Monday, December 31, 2007

List fatigue

Well, did you have a Happy Christmas? I did: thanks to the relentless plugging of my Amazon wish list to all and sundry I ended up with a bunch of presents I actually wanted, we managed to slim down the commitments and travelling so that it actually feels like we've had a holiday, and now I'm looking forward to a cosy New Year's Eve with a shepherd's pie and a bottle of fizzy booze.

So now's the time of year when we all make up big lists of what we liked in 2007, isn't it? Top Tens, all that. Well, I thought about doing that, but you know what? I'm not going to. I've written about most of the things I've liked (and not liked) here at some point over the year, so if you're really interested in what I think you can spend a while browsing through the last 12 months' posts.

And anyway, why make lists? Of course, being a boy I spent a fair portion of my youth drawing up lists in the semi-autistic way that boys do; top ten records, TV programmes, films, books, gigs, and so on. But now it all seems so pointless and arbitrary. Why try to make value judgements between, say, Radiohead and Bill Callahan? How can I choose which goes higher up my book list, Ulysses or Strontium Dog Case Files Volume 3? Can I say that Vialka were a better gig than PJ Harvey? Did I enjoy either more than the other? And isn't whether I liked something just about the least interesting thing I can say about it anyway? And haven't there been way too many rhetorical questions in this paragraph?

So, no lists here*. Because it's all worthwhile. The good things (such as those mentioned above) and the bad things too, because the jewels stand out all the better for the shit thy float in. Because what I may say is my favourite today may change tomorrow. Because lists attempt to set in stone something that is, and should be, fluid. Because a butterfly is more beautiful fluttering than pinned to a board. And experience changes every moment.

And may I wish you a happy new year, and more of it in 2008, whatever it may be.

* I did briefly consider doing a list of the best lists I've read. But that would be too much smart-arse wankery, even for me.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The hibernation period

It's that time of year again, when things wind down and we prepare for the traditional season of over-consumption (albeit under the shadow of looming deadlines and commitments, as ever). Have a Merry Christmas, thank you for reading (there are definitely some of you out there) and see you the other side of the holiday.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Removing the safety net

Alex Ross (whose excellent book The Rest Is Noise I'm reading at the moment) calculates that today is the centenary of atonality. This of course is something you can argue about until the cows come home, and is probably a bit arbitrary, but I like the idea as today is also Beethoven's birthday, and happenstance always appeals to me.

Beethoven these days is rather less controversial than he once was, but atonality still has a power to annoy, which pleases me greatly, as those who get annoyed are on the whole small-minded people who deserve to be annoyed.

Atonality has a special significance for me, as it was those school exercises in listening to and repeating an atonal melody, and later writing one (which I found quite easy to do, despite its being trailed as a more difficult exercise than the similar tasks we were given with tonal melodies) that really first put the idea in my head that composing wasn't necessarily just practised by dead people, but was something I might have a go at myself.

Schoenberg didn't actually like the word, preferring to talk about pantonality. It's a significant distinction, as it makes it about extending and enriching something rather than removing it, which is what you can hear happening in Schoenberg's music leading to his break with key signatures. It was something that was in the air (Schoenberg wasn't the only composer moving in this direction), but he was the first to stand up and say what he was doing (and more importantly the first that anyone took any notice of). It wasn't the action that was radical, so much as speaking its name.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tonal oder atonal?

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Friday, December 14, 2007

What's next?

Once upon a time composers were artisans, servants like any other. Composing was part of musicianship; all composers performed and most performers composed. Then Beethoven came along and suddenly composers were Artists. Beethoven went deaf and was forced to retire as a performer, and thus was born the Great Composer, the mystic sage who came down from on high bearing the Score, which the musicians then dutifully followed.

This was the end of the Classical style, and the beginning of Classical Music - the canon, the tradition, the myth of the unbroken line inexorably moving forward through history: Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen... at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Mahler codified the rituals of concert-giving and going, and the Classical Concert became a quasi-religious ceremony. The composer was a Shaman, exalted and separate.

Stockhausen is dead, and with him dies the Great Composer. We no longer believe the march of that history. Our history is messier, less sure. It seems to me that the music of the future will most likely be collaborative; the roles of composer and performer will merge again, we will all become composers, all performers. There are plenty of talented composers writing fine music (and even more untalented ones writing bad music - and who may judge which is which?), but there are no more Great Composers, and there may never be.

