Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Blimey, who'd have thought you'd get this sort of thing in Wigmore Street? The Jerusalem Quartet found themselves at the centre of a political protest yesterday as they played Mozart and Ravel at the Wigmore Hall. The ruckus was such that the BBC pulled the live broadcast and played a record instead. You can find viewpoints of the protest from both sides of the fence here and here. My chums at Classical Music report that the Wigmore's head honcho says:
"I want to make the point very strongly that we can’t possibly condone any kind of disturbance to an artistic event. Wigmore Hall is a totally non-political organisation, and by disrupting performances the protesters completely take away the whole meaning of an artistic event, which is something that transcends politics."
Let's think about that for a second: "an artistic event... is something that transcends politics."
Can the Arts really shut themselves off from politics? Certainly the Great and Good are happy to lobby for funding when there's a general election in the air. It's a bit difficult to claim that the Jerusalem Quartet stand apart from politics when their biography points out their proud serving in the Israeli military. They are promoted as ambassadors for Israel, and so I'm not sure anyone can reasonably complain if people who oppose that country's policies want to protest at their event.
I'm not standing up for the protesters' views here. I don't know enough to be able to offer an informed opinion on that. But I do think the right to protest is a valuable and important one that's under attack in this country at the moment, and I applaud anyone who stands up for their right to demonstrate in a non-violent fashion. I also have to admire the quartet for having the balls to complete their programme in the face of the protest.
Art encompasses (or at least can encompass) a larger world than political squabbles, but it's at best naive, at worst disingenuous to say that it's too high to concern itself with such everyday concerns. Music certainly has been called into the service of some very dubious acts in history. It's important for artists and musicians to engage with the world around them. The Wigmore Incident (should we call it Wigmoregate perhaps?) demonstrates that you can't shut out the world. Art has to confront if it is to have any meaning beyond a bit of entertainment for the middles classes. At the very least the Wigmore Hall audience must have been considerably more engaged in the moment than some people lead me to believe is often the case.
Want to hear this exciting event for yourself? You can't: the concert was supposed to be broadcast live on Radio 3 but got pulled when the disruption occurred. The quartet later recorded patches so when it's repeated all you'll hear is the music, which seems a tad of a Stalinist approach to the historical record by the Beeb.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
I can't believe March is nearly over already. It feels like I've hardly got going. I'm determined to complete a page for every day this month, but it does feel like I'm running out of steam at the moment. I have the beginnings of a large scale, fully worked out piece on the drawing board, so after March 31 I'll stop for a bit, take a step back and breathe, and give myself a bit of mental space to think about that a bit more.
I recently got hold of a microphone, so another thing I'd like to do is maybe try and record a few of these little sketches. This involves getting my playing back up to scratch though, so a fair bit of work needed to get that done.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Australian composer Brett Dean’s short work Komarov’s Fall was written as part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s “Ad Astra” project: Simon Rattle invited four composers to provide “asteroids” to accompany a performance of Holst’s The Planets.
Opinions on the astrological significance of Asteroid 1836 Komarov appear to be lacking. It was discovered in 1971 and named for Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov, who has a significant place in extraterrestrial history if not in metaphysics. He was selected for training on the Soviet space programme in 1960, and became the first cosmonaut to go into space twice. This achievement is overshadowed by his other, more dismal claim to fame: on his second trip in 1967 on board the Soyuz 1 craft, he became the first man to die in space.
As he waited to die in his failing spacecraft, his wife spoke to him by radio, as did the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Aleksei Kosygin, who told that his country was proud of him. Komarov’s reply was inaudible. Rumours persist that he died cursing the designers of the spacecraft and the flight controllers. The Soyuz mission had been hastily assembled and many corners had been cut. Engineers are said to have reported 200 faults to their superiors, but their concerns were overruled. In the wake of the United States’ disastrous Apollo 1 flight, the Soviet authorities were determined to push ahead in the race to be the first nation on the moon and to provide a conspicuous feat to celebrate the anniversary of Lenin’s birth.
