Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Farewell My Cadence (6)

Time was running out. Every corner I turned seemed to hide a whole bunch of questions. Who was this dame? Who was she seeing? Was there anyone left who'd known her, not just heard about her? Why were there so many bodies in this case? I'd need a whole new year to figure this one out. Hey...

Farewell My Cadence (5)

The guy opposite me was a weaselly looking man, beard, glasses, kinda fusty. He looked like the kind of man who'd sell out his own grandmother for a chance to sell out his own grandfather. Everything he said sounded strange, kinda bored and confident, the kind of confidence that's a con more often than not.

"Of course, no-one knew her like I did, it was my job to make sure everyone else knew her right, " he drawled. "Wanna buy some pictures of her?" The pictures looked kinda old, but the price tag on them was right up to date.

"Yes, I understood her, alright, and it was my job to make sure everyone understood just a little less than me - nothing worse than letting just anyone in on the act. I made sure everyone knew about all her old lovers - the Abbé, the Kaiser, the Rebel, the Joker, the Choirmaster - oh, yes, she had plenty, I can tell you..."

Yeah, plenty of names coming of his tongue, but thy were all old hat, all long gone. I needed to know who she was seeing now, who might have had a reason to stop her seeing someone else.

"Now? Good God, man, she was never seeing anyone now. There were only ever the old lovers. What do you think I am - some kind of gossip columnist? Only the old ones are worth talking about. Oh, sure, I know there are some young bucks who like to say they know her - but they don't, I tell you! Only I do! Only through old photographs, all those faces from long ago..."

He was starting to ramble. I slapped him hard across the face. He fell to his knees and thanked me, asked me to do it again. But I didn't have time. I had to get to the bottom of it all. There were a hell of a lot of bodies piling up in this case, and I was starting to wonder if the dame knew anyone who wasn't dead.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Farewell My Cadence (4)

I got into the Professor's study. Don't ask me how, gotta have a few trade secrets in this business. Let's just say that there aren't too many locked doors when you look at them.

Joint was a mess. Someone had been here before me. In fact, it looked like a lot of people had been here before me. For a guy who couldn't get the time of day the Professor seemed to be at the top of a hell of a lot of visiting lists. Didn't look like many of them had stopped for tea, mind. Just a quick drop-by, overturn the place and get out. Guess they had their own agendas.

There were a lot of papers, all over the floor. Lot of sums. Lot of numbers. Well, a few numbers over and over again. 13 wasn't one you saw anywhere.








They said the professor had had an even temperament. Yeah, sure looked even to me, equal enough to send a man all slanted about. Whatever he'd been working on made some kind of crazy sense, even if I couldn't tell my augmented octave from my diminished ninth. Someone didn't like what he was on to and had been fiddling with his results to discredit him, that was obvious. The numbers just didn't add up. It was a frame. Damn good looking one, too. I was going to have to watch my back, I was dealing with someone damn clever, someone who seemed to be able to make the finger point at anyone but himself. Everyone's a critic, they say. Maybe it was time to talk to one.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Farewell My Cadence (3)

The Frenchman sat opposite me. His face was half hidden in shadow, but even the half I could see looked like a face to be careful of taking your eyes away from for too long. He smiled and joked, but I could tell he wasn't too much of a giggler.

"Classical Music? Yes, I knew her," he drawled, in a voice as smooth as a silk stocking and twice as dangerous round your neck. "She was - how you say?- quite a dame, yes." I tried to moderate her behaviour, but she had a tendency to run away to... get in touch with people, non?"

"So you didn't like the way she acted with other guys, huh?" I asked. The guy had a charm, sure, but you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him, I could tell. Maybe you'd find yourself stuck in the Bastille with the kind of kiss-off that brought the house down.

"Pfff, it's not my concern what she does with... other classes. I know she did the right thing when she was with me, that's all. I made sure she kept up to date, dressed her well... what more could she ask for?"

"Maybe to be shown a little slack every now and then?"

"Ah, I have always been open minded, no matter what... some people may say."

"What about the German, were you open minded enough for him?"

"Oh, I doubt anyone would be. I hardly spoke to him in recent times. We fell out since our days when we plotted to bring the Professor's plans to fruition."

The Professor. I'd heard of the guy, not that people liked to talk about him. Some said he was responsible for the whole mess. Nobody'd ever caught him in the act, but they said you could see his fingerprints all over if you looked. I wondered aloud if I should speak to him.

"Speak to him?" The Frenchman's face cracked into a smile, and a laugh I didn't like the sound of. "Mon Ami, you won't find that easy to achieve."

"Why not?" I was getting a bad feeling.

The Frenchman sat back with a grin across his face like a cat that's inherited the whole damn dairy. "Why, haven't you heard? He's dead."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Farewell My Cadence (2)

I pulled on my mac and pulled my hat down low to keep the rain off my face. It was a dirty night, cold and wet, and plenty of folks would be glad to be indoors, but in my line of work you go where the action is, when it is.

There was this guy, the German. Lot of folks had his number, they said, a lot of suspicion pointing his way. He wasn't the kind of guy who liked to do things anyone else's way, kinda the dominating type, if you know what I mean - I'd heard pretty strange things about his domestic, too. Kind of man who keeps more than one woman at home is going to be careless with the rest of them they said. And he was into crazy stuff too, weird group action and saying he was from outer space. I wasn't convinced - a bit of kinky doesn't make you a killer, and just because he liked to have the dame in unusual positions didn't mean he'd offed her, just that he had a different appreciation of her.

I was too late, anyhow - the German was already dead himself. Looked like heart trouble, but you never know - guy like that makes a lot of enemies, and some of them are smart, smart enough to make foul play look like happenstance. I was going to have to check that out, but not now. I had to get to the bottom of the case. I decided to grill the German's accomplice - the Frenchman. I pounded the sidewalk again, wondering if I was going to find a killer or a victim. Damn this rain.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Farewell My Cadence

or, Who Killed Classical Music? An exciting Christmas thriller in 12 parts (or fewer, depending how quickly I get bored).

Part 1

Classical Music was dead. Sure, she'd left a good-looking corpse - she was one hell of a dame in her time, and if you didn't look too close she could still turn your eye, and hell, some people were still trying to turn hers. Jeez, some people. If you've got an automobile with no wheels and no engine, it don't matter if it's a Rolls - it's still a jalopy, and it ain't right to take it out for a ride.

Question was, who'd done the deed? Sure, there were some people who wanted her dead, but most folks, if you asked them, were surprised she hadn't bitten the dust years ago, if they even knew who she was. Or cared.

Just because most didn't though, didn't mean that the ones who did hadn't come up with a whole heap of suspects. This was one investigation that wouldn't be wrapped up before the bars opened.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tales from the Back Desk: Brahms and Liszt at night

Speaking of things that go bump in the night (sort of)... the long-awaited new Back Desk is now online!

Look ma, I'm on hiatus

Not sure how that happened. Actually, I'm entirely sure how that happened. A combination of extreme business and personal stuff (none of your business, sorry) that's left no time or inclination to blog.

I've got a few ideas for things to post here, and I wondered for quite a while if it might not be better to wrap up here and start afresh. But I figure the raison d'être of this ol' house has always been pretty vague, and I wouldn't want to inconvenience the 10 or so people who stop by here, so Notations will begin again soon, with a chilling Seasonal Tale.