We shouldn't mourn this. This is simply the way things are. Creativity is being democratised, and there is no longer a place for the shaman. Music is not a god to be worshipped. It's not a product to be passively consumed. It is an activity to be participated in, a means for people to come together. There will be new music, and some of it will grow from his ideas, but Stockhausen is part of another time. What's next? We shall find out.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stockhausen is dead

But didn't he die a long time ago? What about the people I overheard in Huddersfield in 1996, dismissive and contemptuous of pretty much anything he'd written since the 70s? Wasn't he regarded as someone who'd long since ceased to be worth paying attention to, who'd disappeared down a path of self-indulgent, egomaniacal mysticism? I used to hear such opinions regularly. The he died and no-one wanted to say that anymore.

I was thinking more about that Brian Eno interview, where he suggested that he was more interested in Stockhausen's ideas than his music. Is the actual music so ungrateful? John Humphreys lapped up any suggestion that you wouldn't want to listen to it, of course. Personally I never found his music that hard to listen to. Thorny, certainly. But those people in Huddersfield were berating him for producing music they regarded as too accessible, too easy on the ear, too melodic, not confrontational enough.

So, to the avant-gardists (or at least former avant-gardists; is there actually any such thing as an avant-garde anymore?) he's frozen in amber, a figure from a long time ago, when giants walked the earth. To the anti-modernists he's the bogeyman, the frightening creature under the bed who ruined it for everyone, who can't be buried quickly enough. There's precious little room for Stockhausen himself, underneath all the opinions about him. Either way, there seems to be a consensus between the two poles that he's a figure of the past, whether a past you wish to revive or to bury is up to you to decide.

To the vast majority of people, of course, he means absolutely nothing. Innovation, adventure, risk; these are qualities that find little resonance today in our lowest common denominator Tesco world. Is Stockhausen dead? Did he ever live? The avant-garde is no longer the terrible threat it once was, not something to be railed against, just a curiosity, maybe worth a snigger, then brushed aside. Not relevant. To many people it never was, if they even stopped to think about it, or even became aware of it, however briefly.

Stockhausen is dead, and all we have left is ourselves. And what shall we do with that?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Is an idea enough to ensure a name survives? So much talk of Stockhausen's ideas; comparatively little of his actual music. And yet it's the music that matters. Isn't it? What are the ideas worth if their worth is not found in their expression? For myself, the ideas were a barrier, not a path. Not the ideas of Stockhausen himself; rather I mean the fog of ideas that other minds smothered him with. The talk of technique, of ways and means, the impression that nothing less or other than a total mathematical understanding of construction could be any help in understanding his music. A path to understanding that instead led to darkness, fear and confusion. And then the revelation of the actual music. The realisation that all this waffle was just that, and clearing that aside left the music itself standing gleaming, not turning the listener away or demanding penance, but welcoming and inviting. No need for analysis or deconstruction, only a willingness to listen. "Don't give me ideas, give me sounds."

Ideas matter. A disciplined, committed approach to one's art is necessary. Because if one does one's job properly and thoroughly, it should be easy for those that listen to the result, if they have the inclination.

Stockhausen was a great font of ideas, and a great philosopher of sound. But we should not let ourselves forget that he was firstly a Great Composer. Perhaps the last one. Is that enough?

Life on Sirius

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


A lot of people, including me, have pointed out the influence Stockhausen had beyond the supposedly marginal constituency he occupied. (You can hear Brian Eno discussing this with John Humphreys on Today at The Rambler. Eno is as considered as you'd expect, Humphreys is as ignorant and simplistic as you'd expect.*)

But is that really the most important thing? No Stockhausen, no Radiohead? It's very odd, the way so much of the coverage of his death that tries to express his importance takes this tack. The man who fearlessly pursued his own path, regardless of whether anyone followed him, remembered in terms of commercial success by others.

What about the integrity, the single mindedness, the spirit of exploration, the willingness to pursue an idea?

*By the way, Mr Humphreys, the last time I went to a Stockhausen gig it was sold out. So there.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Give up everything, we were on the wrong track.
Begin with yourself:
you are a musician.
You can transform all the vibrations of the world into sounds.
if you firmly believe this and from now on never doubt it,
begin with the simplest exercises.

Become quite still, until you no longer think, want, feel anything
Sense your soul, a little below your chest.
let its radiance slowly permeate your whole body
both upwards and downwards at the same time.
open your head on top in the center, a little towards the back,
and let the current that hovers above you there, like a dense sphere
enter into you.
Let the current slowly fill you from head to foot
and continue flowing.