In 1969 the last action of Neil Armstrong before he left the moon’s surface was to leave a memorial on the surface. This commemorates Komarov, Yuri Gagarin (who had died in 1968 not in space but in a plane crash) and the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission.
Against a background inspired by the sounds of recorded telemetry signals, jagged textures reflect Komarov’s increasingly frantic radio messages to the control centre. A brief lyrical passage at the heart evokes his wife’s farewell, before the frenzy is suddenly cut off and there is only the cold silence of space.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem
1 Lacrymosa (Andante ben misurato)
2 Dies irae (Allegro con fuoco)
3 Requiem (Andante molto tranquillo)
Britten’s attachment to his parents, and particularly his mother, was intense. Her sudden death in January 1937 came as a great shock, only a few years after his father. Britten was at the time living in a flat in London with his sister. They were both sick with flu and their mother had come to nurse them, only to fall ill herself. Within days she was dead.
This marked the beginning of a turbulent year for Britten. Only a few months later his close friend Peter Burra died in a plane crash. Britten took on the responsibility of sorting out Burra’s things. He was assisted by a mutual friend and casual acquaintance who would soon become closer: the singer Peter Pears. By October, when Pears was on tour in America, Britten was raising the idea of emigrating to further their careers. At the same time he noted in his diary, “The loss of Mum & Pop, instead of lessening, seems to be more & more apparent every day. Scarcely bearable.” In January 1939 they followed Britten’s friend and mentor Auden and crossed the Atlantic to Canada. The plan was only to stay a few weeks, but they remained there for six months before crossing the border to the United States and New York. In the meantime their professional relationship had become an intimate one, which would last until Britten’s death in 1976.
By now war seemed an increasingly inevitable prospect, and they discussed the subject with Aaron Copland, who later recalled that the pair “worried constantly about whether to return to England.” He wrote advising Britten to stay put: “Anyone can shoot a gun – but how many can write music like you?” In any case, the flow of commissions meant that Britten was able to tell his publisher Ralph Hawkes that he was simply too busy to return. It was Hawkes who told him that Japan was commissioning music to mark 2,600 years of the Mikado dynasty. Britten offered the Sinfonia da Requiem, which he dedicted to the memory of his parents. The Japanese government rejected the work. They considered its use of titles from Christian liturgy insulting. The rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 pulled the USA into the Second World War. To be an immigrant providing music for the enemy would have been an unfortunate situation. In 1942 Britten and Pears returned to the UK and were eventually granted conscientious objector status.
The Sinfonia’s three movements play without a break. The titles of the movements do not indicate any specific liturgical meaning, but suggest the tone of each movement. Thus the opening has the character of a lament, followed by “a form of Dance of Death”, and finally a resolution into peace.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
1 Mars, the Bringer of War
2 Venus, the Bringer of Peace
3 Mercury, the Winged Messenger
4 Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
5 Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
6 Uranus, the Magician
7 Neptune, the Mystic
The origin of The Planets lies in a walking holiday in Spain that Holst took with his close friend Clifford Bax in 1913. They discovered a mutual interest in astrology, and their conversations sparked the idea for a large-scale work exploring the personality traits associated with the planets.
Such interests were not unusual. From Theosophy to Conan Doyle’s advocacy of the existence of fairies and the thriving trade in Necromancy, the supernatural and paranormal were popular throughout society. The frisson of scandal provided by the likes of the occultist Aleister Crowley added spice to the fashion for spiritualism of all hues. The British Empire, built on the science of the Industrial Revolution, created a ready market for mysticism from the East. This was reflected in the art of the era: Holst’s own Choral hymns from the Rig Veda were an early success.
Holst’s interest in mysticism and astrology was more than a passing fad: he continued to cast horoscopes for his friends throughout his life. His attention in The Planets however was focussed less on divination than character. Holst’s subtitles for each planet play fairly loose with strict ideas of astrological significance. It was more important to him to convey a sense of the development of human character than to be tied down by dogma. The overall plan combines a sequence of contrasting pairs with a progression from the physical to the spiritual. The movement that upsets this pattern, Mercury, was also the last to be composed, and Holst seems to have had trouble deciding how it should fit in. In a letter to a friend he recalled that “As far as I can remember I had the scheme of the Planets roughly worked out in my mind by Easter 1914 except Mercury which was added later.”
