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.

Monday, August 04, 2008

R.I.P. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

By coincidence, I'm in the middle of reading The Gulag Archipelago, one of those books everyone's heard of, but few have actually read. It's an astonishing book, that describes events that are hardly imaginable in their horror, and I hope you understand what I mean when I say that if it weren't so readable it would be unreadable. So it gave me an extra jolt this morning to turn on the radio just as the newsreader announced the death of Solzhenitsyn.

I feel like I've chickened out a bit, reading the abridged version rather than the full three volumes, but at the time the abridged version seemed less intimidating, and was also in the bookshop. Now that I'm about a third of the way through, I wish I'd gone straight to the unexpurgated version, so compelling is his prose. It's not just a catalogue of violence though; what shines through the relentless stream of nightmarish scenes is an extraordinary indomitableness of spirit. To read about such things may seem difficult, but it is necessary: because it's important, not just to know what depths humans are capable of sinking to, but to know that there are those who are brave enough to survive them.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Proms: Stockhausen Day

My feet are killing me. Three hours is a long time to stand up. One thing Stockhausen isn't into is the ten-minute modern piece that sits embarrasedly on the edges of a lot of orchestral concerts. If I was ten years younger I'd have gone to the film screenings and discussions that formed the first part of the Proms Stockhausen day, but I' m getting on and have domestic concerns like getting the shopping done and recovering from the sort of hangover I never used to get after a night playing ukulele in a pub, so I skip all that and go straight to the first concert of the day.

I first heard Gruppen about 10 years ago, when it was performed by the CBSO in Birmingham. Then, as now, the piece was given twice; this works very well, as the piece is so much about the spacial placement of sounds that shuffling about to a different spot for the second performance seems almost a necessity to start to have a proper sense of it. So this is the third time I've heard it.

It doesn't grab me as much this time as before; we're standing in a very crowded arena, with all the really tall people in front of us obscuring any view. Two of the groups have been placed in the arena itself (hence the crowding), but they're at the front end, close to the stage where the third is, so there's very little scope to get right in the middle of the sound field. This seems like poor planning. Wouldn't it have been better to have them at the back, or even construct platforms over some of the stalls? It's not as if they're full, although the turnout's quite respectable (I'm reminded of the adage that there's no hall like the Albert Hall for looking half-empty when it's half-full). That would have left both more space in the arena and more space between the orchestras. As it is, it feels like I'm only really hearing half a performance, only getting a dim sense of the interplay between the groups. And the iconic brass chord that hockets around towards the end doesn't seem to take flight, quite.

There's some shuffling as the players leave the stage (and arena), and I'm briefly distracted by a man in an orange T-shirt (which I think of as a sure sign of a wanker) telling his girlfriend how this is what it's all about, all pop music is crap, the Beatles are crap . The next piece is purely electronic - Cosmic Pulses, the 13th Hour of Klang, the cycle Stockhausen was working on when he died last year. it's always a slightly odd experience, sitting in a concert hall listening to disembodies sounds, but then again Stockhausen's so wildly ambitious in what he does that what seems awkward in lesser talents seems perfectly proper here. The hall is in almost total darkness, and the pinpricks of light coming through the dome make it feel like we're looking up at the night sky searching for UFOs, appropriately, as it turns out.

There are 24 loops repeating at 24 different speeds (I read later in the programme notes - one occasion where I should have read them before, I think). From the point of view of the listener, there's a swirling, pulsating mass of sound hanging in the air above us, and it's maybe closer to the aural equivalent of looking at a sculpture than listening to a conventional piece of music. I change my mind about it at least three times during its 32 minute course, at first fascinated by its whirling texture, and overwhelmed by the experience of hearing the sounds swoop around in such a large space. Then as it continues it seems to become oppressive, and I wonder if this isn't a perfect demonstration of the megalomania that many wild accuse Stockhausen of, the sense of himself as God. Certainly I feel like I'm a tiny mortal gazing up at an ineffable and indifferent universe. I feel pinned down by one enormous ego, forcing me to accede to his will. Perhaps this is the sound we will hear when the aliens arrive from Sirius to take over our world. By the end, as the loops gradually complete their cycles and the texture thins out, I'm filled with wonder again, as the skies seem to clear.

