Tuesday, October 30, 2007

following a line

You'd think that, being a cellist myself, drawing a cellist would be a simple matter. But it's actually incredibly difficult to do something that looks even vaguely convincing. I persuaded two fellow cellists in my orchestra to let me take photos of them for reference at the last rehearsal. The results revealed that the sketches I'd done, which seemed plausible at the time, were way off the mark as to how the boy wraps itself around a large, annoyingly curved object. The players in question were a bit suspicious at first - "This sounds a bit suspicious", they said - but I persuaded them it was all in a good cause, and I'd show them the result. Here's a bit of it - I'll put the whole thing up once it's been published. it was weird, typing that; I still can't quite get used to the idea. After all the worries, about whether the idea was strong enough, about whether i was up to executing it, I'm quite pleased with the end result. I think it has one or two nice subtle touches, and I'm pleased with the page layout I came up with, which is (I hope) easy to read while also being reasonably complex. I've tried to use everything, from the poses of the figures, to the colours, to even the hairstyles, to add layers to the story. Strangely, drawing makes me think afresh about composing, of different ways of putting ideas together, of creating a form that serves rather than dictates the content.

I hope someone finds it funny...

So, one deadline conquered, and another immediately looms. So, thoughts now turn to Schubert, and Sibelius, and the prospect of thinking about bassoons grows closer.

Monday, October 29, 2007

"I love dealines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go past" - Douglas Adams

It's not easy, this being creative lark. Especially when you find yourself doing it for cash, in a medium you're not entirely confident in, with a deadline looming ominously, as I do now. It's at times like this you find out what you can do if you're stretched, I guess. I used to think that being arty involved following your muse without concern for practicalities, writing for posterity, like what the Great Composers like that Beethoven did. Except of course this is all a big fat lie. Beethoven was as much a businessman as a composer, he made damn sure his music got an audience in his lifetime, because if you try to write the music of the future, it'll end up being the music of the past without ever being the music of the present. So hang posterity; just get on with it and let others worry about that sort of thing. I have realised (possibly too late in life) the tremendous creative spur that a deadline offers, and so maybe in my own small way I have achieved a small amount of wisdom, which can only be a good thing.

Many things going on in the world of classical music blogs that I ought to be pontificating on if I had the time, but I shall make mention of the new project Daniel Wolf is planning for his November posting, because it's very similar to how I started this blog. I'm going to start doing that again soon, I promise. As soon as I've got all these deadlines out of the way. I'm very conscious of my almost total lack of compositional activity recently, especially as I'm supposed to be starting work on a new piece for bassoon (something a bit special, sort of a follow-up to "Le tombeau de Feldman").

And now I must stop this internet navel gazing and do the things I am paid to do, and then go home and finish the damn comic strip.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We're not gonna Blake it.

The excellent Campaign for the prevention of Joss Stone draws my attention to some very naughty record company minions posting wildly enthusiastic reviews on Amazon for the yet to be released album by sub Il Divo* (if that's possible) blandtastic goons Blake. Go there and redress the balance. Together we can defeat this thing.

(Incidentally, how do clowns like these get away with describing themselves as "opera singers"? They wouldn't last five minutes on stage at Covent Garden.)

* Italian for "The Divs"

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dodecaphony 2.0

Given the way most composer estates and publishers seem determined to keep their copyrights so firmly under lock an key that it would seem they actively want to discourage interest in the music, it's heartening to see the Schoenberg family taking a much more enlightened approach. The Schoenberg website is an exemplary resource, bringing an immense archive online and available to anyone. Everything from manuscripts to home movies of the great man playing tennis is there.

(Link from the estimable Alex Ross.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A word from our sponsor...

One last quick plug for the next Kensington Symphony Orchestra concert. It's going to be good. And it'll have programme notes written by me, which are better than the sort of rubbish you usually see. More on that later.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Time, please, gentlemen

I read on a crappy free paper on the train home that a survey of 3,000 people who downloaded the new Radiohead album reveals that a third of them paid nothing for it, but the band still got an average of £4 per copy, which puts them quids in on what they'd get if they were signed to a major label. Apparently 12 out of these 2000 paid over £40, which must mark them out as insane, as they could have got the lovely discbox like 351 others of the sample (and me) and got the download thrown in free.

Overall I think this makes the experiment a success, and a heartening one at that, as it suggests that far from the internet heralding the death of the business of recorded music, that people will pay up for music they have faith in. Great news for those producing good music, bad news for corporate companies churning out soulless crap. Which is exactly how it should be.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

ill tempered klavier

Reading this interesting post* makes me think of the piano I grew up with, my mother's Bl├╝thner baby grand, which she inherited from her father, and which, as she liked to remind us, travelled extensively through the North West Frontier Province before the War on the back of a donkey.

Bl├╝thners have a very different tone to the Steinway sound you're almost certain to hear in a concert hall - it's a dark, rich, velvety sound. It feels different to play, too - the action on the keyboard is very heavy, and even now, whenever I play any other piano the action seems strangely insubstantial.

It's an interesting question, whether the near-ubiquity of the Steinway sound is inhibiting composers in their writing for piano - maybe the prepared piano is in part a subconscious rebellion against this homogeneity of sound. I also think of such things as Thomas Ades' Asyla, which features in its scoring grand, upright and honky-tonk pianos. Another piano-related memory of mine is when my university bought a fortepiano. I was fascinated by the sound, and the feel of playing it - it felt like a revelation to hear something that was a piano, yet radically different to the archetype in my mind.