At the time he composed the suite, Holst was firmly established in his roles as director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith and at Morley College in Waterloo, two posts he retained for the rest of his working life. This settled life was disturbed when war broke out in September 1914. Holst rushed to enlist, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He was eventually offered a post working for the YMCA in Salonika as part of their educational work with the troops based in the near East. Before he left, Balfour Gardiner, who had championed many of his earlier works, gave him a generous parting gift: a private performance of The Planets by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult. Holst enlisted his pupils as the chorus in “Neptune”, as well as copyists to produce the orchestral parts. The work was performed at the Queen’s Hall in September 1918. Boult conducted partial performances in 1919, omitting Venus and Neptune, but it was not until November 1920 that the complete work was “officially” heard in public for the first time. By then Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, composed immediately after The Planets, had been premiered to great acclaim, and the orchestral work’s official debut had become an Event. Reviews of the early outings of the movements had been mixed (the Times described it as “Elaborately contrived and painful to hear”) but the reception afforded the official premiere verged on the fulsome.
Mars is often taken to signify Holst’s reaction to the outbreak of war in September 1914. What is depicted, however, is a psychological conflict. The warlike temperament is one that turns upon itself, reflected in the theme that continually tries to expand but collapses in on itself, all the time driven by the restless tattoo that underpins virtually the entire movement.
Venus sounds much simpler than Mars, but is in fact filled with a sophisticated subtlety alien to the Bringer of War. Elements of the opening movement are here transformed from negative, unresolved tension into ethereal beauty. In this light, Mercury may be seen as a kind of transformation of Mars, showing how its characteristics may lead to positive and inventive behaviour when tempered by Venusian serenity. This playful and fleet-footed movement may contain an element of self-portrait: Holst’s own star sign was Virgo ruled by Mercury.
Of all the movements, Jupiter has perhaps suffered the most from its popularity. The unfortunate appropriation of its central melody as a patriotic hymn has brought associations of solemnity and piety that really have nothing to do with its true character. It is certainly exhilarating, but partial performances of the suite that use it as a finale miss the point: its energy is of the physical world and therefore transient (Holst’s use of the term “Jollity” rather than “Joy” is significant). This is emphasised by its complement, Saturn. However, the Bringer of Old Age is not the tragic figure some see it as. The steady tread reflects the inevitability of physical decay, and its conclusion the serenity that follows acceptance of this. Only by accepting the passage of time can one hope to transcend it and enter the metaphysical realm of the final two movements.
The first of these, Uranus, the Magician, would appear to be played as comedy. The term “Magician” has inescapable associations with children’s birthday parties, and Uranus comes across as a conjuror rather than the magus we might expect from the portentous opening flourish. Perhaps Holst is poking fun at the pretentions of the occultist movement. The music easily brings to mind a Crowley-like figure grandiosely casting spells. The comedy falls away at the climax, as something altogether more dark and powerful is revealed, and the Magician realises he is dabbling with something rather serious.
Neptune, the Mystic moves into another realm altogether. Its meter and much of its thematic material echo events right back to Mars, but transformed far beyond the concerns of the physical world. The incorporeal aspect is emphasised by an offstage female chorus (for the audience, literally disembodied voices). There is no conclusion of any conventional kind: only the voices, floating into the distance endlessly.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
You'd think that as I'm on the South Bank Centre's mailing list I'd have heard about this gig from them. As it was an email limped into my inbox a few days after the man in Harold Moore's told me about it. He was particularly excited about the prospect of a Gerald Barry premiere; it was the Richard Ayres piece that dragged me along.