Quietly take your instrument and play, at first single sounds.
Let the current flow through the whole instrument.
Whatever you want to play, even written
music of any sort, begin only
when you have done what I have recommended.

you will then experience everything on your own.

before you play, you may let your thoughts
run free, you may train the muscles
of your fingers, of your larynx, etc.
But now you know what you think and train for,
and even the thinking and training
will be completely new, completely different from before.
Nothing is as it used to be.

as long as you retain this consciousness,
everything you do will be right and good.

excerpt from Aus den Sieben Tagen, by Karlheinz Stockhausen. © 1970 by Universal Edition.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Idiots attack other idiots

The Observer today features an attack by director Tony Palmer on the BBC after he received a rejection letter demonstrating some quite spectacularly slack-jawed meejaspeak drivel. This sort of thing should rightly be lambasted, but before the Observer gets on its high horse it might like to double check such things as what a symphony is, which isn't The Lark Ascending, or indeed the Fantasia on Greensleeves. The fact that the same paper goes on to feature this witless tribute to Stockhausen, which seems to think his greatest contribution to music was "realising that Wagner was rock 'n' roll", in a section featuring a large photo of Simon Cowell on the front, says quite a lot about the Observer's cultural priorities.

Karlheinz Stockhausen 1928-2007

Stockhausen is dead. Or maybe he's just returned to Sirius. Somehow the latter seems more believable. And now I'm sitting here wondering how I can sum up his achievement, and what he means to me.

I can't, of course. Stockhausen's influence is so profound that entire movements define themselves by opposition to him (or at least their idea of what he stands for, which is generally wrong), so pervasive that you often don't even realise it's there. Half the music in the charts owes something to him, even if its creators don't realise it.

But there's more to him than just an outr├ę name for art-school graduates to drop. Stockhausen's music carries with it ideas about the space created by sound, both literally and figuratively, that have profound consequences for our understanding of our relationship with music, with the people who create and perform it, and those who listen to the results.

What struck me most the first time I heard his music was how approachable it was. His name had such a fearsome reputation, and the texts written by the greybeards who propagated his cult seemed obfuscatory and impenetrably complex and cerebral. But the actual music isn't like that at all. It's visceral and playful, and filled with wonder at the possibilities of sound. To hear the man himself introduce his music was to have all the fog lifted. He used complex methods to produce his scores, but, he insisted, it wasn't at all necessary for the listener to worry about the method. All the listener has to do was hear a sound, then another, and another, and follow these sounds as they grew and changed through time and space. Whether it's the literally visceral approach to the piano he takes in his Klavierst├╝cke (one of which hangs on my wall) or the quiet spirituality of Stimmung, or the grasping of space of Gruppen and Sternklang, his music always seems to me to speak directly and immediately, in a way that isn't always recognised. He was feared as a terrifying, complex and forbidding composer, but I always found the reality simple and instinctive and wonderful.

I encountered him three times, and not once did I pluck up the courage to speak to him (although I'm pleased to report that on two of those occasions he was wearing his famous orange jumper). I remember once in Huddersfield seeing someone go up to him and expound some long, complicated theory as to what had happened to the characters in one of his operas after the end, and whether Mr Stockhausen could confirm whether he was right? Mr Stockhausen replied, bemusedly, that nothing had happened to them, as that was the end of the opera and they were fictional characters.

I wish I had spoken to him. Just to say how much I loved his music; its humanity and its wonderful directness. Stockhausen wasn't a difficult composer, whatever anyone says. In many ways he was as straightforward as anyone could be. It's just difficult to explain ideas as big as his. Far easier to understand them. What I take most of all is a sense of endless, boundless possibility.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tabula Rasa

I'm writing a piece for bassoon. Well, I say "writing". What I'm actually doing is scribbling things down that lie within the range of the bassoon, then looking at them again and deciding they're no good. And staring out of windows. A lot of that. The middle distance has rarely received such scrutiny as I'm giving it at the moment.

A typical sort of thing that people say when you tell them that you write music goes along the lines of, I don't know how you do that. How do you do that? To which the answer is, well, I don't know really. I just do. So when this happens, that I just can't get going on something, it's like I've suddenly been put in the heads of all those people who just can't understand how I do it.
The thing is, I have a very clear idea of the concept of the piece, and I even have a pretty good idea of its trajectory. I just don't have any actual ideas. And as Douglas Adams observed, sometimes ideas come rushing into your head and it's wonderful and rewarding and exhilarating. But sometimes they don't, and then you just have to sit there and think of the buggers. So I just have to keep scribbling away, writing notes down, and hope that eventually I'll see something good on the page. The annoying thing is, I know I'll know when I see it. I just haven't a clue how to go about finding it. Maybe I'll go for a walk. Maybe I'll get stuck in a meeting without a pen and paper and suddenly be overwhelmed with fantastic ideas that will disappear as rapidly as they came the moment I get the opportunity to write them down. There's no Muse more powerful than the Muse of Meetings.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sound vs. Noise 6: I do not whistle a happy tune

We all have our pet hates - some of us, bad-tempered fellows such as me, have several. But one thing particularly sets my teeth on edge, and that's whistling.

Whistling is to me very nearly as annoying as the tinny scratching of someone else's personal stereo gouging at my eardrum. That comes simply from a person being a thoughtless twat - I suspect most of the i-Podded different drummers crowded onto the morning tube have somehow managed to convince themselves that they're not playing their music that loud and no-one else can hear it - but to whistle requires a conscious decision to foist your sound on others.

Many years ago, in another job, in another city, there was someone at work (isn't there always?) who was in the habit of whistling. he whistled in that especially irritating old man's style, which was inevitable, I suppose, given that he was an old man. Now I am in a different job in a different city, but still there is someone at work. Although he is younger than my previous irritant.

Apart from the inherent high-pitched annoyance of the tone of it, the whistler is nearly always notable for the paucity of his repertoire, sometimes not even getting to the end of a single tune, but repeating the same four or five-note phrase over and over, like a concussed budgie. The addition of monotony only furthers the pain.

Of course, being English, I'm far too repressed to jump up, make a grab for the offender's throat and throttle him wildly, while shouting "SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!" I'm so inhibited I probably wouldn't even do it if he weren't my boss.

So I do what I must - I retreat into my headphones and hope whatever I put in the CD drive of the PC can be turned up loud enough to drown the tweeting awfulness of it all. Of course, I can d this, because it's not that loud, and no-one can hear any leakage from my headphones, can they? And so the cycle goes; man hands on misery to man.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Record company in good idea shock

Interesting times in the world of online music, the recent unveiling of the new Deutsche Grammophon web shop being followed by the Philharmonia's. Both offer higher quality files than you'd find at the likes of iTunes (320kbps, since you ask, which is near as dammit CD-quality), and DG's are DRM free (it's not made clear whether this is the case with the Philharmonia, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt). Certainly initial reactions to the DG shop sound very promising, and it seems they've succeeded where many record companies have failed so far in managing to put together a carefully thought out and imaginative response to the challenges posed by the digital revolution. If some of the bigger companies follow their lead, it'll be all to the good. Although EMI seem too busy worrying about the productivity of their artists (who lest we forget, tend to produce a record less than every two years largely due to the way big record companies run their business) to think about any proper long term ideas.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Late Starters

I'm sitting in a church in Bethnal Green, and there's a hubbub all around me, people in coloured jumpers scurrying around with violins and cellos, people sitting in pews who move around a lot, because, it eventually dawns on me, they're dashing out to play in their bit then coming to sit with their family and friends. It's definitely not like most concerts I go to.

I've been playing the cello for over 30 years now, and composing nearly as long, so I ought to have some sort of handle on how this music lark works by now. But not everyone is as lucky as I was as a kid to have access to the wherewithal to pursue it, and the way music education is going there'll be even fewer in the future, so organisations like the East London Late Starters Orchestra are doing something very valuable. The idea is that people who've never had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or perhaps learned as a child then abandoned it for years, can have the opportunity to pick one up and have a go.

It's not really about the result (although of course all involved want to play the best they can), but about the act of getting up and doing it, I think; some of the players I hear had never touched an instrument until a couple of months ago, and to stand up and perform in public after that short a time takes a huge amount of guts, much more than I have certainly. And it also makes a statement that classical music isn't something obscure or difficult, to be the preserve of a few, but something that anyone can have in their life, if they want it.

There's such a strong vested interest in the music industry from professional bodies, record companies and the like that wants to promote music as a product to be passively consumed. This is so wrong. Music is an activity, something to be participated in, something to do, and it's this idea that really makes projects such as this important, not worrying about the "excellence" that ministers like to talk up (translation: leave it to the professionals, sit back, consume, buy, buy, don't think, BUY) but revelling in the act of creating it. Music's a social force, and that's what I bring away more than anything from this evening. There's little division between performers and audience; there's a unity of community, a joy and pleasure in the gathering together and the sharing of a moment.