Shit, I'm blogging about blogging, which puts me down with some of the scum of the world. On the other hand, I have managed and shall continue to resist the temptation to start posting pictures of the cat, so be grateful for that, at least.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

KSO Programme notes: 25 November 2008

Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970)

Concerto for Orchestra

Reader, beware: Roberto Gerhard once said, “My favourite listener is the one who does not read explanatory programme-notes… Understanding comes first, knowledge second,” and asserted: “I stand by the sound of my music. It is the sound that must make sense.”

He was born of Swiss-German and French-Alsatian parents in Catalonia. Inevitably this gave him an internationalist outlook, but nevertheless he felt his identity as a Catalan strongly. After studying with Schoenberg, he worked during the 1930s as a consultant to the Arts Ministry of the Catalan government, which acted as an autonomous body within Spain from 1932. Here, he was responsible for raising Catalonia’s artistic profile considerably, not only with his own scores but his work promoting others. This culminated in his bringing the International Society of Contemporary Music’s annual festival to Barcelona in 1936, during which Berg’s Violin Concerto had its world première.

In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain, and when in 1939 Franco’s troops captured Barcelona, a centre of Republican resistance, Gerhard was forced into exile. He ended up in Cambridge, where he adopted the Hispanic form of his name (he was christened Robert) and produced music for theatre, radio and television. From his earlier romantic style, concerned with the use of Catalan folk music, in his later years he cultivated a more modernist music, partly derived from his teacher Schoenberg, but with a sensitivity for colour that produces a sound far removed from the expressionist angst of pre-war Vienna: the folk music he studied so carefully in his youth lay beneath the surface, continuing to influence his sound-world.

His sensitivity to the nuances of sound was sharpened by his experience as one of the pioneers of electronic music: his music for the RSC’s 1955 production of King Lear was the first electronic score for the stage in Britain, and a few years later he was one of the first composers to work at the BBC’s newly-established Radiophonic Workshop, the cradle of some of the most radical experimentation ever to appear in mainstream culture, such as the extraordinary piece of electronica that nearly 50 years later still holds television audiences in thrall: the theme to Doctor Who.

As his colleagues gave voice to the TARDIS, Gerhard was re-establishing himself as a composer of concert music, and it was a commission for the 1965 Cheltenham Festival that resulted in the Concerto for Orchestra. In fact, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in Boston in April 1965 by permission of the Festival Authority. The British première followed in Cheltenham a few months later. It ruffled a few feathers, far removed as its sense of drama was from the cosy familiarity of the typical “Cheltenham symphony.”

By this time Gerhard was seriously ill: he had had heart trouble for some years which was by then becoming acute, and would cause his death in 1970. There is however no hint of fragility in the Concerto, which from its opening explosion of notes is a work filled with vigour. Gerhard overcame his aversion to explanatory notes to provide a preface to the published score, in which he described his approach to what remains an unusual genre in orchestral music: “Ensemble playing, the distinguishing feature of the concerto for orchestra, in fact here takes the place of the virtuoso soloist in the traditional concerto.” So the emphasis is less on individual display (although Gerhard certainly provides plenty of challenges for the players) than showing off the orchestra as a collective.

If there is a solo element in this piece, it is time itself: the music is constantly moving between different perceptions of time, expressed in three contrasting ways. The first, exemplified by the very opening, is characterised by busy, dense textures which create a sense of an infinitely expanded tonality. Then there are passages of what Gerhard describes as “almost static yet pulsating constellation-like patterns”, where tone gives way to a myriad array of sounds produced through unorthodox playing techniques, from tapping and rustling sounds in the strings which sound like an abstraction of flamenco music, to the unearthly harmonics of bowed cymbals. Finally, there are moments where time seems to stand still, and we experience “the magic sense of uneventfulness.” These kaleidoscopic changes of texture that abound in the Concerto, in which busy, scurrying passages dissolve into radiantly static textures have a dreamlike quality that the listener might experience as a sonic parallel to the images of another prominent 20th century Catalan, Salvador Dalí.

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Manfred Symphony Op.58

  1. Lento lugubre - Moderato con animo
    Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fateful questions of life, tormented by the burning anguish of helplessness and by the memory of his criminal past, he feels cruel tortures to the soul. Manfred penetrates deeply into the secrets of magic and communicates imperiously with the mighty powers of hell, but neither these, nor anyone in the world can give him the oblivion which is the single thing he vainly seeks and begs for. A recollection of the lost Astarte, whom he once loved passionately, devours and gnaws at his heart and there is neither limit nor end to the boundless suffering of Manfred.
  2. Vivace con spirito
    The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of the waterfall.
  3. Andante con moto
    Pastoral - picture of the simple, poor, free life of the mountain dwellers.
  4. Allegro con fuoco
    Underground devils of Ahriman. Infernal orgy. The appearance of Manfred amid the Bacchanal. Summoning and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is forgiven. Death of Manfred.

In the winter of 1867-8 Tchaikovsky came into the orbit of the nationalist composer Mily Balakirev. The influence was profound: the domineering Balakirev suggested and acted as midwife to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, in the wake of Berlioz’s second visit to Russia, the influential critic Vladimir Stasov suggested to Balakirev the idea of a symphony in the same vein as Berlioz’s Harold in Italy on another Byron work: Manfred. Balakirev was not keen, and offered Stasov’s suggested programme to Berlioz himself, who declined due to failing health. In the early 1870s Balakirev, suffering financial ruin and mental collapse, withdrew from musical life in Russia and the project seemed dead.

A decade later, Tchaikovsky, preparing the score of his revision of Romeo and Juliet in 1880, sent a letter to Balakirev via his publisher Bessel. “I want you to know that I have not forgotten who was responsible for this score's appearance in the world, that I vividly recall the friendly sympathy you showed me at the time, which I hope even now is not completely extinguished,” he wrote.

The publisher was evidently not in the habit of forwarding correspondence promptly, as it was over a year before Balakirev replied. “Your kind letter and dedication to me prove you have not completely struck me out of your heart's memory”, he responded. He went on to demand that Tchaikovsky come and visit him in St Petersburg, announced that he had a programme for a symphony that he thought would suit Tchaikovsky admirably, and finished with a post script pointing out an error in the published score of Francesca da Rimini: “On p.92 the horns have been omitted, and the result's terrible.”

As it happened, Tchaikovsky was looking for a new project, and so he agreed to take on the job. Having got his claws in again, Balakirev quickly sent the details of the project to Tchaikovsky: a plan for a symphony based on Byron's dramatic poem Manfred. “I had originally offered the subject to Berlioz,” he wrote, somewhat disingenuously. “You would be able to tackle this subject brilliantly – provided, of course, you make an effort... don't hurry to finish at all costs.”

Tchaikovsky's waspish reply suggests he was already regretting renewing his acquaintance: “it leaves me completely cold... To please you I might, perhaps – to use your expression – make an effort... but such composing in no way attracts me.”

And there the matter rested for two years. Then something happened: following a meeting in 1884 Balakirev sent him Stasov's original programme, this time accompanied with extensive notes on what key schemes to employ and a list of pieces that might serve as models for each movement. Balakirev may not have been interested in composing a Manfred Symphony himself, but was evidently determined that whoever did the task should do it his way.

The two men had been discussing religion. Tchaikovsky had recently read Tolstoy's Confession, an account of his faith which was outlawed but circulating nevertheless. Tchaikovsky's interest in religion was largely aesthetic, but Balakirev had moved from being a free-thinker to a devout, if rather eccentric brand of Christianity under the influence of a soothsayer. Tchaikovsky had outgrown any need of Balakirev as a teacher, but he was filled with a need for certainty in the face of overwhelming self-doubt and guilt at his homosexuality, so perhaps felt he had something to learn from Balakirev the mystic.