It's quite a while since I've been to a proper Sinfonietta-type "contemporary music" gig, so it was reassuring that the crowd seemed to be largely the familiar mix of composers, journos and the nearly-dead. It was also a relief not to have to avoid anyone I've offended over the years. It was the kind of audience full of people who recognised each other, some of whom I recognised, none of whom recognised me. Reassuring but also depressing, because this music ought to be getting a much wider audience than the same old clique.
A lot of this must be down to a failure of advertising. Arts venues generally seem incredibly complacent about their audiences, not really making much effort to reach beyond the audience they already have, and then wondering why they're going down the dumper. It's not really good enough, and the likes of the South Bank really ought to be taking a long hard look at what they do rather than sitting back and feeling smug because they had that Jarvis Cocker doing Meltdown a couple of years ago.
On the other hand, kudos is due for allowing punters to take their drinks into the hall, which I think is an entirely civilised thing to be able to do, and stuff anyone who says different.
But I digress. What of these two fine pieces I heard?
First up was Gerald Barry's Beethoven. This is a setting to music of Ludwig van's famous letter to the Immortal Beloved, in which the great man takes time out from metaphorically bashing us over the head with his cock to go all Emo on us. As Barry says in his programme note, it's a very odd love letter: a combination of declarations of undying love with declarations that it'll never work. If you're feeling sympathetic it's a desperate cry from the heart; if you're not it's some self-flagellating whiny shit.
I can't make up my mind about Barry's music. I like the idea of it,but somehow the reality of it never seems quite as exciting. On the other hand, this particular piece didn't seem too long to me, as a lot of what I've heard of his has. Singer Stephen Richardson negotiated the extremes of his vocal register with wonderful aplomb, and the final section that appropriated the very famous hymn tune that embarrassingly I can't remember what it is now is rather lovely.
I hope the man from Harold Moore liked it. For me though, Richard Ayres' No.42 (In the Alps) was the real deal. Ayres is a comparative rarity in these circles: he has an ability to combine full on, often very silly, humour with moments of genuine profundity, without becoming either superficial or pretentious. He makes it seem entirely reasonable that the band should all come on wearing woolly hats, while conductor Martyn Brabbins is dressed for a good long hike, backpack included.
The use of projected captions (in the manner of a silent movie) is an inspired way to convey the story being depicted in the ensemble, as well as providing some brilliantly timed jokes The female protagonist's raising by very maternal mountain goats raises a chuckle, as does the nicking of bits of Strauss to evoke the Alps (although that's not as funny as the woman next to me thought it was). this also fits in with the silent movie references, as that sort of lifting of well known music is a standard trick of the cinematic accompanist.
Barbara Hannigan (dressed like a post-punk Brunhilde) gives an astonishing performance, in which she's required to impersonate goats, hogs, cicadas and eagles (and probably some other things I've forgotten about), and does so brilliantly. The use of animal noises is a wonderful example of Ayres's way with a joke: it begins as something funny, but evolves into something strange, wonderful and affecting. Likewise Alistair Mackie (fetching in lederhosen) shows that the gag of a hero who can speak only through his bugle can be something much more than slapstick. The tale of unrequited love between these two characters ought to be just silly, but Ayres magically spins something moving out of it.
Two interludes and a postlude reflect on how animals with different heartbeats perceive time. As with so much of this piece, this began as comedy, but by the conclusion was transformed into something altogether more thought-provoking.
It's a terrible shame that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was half-empty. Both these pieces combine immediate appeal with a genuine depth that would repay repeated hearings. Both deserve to, and I'm convinced can find a much wider audience than that tiny in-crowd that turns up to this sort of show. So when are the organisations in question going to make a serious effort to find it?
I scribbled this down in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall before a performance of a piece by Gerald Barry called "Beethoven" (of which more anon.). That turned out not to have anything to do with the Fifth Symphony. But let's face it, it's pretty much the first thing that comes to anyone's mind when they think of Beethoven.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
When the Beeb first screened Russell T. Davies' Casanova in 2005 we were at the height of a bout of frenzied speculation that David Tennant was going to succeed Christopher Eccleston in the revived Doctor Who. That was confirmed very shortly afterwards (possibly while Casanova was still running if I remember rightly), and I remember thinking at the time, "ah, this seems like Tennant auditioning for the Doctor."
