Monday, March 31, 2008

A nice night in

I know I'm probably too old to be excited by this sort of thing. but I am, so there.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Written in smoke

I was half-asleep at the time, so I didn't immediately realise what gave Charlotte Green such a fit of the giggles on the radio. It later transpired it was a comment overheard about a newly restored recording from 1860 - the earliest known recording of a human voice - sounding like a bee in a bottle.

There's something extraordinary and wonderful about this. This voice, the name of whose owner was apparently not considered important enough to be recorded, preserved on nothing more substantial than soot on paper, all that remains of someone from a distant past, untouchable but made tantalisingly close by this tiny fragment. Something about the fragility of existence and the tenaciousness with which we cling to it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

sea and sky

It can't last forever, of course it can't, there's too much crowding out the moments of stillness and repose for it to be otherwise. But that never stops you wishing that maybe one time it might.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


When Adam and Eve were disposessed
Of the garden, hard by Heaven,
They planted another one down in the West -
'Twas Devon, 'Twas Devon, glorious Devon.

Off for some unseasonal sea. Back next week. Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke 1917-2008

Anyone who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s will remember "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World", a TV series in which Clarke fronted a series of articles investigating strange phenomena. It certainly made a deep impression on me; I was obsessed with Doctor Who (as were most small boys then) and all thing extraterrestrial, and the remarkable tales I saw presented were a huge meal for my ten-year-old imagination. I even got the big expensive tie-in book, and poured over its pages, filling my head with crystal skulls, mysterious explosions, ancient anomalous technology and alien visitors. It was also the first place I heard the name of Charles Fort, whose words currently head this blog, and whose wickedly playful philosophy has been a great influence on me.

Clarke's best known amongst the wider public, of course, for his novel and screenplay 2001: a space odyssey, and for predicting satellites with geostationary orbits, but he wrote a huge number of books, many of which I read avidly. His short stories always chimed with me most, filled with extraordinary imaginative speculation as to the future, which was nevertheless always perfectly grounded in contemporary science.

What I remember and treasure most from his stories, however, is its essential optimism. Clarke wasn't naive; he was certainly aware that human nature does not evolve as fast as our technological capability. But he always seemed to project the wonder of possibility, and the hope that for all our faults, in the end all things shall be well.

It doesn't strike me that he was the sort of person who'd want to be remembered in solemnity, and so here's something I also remember from TV relating to the great man in an entirely less serious way:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Swings and roundabouts

High point of the day: Remembering I'm only working three days this week.
Low point of the day: Realising that today is in fact Tuesday, not Wednesday.

There goes the neighbourhood

Broxbourne, a quiet little town a few minutes' train ride from me (or a few more minutes on the bike I bought there) has previously been known only as the birthplace of the fine composer Elizabeth Maconchy. But eek! It has become the new home of Mr Murdoch's empire of hatred! When the Current Bun moves next door, it's time to call for escape route.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Chains at a molecular level

The sleepwalk to a police state continued at the weekend, with a call from Gary Pugh, director of forensic services at Scotland yard, for children to be added to the national DNA database.

It's really disturbing that someone fairly senior in the police force feels quite able to come out and, in essence, say that the population should be treated as suspects - he is, after all, suggesting that a child be put on not because of anything it might have done, but because of a possibility that it might in future do something. He says at one point:

'Fingerprints, somehow, are far less contentious,' he said. 'We have
children giving their fingerprints when they are borrowing books from a

What. The. Fuck?? Does this really happen?

Does this really happen?

AC Grayling eloquently dispatches the pernicious "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument today in the Guardian.

At a time when the Chinese government is trampling all over the rights (and bodies) of the Tibetans, we need to look to our own back yards and see what's happening here before we find ourselves at the mercy of rulers with no regard for our right to live our own lives.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Set the controls for the heart of the Sun

Set the controls for the heart of the Sun
Originally uploaded by petemaskreplica.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Gustav Mauler

Strangely wonderful.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Are conductors necessary?

A mention on the radio draws my attention to The Times pontificating about the need for conductors in the wake of an interview with Nigel Kennedy (are we back to calling him Nigel now? A couple of years ago he declared he wanted to be known as "Kennedy", presumably in imitation of Morrissey, Madonna, God, and other single-monikered celebs). It's an interesting question.

My own band probably wouldn't get through an extended piece unscathed, but we're operating on a different level to, say, the LSO, who I daresay could quite easily get to the end of a symphony without it falling apart. (Whether the performance would be worth hearing is another matter.) Plus KSO's purpose is in part educational, to broaden the knowledge and appreciation of music for both the players and our audience, which means that our conductor is working in part as a teacher as much as a baton waver.

Conductorless orchestras do exist; from what I gather the main difference is that because the approach to the music has to be decided amongst the band rather than being imposed by a single coordinator, it takes longer to rehearse. I suspect this is why stickless bands are unlikely to have much of a future beyond the relatively small forces involved in pre-(and indeed quite a lot of post-)19th century music, simply because the arguments between 30 people are going to be resolved much quicker than between 80. So, the argument in favour of conductors is essentially efficiency: it's more efficient to have one person in charge of rehearsing and shaping a piece than a group of people discussing it. And of course a pair of ears outside the band is useful, to make sure everyone's balancing well.