Tchaikovsky took a copy of Byron's poem to Switzerland and reading it would have become aware of the subtext that is clear in Byron but absent from Stasov’s programme: that Manfred’s love for Astarte is almost certainly incestuous. A tortured soul wracked with guilt at forbidden passion chimed with Tchaikovsky, and it was this conflation of Manfred's feelings with his own that finally provided the incentive to compose.

He found progress difficult, but by August 1885 he declared “this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.” By the time of the première in March 1886, he was qualifying that “because of its difficulty, impracticability and complexity it is doomed to failure and to be ignored,” and by 1888 he declared that “it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the one exception of the first movement.” This reflects the deep association he made between Manfred and his own troubles. It is perhaps significant that where Byron’s Manfred dies refusing to submit to higher powers, Tchaikovsky’s hero is granted absolution and dies peacefully, an act of forgiveness the composer was unable to grant himself.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The things that concern

It has been a time of eventfulness and profound and worrying thoughts of late, which need not concern us here. What I ave always wondered though is:

What exactly are "gorblimey trousers"?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


No time to post right now, due to personal circumstances. back soon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

KSO Programme Notes: 20 October 2008

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No.2

1. Lever du jour
2. Pantomime
3. Danse générale
The myth of Daphnis and Chloë comes to us through a 2nd century Greek text credited to Longus. The story is fairly typical of pastoral erotica of the period: two children, raised by shepherds on the isle of Lesbos, nurture an unrecognised passion for each other that is brought to the surface through the medium of mutual peril. More notable is its characterisation, which is more extensive than its more plot-driven contemporaries, and puts it closer in style to a modern novel.

The combination of sex, mild adventure and textual innovation therefore made the story naturally attractive to the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev as a potential subject for the Ballet Russe when they sensationally swept into Paris in 1908. Ravel, the composer earmarked by Diaghilev for the commission, was however more dubious: he disapproved of the racier elements of the story, and this led to arguments with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, with whom he wrote the scenario for the ballet. An episode in which Chloé is abducted by pirates ended up particularly toned down from the original, and Ravel's final score dispatches it in an alarmingly perfunctory manner.

Beyond these aesthetic disagreements, Ravel found the work immensely difficult, and many of his most famous pieces of this period, such as Ma Mère L’Oye were in fact produced largely as procrastinatory diversions from completing work on Daphnis. The premiere, originally slated for the Ballet Russe's 1910 season, was continually delayed as Ravel fiddled with the score, and it was not heard in public until 1912.

The music that is performed in concert as the Second Suite consists of the finale of the ballet, by which point what little plot there is has been resolved. After a depiction of dawn, one of the very finest pieces of orchestral writing Ravel ever produced, the reunited lovers perform a pantomime in thanks to the gods, an enacting of the myth of Syrinx, who, pursued by the god Pan, came to a river, and, asking for help from the river nymphs, was transformed into a water reed, from which the frustrated god fashioned his eponymous pipes. There then follows a final bacchanal, whose pagan frenzy is intensified by a wild quintuple pulse.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

Introduction and theme - Adagio - March - Romance - Aria Italiana - Bourée Classique - Wiener Walzer - Moto Perpetuo - Funeral March - Chant - Fugue and Finale

When asked, after he had conducted a concert featuring Ravel's music, if such an eminent composer would ever emerge from England, Frank Bridge replied, "You will hear of one: Benji Britten."

The relationship between Britten and Bridge was of crucial importance for the younger composer: it was hearing and being "knocked sideways" by Bridge's Suite The Sea that set the young Britten on the path to becoming a composer himself, and it was his subsequent lessons with Bridge that honed and disciplined his natural talent, instilling in him his mentor's sense of rigour: Bridge insisted that a composer should write not one more note than was absolutely necessary to make his point, and this asceticism would become the backbone of Britten's own style.

So when the commission came to write a work for Boyd Neel's string orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival it was natural that Britten should take the opportunity to compose something in tribute to his teacher. The resulting work was heard in 1937, and confirmed Britten's growing reputation as England's brightest musical talent. What was particularly remarkable about the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge was their European quality: aside from the various parodies of Italian, Austrian and French music, the young composer's style showed an obvious knowledge of such composers as Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which set him apart from the insular attitude of much of 1930s Britain, exemplified by the suspicious reviews the work received in British newspapers, in contrast to the more positive reception afforded by the European press.

Perhaps Britten fully intended to provoke his native establishment. Certainly the theme he chose to use - from Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet - has a wistful, nostalgic quality (of a kind that Bridge himself had long since abandoned in favour of a more abrasive style) that is blown away by its subsequent transformations. The work was intended as more than witty stylistic parody though: As well as their titles, the variations also originally had subtitles, intended to indicate an aspect of his teacher's personality. It was only with difficulty that Bridge himself persuaded Britten to abandon these, unquestionably the right decision; while one might see how the brooding first variation might embody "his integrity", it is difficult to see what the distillation of every waltz cliché in the Wiener Walzer has to do with "his gaiety", and "his sympathy" is an entirely inadequate description of the extraordinary funeral march, whose bitterness is only magnified by the frothy vivaciousness of what precedes it. The extraordinary "Chant" that follows takes the music into another, visionary realm altogether. A devilish fugue takes us to the conclusion, which weaves quotations from other works of Bridge around the main theme. So subtle and so integrated are these that it is only in very recent years that anyone has noticed they are even there.

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat)

Part 1: Introduction - Afternoon - Dance of the Miller's Wife (Fandango ) - The Grapes
Part 2: The Neighbours' Dance (Seguidillas) - The Miller's Dance (Farruca) - The Corregidor's Dance - Final Dance (Jota)

Diaghilev had all the major composers of Europe in his sights, and so as well as Ravel, it was inevitable that he would approach Manuel de Falla to write something for the Ballet Russe. The subject he had in mind was Nights in the Gardens of Spain, suggested to him by G. Martinez Sierra. However, he happily transferred his enthusiasm to Falla's own suggestion that an adaption of El sombrero de tres picos, an 1875 novel by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón based on an older folk tale: a familiar story of political power abused for the aim of sexual gratification.

Falla had been toying with the idea of adapting the novel for some years, and was keen to set to work. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 meant that it would be nigh on impossible to produce the work, and so Falla, with the blessing of Diaghilev, produced with Sierra a pantomime, El corregidor y la molinera [The Corregidor and the Miller's Wife], which was produced in Madrid in 1917 to great popular success. He then revised this extensively to produce the definitive work which was unveiled under its final title in London in 1919.

If Diaghilev was hoping for a succès de scandale such as he had achieved with Nijinsky's notoriously erotic interpretation of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune or Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, he may have been disappointed by the final ballet: Falla was devoutly Catholic and had toned down the plot considerably - the Miller's Wife is much less amenable to the advances of men other than her husband than she is in Alarcón's novel. In other respects, however, it attracted as much controversy as the impresario could have hoped for, with critical reaction divided between those who saw it as a remarkable example of the Spanish national character expressed in a contemporary manner (the opinion of many critics outside Spain) and as an act of modernist desecration of Spain's folk traditions (the opinion of many critics within Spain). To put these reactions in context, Spain during this period was undergoing something of an existential crisis: the battle between those who espoused strident international modernism and those who supported a more insular approach to Spanish culture was, in the wake of decades of political instability, a fierce one.


