossible.

The members themselves decided to call it the “Concordia” Quartet rather than, say, “Singapore” Quartet - it’s inevitable, I suppose, that the name Concordia already exists in a well-established quartet on Cyprus, and I believe there are also Concordia Quartets in the US and Australia – and I wonder if the name, completely free of national or even linguistic implications, is the best choice for one which was deliberately created to help put Singapore on the chamber music map.  But that’s not really the point.  The point is, Singapore hardly “needs” a string quartet.  Barely a month goes by without a well-established string quartet visiting Singapore (on March 5th, for example, the Verona Quartet are here – their publicity blurb states proudly that “The Quartet’s members represent four different nations”) and Singapore’s chamber music aficionados have ample chance to experience live string quartets at home.  Is the creation of a “Singapore” string quartet anything more than musical xenophobia; a further symptom of the growing and (to my way of thinking) disturbing increase in musical isolationism which one detects in Singapore’s classical musical environment?

I’m wide open to being persuaded that you can create a string quartet from the outside, and that Singapore will benefit from having a “professional, full-time” one to complement the established T’ang Quartet (who, in any case, tend to promote themselves as being something different from the usual run-of-the-mill quartets).  But having sat through the Concordia’s debut concert at the weekend, I remain unconvinced.  The Concordia had none of the polish, musical conviction or sense of camaraderie you look for in professional, full-time quartets, and while one can make allowances when it’s a student or other group brought together for a one-off concert, since this concert promoted itself on the strength of the Quartet’s professionalism, my own feeling was one of disappointment.  I reviewed it for Straits Times: 


Another Journey Begins

Concordia String Quartet

Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice

Saturday (1 February)

Marc Rochester


Most professional string quartets come into being when the players feel they would like to move into the rarefied world of string quartet playing in the company of some close colleagues.  Here is one which was created by external forces; the management of the re:Sound Collective deciding that Singapore needed its own full-time string quartet, and searching around for potential talent.

They came up with two Singaporeans, a Korean and a German - violinists Edward Tan and Kim Kyu-ri, viola player Matthias Ostringer, and cellist Theophilus Tan.  As the Concordia Quartet they made their debut on Saturday at an appropriately new venue on the Singapore classical music scene, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre at Wild Rice on the 4th floor of the newly-rebuilt Funan Centre, signifying its days as a building peopled solely by computer geeks are past.

This may well prove to be Singapore’s finest venue for chamber music.  Strongly reminiscent of London’s Globe Theatre cut in half, the seating is not so much tiered as vertically stacked, giving everyone a wonderfully direct view of the stage and a strong feeling of involvement with what is going on there.  That this is, primarily, a theatre was driven home at the very start for, just as the Concordia Quartet had come on stage, it was plunged into total darkness. 

The idea here was to evoke visually the sunrise which is said to be the inspiration behind the opening of Haydn’s so-called Sunrise Quartet.  As the players began to play, the lights rose until the four of them were bathed in a bright, white circle of light.  Sadly, the message had not reached through to the musicians themselves whose playing remained steadfastly monochrome.

Here we had four players who knew the notes and had clearly been well-drilled in the techniques of string quartet playing, but who never really took ownership of the music or showed convincing commitment to it.  The lights were on, as it were, but nobody was at home.  This was playing which, a few issues with tuning and ensemble aside, was correct but soulless. 

Haydn is a composer whose music few musicians can ever play without a smile on their face; but not a flicker of a grin crossed the serious visages of these four.  They were no more willing to let their collective guard down for Schubert’s Quartettsatz, which got a decidedly lacklustre play-through.

Perhaps it was first-time nerves for, after the interval, and with Beethoven’s First Quartet, the players began to mellow.  Some of them even broke into miniscule smiles and, very occasionally, glanced across almost happily at each other.  By the third movement, this performance had begun to warm up nicely.

This was a journey which began well enough, but there is a long way yet to go.