(Nigel) Kennedy's someone I've got a lot of time for - it's easy to forget that beneath the eccentricity/twattery lies a very fine musician - but I think he's over-stating the case. As the Times article points out, he's struggled to find anyone he can work with since Klaus Tennstedt.

(Incidentally, I'm disturbed by the comment on Radio 4's Front Row last night that (Nigel)'s (conductorless) new recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto is slower than his old one with Tennstedt, which was so slow it's a wonder it's not still going on. Maybe he's hoping to make a breakthrough in physics by playing so slowly that time actually starts going backwards.)

The question of whether a single view of a piece or a collectively agreed one is better is a question worth pondering. Of course this does all tie in with the very idea of "interpretation", which is to a greater or lesser degree an excuse to justify playing the same old stuff over and over rather than finding something new for our ears, which goes to the heart of what the classical music industry's all about.

There are conductors who do bring something special to the table, but in truth they're rare birds. Mark Elder's a good example of someone who's worked with one band over many years (the Hallé) and has the kind of relationship with them now where he presumably knows them well enough to work with them rather than at them. Then there are the superstar jetsetters like Gergiev. And of course the huge numbers of journeymen who frankly do bugger all. The trouble is, there's a culture of insisting in so-called classical music that everything is the peak, the absolute elite, when the fact is there's a hell of a lot of the mediocre.

Could you put on a Mahler symphony without a conductor? I don't know. It'd be interesting finding out, though.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Steph Waller believes she is the reincarnation of Mozart. She gives talks "in character" (and costume) to schoolkids about him, along with her partner Lynette Erwin, who claims to be the reincarnation of the first singer to play the role of Susanna (and alleged tryster with the composer) Anna Storace. Personally I think if I'd been subjected to this as a child I may have been too traumatised ever to listen to Mozart again, but maybe that's just me.

David Cope, meanwhile, has written a program that enables a computer to "compose" like Mozart. He persuades Steven Isserlis to play through a cello concerto written by this program. Isserlis confesses to developing a certain fondness for the work, despite it being "really bad". That's not just a professional opinion, by the way - my companion has no musical training at all, and she managed to recognise its awfulness, a jumble of classical cliches that fitted together in the way a random selection of clothes bought from charity shops might.

These are just some of the characters we encounter in the documentary film, Mozartballs, which was on BBC4 the other night, named after the sickly sweet chocolate balls known as "Mozartkugeln" that act as the most prominent evidence that there is nothing on this earth so tacky that the Viennese won't slap a picture of Mozart on it and sell you.

It's quite an entertaining film, and not simply in a "look at the nutters!" way. To an English mindset the title brings connotations of Private Eye, but this is an American film, and hence lacking the acid that might imply. Rather, it's an affectionate portrait of some eccentric people who've made Mozart the focus of their obsession. Whether this says something about the continuing power Mozart's myth holds over us or the desperate desire of us all to bask in associated glory I don't know, but rather than mocking the film's subjects I find myself warming to them. We live in such a drab, conformist world in so many ways. Who can blame someone for wanting to be Mozart?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Empire of the senseless

Interesting times for music publishing.

Whether EMI will still want to buy Boosey's once they've seen what sort of state it's in remains to be seen - it doesn't bode well if the current owners really have been trying to get rid of it since shortly after they bought it.

Boosey and Hawkes is a company, like most music publishers, that has grown complacent and reliant on the exploitation of some big names it was lucky enough to acquire rather than trying to create a future for the art form it purports to represent. It'd be nice to think a new owner might begin to reverse this trend, but I can't say I feel confident that a bunch of asset-strippers, which is essentially what Guy Hands' business is, will have any new approach to the selling of classical music.

Notes & Queries

A trombonist and me in the pub after the concert on Saturday:

"Great programmes notes!"
"Not much about music in them, is there?"
"Well, writing about music's a waste of time, really."

And it is.

Well, I should qualify that. There's plenty to be had out of the study of music, for performers and composers. But when you're writing for an audience the rules are different, I think. Maybe once upon a time you could have assumed a certain level of knowledge about how a piece of so-called-classical music works, but the fact is that you can't anymore. I write programme notes for intelligent people who have no musical education. I could witter on about sonata forms or whatever happens to be the bottle tonight's wine is poured into, but for those who know about such things it's unnecessary, and for those who don't it's a confusion. All those descriptions of what happens in the piece you read in most programmes - what's the point? I don't want to be told the plot before I read a book. But it does help to have the scene set, and as a lot of the time we're talking about something that was written in a different age or society, it's good to know the context in which it was created. I usually mention something that happens near the end, so that the audience knows it's nearly done. But really my ideal programme note wouldn't talk about the music at all. Long-winded technical descriptions put the layman off, make it seem an esoteric exercise that you can't begin to understand without a degree. Music should be experienced viscerally.