The set and costume designs for The Three Cornered Hat were as much a draw as the music: Diaghilev had secured the services of Pablo Picasso. For the drop curtain Picasso produced a painting depicting a party of spectators at a bullfight. To give the audience time to admire this, Falla added an introduction. A soprano sings:

Casadita, casadita, cierra trance la puerta; Que aunque el diablo esté dormido a lo mejor se despierta!

[Little house, you must bolt your door; although the Devil sleeps he may wake up!]

The curtain rises on a small village. In the heat of the afternoon the Miller and his wife go about their tasks: drawing water from the well (with a pulley that is obviously in desperate need of oiling), feeding the chickens, and so on. The Miller is an ugly man, but his Wife is much more attractive, indeed has the charm to teach the blackbird to whistle the hour of the day, and attracts the attentions of every passing man. She catches the eye of the Corregidor (the mayor and chief magistrate, whose authority is symbolised by his tricorn), who tries to dance with her. She teases him with a bunch of grapes, obviously a very tasty dish, as in his excitement he loses his balance and falls over.

Part two opens with a dance for the Miller's neighbours: it is St. John's Eve, and the villagers are gathering to drink and dance. The Miller's Wife invites her husband to dance the farruca, a solemn and intense flamenco dance. As he finishes, Fate (as represented by a very famous quotation) knocks at the door, in the form of the police, who are here to arrest the Miller on the orders of the Corregidor. As they haul the Miller off, leaving his wife alone, a warning is sung:

Por la noche canta el cuco. Ad virtiendo a los casados que corran bien los cerrojos que el diablo está desvelado!

[The cuckoo sings in the night. It cautions us to bolt the door, for the Devil is awake!]

Having disposed of the opposition, the Corregidor struts in, dressed in all his official finery to seduce the Miller's wife. Luck is not on his side, however: he falls into the millstream. The Miller's Wife mocks him and threatens him with her husband's blunderbuss; then, suddenly frightened, runs off. The Corregidor removes his sodden clothes to dry, and goes upstairs and falls asleep on the Miller's bed.

The Miller meanwhile has escaped, and returning home to find the Corregidor unclothed in his bed draws the obvious conclusion. Furious, he plots his revenge: he puts on the Corregidor's uniform and sets off to find his wife. When the Corregidor wakes, he finds his clothes missing, so puts on the Miller's clothes. This inevitably leads to a confusion of identity, as his own officials mistake him for the Miller and arrest him. The confusion is exacerbated with the return of the Miller's Wife, who, distraught to find what she takes to be her husband in the grip of the police, sets upon them, and uproar ensues. The Miller returns, and seeing his wife defending the Corregidor, attacks his rival in a jealous rage. The arrival of the St John's Eve procession heralds the final dance, during which the true identities of all are finally revealed, the Miller and his Wife are reconciled, and the Corregidor once again flounders, surrounded and mocked by the whole village.

Brahms and Liszt again

New Back Desk online now.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


I don't believe in fate, or synchronicity, or whatever you want to call it. But sometimes you have to wonder.

Christopher Small suddenly seems to be everywhere. I'd never read a word of his before last week, when one of those chains of link following that you do sometimes led me to his book Music, Society, Education. Reading it, I had the sensation of both elation and crushing disappointment, that someone had articulated thoughts and ideas that I've been half-having for years, much better and more cogently than I have, and 30 years earlier. And suddenly I seem to see references to this book, that I'd never heard of (why hadn't I heard of it?) and its author, here and there and everywhere. There's that sudden relief in knowing you're not alone, and that sudden disconcerting realisation that you're not alone. And all this is coming to the surface even as I write a whole series of pieces that touch on a lot of these ideas about performance, tradition, the whole question of what the Western European musical culture is, and what it needs to do to stop its slide into utter obsolescence. Or if it can do anything.

I don't believe in fate, or synchronicity, or whatever you want to call it. But sometimes you have to wonder. Sometimes things seem to pop up at an alarmingly prescient moment.

(By the way, is classical music dead? some people ask. The pedantic, correct answer, of course is that it died in 1827.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More thoughts on Haydn

I'm entering the final stage of my trek through Haydn's symphonies, in the early 80's now, and the landmarks are starting to seem familiar as those works that are better known - the big, public works for Paris and London after the years of splendid isolation at Esterhazy - loom into view.

It's a source of continuing amazement to me that there's such a wealth of imagination throughout these works, hardly a hint of routine. If these later symphonies, composed for very different circumstances than the earlier ones, seem less obviously questing in the search for innovation, that's not a reflection of any dimming of inspiration, rather perhaps the sign of a composer with absolute mastery of his medium writing for an audience less committed, and hence perhaps less open to overt experimentation, than the prince for whom he composed and performed every day for so many years. It's one of the things I admire moist about Haydn: his ability to write something that can engage on both a casual and deeper level - none of the schism between art and entertainment that we worry about so much these days here. And yet surprises abound; I think of the opening of the Symphony No.73, which sounds like nothing so much as an anticipation of minimalism. And where does the extraordinary moment in Symphony No.85 originate, when the raging fire of the Farewell Symphony suddenly erupts into the surrounding grandeur?

It always surprises me that not more interest is shown in things like this: Ian MacDonald's exhaustive unraveling of the web of self-quotation in Shostakovich is all too readily derided by academia (mainly because he was seen as not having the right credentials, not being a paid-up member of their club). The greybeards pore over every detail of a composer's life and technique, but can't abide the thought that elements from life might intrude on theory. Why did Haydn feel the need to insert the memory of something written over a decade previously here? It was highly unlikely that many, if anyone, would recognise the reference. What private thoughts determined this strange, disturbing intrusion?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Credit Crunching

Special Recession edition of the Back Desk up now.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fit for a king?

London's latest arts centre is open. The fashionably apostropheless Kings Place opened for business last week with a festival of "100 concerts in 5 days". It's to be the new home for the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as featuring two galleries and providing office space for the Grauniad.

Intriguingly, it's been paid for entirely with private money, and some are holding it up as a model for the future of arts funding. Whether this model can stand up now that the economy is heading down a 30's style drain remains to be seen (and whether such a project would get off the ground now is an interesting question) - and of course its two new musical residents are both recipients of public money, so things aren't quite as clear-cut as some would have you believe.

I went there to have a snoop round on Sunday. First impressions of the building are good: it's an impressive space that feels open and not too cluttered. Picking up tickets from the box office needed a bit of queuing, but probably no more than you'd expect from a newly opened venue where things are still settling. I'm not impressed with the catering though: A packet of crisps and a sandwich left little change from a fiver, which wouldn't have been so bad if the sandwich wasn't small, soggy and not very nice, and the crisps a smaller packet than a bog-standard packet of Walkers. If you're going to charge three or four quid for something as basic as two pieces of bread with some filling, you need to come up with something better than this.

On a more positive note, toilet facilities seem very good, there was none of that frustrating traipsing up and down stairs to find the bogs that you get at the South Bank, for example. These may sound like trivial matters when we're supposed to be here for the Art, but if you want to build a reputation then things like catering and toilets make a difference. Us dedicated artsy folk don't want our communion with the higher spheres of human endeavour disturbed by a discomforting bladder-emptying experience.
Hall One, the main performance space, is great, not as luxurious a place as the Wigmore Hall which is its most obvious rival, but it's a smart, clean design of a hall.