So watching it again now, as Tennant leaves Who and we eagerly await Matt Smith's debut, brings a revelation: blimey, Casanova pretty much is the tenth Doctor. Tennant's performance is absolutely stuffed full of the vocal and physical tics that characterised his tenure in the TARDIS, to the point where you have to remind yourself that it's not a Who story set in the 18th century. The copious shagging helps with that, of course.
What's even more remarkable is that Rusty D's script seems just as hewn from the same cloth. You'd expect similarities of tone, of course, but so much of the schtick present is similar - the running about, the cheery smart-alec persona occasionally leavened by hints of darkness, even some of the dialogue ("I'm sorry, I'm so sorry") bears a relationship beyond even what you'd expect from two shows with the same writer. I wonder if it was a dry run for Tennant's Who for Rusty, too. Minus the shagging, of course.
It's not all marvellous: the scenes with Peter O'Toole as old David Tennant seem strangely stilted. Maybe it's a lack of chemistry between him and Rose Byrne. Or maybe it's just that the entire set-up reeks too much of maguffin to allow the narration of Casanova's memoir. The other thing is that for a writer who's so vocal about the terrible amount of expositionary dialogue on telly, Rusty puts a lot of expositionary dialogue in, especially in the first episode. And Tennant's blue contact lenses don't convince. Honestly, if they're going to go to the trouble of changing his eye colour to fit O'Toole's, you'd think hey could go the extra mile and choose the right shade of blue. Having said that, the performances (particularly Tennant) fizz with energy, as does most of the dialogue, and I remain very fond of the Adam Ant-channelling court scenes.
It remains a wonderful romp, and surprisingly affecting at the end. It's a shame it also shares Nu-Who's weakest characteristic: Murray Gold's shit music. I know he has his fans (e.g. Rusty T), but to my ears it's clumsy, half-arsed rubbish that really lets everything else down. I cannot for the life of me understand why TV people are so enamoured of his stuff. Every so often he threatens to have an idea that will match the inventiveness on the screen, but the execution almost always falls flat. And the crappy synth strings don't help, either.
Still, if you overlook that, it still stands up well even after the unimaginably long time of five years.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
There aren't many words here at the moment (thank god, I hear you say), but I should put a few up to note the 84th birthday of Ben Johnston, one of the best composer's you've probably never heard of, yesterday. Kyle Gann posts a wonderful tribute to his teacher here.
I've never met Johnston, and almost certainly never will, but nevertheless finding his music has, as Kyle Gann puts it in the linked post, opened a door onto a new universe for me. I'm still finding my way round his notation system, but until I get round to blogging about that you'd be well advised to start here. And this book's worth getting hold of, too.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Monday, March 08, 2010
Sunday, March 07, 2010
Saturday, March 06, 2010
Friday, March 05, 2010
Thursday, March 04, 2010
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
In February I wrote a variation for each day of the month* on the piece I wrote on the last day of January. March is slightly different. Writing each variation I often referred to the source, or at least to earlier variations. The idea this time is not to do that and see where my imperfect memory takes me.
I thought about using the last page of the previous month as a starting point again, and partly did in that I've used a similar texture to begin. But the actual "theme" is literally what the title says: a cypher on the word "March".
*Not the same as a piece every day; some days I wrote more than one, others none.
Monday, March 01, 2010
There are probably some naive souls who'll listen to Joanna Newsom's new album on its own merits and conclude that she's a singular talent who doesn't need to be lazily compared to other female singers. But none of these people will be music journalists. As everyone who knows anything knows, all women in rock and pop can and must be compared to a very small number of other women. Using this simple equation we can construct a compass which enables us to categorise all female artists without having to think about it very much. So rather than say anything genuinely insightful about Ms Newsom's excellent new release, I offer this handy graphic depiction of where she's come from and where she's at, as derived from sundry reviews of the record: