Saturday, May 24, 2008

RVW: Let's Get It On

The Passions of Vaughan Williams was an entertaining, if slight, documentary last night that took as its thesis that all that stuff we thought was about cows and country meadows was actually about shagging and fighting. It featured a lot of old ladies talking about sex, which is always an instructive experience.

I'd say more, but I'm trapped in relocation hell at the moment and really should get on with the packing. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

It's repeated tonight at 7.00 on BBC4, or you can blahblah iPlayer. And while I'm at it here's an interview with the man himself.

Obviously I'll be deeply possessed with Euro-fever by then. Assuming I'm not trapped under a collapsed tower of boxes.

RVW would have felt right at home in the world of blogging, as this photo of him with a cat demonstrates.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A life in boxes

I am surrounded by stuff.

Packing is an activity that inevitably leads to a certain amount of introspection; it's like a ritual, sifting through the lives once led in preparation for the life to come. Those books, CDs, pieces of random paper that bring to mind times you'd half-forgotten, smiles and rueful wonderings about what might have been, if only. But there's no if only in life, only what was, is and shall be.

So the difficult decision becomes, what stays and what goes? There are of course things that retain their immediate usefulness or potency, and those that can be happily discarded (CDs that will never again be played, books that will never be re-read). But there's also a slew of things that fall between; things that you can't entirely justify keeping on any practical level, but bring warm feelings of nostalgia. How do you decide about these?

I try to be reasonably callous about it; I believe in looking forward, not becoming mired in things past. But at the same time, that past is what made me, and I need to keep something to remind me of where I've been. Judging the line between these is a difficult one.

Mostly, though, at the moment I feel overwhelmed. When you've been in the same place for over seven years, you don't notice the accumulation of things, and it's only when you come to put it in boxes that you realise how much you are defined, and weighed down, by possessions.

There's a piece of me that wants to stand up, walk out and leave all the things. That knows I only need what I carry within me, really, and that everything else is detritus. But I can't let go of it all. I'm possessed by objects, and it's a worrying feeling. But we cannot entirely escape the detritus we have produced, and must accept responsibility for it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Near and far

I ride a new way, aiming for the same destination. It's amazing how little deviation it takes to make the familiar seem like unexplored territory. I whistle a happy tune, with obscene lyrics rewritten as I ride. I reflect on how good it feels to be alone, out of the city, disconnected from the daily grind. At one point I almost look at the time, but think better of it. Why spoil the wonderful freedom from the temporal whip? I think of how strange it is that we strive to isolate ourselves from the wilderness, and then construct an artificial one. Of how fragile our existence is. Of how wonderful it is that this freedom is there for the taking, even in the city, if you take the time to find it.

Then I stop thinking, and look at the world.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Irony in action

Gordon's famously reduced the strength of their gin after an EU directive defined the minimum strength for gin as 37.5%. What was that about cutting corners and losing your edge again?

Mr Ramsay's very big on quality control. Obviously not that big, though..

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prometeo (RFH)

Time's a funny thing; or the perception of it. Prometeo runs for over two hours, two hours in which not very much happens. And yet, in another sense, an awful lot happens, because by the end of it you're in a different space to the one you started out in.

It's a bit different for me perhaps; I've sat through the five hours of Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston*, so a couple of hours is peanuts in comparison. And Bruckner wrote 90-minute pieces in which, in a very profound sense, nothing really happens (and yet everything!). So there's plenty of precedent.

Not everyone can take this sort of thing: there were several people who walked out, some after less than half an hour. But it takes a half-hour or so to acclimatise yourself to this sort of music, and you need the patience to do that if you're going to get something out of it.

The spacial element of Prometeo is of course one of its main selling points. Stockhausen of course experimented with breaking down the traditional relationship between performers and audience in the 60s with Gruppen, and playing Strauss's Alpine Symphony recently, with its army of off-stage brass, reminds me that playing about with these things is nothing new in itself. But Prometeo takes these ideas and runs with them. There are clusters of musicians everywhere, even before you consider the sound field created by numerous speakers distributed all around. This creates a slight tension, as the Royal Festival Hall is clearly designed for the traditional layout of audience all pointing towards a stage, so our sitting position works against what Nono is trying to achieve. But in a strange way this only seems to point up how entrenched we are in our concert-going habits, the very thing Nono wants us to question.

The (excellent) programme contained the texts used in the piece, but this is really better studied later on, as Nono deliberately abstracts the words in his setting so that it's really incomprehensible in any conventional sense. Rather, he exploits the libretto as a source of sounds and timbres for the voices. There didn't seem to be any need to think about the text or the legend of Prometheus except in the most general, abstract way, and this is part of what it's about: it's not about comprehending, it's about the pure experience of listening.

Normally when you hear something involving a combination of instruments and electronics you expect the electric part to be superimposed on the acoustic, but what Nono does is much more subtle than that, and it's a credit to him that you hardly think about the presence of the sound system, so carefully are the two elements integrated; this is use of technology as a subtle enhancement rather than a bludgeoning club. The effect as you hear sounds from their original source drift across the room and transform into complex textures is serenely discorporating.

The actual music itself seems much more eclectic than I'd have expected, ranging from terrifying clusters to the sweetest of perfect fifths, and pretty much everything in between. Occasionally a roar emerges from the orchestras, but largely the music is a great drift.

Nono is classed as one of those nasty modernists we're all supposed to reject these days in favour of Golijov. But what's striking is that this music (as well as being far more immediate than the anti-modernists would have you believe) doesn't sound "modern" at all. It sounds extraordinarily, immensely ancient. We leave the hall at the end, and to return to the bustle of London after this feels like returning from a journey to an unimaginably distant world, perhaps even time. The world seems too fast. Nono gives our thoughts space to breathe. And time.

There's so much more to be said, and yet also nothing. I go about my day as before. But behind it somewhere there's the memory of this other place, and it'll be a while before it's absorbed. it's all a matter of time.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson has a good roundup of reviews of the performances.

*I've sat through the even bigger String Quartet No.2 (over six hours on the Flux Quartet's recording, helpfully available on DVD to avoid those annoying disc changes). But somehow it seems cheating, doing it in the comfort of your own living room.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Playing with fire

A big weekend looms: tomorrow night I'll be off to the South Bank to hear Luigi Nono's Prometeo, about which I shall doubtless have more to say later. I'll be rehearsing on Sunday for the KSO concert on Monday, so annoyingly I won't get to see the Bowmans at the Borderline, but you should if you can.

And just to show it's not only BBC Young Musician that's had a lobotomy, I see the Classical Brits gave Emperor Palpatine an outstanding achievement award, and think the best classical release of the last year was cod-operatic karaoke act Bleak. To which the only sensible response is to laugh like a drain.

Apparently Villa-scum supporting mockney fiddler Nige pulled out because they wouldn't let him perform with FHM-stylee quartet Bland. Which after the above seems an odd point at which to make a stand on artistic integrity.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Young Musician of the Year 2008 (BBC4)

I missed last night's string programme (general consensus: the guitarist was streets ahead of the others, and the violinist shouldn't have even been there) but I did see the wind finalists paraded before me and the 3 other people who watch BBC4 on Monday. I'm sure the Scottish flautist who won ("He's so camp!" squealed one of the other contestants, and I'm sure he'll thank her for that when he's lying in some street late at night having his head kicked in) fully deserved his place in the grand final, but it's difficult to be sure, because one of the defining features of this programme was that you didn't get to hear very much music at all. Instead you got treated to lots of shots of the players walking about, going on Facebook (they do little else, at least that's the impression the programme gives; well, as every coked-up London TV executive knows, that's what da kidz do, innit bro?), hugging each other endlessly in the wake of auditions and recitals, thinking about what shoes to wear, lots of voice overs about how nervous they are but also how excited to have got this far... I looked at my watch at one point and realised it was halfway through the programme and not one of the four contenders had performed anything. Not long after that I realised none of them would, beyond a few seconds.

Is this starting to sound familiar? It should, because it's pretty much the same format as every other X-stars-in-Britain-have-talented-operatunity show out there; that stumbling mass of rotten-headed zombie programmes that shuffles unstoppably across the TV schedules, with the sole aim of removing the brains from our skulls.

And that's the point: you can see exactly how we arrived at this sorry abortion of a programme - lots of brainstorming by telly people, lots of guff about how classical music's seen as elitist and we've got to show how these lids are just normal teenagers, not stuck up posh kids (except that they are, because music's been sliding down the priorities of educational policy in the country for years, and only posh kids have parents who can afford to pay for them to have the lessons) - oh, and isn't it lucky one of them's Scottish, because another thing that every coked-up TV executive knows is that Scottish kids are automatically NOT POSH, so let's have lots of focus on him. Make it normal, make it accessible, don't let any hint through that there might be anything special or exceptional about these kids, certainly don't scare anyone off by showing them play an entire piece uninterrupted, get lots of reaction footage of the bods on the jury, much better to have someone tell you how good it is, can't trust the fucking plebs who watch TV to listen and form their own opinion, can you?

So you end up with a programme that fails on every count, because it's too scared to show us the only thing that makes these kids worth our time: their talent as musicians. This is how television likes to deal with classical music; anything, anything but the music itself.

You can see and hear complete performances on the website, I'm sure they would say. And it's true, you can. But why can't you see and hear them on TV? It's not as if the schedules are so stuffed full of content that they can't ever find time to devote hours of transmission time to talking heads spouting inanities about what they loved about the 1970s. I think there's a simpler explanation. I think the people who run TV don't like the music, they resent having to make space for it, they resent its very existence. They know little of it, and care less. All they care about is squeezing the last drop of life from exhausted formats while they wait for the next bandwagon to roll up. I'll bet when they put this programme together they talked a lot about journeys, about personalities, about relevance, about elitism and outreach. I wonder how much they talked about music?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Dear London

You are a fucking idiot.

That is all.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"

Erin raises the subject of programme notes. It's something that I've thought about a bit over the years, not least because I've written a few myself, both for my own and other composers' music.

And the conclusion I've reached is this: most of them are a complete and utter waste of time.

I can't remember the first one I wrote, but I suspect a big factor in my starting to do them is that you're expected to do them for your own pieces if you're a composer. And most composers are terrible at it. I went to an spnm workshop on this very subject once, and some of the examples given were astonishing in their obtuse unreadability.

There's a basic problem, in that the way you think about a piece when you're writing it is almost exactly the opposite of how you perceive the same piece as a listener. One often gets the impression that many young composers are treating their note as an exercise for their musical analysis class.

It's not just composers who are bad at this. When I think of the times I heard Stockhausen discuss his music, and compare his clear, simple, lucid introductions to the reams of obfuscatory rubbish I've seen written by others about it, it's no wonder he ha a reputation as incomprehensible to anyone without a PhD in music and mathematics.

There's no point in putting musical analysis into a programme note. it's almost entirely irrelevant. Those who can understand such things don't need to be told about it, and those who can't, well, can't, so why confuse them further? it's distracting, confronted with Schoenberg, say, to be told to play spot the tone-row when what you should be concentrating on is the emotional import of the piece.

Tovey wrote wonderful pieces of musical analysis that are held up as exemplary programme notes, but what's rarely pointed out is that these wonderful essays were sent out to subscribers weeks before the concert they related to. There's an argument for bringing that back, of course,. but in the context I'm thinking of - the interested layman sitting in his or her seat waiting for the concert to start - it's way too much to take in.

I'm also confused by this habit of writing long descriptions of what happens in the piece. I don't want to know the plot of a book or film before my first encounter with it, why should I be denied the excitement of finding my own way through a piece of music?

What does help is context. It's good to know where the composer was coming from when he/ she wrote; so in the note I've just finished* for Strauss's Alpine Symphony I've talked a lot about the influences of Nietzsche's Anti-Christ and Strauss's friendship with the recently deceased Mahler. I also like to put in any odd facts I may discover relating to the composer of the piece, simply because I like that sort of thing. What I want to do is write something that is actually enjoyable to read and puts you in the world of the music and puts you in the mood for it. I like to put a bit of humour in as well, if possible. A lot of people feel like there's a barrier between them and this fancy-dan classical music stuff, and a joke or two helps reduce that, I hope.

So, my rules for a successful programme note, partly influenced by Orwell's six rules of journalism:

  • Talk about historical context
  • Put in something unusual or entertaining about composer or piece, the more trivial the better.
  • Don't use any technical musical terms.
  • Don't write descriptions of the music, except in the most general terms
  • It's acceptable to mention something specific near the end of the piece, so the listener will know they're near the end.
  • Entertain the reader.
  • If at all possible don't mention the actual music at all.

*Sorry, no free lunch here - you'll have to go to the gig and buy the programme if you want to read it.