The first event we're here for is a lecture by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, entitled Musica Speculum Mundi? [Music a mirror of the world?]. He strolls onto the platform, and announces that he's been asked to write his speech down and recite it, not the way he'd normally speak in public. This makes it a little hard to get into what he's saying at first, as reading from a script makes his delivery a little stilted, but he warms up and sweeps us along with his talk, which, rather like a lot of his music, begins with a series of scraps of stories which gradually coalesce into a wider narrative. it's intimidating that he quotes form so many source in the original language, whether it be Italian, German, Latin or Greek. It's probably a sign of a generation gap that he can say something along the lines of "Of course, we all remember from school what Sophocles said...", but he's an engaging and intelligent speaker, and we're swept along by his argument, which becomes more and more personal and passionate as he touches on such subjects as his writing his Third Naxos Quartet in response to the invasion of Iraq. His conclusion is that writing a piece of music makes no practical difference to the world - he never imagined Blair, Brown or Bush would listen to his piece - but nevertheless it is immensely important that a composer reflect his world and act as a witness to it.

Max returns to the stage for the next show, a performance of two works for string quartet from the spnm shortlist selected by him and performed by the Brodsky Quartet. I've discussed this elsewhere, but it's a shame the speakers weren't miked up (as Max was for his lecture): we can hear what Max is saying (he's used to speaking in public) but the two composers, who aren't, mumble a bit and a lot of their words are lost beneath various rustlings from the audience. The acoustic is very clear, and hence very unforgiving in this respect, compulsive coughers note.

Another thing: please, please will someone at the spnm think of some compulsory course in programme-note writing for the composers on their shortlist? What we had to read was absolutely rotten and did nothing to enhance our enjoyment of the pieces. I was convinced from reading his note I was going to hate and/or be bored stupid by Oliver Waespi's piece, but was pleasantly surprised to be confronted with a beguiling piece that I'd like to hear again. It's difficult enough to persuade a lot of people to engage with this stuff as it is, and composers do themselves no favours by presenting such unenlightening writing.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Brahms and Liszt

New (slightly late) Tale from the Back Desk up now.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

New adventures in sound

I went to have a look at Kings Place on Sunday. I'll post something about it later, but in the meantime here's my review of the concert I saw.

Monday, October 06, 2008


I'm branching out into reviewing for the splendid folks at the Londonist. For my first effort I went to hear Beethoven at the Barbican on Friday.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (5)

5: Stay away from composers

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the one thing a composer hates above all else, more than war, oppression, racism, Hitler, the Daily Mail, music critics, anything, is another composer.
That's not why I'm advising the average composer to stay away from other composers though, although that would go some way to avoiding a certain amount of bruising and bloodletting (if not seething, festering jealousy and resentment).

I don't mean you should never speak to another composer - you've got to learn something, for starters, and I'd not have got much out of the composers who taught me if I'd sat there mute, or refused to turn up to the tutorial. And I've enjoyed social congress with other note scribblers on many occasions, almost never ending in physical recriminations (it helps if you manage to get enough drink inside you to remove the ability to land a punch, of course).

No, what I'm thinking of is the sort of occasion you can see quite regularly in any place where scccm is being performed (perhaps, here in London - actually, almost certainly, here in London - a mini-festival organised by the London Sinfonietta or the SPNM). The performances come and go through the day, people drift in and out of the concert hall, gravitating towards the bar, usually, and little clusters of conversation can be seen. And here's the thing: it's nearly all composers talking to other composers. If you go along to one of these things, it's actually quite difficult to meet anyone who isn't a composer. Sometimes you might get the feeling that the entire concert scene in London is really just an excuse for a lot of composer networking opportunities.

Now, if making a career's your thing, blah blah, networking's one of those things you do, sure. But composers (mostly) aren't going to play your damn music. Unless you're writing stuff for yourself to perform (and that's a subject I'll return to), you need musicians. Friendly ones, who know you and will be willing to put up with your ill-thought-out notation and ignorance of what their instrument can do, and will gently, kindly tell you how to change it to make it better. Musicians are quite easy to meet - just go to the nearest pub after the gig. If you make friends with them, they'll be only to happy to offer advice, and it's not that big a step from there to persuading them to run through something you've written. So stop talking theory with all the composers and start talking practice with the players.

There are moments that defy explanation

John Lydon. Advertising butter.

I can't think of anything to add.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (4)

4: Don't write for the Arditti Quartet

Let me make this clear right from the off: I've got no beef with the Arditti Quartet. They're an astonishing ensemble, who've brought some extraordinary music to life, and they and their contribution to so-called contemporary classical music (SCCCM) can't really be over-estimated. They reach heights of virtuosity that few if any other groups can, and when Stockhausen needed a quartet that could manage to keep time while flying about in four different helicopters, there was only one quartet to go to. I admire and respect Irvine Arditti and his cohorts immensely, and they are undoubtedly a Good Thing.

But even the Ardittis only work to a 24-hour day, some of which they have to sleep through, and there's a finite number of pieces they can look at.

When I go to composer workshops and the like, something that often strikes me is that many young composers seem to be unaware of this, and have written a piece that is, frankly, unplayable by anyone who isn't the Arditti Quartet. The Arditti's success seems to have encouraged a belief that nothing is unplayable, and that therefore everything should be made that much harder. It's like one of those Westerns when the local gunslinger has to put up with a succession of challenges of young bucks eager to prove they have a faster draw than him - the ultimate badge of composing respectability would be to write a piece that the Arditti Quartet couldn't play.

There are several reasons why this is a Bad Thing, not least because music is a social force for bringing people together in a spirit of exploration and cooperation, and to reduce it to a complexity pissing contest is a woeful waste of everybody's time. But here are the main points to bear in mind:

  1. While the Ardittis do devote a saintly amount of their time to looking at scores of young composers, they're getting music written for them by all the most prominent composers around, so stop and think: are they really going to spend time scrabbling round your parts rather than Jonathan Harvey's?
  2. Just because the Ardittis can play anything, it doesn't mean that anything is writable. Sometimes a piece is unplayable not because it's fearlessly testing the boundaries of instrumental technique, but because it's just badly written.
  3. If you spend your time writing for a performance by the Arditti Quartet, you're missing out on the possibility of performances by other quartets, who may not have Irvine Arditti leading them but are nevertheless very good. Write for the musicians who are actually going to play your music. If you make friends with Irvine Arditti and he asks you to write him something really, really difficult, then you can pull out your bag of near-impossibilities.
  4. With regard to the point above, if you hadn't considered the fact that at some point your best bet will be to ask someone other than Irvine Arditti to play your piece, you really need to rethink your priorities. Now.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The soloist

New Tale from the Back Desk online here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (3)

Great things are afoot at Defeatist Towers, but it's important not to let real life get in the way of procrastination, so here is the third in what remains for the moment a regular series.

3. It's not your fault... but you still have to deal with it.

Bobbins's comment on strategy no.2 raises some points that regularly come up if you're in the business of what we are pleased to call Contemporary Music, and just like a drunk in the pub, no matter how friendly the initial approach, when they appear you know in your heart that things are bound to turn nasty eventually.

But, like the lairy pisshead waiting outside the pub at 11 o'clock to deck you for looking at his pint or spilling his bird, there's no avoiding it, so we may as well pile in. There is, ahem, a debate continuing about what's happened in SCCM* since the turn of the last century, whether it's a valid development, whether it has any future or will ever attract a large audience, whether classical music is dead**, and whether the perpetrators should be dragged outside and given a damn good kicking by hoards of indignant Classic FM listeners.