The solo trumpet of Harmonien, part of the fifth hour of Klang, follows, and it seems like a breeze blowing though the hall after the swirling dense clouds of Cosmic Pulses. It's a very simple piece, essentially a succession of elaborately embellished melodies that seem heartwarming in their straightforwardness.

Finally, an interval! I've heard some wonderful music, but I've been standing up for an hour and a half, and I'm grateful for a chance to sit for a bit. When I go back in I still can't get into the middle (although that tall man who stood in front of me and farted all the way through Cosmic Pulses has managed to get there - honestly, there's no justice), so I settle for a position right by the other orchestra in the arena. At least I'll get a view of something this time. I become aware of a voice droning on behind me. The wanker in the orange shirt (who talked all the way through Cosmic Pulses, by the way - obviously not so enamoured of Stockhausen that he feels the need to listen that hard) has moved too and is still behind me! I'm obviously being punished by the cosmic forces for my doubts earlier on.

Kontakte seems like a glimpse into another world. I've seen old black and white film of this sort of thing in the 50s, a couple of men surrounded by percussion bashing away in the heart of a tape maelstrom, and here it is, brought forward into the living colour 21st century. It is dated in only the way as yesterday's vision of tomorrow can be. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - I love old sci-fi movies, and this has something of the same innocence about it, an excitedness in Creating the Future that remains inspiring rather than laughable because, well, a lot of the future (your present) was created here. The taped sounds' movement through space is of course less sophisticated than a recent work like Cosmic Pulses, but this was created, after all, at a time when computers barely existed, let alone anything that was available to a musician to play with. It seems somehow to have passed through being dated and become in its way timeless.

Gruppen's much better the second time round - whether this is because it's played better or just because I'm in a better position I couldn't say, but it suddenly seems to come into focus, and the drama of the interaction of the three groups seems more apparent. Although the percussion section's maybe not the ideal place to be right by if you want to hear anything else when they're in full swing.

Afterwards, I reflect on how there often seems in Stockhausen's music to be a moment, near the end, when the violent, thorny textures subside, and something more introspective and lyrical comes through, a lyricism that he tries to suppress but can't entirely. If you ignore the received wisdom about his fearsome reputation and just listen, you come to the conclusion that he is in essence a Romantic composer.

It's been a long evening, but I can't miss the opportunity to hear Stimmung live. It's a piece like no other, by Stockhausen or anyone else (although LaMonte Young would probably disagree with me on that). I'm annoyed by the Radio 3 woman who comes on and subjects us to one of those slightly inane introductions you get on the radio. I don't want to hear this drivelling bollocks, I want to hear the fucking music, thank you. Fortunately it doesn't last long, and the performance begins. The stage is set up according to Stockhausen's strict instructions, the singers entering silently one by one (only one person didn't get the hint in the announcement that the long silence at the start is integral to the piece and tried to clap them on) and sitting in a circle on cushions on a rug in "earth colours" (beige) round one of those globe lights that was so popular in the late 60s.

It's easy to make fun of this sort of thing, but it works because it's done with sincerity, and it highlights the home-made feel that a lot of Stockhausen seems to have, which gets derided by some but to me is an essential part of his appeal.

That one chord, slowly changing through time, punctuated only by occasional speech, is an extraordinary thing to experience, lying on your back staring up at the ceiling once more. There's a terrible wrench when it finally winds down to its close, and I have to run out as the applause starts to catch the last train home. I feel awake, and don't want the evening to end. That chord gets inside you and resonates, so that long after the performance is over it still seems to be sounding, buzzing inside your skull as you walk home.