In the case of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, the political context of its creation is vital to understanding the work, but that's true of anything. No composer exists in a vacuum. To put a work in context doesn't diminish its universality (as some try to claim, particularly in the case of Shostakovich). When making a case, one argues from the specific to the general, and knowing how, when and why DDS composed his Fourth can only help in understanding its wider relevance today.

These thoughts are with me regularly as I write, of course, but they also come to mind this morning reading the comments on Pliable's post about the review of Alex Ross's book on Radio 3. It's true that there's not much in the way of discussion of music in the book, but is that its purpose? My impression is that the point of it is to put 20th century composers into a social context, something which has been largely lacking. I find the earlier part of the book more successful in this than the latter - although perhaps that simply reflects the extent to which the post-war composers abdicated social responsibility? It's also true that Ross's story peters out sometime in the early 70s, but perhaps with music since then it is too soon to tell. Certainly, the book isn't as wonderful as it's been made out to be - what could live up to such hype? - but Ross has attempted to put 20th century composers before a general audience, and that's something to be admired and encouraged.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A powerful beat

We are a product of our environment. But our environment is also in part a product of us. I'm an untidy person. I create the mess that surrounds me. And yet, when I get around to tidying it up, I become aware of how much the mess around me creates untidiness in my mind, that turns a creatively non-sequential mindset slowly into an impenetrable thicket, so cluttered with detritus that I can no longer fight my way to the important matters buried within. And this process creates a feedback loop, so that the thicket of thought builds up a dam against action, the mess in the physical world builds and thus feeds the mess in the imaginative world, until something breaks and insists this will not do. And once the clutter begins to disappear somehow the mind begins to clear also, and one begins to think again of productive thought rather than the tiny, time-strapped whirring that dominates all too often.

There's nothing wrong with this cycle; it's a rhythm, and life needs a rhythm, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, and the simple rhythm must build to complexity and the complexity must in its turn give way to simplicity. It's just a shame that the moment of Nothing that acts as the agent of this change too often arouses out of imposition (of illness, say), rather than being allowed to emerge of its own will. Or is the illness simply a manifestation of this need occasionally to stop?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Politician may not actually know what she's talking about shock

The debate about the speech that Margaret Hodge gave yesterday rumbles on. And proves that for most people, the Last Night of the proms, the entire proms season and the entire range of what we call" Classical Music" are all interchangeable. Now that's what you call an image problem.

Hodge's own online diary, meanwhile, praised the Proms mightily last September. There's bound to be a suspicion that this proves that she' s simply a vacuous media tart who'll say whatever needs to be said to get some attention (I see more than one person has raised the spectre of Zhdanov), but is it just me or do those diary entries talking about operas and the Vienna Phil read like they've been cribbed from some bluffer's guide to classical music-type book? I'm now confused: is she ignorant or hypocritical?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Minister in ill-judged comment shock

Way Out
My heart sinks every time a politician offers an opinion on the Arts, and today's no exception as I read Margaret Hodge's reported comments on the Proms. Whether she's talking about the whole season or just the Last Night is being debated in a surprisingly well mannered discussion on the Grauniad "blogs" ( normally a hotbed of hate and ignorance way off the image of Grauniad readers as woolly liberal mung bean munchers), and of course there are less literate discussions going on, as well as the odd person happy to hitch her remarks to their own Beeb-bashing.

Hodge's words are of course flimflam, that show no knowledge or love of the subject at hand but an addiction to meaningless soundbites (pretty much what you'd expect from this government). It's interesting how quickly Downing Street seems to have intervened to put the can on the story - Hodge was booked to appear on Radio 4's The World At One, but at the last minute "something came up", and so we had to put up with Nicholas Kenyon waffling away.

I'm certainly not going to suggest that there's nothing that needs to be improved about the Proms - there's plenty - but this sort of thing really isn't going to start a sensible or useful debate about that. Rather, it's a sop, the Proms being a lazy shorthand (because of course to most people, the Last Night is the Proms, and indeed all classical music) for a certain type of white middle class idea of "culture". The minister's ill-thought out half-ideas about "inclusivity" and this governments obsession with a "British national identity" is fuelled partly by the prime minister's determination to make us forget that he's Scottish, and partly by a hatred of anything that might emphasise individuality. Hodge's singling out of the Proms is meaningless; it's a lazy, convenient target rather than any cogent analysis of contemporary culture. The only thing more depressing is David "Dave" Cameron's equally fatuous response. Let us not forget that politicians of all hues are rarely genuinely interested in the Arts, and never, ever interested in anything other than the lowest common denominator.

golden geese on life support

You can never take anything for granted in this world, and to prove it, the European Union is looking at extending sound copyright terms, against the conclusions of the Gowers Review. Read more here, and sign the petition. Copyright is an important way of protecting the livelihoods of creative artists, but for cultural activity to thrive, it's also important that works be allowed to pass into the public domain, so that we can use the achievements of the past to build the future sound.

Photo taken from Racefan's Picassa album.