There's always a danger that homogeneity will stifle creativity - but there's always the hope thatimagination will subvert conformity.

* I am particularly excited by the fact that Pleyel use fossilised mammoth tusks for the ivory on their keys!

In Rainbows

So, how much did you fork out for the new Radiohead album? Me, being the nerd I am, I forked out the forty quid for the big exciting box with books and pictures and extra music and lovely vinyl. So I have a posh bit of product to look forward to in 6 weeks or so. In the meantime, there's the download version, which I was emailed the link for this morning.

And hurrah! It's absolutely brilliant! What immediately strikes me at the first listen is that they've managed to combine their experimentalism with their undoubted knack for a good pop song in the killer way they've been threatening to for a while. So you've got twisted dance beats, weird retro-futurist sounds, but also big guitars and tunes. So it sounds more than anything like a band.

I ummed and ah-ed for a while about whether to have the big box, or whether to go for the pay-what-you-want download only option. I wonder what I'd have paid if I'd done the latter? Of course it's tempting to pay nothing, but that just seems wrong to me. I vaguely wondered about getting the download and then if I liked it going the whole hog, but in the end I decided to put my faith in them to deliver, and they've come through for me.

I think the way they've released "In Rainbows" is a fascinating experiment (apparently there'll be a conventional CD release next year), and I hope they give us an idea of how many people downloaded and what most people paid. They're lucky enough to be in a position where they can take a risk like this, and if it works, it'll have huge consequences for the record business and bands' relations with record labels.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Know Nono? No?

In the absence of any coherent thing of my own to say (hey, I'm busy), may I point you in the direction of an excellent post about Luigi Nono.

Reach for the facts

If it's on the internet, it must be true, mustn't it? Not necessarily... there's a lesson for anyone doing a research job here: actually do some research.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Scenes from the death of classical music #1

"So, do you think we'll be playing Julian Anderson in 100 years?" a violinist friend asked me last night in the break during our rehearsal for the next KSO concert. Well, will we? Does it matter?

The shortest and probably most honest answer is "I don't know". Who can possibly say with certainty what will and won't be heard in a century? Acclaim in your own lifetime is no guarantee of an equal posthumous reputation - just ask Spohr, Clementi, and any number of other dead also-rans. Who can even say with certainty whether the symphony orchestra will still exist as a performing group? (I have my doubts about this.)

Does it matter? One one level, not at all, as I'll be long dead by then. On another level, it matters immensely, as I'm a composer, and no matter what I may say, I'll always have one eye on posterity. At least some of the motivation for creating anything, whether it be art, music, a building, social reform, whatever, is ego-driven: the desire for immortality. At a tangent to this is professional envy - I don't want some other bugger being remembered if I'm not.

I hope he isn't. This isn't anything to do with him or my opinion of his music. Up until comparatively recently it was normal for a composer to be forgotten after his death, because it was normal to have new music. But something happened in the 19th century, starting with Beethoven - the first composer whose work remained in the standard repertoire after his death, and has never left it* - and now new music is seen as at best novelty, at worst something to be actively avoided. There's too much posterity now. We need to remember to forget. Then there will be room for new musics. Otherwise classical music is just an embalmed corpse. Embalmed corpses are of course interesting to study, but they don't make very good conversationalists. I'd rather spend time with the living.

*"Beethoven started the rot", said Britten. Messiaen on the other hand speculated that music went wrong sometime in the 11th or 12th century, roughly when we started to write it down.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Free Burma

Today is Blog about Burma Day. I have my doubts about whether such things make any difference at all, (rather like the Facebook Burma group), or are just an easy way for middle-class westerners to feel better about themselves, but on the principle that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and the realisation that there are some things more important than music or the petty gripes I put down here (i.e. almost everything), I shall mention the crackdown that the Burmese government is embarking upon, and add one more voice to the protest.

(And if you're confused by the whole issue of whether it should be called Burma or Myanmar, read this.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

There are none so deaf as those that will not hear

So, as part of my quest to find things to do that might enable me to chuck in the day job, I'm writing programme notes for the next (GRATUITOUS PLUG ALERT) Kensington Symphony Orchestra concert , and I find myself thinking and reading about and listening to Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. And what strikes me about a lot of the sources I've read is how they all seem to peddle the line that this is a happy work, with no sign of the turmoil of the times (it was written during the Second World War).

Now, maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but it seems obvious to me that this is a deeply ambiguous work, steeped in suggestions that not all is well (and, I suspect, not necessarily in relation to the war). Double meanings in the arts were endemic in Stalin's Russia, and that's what I hear in the ferocious bombast of much of this symphony. I expect to read positivist guff in "official" soviet articles and the like, but what about all those who've written the books, sleeve notes etc since? How can they seriously write that this is a piece that ends happily? Have any of them actually listened to it?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Ronnie Hazlehurst. Rumour has it that he cut a rakish figure, with a Zappa-style moustache, but as I've never found a photo of him I can't confirm it. Spitting Image did a fantastic sketch years ago around the time Andrew Lloyd Webber did his Requiem, in which Melvyn Bragg presented a South bank Show portrait of Ronnie Hazlehurst on the occasion of the premiere of his Requiem. When I was a kid it seemed like there wasn't a show on TV he hadn't written the theme tune for.
Update: Here's a couple of photos. The second one is him conducting at the Eurovision Song Contest. Those were the days.