Arnold Schoenberg, knocking up a few volleys in between alienating the masses

Now there are many arguments and counter-arguments here: Who abandoned whom first, composers or audiences (answer: audiences, as it happens, during the 19th century), whether it's allowable to write music not based on the tonal system (answer: of course it's "allowed", I'll write whatever the hell I like, thank you very much), and so on and so forth. As with the drunk man we met in the pub at the start of this post, an awful lot of this fractiousness is down to some misunderstandings, but that doesn't make the outcome any less violent. Except that it's down to a lot of misunderstandings that happened years ago, long before you and I were around.

The practical upshot of this is that as soon as you're outed as a composer, and just after the inevitable question is asked "Do you write modern music?", you'll be expected to be on the defensive about what your interrogator perceives as a century of atrocities that were perpetrated out of personal malice for them.*** The honest answer is that a) it was like that when you got here, b) yes, there is a lot of bad modern music about, but there's a lot of bad old music as well, it's just that we've had time to forget about that, c) not all modern music sounds the same, d) there's nothing inherently wrong, as it happens, in writing music with a limited audience, e) Hey, Schoenberg's really not that bad, have a listen to this great Hilary Hahn CD of the Violin Concerto! and f) actually this whole argument is at least 20 years out of date anyway, if you took the trouble to pay any attention to current trends. Unfortunately, such arguments will fall on deaf ears. Sorry, but as far as the world's concerned, everything's ruined, and it's all your fault, you composing bastard.

*SCCM: So-Called Classical Music.

Classical music actually died in about 1827, of course.

*** I remember an occasion as a boy when a piece I wrote for a school music competition making limited use of serial techniques was denounced by my housemaster (yes, it was that kind of school) as "a sick joke". I argued back in a very cogent fashion, explaining the history of Schoenbergian technique and the long establishment and academic respectability of such methods, and was I think very restrained in that I never once used the phrase "you narrow-minded wanker". Or even anything worse.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Jessica Duchen provides a handy roundup of the opening salvos of the London orchestras' new seasons today. But what's this?

So Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams emerge as flavours of the month, which is an interesting combination since Stravinsky could probably have eaten Vaughan Williams for breakfast, given half a chance.

I'm not convinced. A Google Fight would appear to back Jessica up, but given that Vaughan Williams was very tall and hefty (over 6', I think), and Stravinsky was a measly 5'3", surely Ralph would whup Igor's ass?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (2)

Judging by the swelling stats for yesterday, this is is obviously a topic that has gripped the imagination of literally some people. So let's not hang about! Strategy number two awaits.

2. Accept your insignificance

Yesterday I discussed the unavoidable fact that the normal thing for a composer to do is stop composing, which means that if you're still doing it past college, you must be some kind of weirdo. But what drives those of us who do to do the thing we do?
There's a fallacy that's common in SCCM: that because, say, Beethoven's late quartets weren't immediately understood or accepted by his contemporaries, and as they're clearly a work of genius, then anything that's not immediately understood or accepted by one's contemporaries must therefore be a clear work of genius. It hardly seems worth pointing out that this is false logic, but so many composers still seem to fall into the trap that I suppose I must.

This isn't something that's limited to the Average Composer, by the way: it's a nonsense that infects the entire business from top to bottom. Closely related is the delusion that because you're writing SCCM, what you produce is therefore more significant than whatever happens to be in the charts or on the front of the music press. As the logical conclusion to this line of thought is to declare that Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio is a more significant piece of music than Penny Lane, I fell no need to dissect this one further for now.

The reason I mentioned Beethoven was that this stuff is largely his fault: before him composers were admired and revered, but it was after Beethoven that the composer as Artist took a hold, and it was only a step from there to the morass of self-importance that the Classical Music business finds itself mired in now. Even now, some 200 years later, composers are expected, indeed encouraged, to measure themselves against a deaf German from the early 19th century.

Now, I'm not saying that you're not as culturally significant as Beethoven; but let's face it, as composers have been trying, and mostly failing, to live up to his example ever since, it's pretty unlikely. Most of the top composers now, whatever they may like to think, are nowhere near that level, and probably neither are you. And the fact that nobody's ever heard of you (and come to think of it, pretty much nobody outside the tiny, tiny clique surrounding them has heard of the top composers either), does not mean that you're a misunderstood genius. It just means no-one's ever heard of you. Accept this, stop worrying about your place in posterity, and you'll be a big step on the way to happiness.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The writing's on the wall

New Tale from the Back Desk online now.

Survival strategies for the average composer (1)

Average, a.

1. Estimated by average; i.e. by equally distributing the aggregate
inequalities of a series among all the individuals of which the series is

2. Equal to what would be the result of taking an average; medium, ordinary; of the usual or prevalent standard.

Most composers, if we are honest (and few of us are) are average. This isn't necessarily a qualitative judgement - although that comes into it. What I mean is that most of us are neither in the shining stratosphere of success, from which a few names look down beatifically while the rest of us stare sullenly back with a barely concealed jealous rage, nor in that sad category of people who persist in pursuing the muse despite ample evidence that they have no talent whatsoever for it, on whom the rest of us look down with a mixture of disdain, smugness and relief. Most of us bumble along, turning out pieces as and when we can squeeze them between the demands of a day job and the need to get the groceries in, occasionally getting a performance and filling with optimism that this time, our big break is coming, before sinking back into our routines as the recognition fails to erupt, and we carry on with the next piece, slightly crestfallen, but soon once more hopeful that what we write holds some significance beyond ourselves, and will be recognised eventually, and preferably before we fulfil the essential condition of being a composer and die.

Of course, as Morton Feldman pointed out, being a composer is inherently abnormal, as the normal thing for a composer to do is give up, probably soon after he or she leaves university or college and realises the full extent of the world's indifference to SCCM*. But given that you've failed to fall at that hurdle, and are bobbing by, neither sinking nor swimming, what you need to do is take on board certain facts. Hence this, the first in a series of posts designed to enlighten and educate, and make the average composer's life if not better then at least slightly more tolerable. And following from the sage words of Mr Feldman, let's proceed:

1: Admit it, you're weird

You are though, aren't you? If you had any sense you'd have quit this composing lark years ago. Unfortunately, you somehow managed to leave the education system without having the idea that anyone might be interested in anything you have to say knocked out of you, and if you're still scribbling now, it's probably too late for you. Admitting to yourself that what you do is weird is the first, and possibly most important step to take if you're going to cope with being a composer in the 21st century. You can expect the world to tolerate what you do, but by and large, you can't expect it to show any interest in it. Occasionally someone will appear to express something greater than apathy, but it'll very rarely lead anywhere, so don't get your hopes up.

*SCCM: So-called classical music

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Till the money runs out

The days pass, and I find myself on the brink of the new season, preparing to take up my cello and start rehearsing once more. After a good long summer break, it's good to feel some enthusiasm building for the coming year.

That's tempered with some trepidation, though. The credit crunch is biting everyone, and the orchestra's no exception. Rising costs, venue hire, the difficulty in persuading people to part with some cash in return for an evening's entertainment are all things that impinge on the activities of an amateur orchestra, and one that receives no subsidies at that. We rely on the subs that players pay, ticket sales and any sponsorship we can attract to keep going, and while it'd be exaggerating to say that we're on the brink of collapse, that fact is that an orchestra's an expensive thing to run; we made a big loss last year and we expect to this year. A lot of imaginative thinking will be needed to find new ways to raise money to keep the band going. (Any other amateur bands having the same worries round here?) >eanwhile hard decisions must be made, programmes changed and belts tightened.

Performing arts organisations must all be looking over their shoulders at the moment, as they're usually prime targets to have their grants cut when the economy starts to nosedive, no matter how well they seem to be doing. There have already been scare stories in the recent past when the Arts Council cut off all support to a number of prominent bodies. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the time's coming when the best place to be is in an amateur band, working on a small scale and, for all the financial worries, perhaps better placed to ride out the storm than a large pro organisation that depends on public subsidy. One of the points trumpeted about the new Kings Place development is that it's funded entirely by private money, which I suspect is another sign that no-one sensible would want to be relying on public money at a time when there seems to be something in the air against the very idea of it.

On a tangent, there's some interesting (and quite long, don't try printing this out if you want to save trees) reading in this government report on amateur music-making. There's a bit of techno-waffle and stating the bleeding obvious, of course - this is a government document, after all - but I shouldn't be churlish, as it's good to see something vaguely official that propagates the notion that the Arts are something that people do, rather than a product to be passively absorbed. Whether this leads to the conclusion that amateur organisations should be cherished and supported in a way that officialdom doesn't really do at the moment, or that by some twisted logic their presence and popularity should serve as a reason to slash public arts funding remains to be seen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Something fishy (2)

This week's Tale from the Back Desk is online.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Something fishy

One of the interesting sideshows to the McCain-Palin shebang is big-haired soft rock giants Heart's reaction to the appropriation of their song Barracuda. The Wilson sisters issued a cease and desist notice to the McCain camp, which they dutifully ignored, as unlike previous occasions, they were fully paid up and entirely entitled to play it.* Co-writer Roger Fisher has now decided to make the best of a bad situation and pledge his royalties from the Republicans' appropriation of his song to the Obama campaign, which is a neatly ironic resolution.

What this does highlight (apart from the double edged sword of copyright law) is an interesting question: how much a composer can really be said to own his work once he or she has put it out into the world, and whether (s)he should even be able to exert any influence.

It's perfectly natural for composers to wish to retain control over their creations, of course, just as a parent would like their children to grow up and act like they'd like them to. But with music as with offspring, once they're in the world they rarely end out how you imagined. Some children grow up to be junkies, and some songs grow up to be Republican soundtracks - just ask Bruce Springsteen. All you can do is hope that the gentle nudge you gave them as you sent them out will be enough to put them on the right path. It's difficult to let go, but music can't be preserved in aspic, nor should it be. Composing begins with following the example of those who've gone before you, and you have to accept that if you have any decent ideas, they in turn will be taken up by those who come after you.

Here's something for the weekend: a different take on the song in dispute, by the splendid Rasputina:

*McCain's habit of violating copyright is a bit unfortunate, given his zealous support of extension and protection of it. Hey, maybe if he hadn't supported all those term extensions there'd be more public domain music he could use for his campaign.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A hairy situation

Another Tale from the Back Desk is now available for your delectation.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stuck in the middle with you

Pity the poor sixth.

Doing the washing up, I find my head filled with "Do-Re-Mi" from the Sound of Music. You know the one, the song that gives cutesy names and puns to all the notes of the diatonic scale. Except one.

"La - a note to follow So [sew]."

That's the sixth, what's technically known as the submediant, and Rodgers and Hammerstein hold it in such contempt that they can't even be bothered to think up a decent line. It's nothing special, La, it's just a stopping place on the way from the bright lights of So to the glittering wonders of Ti (a drink with jam and bread). Sort of like a motorway service station - you need the facilities, but you wouldn't choose to go there if you had any real choice in the matter.

Even the technical term's an insult - submediant, i.e. like the mediant, only not as good. Don't get any ideas above your station, Mr Sixth, we're only hanging round with you because we can't get close to the mediant for all the cool kids crowding him as he determines major and minor.

It doesn't get any better when you consider the unfortunate interval from a tonal perspective, either. In the tonal hierarchy, the submediant is the location of the relative minor key. Now, you may think the minor mode's proved its popularity over the years, but consider this: When you're in a major key, you modulate to the dominant. The exciting, virile, even more major dominant. Never to the relative minor. Yet when you begin in a minor key, the accepted path is to get away as quickly as possible to the relative major (which is located in the prime territory of the mediant. Yes, the Mr Big Shot mediant, so much more U than the boring old submediant. Who'd want to go there, eh? It's the tonal equivalent of Wolverhampton.

Not everyone hates the submediant - Brahms loved nothing better than to pile the sixths on, and there's a wonderful bit in the finale of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, when a massive dominant chord is emptied of its harmony, and then the single note left behind is reinterpreted in a new context, which swings the tonality unexpectedly towards the submediant key. It's an awe-inspiring moment, although Beethoven ruins it by prancing off on a thoroughly silly march, so maybe he didn't like our middling friend so much after all.

Well, I say it's time to stick up for the little guy. What's so bloody great about all these so-called perfect intervals, anyway? Let's hear it for the submediant - the tone that's not afraid to be different.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

First thoughts on Haydn

There are always things you have on a list of things to do that you'll probably never get around to: Read big important books, do Significant Acts, that kind of thing. Occasionally it's good to gird your self and set out to conquer one of these cultural Everests. In the last couple of years I've ticked a couple of musts off my list: Ulysses and The Gulag Archipelago (Which I'm crawling through at the moment). But this is a blog about music (well, most of the time), and so I've embarked on an aural quest. Listening to Haydn's 104 Symphonies in order probably isn't on most people's lists. Ever since I first started listening to Haydn (and I started young - he's my dad's favourite composer, so I've been indoctrinated from an early age) I've always been amazed, and slightly intimidated, by the sheer amount of music he produced. It somehow seems more extraordinary than, say, Bach: his genius lies in seeing the harmonic and contrapuntal potential in a theme, so once you've done that it's a matter of writing it out. But Haydn's era was one that raised originality to the peak of what was expected from a composer. As I crawl through one of my own compositions at a tortuously slow rate I feel a bit jealous of old Joe, churning out a symphony every week. Fortunately the machinations of economics mean that I can now do something that would have been prohibitively expensive until not all that long ago, and buy myself a nice big box of 33 CDs containing all 104* of them. (I got it rather cheaper than that link, but the Grauniad shop doesn't seem to have it anymore.) I considered for a moment blogging each and every one of them, but decided that would be too much like hard work, so I'll content myself with popping up with random observations every now and then as I work through what must be just about the least known body of hugely important and influential music there is.

I'm always surprised how dismissive some musicians are of him; something along the lines of "well, it all sounds the same doesn't it?" - which is a sure sign they can't have listened to very much of it. I find it amazing, and inspiring, that anyone could produce such a huge amount of music, with such constant innovation, coupled with equally consistent quality and no hint of routine at all.

*Some count 107, but they're nit-picking.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

View from the back

The latest Tale from the Back Desk is online.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Johannes Brahms?!

I wouldn't normally do this sort of thing, but this is such a headfuck I just had to. Poor old Brahms must rue the day he quit the job playing in a brothel.

found via Michael Sippy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tales From the Back Desk

The latest episode is online.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Kingdom of the Bland

Oh Jesus shitting Christ, Classic FM are at it again. Not content with encouraging awful, awful acts like G4, Bleak, and The Divs to sing REM and Queen in a horrible cod-operatic warble, sometimes in Italian, as if that offered any insight into anything at all, now they're encouraging artists such as Emma Johnson and Julian Lloyd Webber to sully the air with instrumental "classical" arrangements of pop songs, which will apparently reveal some inner genius we weren't aware of already. This is apparently a reflection of a new genre, they tell us.

Actually, Classic Fucking Mediocre dissemble, because it's a very old genre - the genre of Fucking Horrible Arrangements Of Recent Pop Hits To Make A Quick Buck. FHAORPHTMAQB has a long and frequently ignoble history, although I have to confess to an entirely unjustifiable fascination with Deep Purple and Malcolm Arnold's seminal* collaboration, Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which is not quite the same thing, admittedly, but is a closely related genre, also being of the phylum "Terrible Things That Happen When the Rock and Classical Worlds meet" (see also: Metallica's gig with the San Francisco Symphony, Philip Glass's rotten orchestral inflations of David Bowie and the Queen Symphony). I don't include the Orchestral Tubular Bells here because it's no worse than the original.

It works the other way around too, of course, and honourable mention here must go to Waldo de Los Rios's fantastically tasteless '70s arrangements of popular classical pieces by Mozart, Dvořák, and others, which, like doughnuts and crack, are irresistible even though they're clearly not good for you.

These chimeras differ from Classic FM concept in one important respect though; they're ill-advised, overblown and gloriously lacking in taste or restraint, which in time lends them a certain charm. Classic FM's album is all about being tasteful, music to put on in the background as you sit round your coffee table with your estate agent friends discussing what car you're driving these days and when mortgage rates might come down. There's a terrible and insidious snobbishness about the whole enterprise: the implication is that, on the one hand, these songs must be tarted up in "classical" clothes in order to be acceptable, and on the other hand that Classic FM's audience isn't really clever enough to listen to proper classical music, and shouldn't get any ideas that they deserve any better than this. The first is the sort of thinking that leads to Paul McCartney's "classical" follies, which only a lunatic could believe can hold a candle to his magnificent work with the Beatles; the second is essentially the same sort of mindset that thinks it's a jolly big shame that the natives are now running their own countries in the former British Empire, and that the working classes no longer doff their caps to the toffs. it betrays an attitude of paternalistic contempt by Classic FM for its listeners: it does nothing for either pop or classical or any other type of music, it creates nothing, refreshes nothing; it just leaches and leaches until the blood is drained from its victim.

When I was a kid, you'd see "Top of the Pops" albums in the bargain bins in Woolworth's and W.H. Smiths, offering the promise of the latest chart smashes all on one disc. When you got it home and slapped it on the record player, what you got was a bunch of cheap knocked off cover versions performed by session musicians. But you couldn't really complain, because they'd never actually said it was the original recordings, so you were stuck with the record and a vague sense of empty despair. This is the legacy of FHAORPHTMAQB, and Classic FM's tawdry product is no better, demeaning everyone and everything its fetid embrace encompasses.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong, and that, far from being a cynical piece of opportunistic marketing tat, Songs Without Words (see what they did there?) is a triumph of artistic innovation that provides hitherto unglimpsed insights into the songs featured, and charts new lands in music. In which case, Yay, Go Classic FM.

*seminal: consisting of semen, i.e. a load of wank.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tales From the Back Desk

Just post-holiday's always a good time to summon up some vague enthusiasm for doing something new, so with that in mind I've started a new project: Tales from the Back Desk. It's a regular (weekly, if I can summon the time and energy) comic about music and musicians, that grows out of the three strips I drew for Classical Music earlier this year. I was hoping they might be enthused enough about those to have such a series in the magazine, but hey, their loss is the internet's gain.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Stormy Monday

Well, goddam. I return from a lovely holiday to discover that Ronnie Drew and Isaac Hayes have both died while I was away. Tempting though it is to stick up the theme from Shaft or one of his South Park Songs, here's something slightly less obvious to remember Hayes by:

And here's Ronnie and his band raising some quality hell with the Pogues:

Friday, August 08, 2008

On holiday

It's so nice when you can finally stop.

Back next week.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Vibrato Wars: The Left Hand Strikes Back

One of the great things about summer is there's bugger all happening, so a small matter like whether some German orchestral players shook theirs left hands during a performance of Elgar at the Proms the other day becomes a major incident. I was having a conversation with a friend about this, and one of the things that came up was the question of Elgar's own recording of his first symphony, made in the early 1930s. Norrington's argument is that vibrato only came into use then, so that's not relevant. I'll pass over the fact that it shows Elgar knew about vibrato, and was happy for it to be used in a performance under his baton, and instead give you this wonderful recording, from 1903, of Joseph Joachim. He certainly doesn't use vibrato continuously, but equally, he does use it. Not to mention the portamento that's liberally splashed over this Hungarian Dance by Brahms, which was conspicuously absent from the Stuttgart Elgar.

The really silly thing is that on one level Norrington's right: there's a huge amount of received wisdom about performing styles that coats the way we hear old music, and there's a lot to be learned from studying old recordings like the one below that can change our ideas about how to play a piece - the very different way vibrato was used then is well worth thinking about. But what he actually does has no basis in fact, and a questionable effect. He's allowed to play Elgar however he wants, of course - there are no morals in music - but it's just not true to claim that what he's doing is historically accurate, or the only way to perform.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Prom 24: Smyth, Rachmaninov et al.

Ethel Smyth- now there's an interesting character. She cut a singular dash in the early 20th century, a force of nature who mixed with the foremost musicians of her time, when she wasn't in prison for throwing bricks through the windows of those who wouldn't support the suffragettes. Her memoirs are about to be republished to celebrate her 150th birthday, and they're well worth reading - sharp, perceptive and funny.

I wish I could say the same about her music, but the fact is that her Concerto for violin and horn, which formed the main part of the first half of yesterday's prom, isn't very good. I'm perhaps being harsh here - there are some lovely moments, particularly in the slow movement and the opening of the finale. But overall it lacked any real sense of purpose, meandering on in a somewhat directionless and verbose manner, before finishing fairly arbitrarily.

On the other hand, there are plenty of crap pieces by male composers of the period that get a regular hearing, so why shouldn't Smyth be allowed out now and then?

I wonder how much the performers had to do with my perception? Richard Watkins is a wonderful horn player, but I don't like Tasmin Little's sound at all - it's very wobbly, with an excessively wide vibrato that somehow reminds me of Edith Evans, and makes me rethink Roger Norrington's viewpoint on the use of vibrato in early 20th century music. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra play well, though.

Talking of crap music by men, the two arrangements by Sir Henry Wood - of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor an Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor - that began the first and second halves respectively were the sort of orchestral lollipop that was once commonplace, but has largely died out, and thank god, as these muddy, overblown orchestrations did nothing to serve these two very famous keyboard works, both of which I'd far rather hear on their intended instruments than this way.

But that's not to say it's not worth hearing all these things now and then - it's important to have a chance to realise why some things get left behind, and other endure. Rachmaninov's music was dismissed as schmaltz in his day, and critics regularly opined that no-one would want to listen to it in 50 years. Well, they were wrong, and the reason, as made clear by the wonderful performance of the Second Symphony the SSO gave here, is not because audiences have no taste, but simply because this is very powerful, taut and well made music. Tchaikovsky used to be dismissed the same way, and just as he has survived and his reputation has had to be reassessed, perhaps it's time to give Rachmaninov his due too.