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.